South Florida maintenance man becomes Barack Obama impersonator
He exits the Starbucks at Federal Highway and Broward Boulevard on a warm Wednesday afternoon. Traffic slows, and drivers stretch their necks to get a better view. A woman in a red Toyota Camry slams on her brakes and rolls down her window. "Oh my God! Is that — " she squints and cocks her head. He gives her a gentle, confident wave.
Table after table of outdoor diners on Las Olas stop their conversations midsentence and look up as he passes. Some stare, forks still held to their lips, as if his mere presence has paused them. Whispers float out from behind menus.
At the Cheesecake Factory, employees push aside his Secret Service detail and follow him around in a buzzing crowd as he shakes hands with hostesses and astonished kitchen workers. A waitress cries out, "Aw, girl! I just touched Barack Obama!"
Fifteen minutes later, he's walking down Andrews Avenue. Passersby beep their car horns. Construction workers crammed into a passing truck gaze at the candidate as he crosses an intersection, their mouths open in stunned silence. He points at buildings he passes, nodding to members of his entourage.
When he enters the public library, a small crowd gathers in the lobby. Two women pushing strollers halt in their tracks when they see him. One mother reaches into the stroller and lifts out her toddler daughter. The candidate leans over and kisses the little girl on the forehead. Both women reach for their camera phones. "This is history, baby," the mother says to the confused toddler.
As Obama poses for photos, he purposely turns so that only his right side faces the lens. On the left, a slight but noticeable scar, long and thin, runs from his hairline to his temple next to his eye. Perhaps this is an imperfection a makeup artist usually conceals.
But doesn't the senator have a mole near his left nostril? And on this day, Obama's famous grin seems to gleam a bit less brightly than usual.
Still, it's his figure that's unmistakable — tall, lean, and straight-backed. Then there's the face — high forehead, jutting chin, prominent, low-sloping eyebrows. And those big ears. The image has inundated TV this election season.
Men call to him by name from across the room. A security guard performs an exaggerated double take. He replies with a thumbs-up, a wave, and a smile. A woman with gray hair and glasses cautiously approaches the candidate and extends her shaking hand. In a timid voice, she says, "Are you really him?"
He leans in toward her and in a deep, deliberate voice utters, "What do you think?"
Something sounds a bit off in his voice. Unfazed, the woman hands her camera phone to a friend and goes in for a bear hug. She thanks him, and he says, "You're welcome." And there it is again. Unmistakably, this Barack Obama has a Spanish accent.
Indeed, Gerardo Puisseaux was born in Cuba, with forebears of Haitian descent. He greets a visitor warmly in the reception area at the Hialeah studios of Spanish-language TV channel América TeVe. He's between takes of a sketch show, so he's in costume: a dark suit and a big mole plastered next to his left nostril. Sure, there are a few imperfections: the scar on the forehead, the smile, and a gold watch that dangles tackily from his right wrist. But these details do little to diminish that first impression: He doesn't just look like him. They just about share the same damned face.
Puisseaux says that when he's playing his doppelgänger, he thinks like Obama. Indeed, today there is something of a politician to his gait and mannerisms.
He's as casually intimate as a candidate on the campaign trail, prone to grab a knee, elbow, or shoulder warmly as he speaks. And he makes eye contact so intensely that you might suspect he's trying to gauge your soul or calculate your mortgage. Of course, these traits of intimacy were hallmarks of Latin-American culture before they were American political techniques.
Damian Romay, an executive producer at América TeVe, says Puisseaux has only one major difference from Obama: "I think he's missing some teeth, so he tries to not smile. He's angry Obama."
Puisseaux sidles through a sleekly designed lunchroom. Resting around him are stars with plucked eyebrows and concrete hairdos, drinking midafternoon coladas. A few greet Puisseaux politely, referring to him only as "Obama."
With men, he is decorous, constantly offering a cigarette or to fetch a coffee. With women, he's a harmless Lothario, full of winks, grins, and thumbs-up symbols. In the space of ten minutes, he declares that three actresses and a cafeteria worker are each "the most beautiful woman in América TeVe."
