Bearing a striking resemblance to the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee and presumably owning enough “pantsuits” to outfit an army of Hillary Clinton wannabes, Teresa Barnwell has successfully made a living off of her Clinton impersonation skills
Anyone who spots Teresa Barnwell from afar may think she’s Hillary Clinton’s “evil twin,” down to the pant suit. Even Clinton agreed, chuckling when the two met back in 1996.
Teresa Barnwell is America’s top Hillary Clinton impersonator. Over the last 23 years, she’s made appearances across the U.S. and abroad — from the 1996 Republican National Convention in San Diego, to the Playboy Mansion, to Mitsubishi Motors of Japan. Barnwell’s resume also includes TV spots on “Dateline NBC,” “Roseanne,” “Mad TV,” and “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” as well as several commercials and print ads.
And much like her more-famous doppelganger, Barnwell found herself in the midst of controversy after the presidential candidate’s stumble as she left a Sept. 11 memorial event.
Barnwell, Clinton’s self-proclaimed “evil twin,” heard the buzz about Clinton’s stumble after leaving the memorial in New York. Once a healthy and smiling Clinton appeared hours later in front of her daughter’s apartment, people on social media began suggesting that perhaps Clinton had a body double — Barnwell.
What Barnwell did next set the conspiracy theorists into a frenzy.
Barnwell happened to have a photo of herself in front of Chelsea Clinton’s home in New York from August, so she posted it on Twitter as a joke, stating something along the lines of “maybe I was in New York.” Barnwell was actually in Los Angeles, filming a live performance for the “Lip Sync Battle” show.
“People just went wacko,” she said.
Her phone exploded with messages and tweets; she went from about Twitter 10 followers to more than 1,700, she said.
People on Facebook started calling her a liar, accusing her of taking taxpayer money, thinking Clinton had hired her. Some online postings even compared the size of Clinton’s fingers to Barnwell’s fingers, stating it must of been a body double. Some even suggested that Clinton had actually died and Barnwell was subbed in for the photo opp.
The next day, requests for interviews came in from around the world, including Canada and Great Britain, wanting to confirm that she wasn’t Clinton’s official body double.
“Being a political impersonator is tricky,” Barnwell said. “It brings out the nasty in people.”
Teresa is often asked, “Have you ever met the real Hillary?” Fortunately, she did get to meet her “twin” face to face and have a photograph taken with the First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in February of 1996. Hillary appeared that evening at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, CA to promote her book, “It Takes a Village.” The event was also a fundraiser for Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
After Hillary made her speech, she offered everyone in the audience a chance to meet her. A reception line formed and Teresa waited for her turn to introduce herself by saying, “Hillary, I’m so glad to finally meet you! Has anyone ever told you that you look like Teresa Barnwell?”
Hillary just laughed and replied, “Well, I’m flattered!” A woman in line behind Teresa leaned forward and teased the First Lady by saying, “Hillary, it’s your evil twin!” Hillary replied, “Oh, you’re the one who can stand in for me and do the bad stuff I don’t want to do!”
Hillary and Teresa posed for a photographer together, which resulted in the opportunity to see the two “twins” side by side and their amazing resemblance. People sometimes can’t tell the difference. Teresa sets them straight by pointing out that she’s the “younger one.” Teresa will be forever grateful to Onie Irvine, the woman who took this “infamous” photograph.
Teresa autographed the photo and sent it to Hillary at the White House for her to keep. She included an extra photo and Hillary returned the favor by autographing it and sending it back to Teresa, a treasure she proudly displays in her office. This photo has appeared in numerous articles profiling Teresa’s life and career as a Hillary Clinton Impersonator.
How did you get into impersonating Hillary?
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.
“I was kind of in the right place at the right time, I guess. I was living in Orange County [California] and Hillary became famous, and her picture was on every magazine cover practically. And as the country began to know her and recognize her, people started telling me, “Oh you look like Hillary Clinton.” I just sort of brushed it off, but then it started to happen every day and multiple times a day.”
I was visiting some girlfriends one night, and I was telling them what was going on, and they just said “you should take advantage of this, you should become one of those look alike people, a celebrity impersonator,” and I was like “what?” I just said “that’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard of.”
So when I was on my way back to the office, I stopped by this particular agency and it looked like they rented costumes, so I just sort of blew it off and I got in my car and just went on back to the office.
I worked for a newspaper at the time, so I was processing my work at my desk and the editor kind of leaned out of the newsroom and said “hey Teresa I’ve got this lady on the line that wants to talk to you, she’s with an agency called Book A Look.” And I was like “what?” That was the agency I had just driven past. And he said “oh we were just kinda talkin’ and I told him we have a woman who works here at the paper who looks so much like Hillary Clinton and she was like “oh I need a Hillary!’”
