SURREAL

My Bizarre Life As Barack Obama

Sean Banks, star of the documentary Just About Famous, writes about making his living as an Obama impersonator, from being cursed off by angry Republicans to embodying the POTUS.

04.21.15 9:15 AM ET

“Sean and Judy, come visit us in Key West. We’ve got a place right off of Duval Street. You’ll be in the center of all the fun for Fantasy Fest. The theme is politics, pundits and pirates.” 

The day we received that invitation was the day it all changed.

Up until that point, I had been approached a few times by people telling me I look like the presidential candidate Barack Obama. A lightbulb came on in my wife’s head when she said, “Why don’t you bring your suit, it will fit in with the event’s theme.” This was the weekend before the 2008 U.S. presidential election. I figured there’d be some short-skirted Palins and perhaps a McCain or two; might as well walk around looking like Barack. I was curious to see if anybody would “get it” and see the resemblance. To tell the truth, it wasn’t even a suit. It was a pair of old blue slacks and a sport jacket I purchased for $5.00 from a thrift shop. The flag pin was a makeshift brooch fashioned out of pins and beads to look like the U.S. flag. 

I wasn’t ready for what happened next. 

As night fell and I walked onto Duval Street, I was met by a barrage of excited partiers and camera flashes. The politically themed parade went by and the participants were pointing to the sidelines at me. The phrase I would hear from that point forward would be, “Hey, Barack! Can I get a picture with you?” I couldn’t walk 25 feet without 50 people stopping me.

My friends from Key West happened to know an agent they put me in touch with. One thing led to another, led to another. I was in with the industry’s premier photographers, agents, and movers and shakers. Over the next few years I honed my impersonation skills and gigs became more regular—private, public, and corporate events. These appearances included everything from a political event at the Jacksonville Jaguars stadium, the National Education Association’s convention in Washington, D.C., entertainment at several casinos, to being the door host at someone’s birthday party.

I don’t recall doing any gig I didn’t like, but some were definitely more interesting than others. I would have to say my gig at a swingers’ club in South Florida was quite interesting. I had no idea that the clients were going to be so…nude. 

Another time a client reserved a booking an entire year in advance for a considerable amount of money, which she paid upfront. I prepared for it at length and contacted various family members of the honored guest to get background information with which I could personalize the performance. I got onstage, told my jokes… no one laughed. I got offstage… no one wanted their pictures taken with me. I don’t know what happened but it appeared that I didn’t fulfill their expectations. Yet I was told afterwards how everybody loved it. They even hired me back for another performance!

At these appearances the client usually hires me as a surprise for the guests. Enduring the hiding place is often a challenge. Hiding places have included: behind a hot stove in a restaurant kitchen, the edge of a lake known to be filled with alligators, parking decks, a mosquito-infested garage crouched behind an ’07 Pontiac, and one time, waiting in a dressing room which I discovered was for the female dancers who had no qualms about me being there while they changed. Well, I guess they aren’t all so bad. 

In Boca Raton, I walked into a room full of Republicans and the first thing I heard was, “F-CK YOU OBAMA!!!” I knew going in that this was going to be a tough crowd, I just wasn’t sure how tough.  Fortunately, the client gave me information about some of his friends. So I walked up to the very gentleman who so colorfully addressed me upon my entry, shook his hand, and said, “Martin, I’d like to thank you for the $2,000,000 contribution to my campaign. And the monthly checks your wife, Linda, has continued to send,” at which point all of his friends got all over his case. They started laughing, he started laughing, and the rest of the evening continued in the same spirit.

However, some experiences have been very disturbing, like when a crazy guy at a hotel came over for a picture and instead of posing said, “Barack, if I had a gun I’d shoot you.” 

Impersonating the Leader of the Free World caused me to think about my own politics. I tested the waters by entering the race for city commissioner, and found that I had support from many people but the process was going to be long and arduous. And then my life circumstances at the time shifted such that I had to withdraw. But I certainly wasn’t done with politics. I became president of the local Democratic Club and worked with them to get our candidates elected. 

If anyone had told me before 2008 what life was going to look like today, I would not have believed it. Today, I am jokingly addressed as “Mr. President” from fans to actual elected officials. I am certain that the future is going to be busier and more exciting even after Obama leaves office. I’ve noticed several impersonators of former presidents still working and prospering. I recently worked with an Abe Lincoln. 

I’m not worried.  

The documentary Just About Famous premieres April 21 on iTunes, Google Play, Vimeo On Demand, and VUDU. Visit justaboutfamous.com for more information.