Original photos: Elisabeth Caren ◍ Photos Set Design: Jordan Grossman ◍ Agent: Denise Bella Vlasis at Tribute Productions
Alec Baldwin was begging him to stay on stage.
For John Di Domenico, the world’s top Trump impersonator, the day was going even better than he’d envisioned when he hopped onto a flight from Las Vegas to San Jose early that morning.
It was a warm day in February, and he’d been hired as the comic relief for a Lunar New Year dinner benefiting Evan Low, a California state assemblyman representing Silicon Valley. Not yet in makeup and as bald as Dr. Evil, 57-year-old Di Domenico, a brawny five foot eight, had spent much of the morning seated at a desk in the lobby of the San Jose Doubletree hotel tinkering with his material. The U.S. Senate had voted on the articles of impeachment that week: “Today, ‘MAGA’ has a new meaning,” Di Domenico pecked into his laptop and simultaneously tested aloud in Trump’s voice—“My Ass Got Acquitted.” He tried a localized bit: “They’re terrible people, the media—all lies, all lies! Especially the San Jose Mercury News. How many articles can you write about Mercury? It’s a tiny planet. Tie-knee.”
He checked his account on Cameo, the app that lets people buy personal video greetings from notables. Di Domenico has filmed as many as 24 greetings in a day from his home White House lectern, at up to $200 a pop, earning more than $100,000 since he joined the service in October 2019. On this morning, a Cameo request had come from the Church of the Redeemer in West Monroe, Louisiana. “We are pro-Trump here,” wrote the pastor. “Please say some fun version of this: ‘Sorry I can’t be there, but you’ve got Aaron Booth to run the show tonight. He’s one funny real-estate appraiser!’”
Then around noon, a text came in from Di Domenico’s agent, informing him that he was under consideration for a guest role on the CBS show The Good Fight, where he’d play a famous actor doing a Trump impersonation on a television sketch comedy show. In other words, he’d impersonate Alec Baldwin impersonating the president. The gig might require Di Domenico to fly to New York the next day, a challenge since he was also under consideration to appear at a Tony Robbins conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, that week. But it was all good: “Once there’s forward movement and there’s energy, things start happening and it’s like a twister,” he told me happily after the show that night. “Things start sucking towards you.”
The storm of Donald Trump’s presidency has been traumatic for many, but it’s been manna for John Di Domenico and others in his spectacularly bizarre business. If the beginning of Trump’s end comes in November, say a tiny prayer for these artists who may never see times like this again. “It’s a very small clique,” says Bob DiBuono. The 49-year-old New Jersey actor is Di Domenico’s main rival at the top of the Trump-impersonation racket. If you include impersonators making a living doing Obama or any former president, membership is only slightly less exclusive than the club of real ex-presidents. Reggie Brown, America’s top Obama impersonator, estimates there are “less than five people at the top level. Altogether, maybe 25.”
Mostly comedians or once-struggling actors, they are hired via an online service such as GigSalad, or through talent agents, by everyone from major corporations looking for unique keynote speakers to wedding planners. Top impersonators can earn up to $30,000 emceeing a conference, $10,000 for doing 45 minutes of jokes as dinner entertainment for a Passover seder at a resort in Cancun, $1,500 to show up at a party, and anywhere from $125 to $5,000 for a custom video or Zoom appearance.
“We are all competing against each other, but there’s a respect, because there’s not many of us, and we all know how much work it takes to really perfect all the aspects of your character,” DiBuono says. Nothing against Darrell Hammond’s lower-lip-hiding Bill Clinton, Dana Carvey’s finger-flinging George H. W. Bush, or Will Ferrell’s deer-in-headlights Dubya. But making it big without SNL’s boost requires a whole nother level of moxie and a tolerance for abuse.
