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Home / Articles / News / Features /  Character Driven
09.26.12_COVER

Character Driven

He's part donut, part jalapeño, a quarter cupcake and all-around awesome

September 25, 2012, 10:00 pm

Three times a week, Micah Ortega becomes a donut.

“I’m ready, man!” he exclaims in a deafening, raspy, Randy “Macho Man” Savage baritone as he enters Whoo’s Donuts on a recent Wednesday. 

“I need to kinda get the mojo going—you know, turn up the engine,” he says, making a revving motion with his hands. 

Ortega says he gets his mojo from “L-O-V-E, baby,” and after donning a glittery, Michael Jackson-style glove, he begins his transformation.

Today, he’s wearing black pants, a red athletic shirt, gold-framed glasses, Mardi Gras beads and a striped top hat. For good measure, he throws in a Party City-purchased pimp cane with a sparkly handle. 

“The more glitter you have on, the more people are like, ‘Whoa! What’s going on over there? Is that an alien?’” he says, bursting into a maniacal cackle. In the bakery’s production area, he approaches a giant felt donut costume.

“This is an intimate moment right here,” he says, making sense out of a pair of suspenders that hold the front and back parts of the costume together, then gently putting it on.

“Then, I make sure I’m OK,” he says, staring at his reflection in an industrial refrigerator with a glazed look in his eyes. 

The look complete, he picks up his “secret weapon”—a wooden sign he fashioned himself—and gets in the zone.

Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning for the past three months, this has been Ortega’s routine: After checking in with the staff at Whoo’s, the 36-year-old former pre-med student dons a life-sized donut costume and stands curbside, hyping the fritter emporium. 

It’s not easy, but Ortega has the dedication—and zaniness—to make it work.

“Regular people think I’m homeless, and homeless people think I’m crazy,” he says. 

“I’ve had people throw money [at me] and say, ‘Hey man, here ya go.’ Who cares? It’s beautiful. I get drunk people coming, and they’ll play the instruments with me. It’s like a big party, actually,” he laughs. “It’s supposed to be, you know?”

Although being the only giant fritter in the city might seem isolating, Ortega isn’t alone today: His father, Jim Ortega, is unloading some tricks of his own from the pair’s Mitsubishi Montero. After being estranged for most of Micah’s adult life, they now work in tandem. 

“I just moved here a year ago, man. Just to be with Dad,” the human donut says. “I wanted to reinvent myself. I wanted to do something different, you know, and this is working out for both of us.”

The elder Ortega takes a shiny Bach Mercedes trumpet out of its case, props himself next to the entrance to Whoo’s parking lot and starts playing “Stormy Weather” like a pastry Pied Piper. 

“It takes it to a higher level, and people sure do enjoy it,” he says between notes.

He gazes at his son’s quirky getup. 

“He was always an entertainer,” Ortega Sr. says of his son, “trying to make people laugh [and] be comfortable with themselves, consoling them when they have a problem, even though he’s not certified.”

“I’m a certified something, though!” Donut Man says, having visited the neighboring Body Up Nutrition for his “lifeline,” a black and green tea with a shot of energy.  

But for Ortega, the costumed performance is more than just entertainment—it’s a bona fide business model. His one-man marketing business, Second Glance Promotions, has become so popular that Ortega has run out of hours in the work week, and he’s on the hunt for like-minded hires.

“I’m looking for some more freaks…freaks like me,” he says as he walks to the corner of Cerrillos Road and St. Francis Drive—or, as he likes to call it, “the intersection of the universe.”

“Yeah, baby!” he shouts at oncoming traffic. Initially, he gets no response; it’s still early, and people seem like they’re in a hurry to get to work. “The buses are awesome; they honk all the time,” he says—but even the bus drivers don’t seem to notice him. 

“She was probably blinded by the light or is having a crappy day,” he says of one impervious driver. “You get old people here; you get cholos—everybody loves donuts; people are just a little sleepy today.”

Determined, he starts beatboxing to the music in his head. “The main thing is to connect with the audience,” he says, the maniacal laugh making a thunderous encore. 

The third time’s a charm: The operator behind the wheel of the whisking Rail Runner gives him an approving nod. 

“What up, Santa?” he roars. “What up, beautiful? Call me,” he tells a lass in a VW Beetle, his aforementioned mojo newly vindicated. 

He’s breakdancing and engaging passersby with undeniable gusto; the energizing tea is clearly living up to its claims—he’ll see Justin Timberlake’s SNL Omeletteville character and raise it an Accu-Check blood glucose monitoring system. As Ortega performs, the melodious sound of his father’s trumpet floats across the busy street.

Ortega’s business model is decidedly lo-fi: It depends almost exclusively on the craziness of his costumes and his own, personal charisma. But Whoo’s co-owner Jeff Keenan says there’s no question that it works.

“It’s definitely worth doing,” Keenan says, calling Ortega’s thrice-weekly shift “the hardest-working two hours you’ll ever see anyone do.”

