At last week’s Independence Day celebration at the White House, not many of the 1,000-plus guests got to shake hands with the president, or even get very close. But thanks to Todd Neufeld, they got the next best thing: Obama’s balloon doppelgänger. “People were lining up to get a picture with him,” says professional balloon twister Neufeld, 38, who was responsible for the faux president, which took 25 balloons to construct. The biggest reactions and widest smiles didn’t come from kids, he says, but from the adults. Some even offered constructive criticism. “One guy looked at it and said, ‘I think Obama’s a little grayer than that,’” Neufeld laughs.
It wasn’t Neufeld’s first balloon replica of Obama—he did one for First Daughter Malia Ann’s 12th birthday two years ago—or even his first time twisting balloons at the White House. He’s been the balloon artist in residence for the past four Fourth of July parties for the Obama administration and “three or four” events for George W. Bush, including “some kind of congressional picnic.” And that’s just a small percentage of his balloon business. Neufeld does children’s birthday parties, of course, but also a surprising number of events for adults. “That’s really fun,” he says, “because the last thing adults expect at a party with alcohol and no kids is for somebody to be twisting balloons.”
Neufeld’s favorite audiences are usually scientists, if only because they make the weirdest and most challenging requests. “I did a party up in Boston for one of the biology divisions at MIT,” he says. “One of the guys asked if I could make a balloon microbe, some obscure bacteria that he was doing his doctoral research on. I told him, ‘Of course not, I can’t even spell it.’” A few years later, while doing a Christmas party at the Cornell Medical College in New York, he was given a similarly baffling request. “It was some kind of antivirus that attacks DNA. They took a textbook off the shelf—we were in the department’s library—and showed me a sketch, but there was no detail at all. I had no idea what I was looking at.” But he tried anyway, making a balloon tableaux of a DNA double helix being attacked by a “microbe monster.” The crowd loved it.
Balloon twisting isn’t typically a career that leads to fame and fortune, but Neufeld has done remarkable things with just latex and helium. He founded the Twisted Balloon Company in 2003, an empire of balloon artists that he continues to operate out of Red Hook, Brooklyn, and he personally performs at roughly 175 events every year. In just the next few weeks, Neufeld will be twisting balloons at an upscale birthday bash in Tribeca, at Liberty Mutual’s 100th anniversary celebration at Fenway Park in Boston, and at a private party on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Over the past decade, he’s performed his balloon artistry on such programs as the Late Show with David Letterman, NBC’s Today Show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, CBS’s Early Show, and ABC’s Nightline, among many others.
Neufeld never planned it this way. His original goal was to become a lawyer. But even as a law student at Boston University, his ballooning ambitions got in the way. He missed an important bar exam prep test in 2000 for the chance to fly to Mol, Belgium, to help construct a pair of gigantic soccer players, the world’s largest ballon sculpture. (It became a Guinness World Record, standing at 25 feet tall and 80 feet wide, made with 40,781 balloons.) “I thought, what’s the worst that can happen? I flunk the bar?” Neufeld laughs. “I took off, and everybody told me I was crazy. You don’t spend over $100,000 on law school and then be like, ‘I’ll worry about the bar exam whenever.’”
He eventually graduated, passed the bar, and briefly became a patent attorney in New York. But it didn’t last long. (“You have to focus on something to excel at it,” he says. “And I don’t have the time or resources to focus on being an attorney.”) He claims to make a good living in ballooning, though he’s hesitant to share specifics. He’s still a little annoyed by a 2009 Wall Street Journal story about the balloon twisting industry, which alluded to “price wars” between competing ballooners. “[The writer] was very insistent about finding out what we got paid,” Neufeld says. “And it’s not that simple. I can’t just name you a number.” During last week’s Fourth of July holiday, he says, “one of my top artists did a backyard barbecue for $1,500. And I worked at the White House for free. So what’s the price point? Every situation is different.”
That’s not just true with pricing. Neufeld tries to make every performance a uniquely original experience. “Twisting balloons is like jazz,” he says. “When I come to a party, I never know what’s going to happen.” The biggest challenge—aside from the occasional double helix—is when he’s asked to create a company’s logo out of balloons. He’s done logos for MTV, CNET, and Eventus, among others. “You have to think about things like, ‘Do I have the right color palate?’ Because they take that very seriously. I carry four or five different shades of every color balloon, just to be safe.”
Sometimes, however, the balloon requests are downright bizarre. He remembers doing a party for a company he won’t name, saying only that they’re “a big vendor in New York that sells Cisco computer systems.” One of the executives asked him to make a balloon monkey, even though Neufeld had already made two. “Jimmy Buffett doesn’t play Margaritaville three times at the same concert,” he says. But the guy pleaded with him, explaining that he was having problems with his girlfriend, who’d given him the pet name “Little Monkey.” A balloon monkey that he could bring home to her, the exec said, would make all the difference. “What could I do?” Neufeld says. “I made him a monkey.”
Later, as the guests were leaving and Neufeld was packing up his supplies, the executive walked over, balloon monkey in hand, and thanked Neufeld again. “And he said to me, ‘My girlfriend and I are totally going to have a threesome with your monkey tonight.'” Neufeld, not surprisingly, was distressed by this news. “I felt…. really bad for that monkey,” he says.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on the Bloomberg Businessweek website.)