A handful of local agencies are turning coincidence into cold cash for people whose more-than-passing resemblance to celebrities, sports stars and politicians puts them in demand at parties and corporate functions
These days, a good George W. Bush imitator commands more money per hour than the real president.
Celebrity lookalikes have replaced magicians, comedians and bands as the top-billed entertainment at many Los Angeles high-end corporate and private functions.
While Bush toils away in the White House making an average of $192.30 an hour, based on an annual salary of $400,000 over 40-hour weeks, the top Bush actors are now commanding up to $4,000 for a few hours of portraying the Texan, complete with dialect, mannerisms and gaffes.
“They give pizzazz to a party or corporate function,” said Janna Joos, manager of the Northridge-based International Celebrity Images, which handles 900 impersonators in the United States and Europe. “It raises the level of excitement even for people who have been in L.A. and around celebrities for years. It’s just that aura of celebrity, whether it’s real or fake. (Clients) are buying into a fantasy. If (an impersonator) is something the company feels is necessary to make the evening happen the way they want it to happen, they will find the money even if they have to cut down on the cost of the dessert.”
People who look like celebrities from Marilyn Monroe to Drew Carey make extra money capitalizing on their looks. The key is name recognition, whether the people they are impersonating are dead or alive.
Scarcely in demand a year ago, the stock of Bush impersonators has skyrocketed to the top of the booming Los Angeles celebrity lookalike industry.
Meanwhile, with former Bill Clinton’s post-White House scandals keeping him in the news and Hillary Clinton now a U.S. senator, demand for their likenesses has dropped only slightly since the November elections.
Many celebrity impersonators live in Southern California, but agencies have clients across the country and even overseas.
Easy to find
Finding lookalikes when a new celebrity bursts onto the scene is never difficult. Although agents make use of Web pages and occasionally search new talent at local standup comedy clubs, such as the Laugh Factory and the Comedy Store, most of the talent finds them. Often, they call up agencies after being told by other lookalikes that they have potential.
“There is no formal union for lookalikes. There are no rules and regulations for them. They pretty much have to fend for themselves,” said Dot Findlater, owner of Hollywood-based Mirror Images Co.
The impersonators are responsible for their own makeup, wigs, wardrobe, voice lessons and all of the time and effort they spend studying video footage of celebrities, so they have the mannerisms down pat. Agents will give them pointers and even refer them to “image-enhancers,” but the agents typically do not invest any money in the actors’ careers.
Missouri resident Brent Mendenhall, a Bush lookalike, flew to Iowa before the Republican caucuses and attended seven campaign rallies in or near his home to study the mannerisms of the president.
But the money was well invested, as he has since appeared on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” “The Jon Stewart Show,” and he was scheduled to appear in an episode of “Jag” this month. His pay has increased 200 percent since he began portraying Bush.
“I got into this business for the same reason that George W. Bush bought the Texas Rangers,” said Mendenhall, who also owns a construction company. “I want to make a buck in the entertainment industry. As his stock rises, mine does as a performer.”
His performances include a 15-minute banquet speech filled with one-liners that poke fun at the real Bush’s verbal gaffes “presidentiary,” for instance as well as playful cuts on other politicians.
“For too long, a stale, stagnant wind of immorality hung over the Clinton White House,” Mendenhall states in a southern drawl at each appearance. “When I was inaugurated, I broke that wind.”
His start-up expenses totaled only about $500 for a new suit and make-up, as well as two pairs of shades and ear-pieces that he gives to two members of the sponsoring organization who play Secret Service agents guarding him.
Judith Helton, a 59-year-old Van Nuys actress, has spent the last 25 years portraying Abigail Adams, the wife of former President John Adams. Helton’s task is harder than those portraying current celebrities, since her performance has much more of an educational aspect.
Helton learned Adams’ speech patterns through extensive research on the subject. Helton sews her own dresses for her 150 annual performances, where she also portrays authors Laura Ingalls Wilder (“Little House on the Prairie”) and Beatrix Potter (“The Tale of Peter Rabbit”), as well as Lotta Crabtree, the actress who beginning at age 8 entertained gold rush miners in 1856.
Cutting costs is vital for Helton, who rings up as much as $10,000 a year while charging only $250 to $400 per show. Lacking a Web site, she relies on brochures, word of mouth and showcases to generate new business.
“I get a lot of repeat business because I have several characters,” she said. “It’s a combination of the things I love: acting and history. You get to step into somebody else’s shoes and see the world in a different way.”
While Helton handles her own bookings, most celebrity lookalikes sign up with a handful of agencies that dominate the market in Los Angeles. Unlike Hollywood, no agent has sole rights to a lookalike actor, so each must strive to get as much business for the impersonators as possible, or another agent might make the booking and collect the agent’s fee.
Agents trying to break into the lookalike industry find it extremely difficult to obtain a client list because the established agents know all the caterers and event planners, and corporate clients are likely to continue using the same agency over and over.
The fee scale varies. Some agents set a custom rate for each lookalike and each occasion, while others merely charge a flat rate regardless of which personality the client books.
The amount that actors command is determined by the quality of the act and whether they are putting on a performance or just meeting and greeting and posing for photographs.