Ortega can attest to that. It’s 50 degrees outside, and his face is dripping with sweat. He started his shift 15 minutes ago and has another hour and 45 minutes to go. 

“I used to work out, until I got this job,” he says. “[Now,] I’m doing cardio almost like, freaking six hours a day. I mean, this is crazy...this is like Tae Bo, or something.” Ever the entrepreneur, he jokes, “I’m thinking about getting a workout video going.”

Though some might assume otherwise, he says his job cuts the financial mustard. “I probably do above minimum wage,” he says, adding that he charges clients anywhere from $15 to $20 per hour, depending on how many days the gig will be and “what they want to rock.” 

Keenan says the reward his business reaps is three-fold. After witnessing Ortega’s mojo-infused performance, some customers will come in right away. Others will mentally landmark the location and come back later. Still others, who haven’t seen the semi-legendary character firsthand but have heard rumors of his existence around the office water cooler, will tactfully wander in, too. 

“It’s pretty amazing the impact it has on the business,” Keenan says.

Whoo’s can probably use the extra bump: It’s within walking distance of a 24-hour Dunkin Donuts, a McDonald’s and a green mermaid-emblazoned sign heralding the opening of a new, drive-thru Starbucks.

Ortega, however, is unfazed. 

“Dude, the stakes are higher for them,” he says. “Because I’m here, they should be scared—because people love this stuff, man.”

Several piercing, woo-hoo! battle cries later, Ortega has finished his shift at Whoo’s and is headed to the next gig: promoting  discounted haircuts at Salon de Bella on Rodeo Road. He loads the donut costume into his SUV and pulls out the next prop.

“These are six-foot-tall scissors, bro,” he explains. To err on the side of caution, he carries anything and everything he might need inside his car. “Sometimes I’ll have four gigs, and I have to change in the truck,” he says. 

Other cartoonish objects in the “party mobile” include a giant electronic cigarette that emits real smoke, which he uses to promote The Vapor Store.

He pitched that client so well that his dad broke his pack a day habit and is now keen on e-puffers. “I’m down to about six or seven cigarettes a day,” Ortega’s dad says. “It’s working!”

His lungs given a rest, Ortega Sr. says he’ll belt out “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” on the horn while his son is at that gig. “It’s a joint effort,” he adds, a packet of Virginia Slims 120s peeking from his shirt pocket. 

It’s this father-son combo that has turned the once strained pair into symbiotic accomplices and sets them apart from run-of-the-mill sign carriers hawking no activation fees or a plushie beaver trying to move used cars. 

When asked how he responds when his buddies inquire about his son’s professional life, Ortega Sr. says, “I say he promotes businesses.” 

“We make fun of that, you know,” he continues, when asked what happens when friends press for details. “Our neighbor has a son [who] plays football for the Chicago Bears, and he’s on the line, and he’s 6’5”. ‘And what does your son do?’ he’ll ask. Well. ‘He’s a donut, and sometimes he’s a little cupcake,’” he chuckles. “I’m proud of him, though. I’m very proud of him.”

Twisted Scissor: Ortega channeling his inner Dee Snider.

Along with the supersized shears, his son’s costume for the hair salon also includes metallic pants and a Dee Snider-approved wig. 

“I’m spent, dude,” Ortega says. “I’m trying to get my second wind, man. This wig is going to help out.”

“Wait a minute, weren’t you a donut earlier?” a regular, in for his fade, says when he sees Ortega. The staff giggles. 

“He’s a blessing,” salon head honcho Valerie Garcia says, adding that Ortega has been “the best form of advertising” she’s ever contracted.

Ortega conceives and embellishes each of the costumes he uses at his various gigs. In effect, they’re a reflection of his own creativity. When coming up with the salon costume, he says, “I was just like, ‘What will people stop and go ‘wow’ about?’ You’ve got hair, you got scissors…you don’t have to be a brain surgeon to know there’s a salon somewhere in the vicinity,” he laughs, holding onto a jug of V8 Fusion juice, his fuel of choice for the 11:30 am-1:30 pm shift. 

Standing at the corner of Rodeo Road and Zia Drive, he’s ready for business, each honk from passing cars feeding his “ultra rock star” persona. 

“It’s not all glamour, baby. It’s hard being a rock star,” he says, adjusting his Technicolor ’fro. “People aren’t ready for this man,” he hollers. “They’re like, ‘What the heck!’”

An elderly lady witnessing the shenanigans firmly presses the walk sign button, her eyes expressing a mix of awe and horror. 

“Some people just like to be silly, I guess,” she says, fiercely clasping her purse as she finally crosses the road. 

Ortega carries on.

His job, Ortega says, cuts the financial mustard.

 Like every superhero before him, he has an interesting back story. His parents divorced when he was four. After his little sister was born with spina bifida—a congenital disease that can result in neural problems and sometimes paralysis—a young, musically and artistically inclined Ortega knew he was put in this world to make a change. 