He eventually reports to his workplace, which today is a small set where actors have gathered around a boardroom table. A track running down the center guides a digital camera. The sketch being filmed is an example of the bizarre slapstick that characterizes Spanish-language comedy: It's a spoof of Donald Trump's The Apprentice. The millionaire is played by a dwarf who's wearing a giant orange wig, and he has decided to choose the next president based on audience vote. Among the actors at the table, a light-skinned man with hair sprayed white is stuffing his cheeks with cotton balls to achieve the John McCain look.
Puisseaux winks toward a buxom woman wearing glasses, a camouflage T-shirt, and her hair in a bob; she's América TeVe's homage to Sarah Palin. To a reporter, he whispers, with sincerity befitting a presidential candidate, "This is the most beautiful, beautiful woman in América TeVe."
Before leaving Havana for the United States in 2001, Gerardo Puisseaux earned less than $20 a month as a factory worker. He lived with his wife, Hortensia, in a tiny apartment in the Maria Bao section of Havana. His ex-wife and two kids, then aged 7 and 8, lived just a few doors down the street.
The laid-back Puisseaux is not the type to launch into rants against the Castro brothers. But he finds no romanticism in the poverty of his homeland. "For many people, it was a hard decision to leave Cuba. Not for me," he says. "In Cuba, you work and work and work, and you still have nothing."
Gerardo and Hortensia won a coveted spot in what's known as the Cuban lottery, which awards 20,000 Cubans permanent resident visas in America every year. The Puisseauxes flew to Seattle, where Gerardo found work on various construction sites before getting a permanent gig applying drywall. Hortensia got a job as a receptionist at Boeing, the flight company famous for coddling its employees. It seemed the couple had bypassed the great struggle that usually accompanies immigration.
Puisseaux knew roughly 30 words in English. "My boss would be working on a ladder, and he'd ask me to get a hammer. I'd go like this," he says, and gives a thumbs-up symbol and a wide grin. "I didn't know what a hammer was. My boss would say, 'That's great. Can I have a hammer now?' "
But his new employers were patient, and with the help of some Mexican-Americans, Puisseaux's English steadily improved. Soon, he earned a spot in the local union and began making a relative fortune: $27 an hour.
It was in Seattle that strangers began stopping Puisseaux on the street to clutch his hands and congratulate him on his most recent eloquence in Chicago or New York or Washington, D.C. These incidents began in earnest after Barack Obama made his now-famous speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. But Puisseaux knew nothing about that. "They would stop me and say, 'Oh, Mr. Obama, thank you,' " he says now. "Sometimes, I'd be a little scared. I'd think, 'What is Obama?' "
Puisseaux fell in love with Seattle, but he felt far from home in a city devoid of Cubans. Then there was the cold, gray weather. "Seattle is beautiful," he says, "but it snows."
So in April, Puisseaux transferred to a different union in Tampa. Hortensia quit her job, confident she'd find something in Florida. Perhaps they pushed their luck. Florida suffers no shortage of immigrant labor, and when he reported to his union office, he found that his salary had been cut to $13.75 per hour.
Insulted, Puisseaux quit the union and moved to Miami. He created a start-up construction business — really just a backseat full of supplies. He named it Felo Drywall, after his Spanish nickname. But he had no industry contacts in Florida and couldn't scare up clients. Making matters worse, Hortensia couldn't land a job.
But people continued to remind Gerardo of his likeness to Obama. There was the driver who, idling beside Puisseaux's car as he waited for a light to change on NW 135th Street in Miami, jumped out and tapped on his window for an autograph. The unlikelihood that a senator in the throes of a primary might be tooling around town alone in a '96 Ford Escort wearing jeans and a polo shirt didn't faze this man.
Like many Americans, Puisseaux first saw Obama's face during primary season. "I felt, right then, a connection," Puisseaux says, tapping his heart after apologizing for his grandiosity. "I told my wife, 'That man's going to win. I know it.' She told me 'You're crazy.' "
Hortensia was less interested in any ethereal connection than in how they might capitalize. Their Miami Lakes apartment cost $950 a month, and Felo Drywall seemed to be fatally stalled. Relatives urged Gerardo to turn his face into a hustle.
Puisseaux was reluctant. He's not a showman. Those encounters with mistaken Obamaphiles unnerved more than inspired him. But one April afternoon, he relented.
