An iconic chameleon of looks and voices, singer and female impersonator Jimmy James made his mark on the daytime talk show circuit before winding up on an international postage stamp (accidentally), recording a genuine dance anthem and becoming a livestream star with longevity. Now, Jimmy returns to NYC for a one night only show spectacular in the City’s hottest new venue!
Thotyssey: Hello Jimmy, thanks for chatting with us! I was just watching your latest Facebook Live show from Thursday night… so fun and intimate! You and many other queens started livestreaming shows during the pandemic, but you’re one of the few who’s still going strong with them! What do you like about livestreaming, and what are the challenges of that platform?
Jimmy James: I loved being able to give back to the public who have maybe supported me for 35 years, and / or reach out to people who have never really seen me live. I wanted to share my mom and her sweetness to people who might have been hurting during lockdown. I wanted it to be for free; my social media guy begged me to at least set up an electronic tip jar… I relented. I’m glad I did, because I’m not a rich white woman like RuPaul, lol… I gotta keep working!
The challenges are that the room is empty, and without audience response. I can’t read the room, which I’m good at. The technical aspects–like running my own lighting, sound, online promoting, designing my own flyers, etc.–were very challenging, but rewarding because I could design it all my way.
I love that your mom can always be heard off stage during those shows.
Lately she’s been off camera, but for two years she was on camera with me! This lockdown time was very special–it was the most my mom ever heard me sing because I never sing around the house. I will always cherish those moments; the pandemic shows gave us something very special. All the recordings are still on my Facebook… my goal is to transfer them to YouTube.
You were one of those longtime New York queens who paved the way for so many, but I believe you’re in LA now?
Pre-pandemic, I took a sabbatical from Los Angeles and came back to my hometown of San Antonio, TX to watch over mom because she was starting to fall a lot. Then during lockdown, I was so grateful to be in a comfortable home. Now she’s got a bit of dementia. It’s not always easy taking care of a parent, but I accept my duty. Hopefully, eventually, I’ll find my way back to Los Angeles.
Bunny would cause another earthquake in LA; you’re stuck with her in New York. Between the trash on the sidewalk and the smell of piss and rats, she blends in good!
What’s better, New York or Los Angeles?
You’re asking a Gemini which is better? Wow, lol! I’m truly torn between both! I will say that as I got older, NYC was harder to handle for my bones… but I miss the people in New York. In New York, I see wonder everywhere! Los Angeles gives me beautiful weather of course, more showbiz vibes… and truthfully, most all my friends in LA are from NYC, lol! And I like driving my own car.
You’re a brilliant “vocal chameleon” who can impersonate the singing and speech styles of so many legendary divas like Bette Davis, Billie Holiday, Cher, Barbra Streisand, Madonna & Judy Garland. Oh, and Elvis too! How did you discover that you can do that?
When I was a kid I loved impersonating distinct voices. It came kinda naturally, although I’ve honed in on the craft. It’s rewarding to change the mood of a room with a voice impression.
And then how did drag come into your life? Was your drag always about celebrity female impersonation, or did you often appear in non-character drag as well?
For me, I’ve always looked female… so to just get in drag is not interesting to me. I only used “regular drag” for private, lol! Playing the part of a popular persona is more challenging.
I studied theatrical makeup in high school and college. I was in local theater: no pay, no money. When I started going to the gay clubs, I quickly found out only the drag queens were the real paid performers in San Antonio. But they were only lip syncing! I thought, what if I could get in there and do it live?
Halloween 1981, my world changed. I joined a costume contest and won as Marilyn Monroe. I sang “Happy Halloween, San Antonio” in the birthday melody, and the crowd went crazy!
In the 80s and 90s pre-RuPaul’s Drag Race, certain drag queens became known to worldwide audiences via the daytime talk show circuit. Sometimes the show hosts and audiences mistreated the performers as per the times, but Joan Rivers had a fun chat with you. And of course Phil Donahue had a very fascinating conversation with you while you were gagging the studio and at-home audience with your flawless Marilyn! How did you enjoy that whole talk show scene, and did you have any very memorable moments or observations on set?
Getting on Donahue changed the game for me; that show alone kept me booked for the next 10 years and beyond. Once I got on Donahue, other shows called to book me. There were only three channels back then, lol! And I had read Joan Rivers’ books before getting on her show, so it was a huge thrill to be interviewed by her. I loved the talk show circuit; it was the new variety show.
Donahue was very much like my father. Joan Rivers bumped Rue McClanahan to give me more time. Geraldo was all game to dance with me as Marilyn.
I understand that the photo for a print ad you did as Marilyn in glasses for L.A. Eyeworks found its way on a collective stamp in Africa… they thought it was an actual Marilyn Monroe image! How long were those stamps floating around before you learned about it… and did you get your hands on any of them!?
