Jimmy James has always been a bit of an enigma. With an acute ability to not just impersonate performers like Madonna, Judy Garland, & Elvis(!), but to actually inhabit them and sing their material, James has carved out a class of his own in the entertainment world. His stage shows are that of legend, and his impersonations are eerily accurate, making James is one of those rare performers that truly needs to be seen to be believed. I caught up with James as he prepared for his show at the Blue Moon in Rehoboth Beach, DE on Monday June 24th to talk about his new adventures on stage, the story of how his legendary dance hit “Fashionista” came to be, and he went down memory lane with me and gave me some of his absolute favorite career highlights.
Michael Cook: For those that have never seen Jimmy James on stage, how would you describe your performance style and “drag” as a whole?
Jimmy James: What drag (laughs)? Well, I actually call it “Glamour Dyke”; I look like a woman, even out of drag, so it takes very little for me to look “female.” I used to do drag for my shows when I dressed up as Marilyn Monroe (I retired Marilyn in 1997). I consider myself a singer/songwriter & voice impressionist – a true performance artist. I weave in and out of personas quickly, so I paint my face like a hooker and I sing and do voices. The real star in my show is my throat. Do I have a date?
MC: You completely inhabit the characters your portray on stage. When did you know that you had this talent?
JJ: Since I was a kid I would always do voices. I never thought of it was a talent until people actually started telling me that it was. I’ve always just had fun mimicking other people. It’s a form of acting; I just like to act with singing.
MC: How did Jimmy James get his start in the extremely competitive drag scene?
JJ: Well back in the late 1800s (1980’s) it wasn’t full of these bitches (laughs)! It really wasn’t competitive for me to be honest. I cornered the market with touring and booking gay clubs. At that time, I was the only queen touring gay clubs with television fame; I owned the club scene! I was the Bianca Del Rio of my time!
I was on major national television talk shows: ABC, CBS, & NBC at the time; there were only three channels! I got famous fast. Back in the day, when I appeared on the talk show circuit: Donahue, Geraldo, Joan Rivers, Sally Jessy Raphael, CNN, I actually sang live! The other queens on the show with me were ignored because they lip-synced; they didn’t tour like I did. Back then, live talent was respected. The public at large was definitely not interested in lip sync. Lip sync being accepted is really only a recent phenomenon. I’m planning a lip sync show right now just to get back on television (laughs). I’m not bitter, just laughing!
MC: You have accomplished so much doing, from doing brilliant impersonations and recording your own music; what is one avenue you have not explored that you want to?
JJ: You know, I am so lucky to have been performing for thirty years! And I’m only thirty five?! My biggest love is dance music (with lyrics) I wanna do more, but I suppose maybe doing a sitcom or movies. I’m working on a documentary about my Marilyn Years and all the other personas that I did.
MC: What are some of your career highlights so far?
JJ: There are so many that come to mind. I did an L.A. Eyeworks ad (it was banished under threats of lawsuits from ever being seen for twenty two years until the internet set it free around 2012. Now I can sell the Limited Edition prints with mine and Greg Gorman’s signatures). It has become the most mis-identified photo of Marilyn Monroe in the world. It was actually even made into an African stamp by mistake, and juxtaposed with real images of Marilyn Monroe (laughs)! I also did a billboard in Times Square with Linda Evangelista. I think I might have been the very first drag artist ever featured in Times Square. I’ve performed for Elton John, Whoopi Goldberg, John Waters, Bob Mackie and multitudes of others. I got to befriend disco legend Sylvester and I have performed at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall with the Gay Men’s Chorus.
I also wrote and recorded my own album Jamestown featuring my global hit “Fashionista”, really against all odds. It climbed to the Top ten of the Billboard dance charts and has over thirty five million views on YouTube from fan made videos. Absolutely no one thought I could write a dance hit, not even my own lawyer-but I believed in myself. That’s all that mattered; I made it happen.
MC: RuPaul’s Drag Race has brought drag to the mainstream culture. You would have killed the Snatch Game challenge! What do you think about having the queens impersonate people to varying degrees of success?
JJ: I love it! Impersonation is an acting skill and acting is required for drag. I would have absolutely killed it in Snatch Game for sure! Bette Davis with a real cigarette! Watch out bitches you won’t stand a chance against my impersonating skills (laughs)! Impersonation demands attention to detail – just like drag does.
