OGUNQUIT, Maine — The campaign that could put Mitt Romney in the White House might also be the break Mike Cote has been waiting for his whole life.
Cote, a 56-year-old drywall finisher from Ogunquit has found that with a little dye on his eyebrows and in his hair, he looks a lot like the Republican presidential candidate.
Cote starred as Romney in the “Rombo” ad paid for by the Rick Santorum campaign, and played him in a yet-to-be-aired reality TV show in which presidential impersonators live in a house together. (Fake Sarah Palin created drama by mistaking sleeping pills for allergy medication.)
Now, with the general election campaign just ahead, Cote is hoping to land gigs at corporate events, commercial shoots and TV shows that have meant big paydays for a lucky few candidate impersonators. He said he had already booked some “top secret” photo shoots that will have him on magazine covers and California billboards this summer.
It’s a strange place to be for Cote, who didn’t go to college, doesn’t have a savings account and is divorced — all traits that distinguish him from the erudite, wealthy and long-married 65-year-old Romney.
“This is bizarre,” said Cote, who had no interest in politics before the rise of Romney. “At 56, having my life change. That doesn’t really happen.”
But as his new manager is finding out, it’s not that easy to turn Mike Cote into a talking Mitt Romney, even though they look like brothers.
Cote’s voice is higher than Romney’s, and he has a heavy New England accent. Then there’s the competition: With the race heating up, more wannabe Romneys are popping up, many with professional training in acting.
“This is going to be a challenge,” said Dustin Gold, Cote’s manager. “We’re taking a drywaller, trying to turn him into a country club guy.”
Cote always dreamed of starring in a sitcom, and in his 20s pounded the pavement in New York with his head shot and resume. Living in New Hampshire two decades ago, he got hired for a commercial in New York. But on the way he blew the clutch in his car, missed the shoot and returned home to an answering machine full of angry messages, the last saying he was fired.
“It took me a long time to get over that,” said Cote, whose hair, when not dyed for Mitt, is salt and pepper. “I thought, ‘This is my last chance. The door will never open for me again.’ ”
He left acting and started making a living as a drywall finisher, doing standup comedy on the side. It was never glamorous, he said: gigs near bathrooms, at pizza joints, at Elks Clubs, often playing to a handful of drunks. He made a CD featuring his “slacker” standup routine — called “Starting Tomorrow … I Mean It … This Time” — and says he sold six copies.
Then in 2008, when Romney first ran for the GOP nomination, friends told him he looked like the former Massachusetts governor. Cote made some parody videos of himself as Romney, hunting squirrels and posing as Romney’s fictional twin brother, Spitt. He sent them to Jay Leno’s show, which he said expressed interest in having him on. Then Romney dropped out of the race.
Cote went back to drywall, living paycheck to paycheck, and got a call 3½ years later from Gold, who had seen the videos on YouTube. Gold helped him book the Rombo commercial, which features Cote running around as Romney, shooting a gun full of mud at targets. It earned him $10,000 and praise from his doppelganger: Romney watched the ad on “Fox and Friends” and said, “That guy looks pretty good, doesn’t he?”
Cote now watches Fox News, looking for hints on how to play Romney. He said Romney stands up “like he has a plank nailed to his back,” looks starry-eyed when listening, and wears a smirk during debates. If Romney were more flamboyant, impersonating him might be easier, Cote said, but the man he is trying to mimic is “like a Ken doll with a string.”
The voice is probably the most difficult part to imitate, and to master it, Cote listens to tapes for hours a day. Romney’s voice has a buzz in his throat, without nasal overtones, and he has a slight Midwestern accent reflecting his Michigan upbringing. Cote’s been to two voice coaches. One told him he was trying too hard. The other told him to hum before he spoke. Both helped — a little.
“I have to lose the ‘paahk the caah in the Hahvahd Yahd’ and be more ‘park the car in the Harvard Yard,’ ” Cote said. “I can own this whole thing. All I have to do is get the voice close and I own it.”
When he keeps his mouth shut, Cote can be mistaken for Romney, although at 5-feet-11 he is a few inches shorter. One student, Cote recalled, “just about fell off his chair” when he and a President Barack Obama impersonator appeared together on a college campus to encourage voting.
Still, if he can’t mimic Romney’s voice, Cote’s career will probably suffer. He already lost a gig in San Diego to Jim Gossett, who doesn’t look at all like Romney but has the voice down. Gossett, who also works with Gold, uses expensive brow and chin prosthetics to appear more Romney-like.
“It’s a whole package you really have to have together,” said Elyse Del Francia of Los Angeles, founder of the CopyKatz impersonators nightclub and the Celebrity Lookalikes Convention. She’s seen clients come close but often fail at the last step, which for one man was as simple as shedding 30 pounds to become a George Clooney double.
In an election year, many presidential look-alikes surface, but few have the appearance, stage presence and accent to make a lot of money. Louis Ortiz, a former Verizon field tech who looks identical to Obama, is still trying to make it after four years. Reggie Brown, a former model who also looks like the president, appears frequently on the Bill Maher show and makes tens of thousands of dollars per appearance.
Becoming a well-paid impersonator requires not just the look and voice, but also a certain intangible quality, Brown said.
“I’ve always had something in me that people are drawn to,” he said. “And I think that aspect — you either have it or you don’t.”
On a recent Friday night, Cote performed his standup routine in front of a crowd of 30 or so couples sipping white wine in a hotel in suburban Boston, joking about some of his worst online dates.
“She tells me she’s lost some weight recently — she lost 170 pounds _—she lost me!” he said, gesturing to his body, to some chuckles. “All I was thinking is there’s probably a lot of skin under there. When the wind comes up, she takes off like a bat.” More laughs.
It was a good set, and afterward Cote pumped his fist in the green room — actually a hotel conference room littered with water bottles and golf pencils. He seemed at home among others who could joke about the New England Patriots and didn’t quite pronounce their Rs.
But he wants more. He wants to become Romney so he can help out his daughter, a single mother of two, and his mother, who is fighting cancer. He wants a life that’s more like Romney’s — with health insurance, savings, security — and less like the one he’s been living for years, always vowing, like his slacker character, to change.
He recalled how a fortune teller, many years ago, visualized him on stage making people laugh.
“He said, ‘Your career will succeed in a way you didn’t expect.’ It gives me goose bumps,” Cote said.
He’s still struggling with the voice, but figures practice has to get him somewhere. Practice is how people like Mitt Romney were able to succeed, and so with practice, Cote reasons, he will too.
“We’re going to be crazy busy once I get the voice down. Guys like [former Arkansas Gov. Mike] Huckabee are just waiting for me to come on their show.”
© 2012 Los Angeles Times
Distributed by MCT Information Services