It's the dinner hour at Dolphin Mall, and the food court is a busy hive. Teenagers guzzle from Smoothie King cups while tables full of abuelitas fire Gatling-gun Spanish over steaming plates of Lotus Express. At the Segafredo Zanetti Espresso kiosk, a young girl in black shirt and pants offers a sample tray, her face wearing a look you'd see in a dentist's waiting room. People snatch toothpicked mini-sandwiches off her plate. She stares off, bored and brooding. Then an immaculately white suit sleeve crosses her vision.
"Hola, linda," comes the scratchy growl. Her head snaps like a jack out of the box. Is it? There's the cue-ball dome, the jester's grin, the sunglasses hiding half his face like a limo's tinted window. "Oh my God," she purrs. "OH MY GOD!" She locks bugging eyes with the stranger. "I love you!"
Passersby rubberneck the scene, spotting Miami's own multimillionaire recording artist, Pitbull! The Cuban-American Armando Pérez went from cornrowed Uncle Luke protégé to current Top 40 pop sensation. Now he's posing for photos with the starstruck sample girl. Then he's moving on down the mall's corridor, calls of "Pitbull!" and "Armando!" chasing his squeaking Hugo Boss heels.
But Pitbull -- strangely -- doesn't turn around until it hits him that he should probably, uh, acknowledge his own name. "Dale," he barks.
Of all the signs by which you can measure Pitbull's success -- including the 5 million albums sold and the endorsement deals with blue-chip companies like Kodak and Bud Light -- the real one is right here: a Miami actor/realtor/trainer named Ariel Tojo scratching out a burgeoning career as the artist's professional doppelganger.
Officially dubbing himself "Pimpbull," Tojo's fake-out act is on point enough to fool those visiting the commercial epicenter of Latin Miami. "I do this for the fans," Tojo explains. "And because I love Pitbull."
Today, Tojo is sporting a blinding-white three-piece suit and dark-collared shirt. Heads follow his every move like iron filings pulled by a magnet. A -two-person camera crew, security muscle in an oversized blazer (all New Times college interns), and a cloud of Salvatore Ferragamo cologne trail his steps.
But pan in close and you'll see Tojo is ten years older than the 33-year-old genuine article. Also, behind the hater-blockers, you'll find dark marbles, not Pitbull's baby blues. But the physical resemblance is only half the equation, Tojo explains. Like Pitbull, he's God-gifted with a full tank of Cuban swag.
"Armando, what makes him so popular is he gets along with everybody," Tojo explains. "I have the same charisma. I'm a personality. I love people."
Do you know this man? Or do you just think you do?
Photo by Karli Evans
Tojo was born in Havana but came to Miami in 1998. He's circled through professions, from personal trainer to real estate, always also hoping acting gigs might lead to a showbiz career.
Back in 2009, when he was dancing at Nikki Beach Club in South Beach, people kept coming up to him mistaking him for someone named Pitbull. This was just when Mr. 305's "I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)" was climbing the charts. The mistaken identity continued in the club. Even DJ Laz, who actually knows the recording artist, once mistook Tojo for his buddy.
Then, in 2013, Tojo appeared on Clonados, a web series on the Spanish-language website nuevon.com. That was followed by a look-alike act this summer in a promo video for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau shot in Times Square. Right now, he's charging $400 an hour for meet and greets. "I can't lie that I'm not blessed to be a Pitbull look-alike," Tojo says solemnly. "I have a lot of respect for him and this opportunity to grow in my career."
But when New Times invited him to Dolphin Mall earlier this month, it was Tojo's biggest challenge yet. Punking New Yorkers and clueless tourists on Lincoln Road is nothing compared to fooling Pit fans in the 305. The chongas and others milling around in the stores are the same ones who've had Pitbull posters on their walls for years.
On the way over in his 2010 silver Honda Civic, Tojo was worried the locals would be able to sniff out an imposter. And as he arrived at the mall and parked around 5:30 p.m. outside the Neiman Marcus outlet, he was edgy. "I'm in his house; I'm in Miami, where he grew up, where he went to school, where he lives," Tojo says. "If you do it in California or Switzerland, it's kind of easy. But if you do it here, he could be here right now, or his girlfriend, or his mother."
Tojo's nerves were partially calmed once he was through the door. After five minutes of motoring in the mall, he stopped for his first photo request outside the Burlington Coat Factory. Quickly the clot of people grew ten-deep, each admirer jostling for a picture. Tojo grinned and gestured for each, rattling off Pitbull's patented phrases into the camera.
"Thank you, Miami; thank you, 305; thank you, la familia... God bless everybody... Thank you for the opportunity. Respect team Pitbull... 305 en la casa... Let's get it!"
"He might not remember me," says a lumbering, bearded guy watching from a few steps back, "but I went to high school with that man right there." The real Pitbull's ex-classmate watches for a couple of minutes before calling out to Tojo, then walking off. A tiny abuelita eyes the photo session suspiciously. Soon she's trading heated strings of Spanish with an elderly lady, each more frustrated than the last.
"She knows something," Tojo whispered before walking off with his entourage. "She's like arguing with her family."
Every impersonator needs to live by a code, and Tojo is no different. He doesn't go out to purposely trick fans into thinking he's the original Pitbull."If a person is asking me directly, 'Are you?' I say, 'No,' " he says. "But if they're not asking me, I let it go."
Such is the moral ambiguity of being a celebrity stand-in. "I feel bad; I don't want them leaving confused," he mutters as he watches a group of teenaged girls run off after snapping photos. "They'll go post that online; then somebody will be like, 'He wasn't at the mall.' "
Still, the way Tojo figures, the joy he sparks is less about him than a tribute to the real deal. "Sometimes they know I'm not Pit, and they don't care -- they still want the picture."
Tojo's path crossed Pitbull's once, at a video shoot. The pop superstar greeted his look-alike, a sign Tojo took for approval. Pimpbull hopes that one day he'll get a more formal A-OK from Worldwide himself, therefore clearing the legal murk hanging over his impersonation business. "I don't care about him," Tojo says. "His personality, he wouldn't care. I care about his lawyers."
Walking the mall, browsing socks at the Nike store, putting on "I Heart Miami" hats at a kiosk, hanging outside Hot Topic -- his every move tapped into people's inner TMZ, forcing them to surreptitiously snap off cell-phone photos. While Tojo idled near the Gap Factory Store, two young Asian tourists pulled on a photographer's shoulder. "Is he famous?" Then the pair walked over to wordlessly pose with Tojo.
"Pitbull?" asked a Spanish tourist later.
"No," Tojo answered. "Bulldog."
Twenty minutes later, as the entourage made for the door, a heavyset African-American woman came rocketing down the crowded corridor at a dead sprint. Tojo swung around just as she placed a hand on his shoulder. She stared.
"Sorry," she said, her mouth curling into a wry smile, "I thought you were someone else."
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Even when he tried to make his exit through the Neiman Marcus, two sets of mothers dragging three kids apiece begged for photo sessions. Once the pics were all clicked, Tojo waited at the curb. Then he waited some more. "People wait around to see what car I get into," he said. Sure enough, a half dozen people were standing in the parking lot, no doubt waiting for a stretch Hummer or blinged-out Benz to scoop up the superstar. After five minutes, the gawkers melted off, save for one couple.
Tojo shrugged. "Dale." With his white suit glowing in the last thin sunlight, he climbed into his Honda and buzzed away.