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. In 1996, she even met Clinton face-to-face at a fundraising event at the Beverly Hilton.
"I introduced myself by saying, 'Has anybody ever told you that you look like Teresa Barnwell?'" Barnwell told ATTN: over email. "We had a good laugh and a nice but brief conversation. She said, 'Oh, you're the one who can stand in for me and do the stuff I don't want to do!'"
ATTN: caught up with Barnwell about her unusual career as "Hillary," Clinton's presidential bid, and the 2016 election.
ATTN: How did you get into impersonating Hillary?
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 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.
So I just started working my way, and people started to refer work to me, especially some of the Bill Clinton impersonators, and I had some real lucky breaks. I got hooked up with “The Tonight Show” and that was just incredible. Over the years I appeared on the show probably around forty times, I sort of lost count after a while.
I had a great advantage, because I was local. And a lot of the late night TV shows work on kind of short notice anyway, like, something would happen in the news, Hillary did something crazy or funny, like she won a Grammy one time. She did the spoken word version of her book "It Takes A Village," and she was nominated for a Grammy and darn if she didn't win! So when that came out, I figured The Tonight Show was going to call [me], and sure enough they did.
ATTN: Around how many different Bills did you work with?
You know, I tried to count one time and it seemed like when I went through in my book, I had either worked with or met maybe 20 different guys that impersonated Bill that were all over the country. So when you got hired, you never knew who they were going to pick to work with you.
ATTN: How do you perceive that Hillary has changed over time since 1993 when you started impersonating her? Has the way that her career has taken shape has changed your own performance and work?
Well yes, she has changed a lot over the years, between hairstyles and clothing, but she's also had a lot of different roles. She started out as First Lady, then she became the Senator from New York, then she ran for President, she lost, then she became Secretary of State, and now she's running again.
So yes, you do have to stay on top of what's going on, because a lot of times people ask you about things and your opinion, and sometimes you want to work it in to your comedic material of things that she's done or said. You just have to continually adapt, because that's the way it is. It's very different being a political impersonator versus being Elvis or Marilyn Monroe or whatever.
ATTN: Those people too are kind of frozen in time — Hillary very much is not.
Hillary is alive and kicking! So yeah, it's very different. And too, everybody loves Elvis, everybody loves Marilyn, but being a political impersonator — especially in this day — it's very different because of several things: just what's going on in the current political climate and, you know, not everybody is a fan of Hillary. And so you face a lot of things that other performers don't necessarily face.
ATTN: 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.
She was also interviewed about whether or not people think she's honest and she said something like, “Well I always tell the truth” or "I always try to never tell a lie," or whatever, and I started thinking about you know some of the sketches where a buzzer goes off every time you tell fibs.
Sometimes it's kind of difficult impersonating her, because she is serious. She's serious, she's well educated, she's smart — she's the polar opposite of Donald Trump. I mean, the presidency is a serious job, and she takes it very seriously. So sometimes I used to kind of bang my head against the wall. I was like, "couldn't you do something that I can make fun of?"
So you know, it's a little trickier with Hillary. I use a professional writer out of Nashville, and even sometimes he's kind of like grasping for straws, because she's just so different from many of the other political types out there. George W. Bush, once his persona came out, it was easy to write comedy for him, all you had to kind of do was fumble words. He'd get his words mixed up, and say something like "I want to put food on your family" instead of saying "I want to put food on your family's table." He just wasn't that great of a speaker and that gave you a lot of comedic opportunities. But Hillary's pretty careful and guarded, and I just think a lot of it comes from the fact that she's a very intelligent person. Say what you will about her, but she's smart.
ATTN: You touched on the reaction that she's dishonest or insincere. Do you think Hillary is misunderstood?
I definitely think she's misunderstood, and I've felt sympathy for her at times because sometimes I think things get blown out of proportion, like this email thing. But in some ways it doesn't surprise me, because she's always been under attack for everything. They've been trying to find something, the proverbial skeleton in her closet somewhere.
Women have come a long way in this country, but it's still not easy. They're not always treated fairly and equally to men. It's weird how you still fight that gender bias a lot, and it's going to be interesting to see how this all plays out. But personally, even if I weren't a Hillary Clinton impersonator, I still believe she is a very smart, intelligent, experienced woman who can hit the ground running the day she's elected. And I think she'd be an excellent president, and I think she'd be great as America's first female president. But I don't know how she does it sometimes — it's brutal.
