As the election returns began to trickle in last November, Louis Ortiz, a laid-off telephone man from the Bronx, bit his nails, squeezed his eyes shut and prayed like he’d never prayed before. But when he opened his eyes, all he saw on TV was a wave of Republican red sweeping up from Texas and into the Midwest. “It was too stressful,” said Ortiz. “I couldn’t deal. So I just went to bed.”
Later that night Ortiz was shaken to his feet by a chorus of whoops, hollers and the blare of Spanish music rolling in from his parents’ living room. Ortiz’s mother bounded breathlessly into the room.
“Cito, Cito,” she screamed. “We got Ohio, we got Ohio! Obama won Ohio! It’s over! We won!” Ortiz double-checked his mother’s Electoral College math and let out a scream of his own.
“It was like I was living in a parallel universe with Obama. We had to win,” Ortiz told MSNBC.com on Thursday, standing on a cold, busy corner in the Bronx. “And it was like him getting reelected was the same as me getting reelected. He was fighting for a second chance and so was I.”
If Barack Obama’s presidency has directly benefited an individual American in any real, tangible way, it’s Ortiz, whose resemblance to the president has delivered him from unemployment and near pennilessness to a relatively lucrative career as an Obama impersonator— “Bronx Obama.”
For Ortiz, a second Obama term means a second lease on life, giving him another four years in which to parlay Obama’s political success into his own economic survival, booking paid gigs across the country and as far away as South Korea and even an audience with the Dali Lama. “It’s like I’m in the Twilight Zone,” Ortiz said. “And I love it!”
A filmmaker is currently shooting a documentary called The Audacity of Louis Ortiz; it’s scheduled for release later this year. “Bronx Obama” recently signed on with a talent management agency, William Gold Entertainment, that has bolstered his status and put money, resources and know-how behind the “look-alike thing” Ortiz says he was doing for much of Obama’s first term. He spends hours a day honing his craft and has taken the occasional acting class. He’s worked as part of a group of other impersonators, including a surreal-sounding appearance with a Bill Clinton impersonator and a Donald Trump lookalike moderating a debate with fake Sarah Palin and fake Mitt Romney. His weeks are filled with corporate events and fundraisers, public appearances and media interviews. His fees can be in the hundreds or the thousands, and he’s finally making a decent income. “I live on a plane,” Ortiz said.
Just four years ago life wasn’t all planes, trains, and corporate cash. Back then Ortiz was living small: no income, no prospects. He’d been fired from his job at the phone company about a year earlier and was fighting to get it back. He lost his health insurance and the lack of medical attention exacerbated his multiple sclerosis. He was locked in a nasty custody battle for his then-12-year-old daughter. And the legal costs for the court case involving his daughter and arbitration for his job were mounting.
“I just didn’t know how I was going to make it. And didn’t think I would. I was just sitting down with my little bit of hope,” Ortiz said. “I was really going nuts.” Ortiz was used to providing for himself and helping to support his family, including his daughter, who didn’t live with him at the time. He said he’d always held a job but found himself, for the first time, unable to make ends meet.
“And then here comes this shining star from Hawaii.”
It was the summer of 2008: Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were battling for the Democratic presidential nomination, and a couple of his drinking buddies at a local bar pointed out Ortiz’s resemblance to Obama, who was on the cover of one of New York City’s tabloid newspapers. Ortiz had the ears if nothing else, and there was something about the way his eyebrows hung closely over his eyes, the way they squint when he laughed hard or smiled wide.
He didn’t have much to lose, so he shaved his goatee, slipped on a suit and tie and picked up as much of Obama’s cadence as he could.
Where Louis Ortiz, always affable and social, had his light dimmed by hard times, Bronx Obama shined, he said. Bronx Obama stopped traffic. Strangers were asking to take pictures with him. And people were actually paying for him to appear at local events.
Obama’s election in 2008 solidified his role. Ortiz remembers the moment well. He said he’d suited up and grabbed a couple of his buddies to ride with him into Manhattan. (An entourage of men in suits and dark shades helps him get in character.) But as the group stopped at a Bronx gas station for orange juice, gunshots rang out. Then screaming.
Was it a shootout? An attempted assassination? Nope, word had gotten out that Obama had defeated John McCain to become the 44th President of the United States.
“People were cheering and shooting all over the Bronx,” Ortiz said. Later, the group drove into Manhattan where Ortiz was greeted with cheers and backslaps.
Careerwise, things picked up even more after the election. But Ortiz still had one foot in an imaginary Oval Office and the other in his real life in the Bronx. He heard from his lawyer that he wouldn’t get back his old job or the $400,000 back pay he was asking for. He cried for about three weeks, he says: “Niagara Falls.” Then he was asked to do an episode of This American Life. His appearance on the show led to more press and more paying gigs. “When I think back, the lowest point—that I wasn’t getting my job back—turned out to be the highest point,” Ortiz said. “I got my answer and I decided to go full force with the Obama thing.” He began studying his competition, the Jay Lamonts and Reggie Browns who had built up big followings and big bank accounts doing their Obama impersonations.
Earlier this week, about an hour before his train to Connecticut for a shoot with ESPN was scheduled to leave, Ortiz walked into the station and checked the departure board. It’d be a long day, a long couple of weeks really. He’d be at ESPN most of the day. Then it would be back to the Bronx before a gig in New Jersey the next day, then off to Washington, D.C., to schmooze-up the inauguration crowd. Then it would be back to Jersey for a fundraiser at a church on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
“Every once in a while I sit back and say, am I sitting in first class right now on the way to D.C. or some other city to do a show for a bunch of CPA’s?” Ortiz said, breaking slowly into a huge Obama-ish grin. “Yes, yes I am.”