Thursday, August 16, 2018

One-time Bill Clinton impersonator hopes Donald Trump will make his career great again


Bill Clinton walked into the men's room and evaluated himself in the mirror, his bottom jaw jutting ever so slightly past his top as he laughed in his signature hoarse, southern drawl. "Oh, man, you are slick. I'm gonna miss ya," he chuckled as he gave himself a thumbs-up and bit his lower lip.

Then, he unpacked his arsenal.

From a duffel bag came a toolbox full of makeup, an unusually long red tie and Tommy Bahama cologne. From a beaten-up black leather train case came a bust displaying a $1,500 custom-made blond wig and bushy, stick-on eyebrows.

He dunked his head under the sink faucet, a ratty bath towel draped around his shoulders, and allowed streaks of white dye to slip down the drain. His muted voice began to betray a harsh New Jersey accent, and by the time he lifted his head back to the mirror, the good ol' boy from Arkansas was gone.

In his place was Tim Watters, a 58-year-old former real estate agent from Temple Terrace. A dead ringer for Clinton, though not quite as tall or thin, Watters has made his living impersonating the 42nd president. He has met celebrities and been on The Tonight Show. He has had cameos in movies and shared gigs with former presidents. Once, when walking past her as she exited a hotel, Watters swears he made Mrs. Clinton do a double take.

But times have changed. Audiences don't laugh as hard at jokes about Monica's blue dress. Fortune 500 companies aren't as eager to book a faux Clinton for their holiday parties, and talk show hosts don't care as much about his latest antics.

So, as Watters faced himself in the bathroom mirror, he flashed a quick, crooked smile and once again disappeared, this time under the first of five layers of Benefit Hoola Zero Tanlines bronzer.

He said a few practice words in a nasally, gravelly New York accent: "Huge. Huge. Huge. China. China."

Then, some self-affirmations: "I love you. You're fantastic. You're beautiful. You're a beautiful mind for business. You've got a beautiful wife. You're gonna be huge."

In a half-hour, the transformation was complete, and Clinton seemed a distant memory. Out of the men's room, ready for his portrait in a Tampa Bay Times photo studio, emerged president-elect Donald Trump, the man Watters is counting on to make his career great again.

• • •

From an early age, Watters knew what he wanted out of life: to be a "rich, successful businessman."

A passion for schoolwork or a fail-proof business venture, however, never materialized.

He enjoyed a solid, middle-class childhood in Merchantville, N.J. — afternoon sports, school plays, summers on the shore. Every week he devoured the latest episode of Saturday Night Live.

Watters studied business administration at Rutgers University but dropped out in his junior year to dedicate himself to his entrepreneurial ventures. He worked odd jobs as a dance instructor, a janitor and a production manager for a custom home builder, and owned a home-freezer order business selling prepackaged meats and seafood.

Drunk in a TGI Fridays one night, he disco danced with the woman who would become his wife. "At first, all I could think of was how good looking he was," Patricia Watters said. "I think I knew right away I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him, but I was surprised when he said he wanted to come to Florida and be with me."

He married Patti in 1988, got a job selling real estate for Century 21 and raised three boys.

But his desire to make a name for himself, to "be something big," never waned.

• • •

Family legend has it that the Watterses' son Brian, then 2, was sitting on Tim's lap one day in 1992 as he read the newspaper. The toddler pointed to a picture of Clinton and said "Dada." The boy could distinguish between candidates vying for the Democratic presidential nomination; when he pointed to another hopeful, Paul Tsongas, Brian simply called him "man."

Brian wasn't the first to note the resemblance. Friends were bombarding Tim with photos of Clinton. He had begun trying on the persona, experimenting with people's reactions at the grocery store. But it was his son's reaction that made him get serious.

"I'm sure there's a bunch of guys sitting on a sofa somewhere with their hands stuck down their pants going, 'I look more like Bill Clinton than that guy,' " he said. "But it's all a matter of doing something about it. I would have hated myself forever if I never tried."

