Queen of the Hill: The World's Best Hillary Impersonator Is Ready for 2016
We traveled to a gated community in Palm Desert, California, to meet Teresa Barnwell, the world's most successful Hillary Clinton look-alike.
Photos by Amy Lombard
A version of this article appeared in the September issue of VICE magazine.
The California desert is the worst place to wear a pantsuit. The heat regularly climbs above 100 degrees, and with the exception of residents' pools, water is scarce. But in the gated Palm Desert community she calls home, the world's most successful Hillary Clinton impersonator regularly strolls around in a scarlet wool blazer and matching slacks.
Teresa Barnwell works full-time as a Hillary look-alike, and she never lets the heat bring her down. As I pulled into her driveway this summer, shortly before the Fourth of July, she opened the door and waved from her porch. An American flag hung from her garage. Sweating profusely from her golden coiff but smiling as tightly as Hillary did when the Senate grilled her on Benghazi, she offered me lemonade.
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Barnwell and Hillary have much in common: The same hair, chin, and eyes, and even some biographical elements. They're both Scorpios in their 60s. A North Carolina native who has lived in California for decades, Barnwell speaks like a Southerner who has spent too much time around WASPs, just as Hillary spoke like a WASP who spent too much time around hillbillies when she lived in Arkansas. Hillary gave birth to Chelsea in 1980, just as Barnwell and her husband were adopting a dog by the same name.
The resemblance is unsettling, especially when Barnwell channels Hillary in her most private moments. As I followed her into her backyard, she slipped a Bill Clinton puppet onto her hand and started screaming.
"I'm running for president! You're not!" she said, pointing at Bill. "It's my turn! My turn! It's all about me! Don't mess this up for me! I'll choke you!"
The upcoming presidential election has already given Clinton impostors a wealth of new material. Lately, Hillary has acted like a fun mom who makes memes on Facebook to appeal to young people, releasing viral videos and asking fans to tweet "three emojis" to express how they feel about their student debt. Her husband's potential new role as "the First Dude" has also changed the dynamic of their public relationship.
"[Bill Clinton impersonator Pat Rick is] kind of working on reviving his career in terms of what could happen if he became the First Gentleman, the First Laddie or whatever," Barnwell said. As for her own career, the gigs have been steady for decades.
Unlike many impersonators, Barnwell never imagined performing for a living. She feels most impersonators go into the business because they want to act and need an audience. She sees other look-alikes becoming addicted to the attention, going out in public on their days off dressed as their celebrity doppelgängers, unable to step out of the performance. But Barnwell, like Hillary, treasures her privacy.
"I think that's kind of twisted. I don't like that. I think it's unprofessional," she said. "I just want to be me, and then, when I need to be my character, that's fine."
Given Barnwell's uncanny physical likeness, it was a role she was born to play. She said she "fell into it" in 1992, when Bill Clinton won the Democratic primary. The world was introduced to Hillary, and strangers started confusing them. After Bill got the nomination, Barnwell couldn't go anywhere without people pointing at her.
"I would be in the grocery store buying bananas, and people would be like, 'Oh, look, it's Hillary Clinton buying bananas,'" Barnwell said. "I thought, This is really starting to get a little too insane, and my life is getting all messed up. What am I going to do?"
Getting mistaken for Hillary stressed Barnwell out. In 1992, the Clintons were already polarizing figures shrouded in media controversy, and Barnwell occasionally feared for her safety. Her friends recommended she become "one of those look-alike people," but she scoffed at the idea: "That's the goofiest thing I've ever heard," she said. She wanted to continue working in ad sales.
Then she read an article about a Bill impersonator who made a killing. When she reached out to him, he advised her to contact a talent agency. The Clintons weren't going anywhere, so Barnwell, being a businesswoman, figured she might as well profit off her appearance. She had driven past an impersonator agency called Book a-Look in Newport Beach, and one day, she stopped at their building during her lunch break. She walked up to their door but became so nervous she returned to her office. Later that day, she contacted a Book a-Look agent by phone, and he told her they'd received many requests for a Hillary impersonator but had no one to play the part. They needed her.
Almost 25 years later, Barnwell has a near monopoly on the field. Although several look-alikes have been known to impersonate Bill, few women have performed as Hillary. Impressionists rely on over-the-top personalities, like Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, and Slick Willie himself. But in public, Hillary acts so reserved that critics have called her fake. (Her campaign has even tried to say America just doesn't "know" the real Hillary.) She also lacks the camp factor that has arguably made conservative pundit Ann Coulter a gay icon and gay marriage opponent Sarah Palin an inspiration to drag queens.
"It was kind of bizarre," Barnwell said, "but it was fortunate for me not to have too much competition."
Other actresses may struggle to match Hillary's mannerisms, but she has always found Hillary "pretty simple" to do. "I was a businesswoman for a long time," she said, "so you have to be very professional and smooth when you talk to people and meet them. You have to be a little bit of an actress to show that you believe in whatever you're selling, and you've got to convince people that what you have can help them with their business or their needs or whatever."
After Bill became president, Barnwell's career took off. Joe Boxer wanted to shoot an ad in which company founder Nicholas Graham stood in his underwear next to Hillary. They hired Barnwell to play the first lady. After the photo shoot, they told Barnwell they'd decided to purchase ads in Details magazine and put Bill's face over Graham's head. Immediately, Barnwell thought of Hillary: "I was like, Oh my goodness, I'm going to get into so much trouble," she said. "Supposedly they showed Hillary this picture and she just laughed— she thought it was funny." A few years later, she sat in her den watching a Friends episode in which Rachel worked at an ad firm. On the company's wall was Barnwell's Joe Boxer photo.