I did talk to [the woman at the agency] some, and I read an article in the Los Angeles Times about a Bill Clinton impersonator who also lived in Orange County. And I got in touch with him, and I told him “you know everybody tells me that I look like Hillary Clinton what do I do?”
So he advised me, and told me a little bit about what he had been doing. So I had some headshots made, and I started to research various agencies and so forth, and I also kinda networked with some other celebrity impersonators and I started to keep my eyes peeled for some events that other impersonators were working at.
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.
What sort of things from the 2016 election have you incorporated into your performance?
Well you know, she did something recently that I haven’t had a chance to use or incorporate into a performance, and that’s where she was barking like a dog, so I thought, “Great, she’s finally thrown me a bone, in a way.” She started talking about somebody back in Arkansas talking on the radio about wouldn’t it be great if there was a dog that they could train to bark every time it heard a lie. She was talking about the Republicans, and then she started to go, “arf! arf! arf! arf arf arf!” So I thought I could do something along those lines.
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.
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 reason I named (the dog) Chelsea was because when I was a senior in college we took a trip and one of the areas we went through was an area called Chelsea,” Barnwell said. “It was such a pretty part of London and we just liked the name. I told myself if I ever had a daughter or a dog and I was going to name her Chelsea.”
Barnwell said her transition to a full-time impersonator was “a little bit of a risk,” but had the benefit of slowly easing into the role, first working for a neighbour’s small company who afforded her a flexible schedule to do impersonation appearances at a short notice and allowing her to build her resume and a reputation for herself.
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.”
In this election cycle she’s appeared on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and flown to Miami for the 50th birthday party of a long-time Hillary Clinton supporter. But Barnwell said as politics have become more polarized in the U.S. finding jobs has become harder.
People tend to shy away from hiring political impersonators. They don’t want to run the risk of offending anyone. And the audience can get aggressive.
Back in the day, Barnwell used to work the Republican National Convention because people thought it was funny to have a Hillary Clinton impersonator telling jokes and selling trinkets. Now, Barnwell said you couldn’t pay her to get anywhere near the convention.
“I’ve had people pull my hair. I’ve had people look at my teeth. I’ve had people grab my breasts…I’ve had to deal with people who have said a lot of unflattering things about Hillary, Chelsea, Bill, just a lot of craziness,” she said. “I’ve been in situations where the crowd got out of control and I had to have real security escort me out of the room. I just can’t imagine being in that real situation of running for president.”
Since Clinton announced her plans to run for president last year, Barnwell has seen bookings skyrocket and in a month she can make up to $10,000 or even more.
She’s been invited all over the world for photo shoots, TV commercials, music videos and corporate events, meeting the likes of comedian Jay Leno, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and Clinton herself.
Barnwell met Clinton at a book signing in Los Angeles in 1996, but have never bumped into each other since.
With her work taking her all over the world and at various stops on the political trail, Barnwell said she avoids Clinton if they are in the same place at the same time.
‘Once it felt like she was following me, wherever I went Hillary would be heading to shortly after – it became quite tricky as I think she’d find it a little creepy seeing her doppelganger in real life,’ she said. ‘The only time I met her was at a book signing, I had to take my opportunity then and asked her if anyone ever told her she looked like me – which she found amusing.
‘She was really lovely and even joked I could go to all the functions she didn’t want to attend,’ Barnwell added.
Barnwell said she has to act responsibly when performing as Clinton and turns down jobs that she feels are inappropriate or could damage the politician’s reputation.
‘Sometimes I get weird requests, like once I was asked to be a Hillary stripper, which I thought was pretty bad so I turned it down – I wouldn’t want to damage either of our reputations,’ she said. ‘I don’t think it would be right to portray Hillary in a particular way, I don’t mind doing comedy or poking fun at her, but sometimes it can be too much.’
She said she has posed for photos while modeling men’s underwear with smiley faces, and even gave a speech at an event in Texas where wild pigs were running around.
But it’s not all fun and games for Barnwell, who said it’s hard to have a normal life because she looks so similar to Clinton.
She said people on the street even confuse her for the presidential candidate and ask for selfies.
‘It’s not that hard for me to become Hillary because I already look like I’m her twin,’ said Barnwell. ‘I have such a strong, natural resemblance to Hillary that people always approach me asking for a picture or to remind me that I look like Hillary.
‘I can’t even get groceries without someone saying something or being shocked I’m buying something ordinary like bananas because they think I’m really her,’ she said. ‘Once a group of Japanese tourists at an event were so honored to meet me because they believed I was the real Hillary.
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.”