ATTN: The press can be very hard on her.
She has to be very tough-skinned, and I think she's seen it all and experienced a lot, so she's got to be made of steel. And it's even hard for me sometimes, because some of that stuff trickles down to me and makes it very difficult for me as a performer at times, because of the sensitivity of the political world.
It's changed a lot. It's not what it was in the 90s, when I started doing this back in 1993. It was a lot of fun for a long long time, but lately it hasn't been as fun, and it's because of everything that's going on.
ATTN: Have you had any recent gigs that coincided with one of the caucuses, or primaries, or debates?
No, I haven't been asked to come and appear at something like that. I may have done some things like that years and years ago, but I'm a little more careful now about what I do. I used to think I would never turn down a job. But now I'm more careful, because there are some things that I am just uncomfortable with, things that I don't want to do, or I don't think it's a nice way to portray her.
And I'll give you a good example: Last summer, I was approached by a rather famous producer by the name of David Zucker. David Zucker has done a lot of funny movies that I've enjoyed over the years, like "Airplane" and "The Naked Gun." I was contacted about doing a video for him that would be on the Internet. So I was like, “Great! Send me a script.” So they sent it, I read it, and I was so frustrated, because apparently what happened is that David Zucker is a conservative (there's nothing wrong with that) but he was upset about the Iranian deal, the arms deal that John Kerry and the President and everybody worked on, so he wanted to express his displeasure through doing a video. He was going have an Obama, a John Kerry, and a Hillary in this video. The script would require us to bow down to Muslim leaders and then at the end, I would have to walk away in my underwear as if I had just given them the shirt off my back kind of thing. I said no way, but they kept asking, "Well what's your rate, what would you charge?" and I said, "You don't get it. You could pay me a gazillion dollars, I'm not doing it."
ATTN: I've seen that you do Hillary and various people do Trump, but there don't seem to be any Bernie Sanders impersonators. Have you come across any?
No I haven't, nobody other than Larry David playing him on "Saturday Night Live." Sometimes I would get calls from people asking for a reference for an Obama or Bill Clinton and we usually try to network when we can. But I've never had anyone say, “Hey, have you run into a Bernie somewhere?”
ATTN: Have you had any appearances or gigs with a Trump?
It's been a couple of years. There was a whole group of political impersonators that did a thing for a car dealership in Atlanta, back in, I think it was 2012. Apparently somebody was in possibly doing some kind of reality show for political impersonators, since it was a presidential campaign year, and so there was one that I met there.
I talked to him briefly when Trump first announced, like, “oh that might be kind of fun if we did a debate show,” but he got so busy on the Trump train performing on his own. It's just kind of funny how this business works. Things just kind of change a lot, and sometimes you have to wait and see how they play out. And so if he's definitely gonna be the Republican nominee, and if Hillary is definitely gonna be the Democratic nominee, then you know, things might fall into place a little better for me to work with a Trump.
In the world of politics, things can turn on a dime, practically. Something happens, or somebody drops out, or scandal erupts — you just never know.
We thought it was pretty certain that Hillary was going to go to the top in 2008, and we all saw what happened. So who knows how this is going to turn out? I wish somebody would tell me. [laugh]
It's a very, very, strange campaign. The presidency is a very serious job, and it feels like it's been turned into this reality show circus or something, and it frightens me because we live in a very serious world.
They seem to find it funny that a guy comes out and makes jokes and calls people, you know, “you're a loser,” that kinda thing. It's frightening when somebody is asked a question and they don't answer it. "What would you do if World War III were to break out tomorrow, what would you do?" "Oh, I'd bring in the best people and I'd build a wall." I mean, really? So it’s like, he wants to make America great again and I understand that, I always want America to be great, but he doesn't really say how he's going to do it.
When I compare him to Hillary for example, when Hillary speaks in a debate and she talks about what she did as Secretary of State, and how she worked with these different countries. One night she talked about “you know I got on a plane and I went to Israel, and I met with the Prime Minister, and I got him to sign off on something and then I had to fly back and I had to present it to this leader." And I'm like "holy cow! I don't even know half these countries she's talking about."
It kind of blows your mind, and yet she seems to have such a good grasp of it all and knows her stuff. And yet Trump is like, “I'll just take their oil, I'll blow them up,” and it's like "huh?" I'm scared, I'm worried, and I think a lot of people are. It worries me as to the direction we seem to be heading.