Tim mailed his photo across the country. The response was almost immediate.

His first paid gig was for Gary Wishnatzki, owner of Plant City's Wish Farms, who wanted to play a prank on his wife. "She really thought it was Clinton," Wishnatzki said, "and if I hadn't have hired him, I might have (thought that), too." Tim made $125 that night and promptly spent it all buying drinks for his Secret Service agents, played by friends and co-workers.

Within a few years, Tim was bringing in $10,000 a gig.

He grabbed the attention of an established booking agent at a corporate dinner for Motorola in 1993 and, after a multiweek trial by fire in comedy clubs, quit his day job and became a professional impersonator. "The Clinton years were good to me," Tim said in his well-rehearsed Bill persona, pointing with the knuckle of his slightly-crooked index finger.

He has yucked it up for Jay Leno and made cameos in films including Naked Gun and Austin Powers sequels, and Robert Zemeckis' sci-fi drama Contact. He has done speaking engagements with George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford, had lunch with Phyllis Diller and sung Happy Birthday to Burt Bacharach.

Think Tim is full of it? The proof is in photos and video clips, newspaper stories and event programs. A plate from a 2011 White House dinner. Snapshots with former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield.

He was able to take Patti on trips to Germany, England, Bermuda and St. Thomas, and made enough money so she could quit her job.

Still, there were moments when the Watterses questioned if they had made the right decision, if Tim could build their life on appearances at corporate dinners and local game shows.

He was constantly on the road, and it wasn't until three or four years as a full-time Clinton that the Watterses' income began to match their bills. There was a point when Tim owed his manager $38,000. In the early 2000s, he nearly lost everything in the stock market. And there was the ever-present knowledge that, just as a president's turn at the top of the world is term-limited, so, too, are presidential impersonators'.

"But there are two words to show business: show and business," Tim said, his eyes squinted and his voice taking on Trumpian tones. "And I'm good business. Believe me."

• • •

Tim spent recent years trying to stay in the game by any means necessary, even adding George Washington to his repertoire. The otherwise registered Republican unsuccessfully rooted for a Hillary Clinton win in 2008, hoping for a Bill run as first husband. The 2016 election proved promising. "Either way, I would have won," he said. "How often does that happen in life?"

The rise of Donald Trump proved to be an exciting prospect. "Who would have thought you could top a womanizing, draft-dodging president who got caught with his pants down in the Oval Office?" Tim said. "Then Bush comes along, kind of a deer in the headlights dumbo routine, and now we've got Trump, who's going to make America great again. Really great. Really, really great. It just gets better every time."

Since April, Tim has booked about 20 gigs as Trump, at about $7,500 a piece.

The accent, "a cross between Wharton School of Business and the best English a guy from Queens could possibly have," Tim said, took some practice and coaching from his manager, Dustin Gold. Melania Trump impersonators are also proving far more difficult to find than Hillary Clintons. But the jokes are bountiful.

Tim spends hours each day watching television, reading newspapers and coming up with new material for his act. He still lives in the same house in Temple Terrace, still loves watching Saturday Night Live. He's still pretending to be a "rich, successful businessman." Now, he just does it with a different voice. "I don't know how many times I've said, 'Don't talk to me as Trump, talk to me as you,' " Patti said.

His sons are in college and developing their own political allegiances. Their friends will often want to engage the faux Trump in political conversations, but Tim tries to be "sensible enough to see both sides of the coin."

"When I started, I probably believed in both sides a little more than I do now," he said. "Now I have to pay such close attention to what they say and the true meaning behind it, and also what they're not saying. Politicians are constantly trying to cover up their real feelings. Everybody's got a public and a private. Everybody."

The reactions he gets now reflect the polarizing nature of modern politics, he said. When he was Clinton, women would regularly pass him their hotel room keys and pose for pictures flirtatiously hanging off his shoulders. As Trump, mock groping isn't quite as funny.

"They're still shell-shocked from the election," Tim said.

"It will just take some time, but they'll start laughing."

Contact Anastasia Dawson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.


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