“I tell them, ‘You got four years—rake in the money,’” says Dustin Gold, a manager of political impersonators. Comedian Vaughn Meader’s JFK was so good that his 1962 album, The First Family, sold 7.5 million records. But hours after the 1963 assassination, Lenny Bruce started a nightclub show with a long pause and then said, “Boy, is Vaughn Meader fucked,” and he was right. No one wanted to laugh about JFK anymore. Tim Watters, a Floridian whose physical similarity to Bill Clinton led him to stop selling real estate in 1992 and try his luck as an impersonator, says he earned $1 million in his peak year, 1996, which dwindled in 1998 and pretty much dried up after 2000. “I was making more than the president,” he said. “When Lewinsky broke, I lost a lot of Fortune 500 gigs.” A few are luckier. Care to check out Rich Little’s 1970s-era Richard Nixon? Until the pandemic, you could still catch the octogenarian playing mid-sized rooms in Vegas and doing Watergate jokes.
But while the getting is good, there is no one better positioned to understand the persona of a president—the outward-facing sum of their word choices, facial expressions, and hand gestures—than an impersonator. And every one of them says that, from the surface, they reach something deep.
For Joe Biden impersonator Dave Burleigh, the Democratic candidate’s speaking voice is animated by loss. To perform it, Burleigh touches his own grief. “There’s a reflective sadness in Biden’s delivery, an empathetic reflection. His family dying in a car crash, then losing his son to cancer,” Burleigh says. “I lost my Dad to cancer when I was 19.”
Before Trump’s presidential candidacy, Di Domenico had almost given up the business. Weary of fighting for sporadic corporate conference bookings with his stable of impersonations—Dr. Phil, Guy Fieri, businessman Trump, and Austin Powers—he’d started poking around for dependable work as a Vegas producer.
Onstage in a $4,000 wig, Di Domenico slayed the crowd of about 300 Democrats in the banquet room of a Chinese restaurant perfumed by fried lobster.
But at this moment, three weeks before the U.S. registered its first COVID-19 death, Di Domenico was aces. He had never met Baldwin, who was coming to support Low. But there was no assurance the best fake Trump would get the chance to meet and take a photo with the most famous one.
Onstage in a $4,000 wig, Di Domenico slayed the crowd of about 300 Democrats in the banquet room of a Chinese restaurant perfumed by fried lobster—“My Secret Service detail told me there’s over 5,000 people here at the arena tonight, and 2,000 outside that couldn’t get in . . . I’m the greatest president in the history of presidents other than the late great Abe Lincoln, whose wife was maybe a three.”
Now $4,500 richer (minus expenses and 20 percent to his agent) from the day’s work, he prepared to cede the stage to Baldwin. In a postshow phone call from his dressing room, Di Domenico related to his fiancée what happened next. “So Alec says, ‘No, no, no—you’re not going anywhere. I want to interview you.’”
Alec: How long have you been doing this?
John: I’ve been doing Trump since 2004.
Alec: So from when he started doing The Apprentice. You began doing comedy clubs? Vegas?
John: Comedy clubs, voiceovers. I did a movie in 2008 and a bunch of stuff.
Alec: When did you know you had the essence of Trump? And what, to you, is the essence of Trump?
John: The essence of Trump is confidence no matter what.
Alec: I’m gonna steal that from you.
John: If people are booing me, I hear applause. It’s like positive thinking on steroids.
Alec: Whenever people ask me what I’m trying try to do, I say I just try to make Trump as miserable as possible.
John: You know how they say you’re the king of the . . . ?
Alec: No, no—I’m the worst Trump impersonator there is. All Trump impersonators know that. What we do is five minutes long. They want to get a couple gags, get everybody wound up, and say, ‘Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!’ Very broad. Very caricature. What else do you do these days?
John: This is pretty much taking over my entire life.
Alec: You and me both, baby!