He didn't have much of a plan. He drove to the studios of América TeVe — chosen simply because the complex is close to his apartment. He confronted the first person to emerge from the doors. "Excuse me," Puisseaux announced in Spanish. "People say I look like Barack Obama."
If Puisseaux was hoping for a quick rebuff, he was out of luck: He had snagged Carlos Otero, host of Pellizcame Que Estoy Soñando, or Pinch Me I'm Dreaming. The variety show peddles wacky, low-brow comedy sketches with gratuitous use of dwarves, fat guys, and busty, bikini-clad women. Puisseaux's simple gag would fit right in.
Otero sternly told Puisseaux to stay put and forbade him from speaking to any other host or producer who might walk out of the building. He went back inside and re-emerged with Damian Romay, the station's executive producer of programming.
Recalls Romay: "I was like, 'Yeah, he looks like Obama.' "
And with that, the larva of a career in $100-a-gig showbiz was hatched.
Like Puisseaux, Otero and Romay didn't overplan. That night, they put him in a business suit and planted him in the audience of Pellizcame, hoping to gauge the audience's reaction. The amiable crowd went wild when Barack Obama jumped from his seat midshow.
Romay couldn't promise him steady work, but Puisseaux needed a regular paycheck. So they worked out a unique agreement. Puisseaux would work for $8 an hour on the station's maintenance crew for up to 40 hours a week, painting walls, fixing props, repairing tile, or any other physical task that needed to be done. But when production needed "Obama," he'd be yanked to perform.
Puisseaux recently got a raise to $10 an hour, but there was little hope of a pay raise for his acting. Actors who have been at the station for years still make the $100-per-appearance scale.
After a few more in-studio appearances, Romay decided to take Puisseaux off studio grounds. For a segment titled "A Day With Obama," Romay piled Puisseaux, two actors dressed as Secret Service agents, and a cameraman into a black SUV. Their destinations: tourist-magnet Bayside Marketplace and famed Cuban lair Versailles Café.
The populace was fooled: Puisseaux was cursed by a Hillary supporter, moistened by women crying on his shoulder, and, once they arrived at Republican-hasta-muerte Versailles, chased from the property. "Their security people told us we should leave, because people might think he's the real Obama and try to stab him," Romay says. "We got scared and left."
The excursion was considered a mild success. Romay says the show's ratings didn't get much of a boost, but it was a cheap way to eat five programming minutes. Puisseaux, while a bit overwhelmed, enjoyed taking a day off from his maintenance work.
And then, a few days before this year's Democratic National Convention in Denver, a producer of América TeVe's news division contacted Romay. They had a couple of extra credentials. Would he and "Obama" like to tag along?
It was at the convention that Puisseaux realized he had slammed face-first into a global cultural zeitgeist. The experience would scare the shit out of him.
Fauxbama speaks at the Democratic National Convention.
The frenzy began on the American Airlines plane ride to Denver. A woman sitting next to Romay tapped him on the shoulder and asked if that was Barack Obama snoozing next to him. Romay explained that it was, in fact, a look-alike.
The woman wasn't satisfied. "She said, 'No, that's Barack!' " Romay recalls. "She was sure Obama was sitting in coach."
From the moment Puisseaux landed in the Colorado capital, from the airport to the hotel, whether he was wearing a suit or not, he was hounded. "He can walk around unnoticed," Romay says, "but once one person says, 'That's Obama!' — all of a sudden, we have a thousand people around us."
During shoots at Invesco Field, Puisseaux became terrified of the crowds of believers who surrounded him. "Too much, too much," Puisseaux says of the experience. "Everybody is touching me and hugging me and yelling 'Obama! Obama!' I feel like I was losing myself, my identity."
Comments Romay: "He's a person who has a hard time saying no to anybody, and here he has hundreds of people swarming him, asking him for autographs and photos."
Though Puisseaux hasn't yet gained the right to vote, he had read up on Obama and come to admire him. Puisseaux began to feel his charade degraded the senator. "He refused to do anything that he felt disrespected Obama," Romay says. That included Romay's idea of Puisseaux standing on a median, holding a sign reading "Will Be President for Food."
And Puisseaux felt gravely dishonest for deceiving Obama's earnest supporters. They would clutch his frame and tearfully confess their gravest fears in a language he's yet to master. They would talk about their houses in foreclosure or their children in Iraq. At one point, Puisseaux leaned into the embrace of an especially moved fan and whispered: "Woman, I am not Obama. But if he was here, he would hug you."
