Hillary Clinton can do just about anything — except maybe sing. That's where one woman comes in. A professional actor, singer, and performer, Kelley Karel looks shockingly similar to Clinton and has impersonated the former secretary of state for most of her political career. "I've been doing it for 24 years, and I've crawled inside her as an actor," Karel tells Bustle.
The California native-turned-New Yorker first realized she resembled the famous politician after casting directors at back-to-back acting auditions told her she looked just like Clinton, who was on her way to becoming first lady at the time. What really convinced her to start the spot-on impressions was seeing another Clinton doppelgänger on a commercial for a "Hillary wig" and thinking to herself, "Wait a minute — I look more like her than she does." She immediately called the station to ask where they found the subpar Clinton lookalike, and was referred to the woman who would later become her manager.
Thrown into the ring without any preparation, Karel's very first gig as Clinton was a wrap party for The Rush Limbaugh Show at an Italian restaurant in New York. The conservative political commentator simply wanted Clinton to roam around the room and chat with his guests, surprisingly not making any negative remarks about Clinton.
Talking in her living room, with walls as colorful as the performer's personality, Karel claims Limbaugh actually asked her out while she was impersonating Clinton. "He was serious, but oh my god... He's not my cup of tea," she says, still shocked by the idea all these years later. Responding exactly as Clinton herself would, Karel says she told the radio host: "Oh, Rush, I would have to talk to Bill about that." Bustle has reached out to Limbaugh for comment.
Since she was going to be impersonating Clinton regularly, Karel started actively studying her, and saw her IRL for the first time at a Barbra Streisand concert in 1993. "She sat there like a block of just ice with no expression whatsoever on her face," says Karel of Clinton, explaining that Bill had tears running down his face. "I thought, 'How in the hell am I going to portray this? There's nothing there.'" But as she watched videos of Clinton's public appearances and talk show visits, Karel started to better understand the woman who occupied the White House and her personality.
This year, Karel wrote and starred in a cabaret show all about the Democratic presidential candidate called Hillary Confidential, in which Karel as Clinton dreams she can say what's really on her mind, letting her guard down outside of the public eye. Dressed in a long blue jacket, statement necklace, and kitten heels, Karel is the spitting image of Clinton — until she breaks out into song, that is.
Karel's love for Clinton runs much deeper than the connection an actor has with her character. While the cabaret show has plenty of funny punchlines, it paints the politician in a flattering light, highlighting Clinton's work with children, her continuous fight for women's rights, and her love for Bill, as well as attacking Donald Trump on multiple occasions. In one song, Karel sings about how qualified Clinton is to be president, joking that the Democrat wishes she would just be elected already and could stop campaigning. "I'm already rich, famous, and powerful," Karel sings. "I paid my dues more than those other guys ... I don't want to campaign now, I've got too much class. I want to be elected sitting on my ass."
Throughout the performance, Karel as Clinton stands up to the myriad attacks the politician faces any given day, including sexist commentary on Clinton's appearance and fashion choices. "When Congress screws up and makes a mess, I'll have to wear the pants," Karel says, in response to insults about the politician's lack of dresses while donning Clinton-esque slacks.
The Clinton impersonator wants to continue her cabaret show, but is more interested in performing at fundraisers for Clinton's current presidential campaign and other Democratic party events — both to help Clinton get elected and because private events pay a lot more than small cabaret acts.
When Karel talks about Clinton outside of the show, she seamlessly switches from defending the politician like a close friend to sounding like Clinton herself, often repeating phrases the presidential hopeful says on the campaign trail. "She occasionally calls me Bill," says Chuck, Karel's husband. Pieces of Clinton are scattered throughout Karel's apartment, from five blonde wigs (even though Karel is blonde) to a collection of campaign buttons from Clinton's 2008 presidential bid hanging from a bookshelf. Picking up a button featuring Chelsea Clinton that reads, "Vote for Chelsea's mother," Karel says softly, "She really turned out well," like a proud mother speaking about her own child.
Despite impersonating her for so long, Karel hasn't actually met Clinton. She desperately wants to shake the hand of the woman she knows so intimately, optimistically saying: "It's inevitable, I think — I hope."
Images: Courtesy of Kelley Karel (4); Lauren Holter/Bustle (1)