While the pandemic has drastically reduced in-person performances, it has been a boon for Cameo greetings and paid Zoom meetings. Sarah Cooper used her lockdown time to create an abstract impression of the president with lip-synched TikToks so on-key that she was rewarded with a forthcoming Netflix special. But most impersonators hone their acts on the road, where, in the days before COVID, they’d come face-to-face with people who treat impersonators as therapy dummies. After a trade-show gig at Mandalay Bay in Vegas in 2016, Di Domenico stepped into an elevator with his producers. An older man who was already aboard sprang, grabbed him by the throat, and squeezed. “My producers were saying, ‘It’s not him, it’s not him,’” Di Domenico recalls. As they shoved him out, “the guy said, ‘I know it’s not him. It’s what he represents.’”
Thirty-nine-year-old Brown is the most realistic fake Obama; born to a white mother and a black father, he has the same height, head shape, and natural vocal cadence as the ex-president. When I visited his Sherman Oaks apartment, he told me about a confrontation he had at the Muse Hotel in New York. He had been having drinks in costume with Watters (the Bill Clinton) and a faux Sarah Palin after doing a sketch on Mike Huckabee’s Fox News show. Brown started getting heckled by “total frat bros—double polo, popped collars. One had his beer balls, going, ‘Hey, Obama, I didn’t vote for you.’ And I’m [in Obama voice] ‘OK, well, did you vote?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Well, good for you—your voice has been heard.’ I was trying to de-escalate, but his friends started pushing me. I said, “‘Alright, dude. Nothing’s happening. Stop touching me.’”
Normally, when he makes public appearances, Brown’s contract rider requires that he be accompanied by two security people, costumed as Secret Service. Brown has also become adept at Thai boxing. When he was 20, an N-word-spouting thug bashed his face with a hard object, shattering his craniomaxillofacial bones and ending his modeling career. When he is invited to give keynote talks as Obama, Brown breaks character at the end to tell his personal story, including his birth father leaving him when he was 5 and his losing his beloved stepfather to leukemia when he was 13. He runs a charity in schools called Outsmart Racism.
This night, he asked the aggressor, “Do you want to get knocked out or you want to get choked out?”
The bros, intimidated by this ready-to-rumble Obama, offered to buy him a beer. “Then when I went to leave, the guy says, ‘Have a good night, N-word,’” Brown recalls.
They went outside, Brown with Watters and Patti Lyons, the faux Palin. “She always had my back,” Brown says.
Watters and Lyons insist they have only hazy memories of this incident, but Lyons says Brown often can’t distance himself from anger directed at the Obama avatar. “Someone will say something and instead of saying, ‘Yeah, yeah,’ he’d say ‘F.U., dude.’ I would say, ‘Reggie, just stop. Stop it. Don’t do this.’ But you become very loyal to your character. When I started doing Palin, I wasn’t sure I liked her. But then as you study her, you get to know her and like her.”
Unlike Di Domenico who requires nearly two hours to wig up, face paint, and get his Trump on, Brown requires only a dusting of white hair powder, a touch of makeup, and one other easy step to look so much like Obama that it’ll make you drop your phone: a slip-on pair of $3,000 prosthetic ears.
He took them off and handed them to his manager “like a chick takes her earrings off in a fight—‘Hold these.’”
The aggressor charged. “I took him like it was a movie, and I don’t know if it’s ‘dung’ him or ‘dinged’ him off a light pole, spun him around, and threw him back at his friends. He staggered and splatted at their feet.”
Back inside, there was more trouble when a separate drunkard stepped off the elevator and decided to try his luck.
“He tried hocking one right in my face. I ducked. He went to punch me, I ducked, picked him up, double-legged him, took him down on the ground. He’s saying, ‘I’m gonna kill you.’ I was in his ear, ‘You’re not doing a good job.’ He starts crying, and they kick him out of the hotel.”
