Dustin Gold is a presidential consultant who demands complete transparency. Perhaps it helps that he advises candidates who don’t actually hold elected office—they just impersonate those who do.
“If you call most look-a-like agencies and ask for a Marilyn Monroe, they’ll charge you $500 and not tell you that the girl has a heroin problem,” says Gold. But if one of Gold’s clients requests a Mitt Romney impersonator from his agency, the New York-based Politicos Comedy Brigade, he’ll send them honest evaluations of his impersonators, including unflattering details. “I’ll tell ‘em, ‘This guy looks really good, but he’s a lot shorter than the real deal.’ Or ‘his voice is okay, but he’s not a great comedian.’ I want them to know exactly what they’re paying for.”
The Politicos Comedy Brigade, which he founded less than four years ago, offers more than just fake Obamas and Mitt Romneys (he has two of each). The company’s roster includes a Bill and Hillary Clinton (available together or separately), both Bush presidents, Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, Donald Trump, Dick Cheney, and two Sarah Palins. For history buffs, there are former presidents like Taft, Teddy Roosevelt, and John Adams.
But the hottest ticket are his Faux-bamas, who can make up to $15,000 for just a 30-minute performance. The majority of Gold’s business is corporate entertainment. “It’s a mixture of sales conferences, association dinners, and political and nonprofit fundraisers,” he says. The Brigade has done shows for Microsoft, LinkedIn, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Unilever, AT&T, SONY, and General Electric, among many others. Gold’s commission ranges “anywhere from 25% to 50% for any given show.”
“We’re one-stop shopping for political impersonators,” says Gold, a 31 year-old native of Avalon, New Jersey. “If Motorola wants to do a trade show with Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin and Michelle Obama talking about which cellphones they use, we can offer that. If they want Obama and Bill Clinton and George Bush doing a Rat Pack type show, we can offer that too. We can do anything, in any combination, tailored to their needs.”
Gold puts his performers through an intensive boot camp of voice lessons and acting training before he’ll allow them out into the field. “Most of my guys aren’t professional performers,” he says. “They just look like somebody famous. So they have to go from being a mechanic to performing in front of hundreds of people.” Even after weeks and sometimes months of lessons, Gold is still rarely satisfied. “A client might say, ‘I don’t care if your Mitt Romney doesn’t have the voice, we just want them for photos.’ But I won’t settle for that. I want them to be the complete package.”
But fake politics isn’t immune to controversy. Reggie Brown, one of Gold’s Obama impersonators, angered a conservative crowd at a Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans in July. Mid-way through his speech, in which he made off-color jokes about conservative candidates (and Romney’s Mormon faith and the touchy subject of polygamy) and made a reference to Obama’s biracial roots that RLC President Charlie Davis described as “racially insensitive,” Brown’s microphone was suddenly switched off and he was escorted away from the podium.
“He was supposedly yanked from the stage,” Gold recalls, “although that wasn’t at all what occurred.” The incident spawned a media frenzy—”the best publicity we’ve ever gotten,” Gold admits—and Brown was suddenly in high demand, fielding interview offers from Bill Maher and Mike Huckabee.
But mainstream success brought creative tension. “We don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things,” Gold says about his relationship with Brown. “I want to take this to another level, build on the traditional 30 minute set, but he doesn’t want to change.” (Yes, the Obama impersonator doesn’t believe in “change.”) Even if Obama wins the election, it doesn’t mean Brown’s job is safe; an irony that Gold fully appreciates. “I dabbled in politics for awhile,” he says. “I worked with a consulting company that helped politicians develop a brand. The impersonation business is basically the same thing. Except our job is in a lot of ways tougher.”
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on the Bloomberg BusinessWeek website.)