DELTONA — Sean NgYing was at the Guitar Factory one day, checking out photos on the wall.
He brought his Squier Telecaster in for some repairs and noticed a picture of what looked like President Bush with his guitar. He asked a clerk about it and was told no, the photo wasn’t of George W. Bush, but rather a Bush impersonator, John Morgan, who “makes tons of money” dressing up like the president and showing up at places in a blue suit and red power tie.
NgYing — a reading teacher at Pine Ridge High School who played his guitar in church — thought about what a cool gig that must be. “I wished I looked like a president,” he said. “I didn’t know the next president of the United States was going to look like this.”
Then along came Barack Obama.
NgYing and President Obama are of mixed ethnic backgrounds. Both are moderately tall and strikingly thin. Both wear their hair short, bringing out their ears.
Fast forward a few years, and Sean NgYing — who has since taken the stage name Sean Banks — found himself on a stage, playing guitar with John Morgan as Obama and Bush, making music together.
NgYing, 42, doesn’t live in the White House, or even a white house. His is a gray one-story with a red roof, where he lives with his wife, Judy, also a teacher who he met when she was in the classroom next door to his, and his 21-year-old stepdaughter Victoria, a Daytona State College student.
A native of Howell Township, near the Jersey Shore, NgYing sounds like a politician when asked about his racial and ethnic background.
“I usually tell people ‘all of the above.’ I say my grandfather was from China,” he said. “I do tell people, much like the president, I’ve got a bunch of different ethnicities. I leave it to their imagination.”
Ngying said he grew up mostly in “white America,” and did not identify with his ethnic background. And he said he is sensitive to people who might question a man with a mostly Asian heritage portraying a man who is half African.
NgYing, who voted for Obama, said he admired the president’s recent trip to Ireland. Obama joked he had gone to the town of Moneygall, home of his great-great-great-grandfather, “to find the apostrophe we lost somewhere along the way.”
Those moments of presidential humor seem to be fewer and further between with Obama than his predecessors, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, making him less easily mocked. NgYing said that’s made developing his impersonation more challenging.
“He’s not funny,” NgYing said. “He doesn’t lend himself to humor … Barack Obama is so straightforward. There was the appearance at the (White House) correspondents’ dinner, where he was a riot, but other than that, he’s not.”
Janna Joos, founder of International Celebrity Images, a talent agency for lookalikes, said there are 20 or 30 professional Obama impersonators, more than the seven or eight during the Clinton era. But all struggle with making Obama fun, and Joos has a theory why.
“I’ll give you two words: Politically correct,” she said. “For some reason, there is almost a hands-off. They treat him with kid gloves.”
Joos believes people are hesitant to poke fun at Obama in the same way they did Bush, because they don’t want to be viewed as racist.
Even still, NgYing believed he might have a shot at earning president-like pay by turning his act into a full-time gig. This year, he took a leave from his job as a teacher and made himself available as Obama 24-7.
He got his hair cut more to resemble the president’s. He worked on Obama’s staccato speech and hand gestures. He even bought a podium with a presidential seal.
But the work has been sporadic.
“When I get work, it’s really, really good. I get paid usually four digits,” he said.
So if he got one job a month, he could pay his mortgage. But at times, it’s been lean. Joos said the entire celebrity lookalike field has been hurt by the economy.
“I thought by next year, I was gonna have $200,000,” Ngying said. “Instead, I’ve got close to 200,000 miles on my car.”
He has gotten jobs that have taken him to Washington, D.C.; Las Vegas and Michigan. And he’s been called to work in Miami several times, including once at a 50th birthday party, and another time at a wedding. He’s also used the impression as a political tool, standing on street corners urging people to vote in the 2008 election, and, most recently protesting Gov. Rick Scott’s approach to closing the state’s budget gap.
It looks as if NgYing will be back teaching next school year, but he’s still holding out hope the Obama impersonation will catch fire.
“I think there are other really good teachers who could step in and teach the children,” he said. “I do consider myself a good teacher. I also think you might as well have some fun in life, too. This is more fun than teaching.”