They were circulating 2014-16 before I found out; I only have two of them. Without telling me, my lawyer went after them. I told him he should have let me know so I could by tons before he told them.
Did I hear that you once sang / performed with the legendary Eartha Kitt?
Yes it was a big private party in Manhattan; she didn’t know I was going to pull her up to sing “I Wanna Be Evil.” It was a sobering lesson for me in how to improve my Eartha impression: don’t push so hard. Calm down.
Obviously drag has changed so much since you came to the scene, thanks in part to Drag Race and social media. There’s quite a bit more of it, for one thing. And with a few notable exceptions, a lot of the newer queens seem more interested in elaborate makeup looks that translate to Instagram, high fashion and dance then in hosting or singing. What are your thoughts on “new” drag, and is there an oversaturation of drag happening now?
Well I see it in a different way: drag is a good barometer to test if a society is truly free. If a man can dress like a woman and not be pushed off a building, we’re good. And I believe Oscar Wilde said: “give a man a mask, and he’ll tell you the truth.” Maybe we’ve seen enough lying wicked men in suits that we turn to the queens to tell us the truth.
Oversaturated? Who knows?
Speaking of Drag Race, we’d love to see your legendary self appear on that show as a judge or a mentor. Hell, even as a contestant! Do you think that might ever happen? Do you have a relationship with Ru at all?
I’d love to be a judge! They can call me anytime. We’re not buddies, but Ru has always been kind to me. Nothing gets past Ru–he’s very observant and curious.
We still hear your hit club song “Fashionista” in dance parties and drag shows constantly! That’s a fun tongue-in-cheek tribute to high fashion, which has been pretty influential to today’s queer music: all the stars are name dropping the big fashion houses in every song now. Did you know that song was gonna be so big, and do you perform it a lot still?
Yes, I still perform “Fashionista.” I would like Billy Porter to cover the song; it’s perfect for him. When I wrote it in 2004, (it wasn’t released until the end of 2006), I thought I wrote a really weird song. I thought at the time that it would be good for Amanda Lepore, but her team ignored me. I love Amanda.
I sang it over the phone to my two producers. They went silent. I said “are you there?” They said, “come to the studio tomorrow. You just wrote a hit.” I didn’t write it for myself; I had given up on having a recording career. The universe threw me back in, and eventually I wrote a whole album, Jamestown.
By the way, for anybody out there struggling… we promoted “Fashionista” big time to NYC DJs. Nobody, nobody, nobody in New York would play it despite it getting to be Top 10 in the Billboard dance charts and a having a rave review from Billboard Magazine. It’s a beautiful thing for me to know that New York is finally playing my song… over 10 years later. In many ways drag queens forced DJs to play my song–full circle, lol. Artists, don’t give up. Do your art.
You also have a streamable holiday album, Have Yourself a Jimmy James Christmas! Do you have a favorite Christmas song?
Yes. It’s not on my album though: “Merry Christmas Darling,” by Karen Carpenter.
What do you still love the most about performing live today?
I love connecting to an audience. Using music, comedy and my voice to move an audience.
Have you ever tried to add a newer singer to your repertoire? I bet you’d slay Britney, Adele or Ariana Grande.
During lockdown I did tons of new stuff: Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You,” Adele’s “Skyfall,” Lana Del Rey’s “Summertime Sadness” and Britney’s “I’m Not A Girl.”
I see your crowdfunding for a proposed documentary about yourself: The Boy Who Was Marilyn. That would be really fascinating! What motivated you to do that, and what would you like people to learn from it?
For my entire 35-plus years career, I hoarded video footage of myself and the people I’ve come across. I have a story to tell that maybe could inspire people, and help them to persevere. I’ve been used, physically beaten, sued, scolded, punished, stolen from, lied to, heartbroken, fired, underestimated, written off, black balled, locked out of opportunities, etc. But somehow, I’m still here.
Your New York fans will get a chance to see you perform again real soon: you’ll be at Daniel Nardicio’s new venue Red Eye on Wednesday, December 28th at 7pm for “Jimmy James 100% Live!” What do you have in store for us?
I’m planning a visual and vocal experience; I’m told the whole back wall is a video screen. I have more to offer than just an outfit and a song. I’m bringing an experience!
What else are you up to?
Hiding from Lady Bunny.
Good luck! Finally, what’s your New Years resolution… if you do those?
Same as every year: try to lose weight. And try to earn enough money to be a rich white woman like RuPaul.
See you soon, Jimmy!
Check Thotyssey’s calendar for Jimmy James’ upcoming area appearances, and follow him on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and his website. Also, stream / download his music on all available platforms.