Barack Obama look-alike in demand in Asia
Striding purposefully, his smile lighting up a rainy afternoon, Barack Obama appears to have arrived here early to tour an elementary school he attended as a boy.
But wait. It’s not him. The U.S. president is still back in Washington shepherding his healthcare bill toward passage. He’s not due to arrive in Indonesia until next week.
So who is this guy?
He’s Ilham Anas, a 34-year-old teen-magazine photographer who has parlayed a striking resemblance to the American president into his own brand of celebrity.
Since his sister told him in 2007 that he looked like the then-presidential candidate, Anas’ face and megawatt smile have been seen on Southeast Asian TV and the Internet, pitching over-the-counter medicine and other products.
He has also appeared on his nation’s premier television talk show and had a cameo in a movie, all while fielding offers from marketers across Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines.
Anas is the first to admit it: He’s an impostor, a walking mannequin out of Madame Tussauds. But he’ll also tell you this: He’s in incredible demand.
“I’ve got so much work I can’t handle it all,” he says. He’s even penned an autobiography, “Because of Obama.” The jacket review says Anas’ resemblance to the president has “turned his life around 180 degrees.”
But it hasn’t been easy.
When his sister first commented on the resemblance, Anas says, he dismissed her with a wave of his hand. “I was in denial,” he recalls. “I said: ‘Nah. I don’t care.’ ”
Then a colleague at the magazine where he works asked him to pose as Obama in front of an American flag. At first he refused.
“I told him that I’m a photographer, not an object for the camera,” he says. As soon as he relented, his career took off.
The married father of two small children now is rarely home. On a recent day, a horde of reporters followed him on a tour of the elementary school Obama once attended.
Anas sat in the classroom where the future president studied. He mugged for the cameras and spoke a few lines in English. The moment he opened his mouth, however, the differences became apparent.
“Obama is a baritone,” Anas says. “I’m not. I sound like a little boy.”
He is also shorter than the president. But he makes up for that by practicing Obama’s mannerisms. Before public appearances, he says, he spends hours in front of the mirror posing, gesturing, flashing that smile.
Otherwise, Anas says, he hasn’t altered his appearance much for the role. He wears his hair just like he did back in high school in Bandung, a few hours’ drive from Jakarta. But he did shape his eyebrows to look more like those of the president.
Anas says he used to view his reflection and not like what he saw. Now he no longer sees an average guy. Now he sees a superstar.
Meanwhile, the offers continue to flood in, he says.
A film crew in Singapore paid him to walk through a crowded market with “bodyguards” so it could gauge the crowd’s reaction.
People stared. They gaped. They asked for his autograph.
“One guy in an airport in Malaysia bought me a meal,” he said.
Anas, who, like Obama, is a smoker, says he won’t use his resemblance to promote alcohol or cigarettes. He can’t say the same about indigestion pills.
“I did a commercial in the Philippines where I posed with a woman who resembles President Gloria Arroyo,” he says. “We have dinner and she makes me overeat. Then she gives me these pills to make me better. The ad is a hit across the country.”
He denies rumors that he’s been offered a job as Obama’s security double when the president visits.
In this predominantly Muslim nation, which has seen its share of anti-West terrorist attacks, he has wondered whether posing as the American chief executive could prove bad for his health.
“I worried that I might be kidnapped,” he says.
Looking like a president is a blessing, Anas says. “How else could a person like me travel the world and meet all kinds of people. I’m really just a shy, reserved kind of guy.”
He says he has made a request to meet the real Obama when he arrives, but hasn’t heard back from the president’s schedulers.
In the meantime, he’ll keep posing, smiling and cashing the checks. For now, Anas is keeping his own brand of hope: that Obama will win a second term in the White House.
“The longer he’s in office,” he says with a wink, “the longer my 15 minutes of fame will last.”