By the second day in Denver, Puisseaux refused to exit the satellite truck. "He was completely stressed," Romay says. "He was chain-smoking like a chimney and calling his wife every ten minutes... He also has that Cuban macho thing. He says, 'I don't like taking orders. I'm not a trained monkey.' My other actors do whatever I say. If I say put on a wig and jump around, they will, no questions asked."
Despite Puisseaux's reluctance, Romay gathered good footage. Puisseaux, who was interviewed by the New York Times, the Rocky Mountain News, Inside Edition, and TV stations from Japan and Germany, achieved worldwide fame, if only for a day or two. And he earned a new nickname from bloggers: Fauxbama.
Puisseaux now claims he enjoyed the trip, especially his handshake with Ted Kennedy, who he says momentarily mistook him for his Senate colleague. Puisseaux had carefully rehearsed the line he fed Kennedy: "I gratefully accept my party's nomination for president of the United States."
But when the crew returned from the tumultuous journey, Puisseaux resigned. "As soon as we got back," Romay says, "he said, 'I don't want to go out as Obama anymore. I'll work maintenance full-time.' "
They reached a compromise. Instead of taking his act outside, Puisseaux would now work only on the Apprentice spoof and other in-house sketches. Puisseaux was pleased.
Sometimes I think my life is worse because I look like Obama," laments Puisseaux, holed up on a Monday afternoon in his and Hortensia's small but immaculate one-bedroom apartment.
Puisseaux is prone to pendulum-like mood swings. And yesterday, his Escort ground to a smoky halt and was towed to a mechanic. This minor disaster, preventing him from reporting to work, has propelled him into an unforgiving assessment of his life.
He's broke, misses his kids, and is stressed by his acting career. Strangely, he's taken to comparing the progress of his life to that of Sen. Obama. "Barack Obama has his life under control," he says. "He went to Harvard. He's a lawyer. He's rich. When he goes home to Illinois, he goes to a big house and hugs his kids. He's a smart man. He's a great man.
"Not me," Puisseaux concludes.
His kids watch Pellizcame Que Estoy Soñando at the home of a neighboring family with outlaw cable in Havana, and Puisseaux has become something of a Superstar Dad among kids in their neighborhood. But their inflated opinion only makes Puisseaux feel shame at his three years without a visit and his inability to send more money home. "They see me on TV, and they think 'Whoa!' They think I'm living the high life. Are my kids proud of me? They tell me yes. But I don't agree. I'm supposed to do more for them."
Puisseaux hasn't ditched the doppelgänger hustle. In fact, he's only turned up the gas, trying to find work outside of América TeVe. When he's offered a ride in a car, the first place he wants to go is a hair salon, where he has an appointment to trim his budding 'fro back into "the Obama." He's getting headshots made, and he's auditioned at a talent agency, Famous Faces in Fort Lauderdale, that specializes in look-alikes.
"Isn't he so amazing?" gushes Mickey Anderson, scout at the agency. "He's very good as far as looks, although he has a bit of a Hispanic accent."
She lists the types of gigs he might get: "Corporate events, award banquets, political luncheons."
"I know this is money," Puisseaux says, squeezing his face at the cheeks. "I need to make as much as I can before November 4."
His mood swings to optimism a few days later when he travels to an appointment with another talent agency, One Source Talent in Aventura. As the name implies, it's a mass-supplier of low-level actors and singers, the sort of place that threatens to cancel prospective clients' appointments if they show up wearing flip-flops.
Puisseaux casually arrives ten minutes late for a group audition, straggling in alongside an aspiring reggaeton heartthrob and a child actress. As a catty talent wrangler looks up his booking, a misunderstanding arises because of Puisseaux's poor English. Soon, he's indignant, asking for the name of a supervisor with whom he spoke earlier. "That was a national call center," the wrangler declares haughtily. "I'm Amber. And you're done. You're not auditioning today."
Puisseaux spins on his feet and walks out as one of the receptionists chides, "Fake-ass Barack Obama!"
But outside in the parking lot, Puisseaux is relieved. "I'm happy that happened so I don't have to spend my time. I don't need that."
