US President Barack Obama will be looking for a new job in less than 100 days, but his Indonesian doppleganger Ilham Anas – who has made a windfall impersonating America’s first black president – sees no need for a career change.
Anas shot to fame when an amateur photograph of him dressed as his alter-ego went viral online in 2008, is experiencing a rise in bookings from advertising firms across Asia even as his real-life counterpart prepares to leave the White House.
“Surely there will be a future for me as an Obama impersonator. He is like Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter. There will always be demand for impersonators of such popular people,” said Anas, 43.
Dressed in Obama’s trademark dark suit, with hair dyed grey, protruding ears and a megawatt, teeth-baring grin, Anas is accustomed to drawing whoops of glee and requests for photographs.
At 175cm, he is ten centimetres shorter than Obama, but the resemblance is still uncanny enough for him to be recognised.
“I think I am quite popular in China. If I am dressed in a suit and walking down the street or go to a restaurant in Guangzhou or Beijing, people will immediately stop and say ‘Hey, Obama!” said Anas, a freelance writer and photographer when he is not travelling the world as a counterfeit president.
He was in China most recently to shoot a commercial in Shenzhen for an upcoming computer game – his ninth visit to the mainland during Obama’s eight-year presidency – though he is more used to starring in commercials for beverage and pharmaceutical companies.
His work has also taken him to Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand and the United States.
His first advertisement, in 2009, soon after Obama’s inauguration, was for heartburn medication in the Philippines. It featured him being overfed by a woman who resembles the country’s former president Gloria Arroyo.
Most of his gigs require simple impersonations, which involve him walking with a posse of security staff or waving at a crowd. He does not take on assignments that might harm Obama’s reputation, steering clear of adverts for tobacco or alcohol.
Anas, born and raised in the West Java city of Bandung, is “still surprised” by his overnight rise to fame.
As Obama’s 2008 presidential candidacy gained widespread attention in Indonesia – where the president lived for four years in his youth – colleagues at the magazine Anas was working for shared a spoof picture of him dressed as the then junior senator, which was subsequently picked up by the national media.
Unrelenting attention from advertising agencies, international news outlets, and the public soon followed.
“The reaction is the same around the world…once in 2012 I got in an elevator in Los Angeles and an old lady got a shock and nearly fainted when she saw me,” said the father-of-two. “Of course it makes me very happy to get a happy reaction from the people. I feel lucky I look like Obama.”
He is more coy about how much he has earned from his lucky break.
“I cannot give you a number but I can tell you that by doing this I have bought a two-storey house and a car.”
He lives in Bekasi, a satellite city of the capital Jakarta, and drives a Daihatsu wagon.
Eric Yang, chief executive of the Chinese advertising agency DFPR (大弗公关) that manages Anas on the Chinese mainland, said the firm was planning “creative” ways to keep Anas in work as an Obama impersonator long after the president leaves office.
One idea is to pair him up more frequently with a recent find – 45-year-old Vasilii Khorokhordin, a stoic Russian of few words who is the spitting image of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“With Vasilii and Anas working together, we hope we can create a concept that becomes very popular across China,” Yang said.
Anas is aware his future as a impersonator will depend on how high a profile Obama chooses to take after leaving office.
“I can do many things like act on TV or web series or YouTube,” he said. “But in the long run I can continue to be popular only when the real Obama is popular.” ■