Oftentimes it goes less roughly for Obamas. Dion Flynn, a New York actor, impersonated the former president on The Tonight Show. “After Trump got elected, I had these overwrought women hugging me closer, saying, ‘I voted for you. I would vote for you again. Please don’t leave.’” It went differently when Flynn was hired for $3,000 plus expenses to visit a dying woman in Illinois. Arriving in a black Escalade, he was led to her adjustable bed in the living room where he held a folder labeled “NSA.” Using information her family had provided, he read her “top secret” file aloud, gently joking about her shoe buying and unsuccessful first marriage. “You’ve never been in a surrealistic situation until you’re singing Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah,’ dressed as Obama, for a woman who would be dead in 36 hours,” Flynn recalls. Just before he left, the dying woman, who seemed to believe the president himself was there, whispered, “I didn’t vote for you.”
Like the ex-presidents, many impersonators are former professional rivals who know and like each other—even as they ruthlessly pick each other apart. “I’m the best of the best,” said Anthony Atamanuik, a background actor on 30 Rock before his version of Trump landed him a 24-episode run of The President Show on Comedy Central. “Roger Stone and I were at this event, and he grabbed my arm and said, ‘He knows what you do.’ I said, ‘OK, OK.’ He goes, ‘You do his presence. I’ve never seen anyone do his presence.’ I said, ‘Roger, what did you do with Watergate?’”
DiBuono doesn’t criticize other impersonators directly, but he says, “Most guys don’t have the full package. They look like their guy and can’t do the vocal impression well; or they do the impression, but they’re not real comedians and don’t have good material.”
When Brown was developing his Obama impression around 2011, he paid particular attention to how the 44th president would enter a room. “If he’s coming in and he’s feeling all cool, he does this little stroll and he’ll be like, ‘Oh, it’s good to see you. How are you?’ He moves like a swaggy robot. It’s hingey.”
His standard Obama act includes zingers at Trump. “I won the Nobel Peace Prize. He won the Try and Get a Piece prize.” He has not used that joke on trips he has been paid to take via airplane and motorcade to summer camps in the Northeast. “I’ll take the podium and make them say, ‘Yes we can!’ Like, ‘Do you promise to be the best you can be?’ Then I say, ‘And now we officially break color war!’ They go crazy. I take some pictures, and then I head out.”
Hours before he was living the onstage dream with Baldwin in San Jose, Di Domenico started the nearly two-hour process of becoming Trump. He leaned his cell phone against a mirror in his hotel room to play a highlight video.
“Welcome to the world, Joe,” Trump said, and the impersonator repeated it. Then, “We sold millions and millions of hats.”
In developing his Trump, “there were certain things about him that reminded me of my dad, who had a very short fuse,” Di Domenico says. “My dad never apologized. He was a hardworking guy and he wanted fucking quiet and he didn’t want to hear it from his kids. Our summer vacations, he drove us to Ocean City, New Jersey, dropped us off, and drove home so he could have a week of quiet.”
His Trump wig has hair set into a translucent lattice that disappears into Di Domenico’s scalp. He sends it to its maker, Bree Schaller, every few weeks for repairs. He lifts it from a dummy head and smoothes it onto his own. On the mirror are two headshots of Trump—one a glowering Time cover headlined “Deal with It,” the other showing a canary-mouthed smile. They watch Di Domenico shave. “He has no stubble.” In normal times, Di Domenico visits a beauty salon every couple of weeks to keep his eyebrows bleached the same corn blond as the wig.
Di Domenico did once meet Trump when the impersonator performed as Austin Powers for a Trump birthday in Atlantic City around 2000. The impersonator had received a call from a booker who asked three times if he could do the gig for free.
“Not for free on a Saturday night,” Di Domenico replied.
“So 100 percent you will not perform for Donald Trump for free?”
The booker said they could now discuss a price.
“That comes from the top. It’s a pain in the ass.”
On the night of that particular show, staff warned Di
Domenico not to shake Trump’s hand. “All right, baby,” Di
Domenico assured them in the voice of the character invented by Mike Myers. Then Trump came in the dressing room and stuck his hand out. “Shake his hand,” a staffer whispered.
