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Will the real Bill Gates please stand up?

Sep 06, 20045 mins

Billionaires they're not, but Gates impersonators are cashing in.

It not only pays to be Bill Gates, it also pays to look like him. Just ask John Ranlett and Steve Sires, two Gates impersonators who don’t have to dress up to look like the software maven, and in a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction twist live within 10 miles of each other and not far from the Microsoft campus.

“I tell people it’s the water,” says Sires, who recalls a man who walked up to him in a grocery store, stared into his face and said, “same father, different mother” before walking away without another word.

Sires, who is three inches shorter and two years younger than the 5-foot-11-inch, 48-year-old Gates, charges a minimum of $2,500 per appearance but makes more for film work and commercials. Nevertheless, he has no plans to end his career as a civil design engineer.

Ranlett, a bus driver, often navigates a route that slices through the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Wash. His personnel file includes a letter that prevents him from identifying himself as Gates lest passengers get confused, excited or hostile.

But away from the bus Ranlett over the past seven years has used his likeness to Gates to land parts in a TV commercial with Donald Trump and a music video for the song “Pentium” by Weird Al Yankovic. His financial gains have picked up in the past three to four years, he says, but not enough to make it a full-time gig.

Ironically, Ranlett and Sires are devoted iMac users. Neither has met Gates, though Microsoft has hired them as stand-ins on video shoots and for promotional stunts.

Ranlett once dressed up in an MSN butterfly costume and passed out CDs in Bellevue, Wash., which borders Redmond.

“I don’t know why Bill didn’t want to get into it,” Ranlett says.

Sires, who has trademarked his gig as Bogus Bill 2.0 and Microsortof, also has done four in-house videos for Sun. “They like to poke fun at Bill,” he says.

Both men say they have limits and won’t do anything that puts Gates in a bad light, although Sires pushed the envelope when he played the Microsoft founder in a 2002 “mockumentary” about police misconduct and cover-up in Los Angeles called “Nothing So Strange.” In the graphic opening scene, Gates/Sires is fatally shot in the head by an assassin and lies bleeding in the street.

“It wasn’t morally in question. It didn’t put Bill’s name in a bad light, so I had no problem doing it,” Sires says. He still gets hired by Microsoft even though a company spokesman was quoted after the movie’s release saying, “It is very disappointing that a moviemaker would do something like this.”

Sires says the moviemaker, Brian Flemming, still gets asked how he ever convinced Gates to appear in the film.

Ranlett says he turned down a chance last summer to be in a Fox feature film. The catch was that he would have to get terrorized by rabid Rottweilers and a band of psycho clowns.

“I was suppose to sit behind a desk and this guy comes in and he is ticked off because he has to keep buying upgrades and new computers to run the upgrades and then the dogs and clowns come in and tear him apart,” he recounts. “I thought that fit in the mean-spirited category and I won’t do that.”

Both men have done plenty of other gigs as Gates, though it is their everyday encounters with the public in which things turn surreal.

“People think they are talking to Bill and they just start shaking,” Sires says. “They want to tell you what they have done, they ask you for advice. It happens in the weirdest places. Why would people think Bill Gates is shopping at Costco or eating at KFC? It’s crazy.” He says the most common question is about borrowing money.

Sires didn’t know who Gates was until people started pestering him with questions. In 1998, his wife gave him a newspaper ad searching for a Bill Gates look-alike, which he promptly threw away. But his wife answered the ad for him.

“The best part is that you get to meet a lot of new people and I get to go all over the world,” Sires says.

Ranlett, who enjoys remodeling his house, being outdoors and watching World War II documentaries, says he loves the work and has fun with the resemblance.

“I did a Christmas party once, and an old lady sat next to me and told me how much she admired me and what I had accomplished in my life.”

Out of respect for the woman, Ranlett fessed up to his actual identity.

One day while walking near the Microsoft campus, a woman stopped her car in traffic and jumped out to take his picture. And once while sitting near the front row for a presentation by Gates friend and bridge rival Warren Buffett, he called out to those staring at him, “I’m Bill’s cousin Billy Bob from Tennessee.”

But Ranlett, who is the same height but two years older than Gates, admits that sometimes when he sees the billionaire it is like an out-of-body experience. One day he was on the Microsoft campus working on a video shoot and Gates walked across the hall about 30 feet in front of him.

“It’s weird, it’s like, it’s me,” he says.

Stranger yet, Ranlett says a co-worker of his looks like Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

“He looks more like Paul Allen than I look like Bill Gates. What are the odds?”