Barnwell went from working in an ad agency to starring in an ad that was featured on Friends. Her act was spot-on, and corporations quickly started booking her. She posed for the National Enquirer and performed at corporate and Republican events. At a convention, she was paid to hand out white water bottles. "Would you like a white water?" she'd ask, referring to the Whitewater scandal. Occasionally, the crowds would get worked up and scream at her.
"People will say things to you because they would never have the opportunity to say it to the real Hillary, nor would they have the guts," she said. "A lot of times they can be mean and nasty."
She has walked in Hillary's pantsuit and learned to empathize with her. "This profession has given me a taste of what it is like to be a celebrity, to be a famous person," she said. "Knowing what I know, I don't think I would ever want to be famous. But I'm lucky I get to experience it because there are a lot of fun things—it's not all bad stuff."
Once at a trade show, a guy walked up to her and said, "You better enjoy this while you can, because there's no way they're going to get elected for a second term." But the Clintons remained in Washington, and during Clinton's second administration, her career exploded. One day she came home from her advertising job and found a surprising message on her voicemail: A staff member at The Tonight Show with Jay Leno wanted Barnwell to impersonate Hillary on air.
"I was trying to figure out if this was one of my friends playing a trick on me and messing with my head, so I played it over again trying to figure out who it was," she said. "It sounded legit, so I called this girl, and sure enough, they wanted to come up and do a bit on The Tonight Show. That was a very lucky break."
Over the next few years, Barnwell appeared on the talk show approximately 40 times, according to her estimations. She says NBC's requests increased when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke—late-night shows spoofed Monica nearly every episode.
"They just milked that for all it was worth," she said.
Barnwell assumed her second life as Hillary would end when the Lewinsky story subsided and Bill left the White House, but as Bill faded from the spotlight, Hillary's presence only grew larger. In 1999, Hillary announced her candidacy for Senate and embarked on a "listening tour" to hear what voters wanted. Barnwell spoofed her listening tour, performing with giant ears. The same year, she realized she was earning enough to quit her day job and decided to dedicate her life to working as Hillary full-time. After Hillary lost the Democratic primary campaign in 2008, Barnwell worried her work would dry up, but then Hillary became secretary of state and dominated the news cycle during the Benghazi and email scandals.
"It just kept going, and I kept getting all these cool jobs and stories that I wanted to tell," Barnwell said. "And then, before I noticed, she was running for president again."
For Barnwell, it is a business rather than a lifestyle. Though she's gone to impersonator conventions in Vegas, she's tended to limit her performances to corporate gigs and television appearances. She likes to hang up the pantsuit when she gets home, but Barnwell's domestic life shares much of the flavor of Hillary's recent campaign: Her status as an old-fashioned Baby Boomer and her nostalgia for a perceived American golden age. Meeting with Black Lives Matter activists, Hillary discussed her time fighting for civil rights in the 1960s as a student, calling to mind her connection to the spirit of '69. Baby Boomer relics also fill Barnwell's living room: An antique jukebox sits next to a glossy baby grand and an old-fashioned glass table covered in roses, evoking a bygone era.
Out of costume, she wears a sharp but prim black skirt, a crisp white shirt, and simple earrings, projecting both wealth and humility. Paired with her slight Southern accent, her green eyes made me think of To Kill a Mockingbird's Scout all grown up. She served me more lemonade and told me how the 60s clearly influenced her life.
"My parents were Democrats, and I guess I just sort of leaned toward that," Barnwell said. "My mom was a huge fan of President Kennedy, and I was in the third grade when he was assassinated.
"In 1972 I turned 18, maybe two days before the election, and I let my boyfriend talk me into voting for Richard Nixon—and we all know how that turned out. So after that I decided, I'm never going to let anybody talk me into who to vote for. I am making that decision on my own."
She is reserved for an impersonator. When I asked her about foreigners hating Bush more than Hillary, she said, "No comment." She is proud of her life as a performer, though. She keeps scrapbooks filled with photos of her ad campaigns and media appearances. In her closet, she stores piles of Clinton memorabilia: Under her collection of pantsuits sits a huge purse she carried around because "everyone was calling Hillary a carpetbagger."
When I told her that in a pantsuit she looks identical to Hillary, she laughed.
"Unfortunately, I also have her body," she said.
Despite her jokes, Barnwell admires Hillary. One of her prized possessions is a photo of them together during the book tour for It Takes a Village. Barnwell bought a ticket for a reading Hillary was giving at the Beverly Hilton hotel in Los Angeles. When it was Barnwell's turn to have her book signed, she asked Hillary, "Has anybody ever told you that you look like Teresa Barnwell?"
The people behind Barnwell leaned forward and joked, "Hillary, it's your evil twin."
According to Barnwell, Hillary said, "Oh, OK. You're the one who can stand in for me and do the bad stuff I don't want to do."
"Sure, whatever my country needs," Barnwell said.
The people behind her snapped a photo, which Barnwell signed and mailed to Hillary. "Then I sent her a blank one that she autographed and sent back to me, so that was pretty cool," Barnwell gushed.
Looking at the picture, I couldn't tell them apart.
"Which one is Hillary?" I asked.
Barnwell smiled. "The older one."