In the stratosphere of nightclub performers, Jimmy James is in a class of his own. From his iconic "Marilyn years" where his eye popping impersonation of Marilyn Monroe rivaled the diva herself, to his masterful club hit "Fashionista", which many a queen stomped a runway too. James sat down with me to chat about his extensive career, what it was like to be so visible as a Marilyn Monroe impersonator, his music, and what we can expect next from this talented performer.
Right off the bat, you are an absolute legend. Looking back, what does it feel like to have come this far in your career and still be performing all over the world?
Truthfully, I feel accomplished, threatened & vulnerable. It feels a little bit like the Joan Rivers documentary. You would think I could rest on my laurels but NO, It doesn't work that way. There's an avalanche of other queens coming up to grab! I'm proud that I've been entertaining for thirty three years. I'm proud I've made a living that long doing what I love. I'm proud of my accomplishments-but I have queens who have modeled their entire shows after mine. Their press release sounds just like mine - Doing the voices of..."Eartha, Judy, Barbra, Cher, Liza, Elvis, Diana Ross, Lana Del Ray, Adele, etc...." And when they start playing some of my same venues I play.. So if they play the venue before me, they've kinda ruined the "wow" factor for my audience. They won't be as good as me, but it doesn't matter. The basic theme has been let out of their tattered bag.
For those that have never seen the full Jimmy James experience, how would you describe your show?
I'm a singing impressionist specializing in re-creating LIVE some of the most iconic voices of the century. Basically, I do tricks with my throat....lol. I really don't do drag (except in private for a few dollars) but I do present an androgynous look, so I can weave in and out of all the mostly female voices. I do some male voices too... I've just recently added Elvis.
Razor sharp impersonation is such a huge part of your show. How do you decide what new performers to add to your repertoire?
I only impersonate or pay tribute to artists that I'm a big fan of. My recent additions: Adele, Lana Del Ray, Liza and I'm trying to work on Rihanna. I'm also working on finding a couple of Spanish songs - maybe Selena? "I Could Fall In Love."
The "Marilyn Years" were one of the most iconic times in your life as a performer. What do you remember most about those times in your career?
I remember the triumph of getting onto major network television talk shows of the day such as "Donahue", "Geraldo", "Sally Jesse Raphael", Joan Rivers, CNN and more. I also remember how hard I worked with sold-out shows, but still lacked a certain level of respect in the business, I think in part, due to the A.I.D.S, era. All my friends were dying around me. People were afraid and gays were afraid. I played so many gay clubs in the way that Marilyn performed for the troops in Korea. I tried to bring joy when there was so much tragedy, heartbreak and loss. I remember threats of lawsuits from the lawyers of the Marilyn Monroe estate over the L.A. Eyeworks ad I did; I was devastated by that. The iconic image had to be stricken from the records and hidden away so that no one would ever see it again except for the one time it ran in the 20th Anniversary of Interview Magazine. Twenty two years later due to the Internet, the image was set free. Now it's probably one of the most mistaken identity photos that people think is Marilyn herself. The image was even used for a series of Marilyn stamps in the Republic of Africa in 2014. People are getting tattoos of it thinking it's Marilyn - but it's me! Kinda funny, but kinda not. That era is over for me and I'm kinda melancholy about it all. I also remember flying my Mom to New York City in 1996 to see me on a giant billboard in Times Square as Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland & Bette Davis with supermodel Linda Evangelista. I quietly ended my Marilyn Years in 1997. The last time anyone can see me doing Marilyn is for my dance music video on YouTube: "Who Wants To Be Your Love." I have no regrets. I won't be doing Marilyn again. Time is the enemy.
You have worked with a virtual nightlife and performance superstar rolodex! What were some of your favorite collaborations?
Besides my fun show of voice Impressions, I've worked with top dance music producers to release some really cool dance music - most of it written by me. My song 'Fashionista' from the album 'Jamestown' went global and is still being played! I've written more songs and I'm looking for more collaborators/ producers.
When "Fashionista" hit, you could not find someone on a runway without that song being the soundtrack. What was the influence behind the song? Any plans for more music coming up?
"Fashionista" is my baby. I worked so hard writing so many songs prior to that one until that one hit! My influence was New York Fashion Week. My muse was Andre Leon Talley from "Vogue"; I'm fascinated by him. I imitate his persona in the song. Yes, I want to put out more music. I'm looking for kick-ass dance music producers who wanna collaborate with me. I've always loved dance music. In fact my so called "cabaret" shows have some dance music in them. I love the energy from the beat. I want my shows to be like a party.
What's left in your career that you want to perform or accomplish?
A documentary of my "Marilyn Years." I have so much more footage that you won't find on YouTube. I have rare amazing videos and photos. I wanna write to George Lucas or Steven Spielberg. It'll take a heavy hitter to handle this story. I was the boy who walked in Marilyn Monroe's shoes - literally. There are so many copyrights to muddle through. I need someone who really knows what they're doing - and has the resources to clear the rights.
With gay marriage passing and the visibility of the community changing, nightlife and performing at clubs has changed. Have you seen the crowds change at your shows? If so, how?
I have found that I perform more now for mixed crowds (gay and straight). People are beginning to be more open-minded than they were in the mid-eighties and early nineties. There's the RuPaul effect with his successful TV show, "RuPaul's Drag Race". To some extent, mainstream acceptance (or curiosity of gay culture) has arrived. I believe the younger generation is way cooler about this than their parents. I'm hopeful for the future of acceptance.
What does "pride" mean to you?
Pride means never having to apologize for who you are or who you love or who you marry. Pride is being free to not worry about being so harshly judged that it hurts you by being fired at a job or being thrown out of your home by a parent. Pride is that feeling of being ok with yourself and knowing you're loved no matter what. I'm very lucky to have this in my life. I wish it for everyone.
We all have the right to the pursuit of happiness.
If you could look back and talk to the Jimmy James that was just starting out, what would the experienced performer that you have grown into tell him?
It's not who you know but who knows you!
Don't despair and compare.
If you feel it in your soul - it's right.
You must learn to play the piano.
Listen to your father and buy some land.