And he utters what might be described as the Tao of Fauxbama: "Everything in my life, I want it to come to me. I don't want anything complicated. I want, 'You impersonate Obama for me, how much do you want, here's $300, thank you.' "
Which is exactly how things went for New Times. Puisseaux charged $350 for three appearances, insisting at the last one that he is paid cash instead of by check.
For Puisseaux, much hinges on the results tallied on Election Day. His acting career will likely be finished if Obama loses. Conversely, if Obama becomes president, Puisseaux foresees an entirely new realm of possibility opening. Even while stricken by self-pity, he harbors an outlandish dream, ripped from the plot of the 1993 movie Dave: that he might be hired as a decoy for President Obama. "Maybe the Secret Service calls me to come do dangerous work protecting my country. They give me a lot of money and give me an award," he riffs, pinning an imaginary medal on his chest. "I'll be a hero to the country. That's the American Dream, man!"
But Puisseaux doesn't worry about how it will come together. While walking south on Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale, he says he figures it will just work out. "I just live my life," he says, as cars slow nearby. "I do not plan."
A wake of astonishment follows Puisseaux through Miami International Airport on a windy Friday, 27 days before Election Day. A few bystanders wonder aloud: Why is Obama traveling with only one Secret Service agent? The whole airport is locked down by other agents, reassures a journalist flanking the entourage.
Outside the airport's miniature version of Versailles Café, shrill screams of "Barack!" and "Obama!" ring out, and the candidate, while standing in line as a bearded, forbidding Secret Service agent purchases a bottle of water, is briefly engulfed by a now-familiar commotion.
A half-hour later, Puisseaux meanders through the sparsely populated halls of the Dolphin Mall. The hands of a woman managing a beauty products booth tremble when she sees the senator reading the ingredients on the back of one of her facial creams. A Dutch tourist asks the candidate if he knows where Outdoor World is. A few minutes later, when the Dutchman and his wife realize who he is, they nearly melt with excitement. "Super!" they yell in unison.
Puisseaux wanders into an FYE record store and silently contemplates the back of a Sex and the City: The Movie DVD. An employee, Zingah Wright, too excited to form much in the way of sentences, walks up to him carrying a cereal-box-sized, talking Obama doll. It's newly arrived merchandise. Puisseaux and the employee cradle his likeness as a camera flashes. While the doll prattles on about America's destiny, Puisseaux remains curiously tight-lipped.
On his way out of the mall, Puisseaux and entourage traverse a food court, where the frenzy hits its shrill apex. Hair-netted employees of Chinese-food stands call him by name, offering chunks of glazed chicken on toothpicks (he gracefully declines with a wave of the hand). A table of Sbarro-eating Republicans boos and flashes a thumbs-down signal. A pair of teenaged girls, flush with baby fat and the word Pink emblazoned across the rears of their velour shorts, jump up and down like they've met the lead singer of Maroon 5. "Oh my God! Thank you so much!" one screams as she captures Obama on her neon camera phone.
"We were at Denny's, eating," explains the girl, who just turned 18, "and then we got a call, like, 'Obama's at Dolphin!' We were like — "
"Oh my God!" assists her friend.
"I ran over here; I came running with my car," continues the first breathless girl. "I almost crashed, like, 50 people!"
But a young Trinidadian tourist, who gives her name only as Anna, has managed a brief conversation with her hero. Now she smiles coyly. "Tell him not to talk," she says. "He sounds Latin."
In the parking lot, suit jacket off, shirt-sleeves rolled up, Puisseaux smokes a Marlboro. He looks ragged and a bit exhausted.
An older Cuban woman, Sylvia Casas, is walking by with her grown son, Saul, and her granddaughter when her heart appears to stop momentarily. She approaches cautiously, and her eyes tear up as she explains to the smoking man. "I'm a citizen just yesterday, to vote for you. You touch my soul."
After a couple of photos, she skips off, her step lively. Saul Casas seems skeptical, but he doesn't say anything to kill his mom's buzz. "Barack Obama!" she screams to the sky, hopping like a woman 50 years younger. "I love you!"
Why is one of the most important people in the world holding court by a Honda Civic flanked by a scruffy entourage of four? At this moment, it doesn't matter. Sylvia Casas wants to believe.
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