Jakarta, Indonesia 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 health care bill toward passage.
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 — and wealth.
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 wearing a power suit, 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 “body guards” 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.
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.”
But Anas will keep posing, smiling and cashing the checks. For now, he 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.”