Clinton Journal


Johnny D. Miller might not be a household name, but thanks to a chance meeting in Yuma, Ariz., his image, if not his name, is one of the most recognizable in the world.

“I’m sitting there in a very large KFC in Yuma, Ariz., really discouraged and just bummed out,” Miller says.  “All of a sudden this couple comes up to me, knocks on the table, ‘Colonel, can we get your picture and your autograph’?”

Because of health reasons, Miller’s employer had reduced his workload.  Miller, a Clinton native, was then in his late 50s and was in the restaurant pondering his future prospects.

Miller asked the man why he wanted an autograph.

“Because you look like the old bird himself,” the man responded.

Miller glanced over at the image of Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Col. Harland Sanders on the wall, a facsimile of his signature underneath, “I thought, I can do that.”

Miller said he returned to his dinner and didn’t think much about it.  But, two weeks later in the same restaurant, the same thing happened again.

“Another couple came up to me with the same request.”

“All of a sudden, little gears started working in my head,” Miller said.  

Miller went to the restroom, looked into the mirror and covered up the sides of the goatee he had at the time.

“Dad gum-it, you know, I might make this work,” he thought.  “That’s when the first notion hit me.”

Miller went home and began researching Sanders online, including watching old television commercials with the Colonel on YouTube and practice imitating Sanders’ voice.

He bought a white suit and had it tailored and then had his hair bleached.  He found some 1960s-style eyeglasses like Sanders’, and he was about ready to make his debut as the American fast food giant.

In the years since, Miller obtained from Sanders’ family some lapel pins that belonged to the Colonel.

He returned to the same Yuma KFC in full costume as employees stood, mouths open and eyes out on stalks.

“Colonel, why didn’t KFC call us and tell us you were coming,” the restaurant’s manager said, apparently unaware the real Sanders died several decades earlier.

Without breaking character, Miller said he was offered a chance to inspect the restaurant.

Suddenly, he found himself surrounded by visitors and tourists who wanted a chance to meet the Colonel.

The local KFC franchise chain owner eventually showed up believing Miller worked for the company.

Miller confessed he didn’t work for KFC.

“Well, you should,” the owner told him.

Miller learned that KFC corporate headquarters uses Col. Sanders impersonators as Global Brand Ambassadors, representing the company at KFC events around the world.

Miller began working for the local owner, greeting people and meeting customers as well as attending local events as the Colonel at his half dozen KFC locations and other places in the Yuma area.

“I’m standing out there in the 120-degree heat, but I’m having a blast, eatin’ free chicken and having fun.”

While working the Yuma County Fair, a Phoenix newspaper ran photos of Miller as Sanders, and the Yuma paper ran a story about Miller.  Soon, the Associated Press (AP) picked up the story, and, for a day, Miller as Col. Sanders was news around the world.

“I thought, this is going to get bigger,” Miller said.  “I decided, ‘I’d better get me an agent’.”

He contacted an agent in Las Vegas, who handles impersonators, look-a-likes and tribute artists.

Miller emailed her a couple of headshots of himself, and she soon arranged for him to have professional portfolio pictures taken.

Representatives of KFC soon saw the AP story about Miller and flew him to the company’s corporate offices in Louisville, Ky.

Miller spent much of the 1970s in the U.S. Air Force.  The government later declared him partially disabled because of his exposure to microwave radiation during his work with military radar.

After the service, Miller got a bachelor’s degree in psychology while living in the Miami area, and he went to work for the Florida prison system.

But, after a year, he’d had enough of the prison violence, and he left, going to work in the propane gas industry.

“I loved my work in the propane industry,” Miller says.

He worked in places like Washington state and Idaho, often finding himself poking around the feet-deep snow trying to locate propane tanks.

After he became ill, the company downsized his responsibilities, and he found himself working to figure out his next move.  Not long after, the aura of the honorary Kentucky colonel, famous for fried chicken, came calling. 

When KFC officials greeted Miller in Louisville, they immediately asked if he would consider becoming one of their Global Brand Ambassadors.  That was late in 2010.

They generally have a small staff working, and one of the spots had recently become open.

“They had just two weeks before hired one from Champaign,” Miller says.

He said there are currently only two colonel impersonators working for the company.

Since then, Miller has been around the world representing KFC in places like Kuwait and Egypt in the middle east to places in the Caribbean.

KFC is part of Yum Brands.  In Kuwait, the franchises are owned by Americana.

Miller met the Kuwaiti owner, once the ninth wealthiest man in the world, and made an appearance at a huge, five-story shopping mall there.

“Never have I been treated to politely and kind,” Miller says.

Miller was supplied with 12 security guards for his appearance at the mall, not because of terrorism, but to protect him from the adoration of the crowd that turned out to meet him.

His visits in the U.S. have not always been so congenial.

Once, while walking along Hollywood Boulevard, Miller was about to be mugged, when a 7-foot-tall actor dressed as Jesus rescued him.

“I turned around, and I’m looking at Jesus in the flesh’.”

The actor ended up spending the day with Miller, giving him a tour of the Hollywood area.

He makes about a dozen appearances a year.

Miller currently lives in the Orlando, Fla. area but is planning to relocate to near Louisville.  He said the higher cost of living in Orlando is one reason for the change.

In the meantime, Miller is keeping his schedule of appearance dates and had time to stop in his hometown Clinton to see some friends.

Miller was in school with local friends Patrick Peterson and Cris Rogers, among others, before his family moved to Farmer City, where he graduated from high school.

“Early in my colonel career, I made an appearance at the Clinton KFC,” Miller says.

A video of the event can be searched on YouTube.

“A guy who was there yesterday remembered it.”

Miller is enjoying himself and loves telling about his knowledge of Harland Sanders, about his enormous KFC memorabilia collection and portraying the man he has come to respect.

“I’ve worked hard for this, and I really enjoy it.”

See more about Miller and the television commercials he has made for the middle-eastern, Caribbean and U.S. markets at www.colsandersimpersonator.com, and click on “media.”

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