The director said, “Mr. Trump, this is John Di Domenico. He’s the best Austin Powers impersonator in the country.”
The gag was that Di Domenico would pop out of a giant cake at the end of the show. He and the birthday boy would lock arms with a line of showgirls and do a few kicks.
“So I jump out, the girls leave the stage,” Di Domenico recounts, “and Trump vamps, ‘Austin, wasn’t this some party?’
“‘Baby, it was groovy, baby.’
“Then Trump said, ‘I want to thank everybody for being here. And, by the way, folks, you probably didn’t know this, but he doesn’t do this a lot. In fact, he doesn’t do it for anyone. But he did it for me. This is Mike Myers.’
“I felt like I got hit by a cattle prod. I thought, ‘Why is he saying that? He knows I’m not Mike Myers.’ And as I came offstage, people were saying, ‘Oh, my God, I was talking to you! I didn’t realize you were really him! Mr. Myers, can I get your autograph?’ Textbook Trump!” Di Domenico says, laughing.
When the impersonators gather, as they did recently at O’Briens Irish Pub in Santa Monica, stories fly. Don Frankel, a phony Clinton, reminisced about a model at a medical convention who circled for days, trying to get in his pants, and finally slipped him her number. “Since I’m married, I immediately threw it away,” he croaks.
Brown nods, “Everyone knows the Clintons have it best. Girls are always throwing themselves at him. It’s bizarre, but he still has it. I can’t imagine it’s fun to be Bernie.” (This was later confirmed by James Adomian, a Sanders impersonator. “I have to be very much out of costume if I’m gonna get laid after a Bernie Sanders show,” he griped.)
Brown bemoaned his own lack of road action. “I guess people know Obama doesn’t play that way. He doesn’t really exude sexual charisma.”
There was one notable exception, however—a Vegas producer who promised a big payday if he starred as Obama in a porn film. He declined. “I don’t think me appearing nude as Obama will do much to enhance either of our brands!”
In 2012, Marcus J. Fox, a TV producer who worked on The Osbournes and Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica, cooked up a reality show in which political impersonators would live together. Brown, Lyons, Di Domenico, and Watters spent about a week with others shooting the pilot for Politicos in and around Gainesville, Georgia. At the time, many were managed by Gold, from whom Brown has since split.
“Patti really was like a ditzy soccer mom,” Gold recalled in a phone interview. “She had accidentally taken some sleeping pills instead of Tylenol, and on the way to a car dealership she was drooling all over herself. Marcus told me, ‘Dude, this is going to sell so easy.’” Taking Ambien was a mistake, Lyons admits, but “they loved it.”
Then things really turned, Brown recalls. “One night after we’re almost done shooting, I went to sleep. A few hours later, a police officer was waking me up and bringing me downstairs and we see the kitchen being taped off. Dustin is being handcuffed.”
According to news accounts, a fight had broken out between Watters and Fox that drew in Gold. “The Clinton was looking for a fight,” Lyons says bitterly. “He was saying to Marcus, ‘You’re Irish, I’m of English descent—we used to own you.’ Marcus was like, ‘F you, my father fought that fight.’”
Watters recalls that early in production, Fox said, “‘If you’re controversial, you’ll be one of the main characters.’ I figured I’d play that up. Throw some alcohol on there, and someone gets crazy.”
At a court hearing, a sheriff’s investigator testified that at one point Fox held Gold down on a pool table and licked his face. Gold ran outside, fell down an embankment, was let back in at 4 a.m. by a Michelle Obama impersonator, scuffled with Fox, and then stabbed the producer in the gut with a steak knife. Fox was hospitalized with punctured intestines and required several operations, according to both Brown and Lyons.
Gold was charged with a felony and claimed self-defense. The case was dropped with no conviction, said Hannah Aldrich, a clerk with the Hall County, Georgia, criminal court. In text messages, Fox cited ongoing security concerns and did not reply to requests for more comment. The show never aired.