MC: Your song “Fashionista” has taken on a life of it’s own and is a smash, being replayed all over the world! What do you remember about crafting the song and seeing it take off? Any plans for more original music?
JJ: God I want to make more music…send me a producer, I’m always on the hunt. I have actually written more songs. I wrote “Fashionista” in my tiny studio apartment in New York City kneeling down next to the toilet with the lid down and my white legal pad on the lid. That’s where my boom box was playing the basic beats while I came up with lyrics and melody. I actually needed a little echo from my tiled bathroom. Not glamorous at all, but that’s how the lyrics started: “Fashion is the art, designers are the gods, models play the part of angels in the dark….” The designer ‘rap’ came about when I was stranded at Houston airport in a rain storm (luckily in the private lounge) for about three hours. I pulled out my computer and started writing down some of my favorite designers over the years. Fashion legend Andre Leon Talley was my muse for the song. I’m totally impersonating him when I sing the song!
MC: The gay community has had a very trying year and politically, things are very dark. What do you think are the biggest issues facing our community and what do you see as your part in helping to address them?
JJ: It will get better, we just have to keep our eyes on the prize! Stay unified, always pursue & defend Equality! We deserve life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness just like anybody else; we have inalienable rights too. This administration is making it so hard, but we will win and I’m encouraged with people like RuPaul, Ellen, Anderson Cooper, Andy Cohen, Leslie Jordan Lady Bunny and so many others who are out in the media. Look at someone like Bianca Del Rio killing it worldwide; they represent us! The young queens coming up should keep spreading the light and love message of inclusion.
MC: Voices like yours are crucial to the community, as you were part of the entertainment industry when it was not as easy.
JJ: I was performing through the Reagan years. My friends were dropping like flies from AIDS and our own President Reagan would not even say the word “AIDS” or acknowledge the crisis. In my tours of gay clubs during the Reagan era, I tried my hardest to bring joy and fun during that very sad time; it was bleak. In 2001, I couldn’t get booked on The Ellen Show because of “gay fear.” I can’t blame her she was so punished when she came out; she lost everything!
In 1996 a TV producer took me out to a dinner meeting and said, “I’m sorry Jimmy but ‘gay’ will never be on television I’m sorry I can’t help you.” Well guess what? Will & Grace started in September 1998 and changed the landscape of LGBT people’ on television. Times have changed, we have made strides, but we have to stay aware and vigilant. There’s still hate out there. We also need be nice to people who want to be our ally. Don’t criticize Taylor Swift for recording a song like “You Need To Calm Down.” It’s clearly done with a message of love and inclusion. Be nice and appreciate the sentiment. I love her video, it made me cry with pride!
MC: What does “pride” mean to you?
JJ: Pride means emancipation from the chains that bound previous gay generations who were told they were mentally ill or that they were sick or deviants. Pride means liberty – freedom! Pride means I don’t have to hide from who I am, because who I am is not negotiable. It also means I’m not alone. I know there are others just like me and we can hold each other up. Yes we’re diverse-but stronger together.
MC: Most importantly’-where can people see you perform?!
JJ: I’m on tour this Summer. I’m not doing the usual Provincetown gig, instead I’m breaking new ground. I’m afraid and excited at the same time, but it makes me feel alive to explore and try new things! There is also talk of me having a residency once a month in New York City, so hopefully I will be able to announce that soon. We are also working on a documentary about my Marilyn years. Anything you see on YouTube is only a top of the iceberg of vital video footage out there!
(All Art Courtesy of Jimmy James)
JUN 24 – Blue Moon – Rehoboth Beach, DL
JUL 3 – The Dunes – Saugatuck, MI
JUL 4 – The Dunes – Saugatuck, MI
JUL 26 – The Dunes – Saugatuck, MI
JUL 27 – The Dunes – Saugatuck, MI
AUG 3 – The Auditorium – Eureka Springs, AR
TBD ?? -The Pin – Spokane, WA
AUG 14 – The Front Porch – Ogunquit, ME
AUG 15 – The Front Porch – Ogunquit, ME
AUG 16 – Club Cafe – Boston, MA
AUG 17 – Dark Lady – Providence, RI
AUG 22 – The Dunes – Saugatuck, MI
AUG 23 – The Dunes – Saugatuck, MI