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Insulted, Puisseaux quit the union and moved to Miami to stake his claim in the Cuban-American construction industry. He titled his start-up business — really just a back seat full of supplies — Felo Drywall, after his Spanish nickname. But he had no industry contacts in Florida and couldn't scare up clients. Making matters worse, Hortensia couldn't land a job here.
But people continued to remind him of his likeness to Obama. There was the driver who, idling beside Puisseaux's car as he waited for a light to change on NW 135th Street, jumped out and tapped on his window for an autograph. The unlikelihood that a senator in the throes of a primary might be tooling around town alone in a '96 Ford Escort, wearing jeans and a polo shirt, didn't phase this man.
Like many Americans, Puisseaux first saw Obama's face during primary season. He was watching the news when the senator's image appeared onscreen. At that point, Obama was just one of several Democratic candidates in a crowded pre-primary field. "I felt, right then, a connection," Puisseaux says, tapping his heart after apologizing for his grandiosity. "I told my wife: 'That man's going to win. I know it.' She told me: 'You're crazy.'"
Hortensia was less interested in any ethereal connection than in how they might capitalize. Their Miami Lakes apartment cost $950 a month, and Felo Drywall seemed to be fatally stalled. Relatives urged Puisseaux to turn his face into a hustle. "We were all pushing him to do something with it," says stepson Roberto Tormo, who lives in Tampa. "We hoped he might be able to make some money off it."
Puisseaux was reluctant. He shies away from confrontation and is not a showman. Those encounters with mistaken Obama-philes unnerved more than inspired him. But one April afternoon, he relented.
He didn't have much of a plan. He drove to the studios of América TeVé — chosen simply because the complex is close to his apartment — and approached the first person to emerge through the doors. "Excuse me," Puisseaux announced in Spanish. "People say I look like Barack Obama."
If Puisseaux was hoping for a quick rebuff, he was out of luck. He had snagged Carlos Otero, host of Pellízcame Que Estoy Soñando, or translated to English, Pinch Me I'm Dreaming — a variety show that peddles wacky lowbrow comedy sketches specializing in gratuitous use of dwarves, fat guys, and busty, bikini-clad women. Puisseaux's simple gag would fit right in.
Otero sternly told Puisseaux to stay put and forbade him from speaking to any other host or producer who might walk from the building. He went back inside and returned with Damian Romay, the station's executive producer of programming.
Recalls Romay: "I was like, 'Yeah, he looks like Obama.'"
And with that, the larva of a career in $100-a-gig show biz was hatched.
Like Puisseaux, Otero and Romay didn't overplan. That night they put him in a business suit and planted him in the audience of Pellízcame, hoping to gauge the crowd's reaction. The amiable viewers went wild when Barack Obama jumped from his seat midshow.
Romay couldn't promise him steady work, but Puisseaux needed a regular paycheck. So they worked out a unique agreement. Puisseaux would work on the station's maintenance crew for up to 40 hours a week — painting walls, fixing props, repairing tiles, and any other physical task that needed to be done. But when production needed "Obama," he'd be yanked to perform.
His maintenance job paid $8 per hour (he recently got a raise to $10). And there wasn't much hope of a pay raise for his acting — even role actors who have been at the station for years make the $100-per-appearance scale. But Puisseaux had no better alternative. And he had begun to harbor aspirations of, after cleaning up his English and taking a few acting classes that the station periodically offers, ending up on a national sketch-comedy show such as Saturday Night Live or MADtv. So he accepted the unusual offer.
After a few more in-studio appearances, Romay decided to take Puisseaux off studio grounds. For a segment titled "A Day with Obama," Romay piled Puisseaux, two actors dressed as Secret Service agents, and a cameraman into a black SUV. Their destinations: tourist magnet Bayside Marketplace and famed Cuban lair Versailles.
The populace was fooled: Puisseaux was cursed by a Hillary supporter, moistened by women crying on his shoulder, and, once they arrived at Republicano-hasta-muerte Versailles, chased from the property. "Their security people told us we should leave because people might think he's the real Obama and try to stab him," Romay says. "We got scared and left."
The excursion was considered a mild success. Romay says the show's ratings didn't get much of a boost, but it was a cheap way to eat five programming minutes. Puisseaux, although a bit overwhelmed, enjoyed taking a day off from his maintenance work.
And then, a few days before the Democratic National Convention in Denver, a producer of América TeVé's news division contacted Romay. They had a couple of extra credentials. Would he and "Obama" like to tag along?