Brown’s business was dropping off even before the pandemic. Bidens are popping up, including Tom Shillue, a comedian on The Greg Gutfeld Show on Fox News. Shillue’s bit involves Biden making rambling phone calls from his basement.
“Other people can talk about Biden losing his marbles,” Shillue said in a phone interview. “But that’s not funny. What’s funny is he always brings it back to his childhood with a story about Corn Pop.”
Di Domenico says Biden impersonations will never be as popular as those of Trump, Obama, and Clinton because the former vice president lacks catchphrases and traits to caricature. Burleigh, who uses full masks for spot-on impersonations of Sanders and Trump, had resisted spending the $10,000 it would cost to make a mold for Biden. But he’s been trying to study the voice.
“He’s got like three different tones,” Burleigh texted. “There’s subdued Grandpa Biden, Barstool Biden (‘C’mon Man!’), and Cranky Biden (‘Dog Face Pony Soldier’).” Finally, in late summer, Burleigh received two bookings for a Biden impersonation—one a corporate gig, the other a TV pilot—and he ordered the mask.
In 2016, Di Domenico predicted Trump’s election. At appearances in the middle of the country during campaign season, he was experiencing rabid devotion. In Trump’s 2005 book How to Get Rich, which credits coauthorship to longtime Trump Organization staffer Meredith McIver, there is a chapter entitled “Read Carl Jung.” It discusses “persona,” noting the Latin origin of the word means mask. “It’s the face we put on for public use, and it can be intentional or unconscious . . . The only danger is when people become their personae. That means something has been shut off somewhere along the line, and these people will end up hiding behind the false personality that works professionally.”
When you see Democrats lining up to take selfies with Di Domenico after the San Jose show, you understand that, before and maybe after all the mishegas, an achievement you can’t take away is that Trump, whether through craft, instinct, or madness, created an indelible persona called Trump and blasted it on the nation’s collective unconscious in 20-foot-high brass letters. The persona sold useless degrees and got cast as a successful businessman on reality TV even though the man himself wasn’t. Then, when he was ready to grab for political power, Trump added a nasty smirk to his mask by embracing birtherism and a border wall.
Perhaps if someone isn’t easy to impersonate, they’re not electable. They lack a persona that lodges in the subconscious and motivates fingers to mark ballots. If Biden doesn’t win, think about Kate McKinnon’s memorable Elizabeth Warren (“I’ve got a plan for that”) and Larry David’s indelible Bernie Sanders.
Or Adomian’s Sanders. During a primary-season comedy-club tour in which Adomian as Sanders debated Atamanuik as Trump, his faux Sanders had sharp material: “As president, I promise that I will only fly stand-by. Even on Air Force One, if anyone—anyone—has a better reason to take the flight, you go ahead and take the seat. I’ll take the next one.” Sanders’s voice? Have you done a Biden impression? A Hillary? You’ve probably done your own Bernie for friends. Everyone alive in the 1970s still has a Nixon.
“He’s got like three different tones,” Burleigh texted. “There’s subdued Grandpa Biden, Barstool Biden (‘C’mon Man!’), and Cranky Biden (‘Dog Face Pony Soldier’).” —Biden impersonator Dave Burleigh
What’s more, Trump effectively tars his opponent’s masks with monikers: “Lyin‘ Ted.” Speaking of Lincoln once, he showed his thinking on persona and politics: “Honest Abe—I wonder how honest he really was.”
If you want Trump gone from the White House, know that The Apprentice was only a top-ten hit the first season. Trump’s act tires. Still, “I don’t think he’s going to lose,” Di Domenico says. “But even if he does, a core group is going to have events, and they’ll want a Trump. He’ll never disappear from the American consciousness.”
Starting to remove his makeup late after the San Jose event, a message dinged on Di Domenico’s phone. He’d just been booked on The Good Fight.
Allen Salkin is the co-author of The Method to the Madness: Untold Stories of Donald Trump’s 16-Year Quest for the White House.