By Garance Franke-Ruta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 24, 2009
Iman Crosson thought he had plenty of time. His spoof video of a rapping Barack Obama was all taped and he just needed to finish the editing, which he planned to wrap up on election night while the votes were being counted.
There was just one little glitch. The TV networks called the election at 8 p.m. PST, catching Crosson unprepared. Watching in his Santa Barbara, Calif., apartment, the 27-year-old performer had to scramble. He wanted to post his video as soon as the election was called.
"I was thinking I had a little more time because in every election I've seen, they go all night. I thought they'd still be counting that morning," he says. "I've never in my life seen anyone win so fast, so I jumped up. . . . Maybe an hour after they announced the winner, I threw the video up."
The rush didn't seem to hurt. That video, a re-imagination of T.I.'s "Whatever You Like" featuring Crosson's online alter ego Alphacat as the newly elected Obama singing "I can do whatever I like," went on to garner nearly 12 million page views in the next 6 1/2 months and helped turn Crosson into a major YouTube star.
Today, the self-proclaimed Obama "impersonator in chief" -- his resemblance to the president is only mild, but he's got the voice and gestures down cold -- is in talks with NBC about a pilot, is represented by a speaker's bureau (he's also voiced Obama on the Newsweek Web series "The District") and has one of the 100 most-subscribed-to channels of all time on YouTube. His videos yoking together spoofs of hit songs with dead-on mimicry of the president -- his May effort riffs off Jamie Foxx's "Blame It" -- have earned him more than 28 million views.
He may have had just 7,000 YouTube channel subscribers last August, when he created his first Obama-impersonating video, but today he has more than Miley Cyrus, the NBA or Beyoncé -- the diva whose song he transformed in his second major hit, an Inauguration Day spoof of "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" that's drawn more than 9 million views.
(She still has more views than he does, though.)
"He falls into the category of talented performers who in the past might have tried to make a name for themselves through improv, Second City and all that, and now do it through YouTube," observes Micah Sifry, who runs TechPresident.com, a site that follows the political Web. "He does a great Obama impersonation."
Raised in Cincinnati, Crosson attended the School for Creative & Performing Arts -- also the location for MTV's reality show "Taking the Stage" -- and went on to attend Wright State in Dayton. Two years of studying dance and acting were followed by two years of dancing with a Dayton contemporary troupe. After that, it was a move to New York and hip-hop dancing.
The YouTube channel went up in December of 2005 -- "I wanted to do something that would get people's attention," he says of his early vlogging and online sketch comedy efforts -- but the Obama impersonations didn't start until the staff at Blue Water Grill in Manhattan's Union Square, where he also worked as a waiter, started teasing him in 2008, "Oh, here comes Barack Obama" because "I was the only light-skinned black at work."
He uploaded the first Obama-impersonating video in August, filmed with a Sanyo Xacti and produced with Sony Vegas editing software. It quickly drew 100,000 hits. "People really liked it," he says. "I was surprised it got such a big response." So he decided to stick with it, "then I went on to keep making Obama spoofs and working on it and perfecting it and making more videos. And, I don't know, people just liked it."
One day he hopes to meet the man whose dance moves, facial tics and verbal cadences he's studied so minutely. "My ultimate goal is to meet Barack. That would be amazing to me," he says.