“I wanted to find a cure for paralysis. I wanted to help her—that was my dream,” he says. 

He enrolled in a pre-med program at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla. One year from graduating, “life happened,” and he dropped out—but Ortega sees the positive even in that.

“What I really found out, after that world crashed down, [was that] maybe I can use that gift—which is songwriting and helping people—maybe I can use that to eventually help fund research to help my sister; use my gift to help in some way, rather than just finding a cure straight-up,” he says.

Still, his mother was recently unemployed, and Ortega took a string of odd jobs that barely made ends meet. Eventually, he landed a gig as the ringman at a “cowboy auction” in Tulsa, displaying everything from diamond rings to cattle à la Vanna White. It was there that he discovered his knack for marketing, devising a way to raise the bar for himself and his coworkers.

“They were just wearing plaid, and I was like, ‘Dude, we’re selling Baccarat crystal—we need to be upping it.’ So I wore a tux and white gloves,” he recalls. 

That choice would lay down the groundwork for the rest of his life. 

“They just let me go crazy, for some reason, during the auction,” he recalls. “I was able to read the crowd; they fed me. I was able to read them to see if what I was doing was making them happy—[and] so it kind of evolved from there.” Ortega found that not only was he good at promoting, but also that he truly enjoyed it.

“That was the beginning of me doing what I love,” he says. “I loved Thursday nights, man. They unleashed it; they said, ‘You can go crazy’—and I mean, I pointed at people, I yelled, I yipped and I wore a cowboy outfit, an Easter bunny outfit...” 

But six months into his move to the Southwest, the former rabbit again had trouble landing a job. 

His options running out, he stepped in to apply as a waiter at Joe’s Diner. 

“I said a prayer that day,” he recalls. “I said, ‘God, please let me do a job that I can be me at, help people while doing it and make money.’” 

They weren’t hiring. But before hitting the pavement, he noticed a waving cowboy leading people into the joint. “I was drawn to him. I said, ‘That dude’s cool, man.’”

Ortega approached the wrangler and started talking about his background. “He owned his own promotion company. Little did I know that I was pitching myself to him,” he says.

He landed a three-hour-a-week stint and, after the buckaroo relocated to Arizona, the gig was all his. Word of mouth quickly spread.

“People want to see the fantastic,” he explains. “They’re tired of the normal.” It’s all part of his plan for world—or at least Santa Fe—domination. 

“I would love to have 25-100 entertainers, mimes, jugglers—dude, whoever! Just crazy freaks outside on every corner rocking it hard for everybody,” he says.



On another day, Ortega stands outside Wow Dawgs wearing a “hip-hop hot dog” costume, talking about that the City Different is ready for the marketing gremlins that, with his guidance, would sprout from his foam-covered back. 

“I think that they want it, man,” the accidental performing artist says. “There are a lot of people that want to unleash that inner craziness inside them, here in Santa Fe—it would be like Indian Market, 365 days a week.”

Ever the pitchman, he shares his company’s slogan: “Second Glance will give your business a second chance.”

“There’d be a yeti on the corner over here, scissors over here,” he muses. “It would be like heaven on Earth. Or like Disneyworld on Earth.”

His 40-plus-hour workweek about to wrap up, he’s now dressed as a red pepper for Jalapeños, a Mexican restaurant and food truck. 

He accessorizes the outfit with a pair of gray rattlesnake boots and a yellow raincoat for an effect he likens to “the Batman of the desert.”

He’s twirling a pair of maracas like nunchucks. Moments later, a hippie-looking dude, waiting for the light to turn, hops out of his car and joins Ortega by playing the bongos.

Wrapping up a rousing rendition of “Tequila,” the elder Ortega is confident that his son is destined for stardom.

“He’s already an icon, but he’s going to be an icon-con, like King Kong,” he says.

“You know, Brad Pitt was a chicken before he got into stardom. That kind of encourages me when I feel depressed,” Ortega Jr. says.

Troy, baby! Watch out, Angelina!” he shouts.

Later, as Ortega stands next to the Jalepeños food truck, the topic turns back to his sister. “She’s like ‘Micah, why don’t you get a real job?’ Ha ha! She’s awesome; she’s cool.” His rough voice then softens as he shares how much he enjoys making her laugh. 

“You know, people live in hell sometimes—and you just want to make heaven for them. You just want to give them a piece of heaven, basically.” 

His dad’s amplified voice booms from a megaphone on the opposite side of the block. “Buy one, get one free here at Jalapeños. We’re at the corner of St. Francis Drive and West Alameda.” 

Dad, it turns out, has suffered “four or five heart attacks and a mini-stroke,” so Ortega Jr. sees his creative marketing business not just as a career, but also as a chance to make up for lost bonding time. 

“For him to be able to be out here playing the trumpet…I think I would do it just for him, so he has a good time,” he says. The fact that I get paid for it is straight up just gravy.”

Pensive, he reflects for a moment, and then his businessman side takes over.

“Just don’t tell the owners that, OK?"

 

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