In 2001 legendary female impersonator David de Alba sat down with impersonator Jimmy James. We bring you that interview today with David de Alba’s permission.
Jimmy James will be my first interview in this Year 2,001. I have seen him on television a few times and have his latest Video “Who Wants To Be Your Lover” but I have never had the honor of seeing him ‘live’ on stage. None-the-less I was always impressed with his performance. I will be slightly retrospective on his career in this interview as I understand that Jimmy’s theatrical management is taking his act in a new direction and is changing his image somewhat. He appears more in a “unisex” format rather than as he did at the beginning of his career in full drag (picture David Bowie or Boy George). He comes on stage in full make-up without wig and in masculine attire, and of course still sings ‘live’ and does the voice and character of famous lady stars. To me he always will be the next best thing to the real Marilyn Monroe. If she were alive I know she would embrace his act. My dear ladies and gentlemen of Cyberspace, please welcome into the spotlight, “The One and Many” Jimmy James.
Jimmy: Yes my home town is in San Antonio, and my family still lives there. I go a few times a year to unwind or for the Holidays. I love it there but I always knew I wanted to be a performer and I had to get out of there to succeed in the entertainment world.
David: Did you have a “drag mother” or mentor that helped you get into the female impersonation field when you first started your career?
Jimmy: Actually I would study all the drag queens in Texas and ask questions about how to do “drag.” I would go backstage and hang out with them. In San Antonio, in the early and mid 1980s, The drag queens in the gay clubs were the closest thing that I could get to the kind of Showbiz that I was interested in — the glitz glam world of night clubs. I was always good with make-up. I studied make-up in high school and college. I would give the drag queens helpful hints about make-up tricks that I knew. I find myself still giving helpful hints to drag queens even now. If I wasn’t a performer I would probably be a very good professional make-up artist.
David: Who was the first female character that you did on stage? Also what was your first professional (paid) gig?
Jimmy: I experimented briefly with other female characters before landing on just the Marilyn illusion. I tried doing Judy Garland but that was already out there. I practiced Barbra Streisand but the make-up would take too long to do. I finally decided to concentrate on only one “drag look” because I was going to be doing voice impressions in my show too. Even though I was really good at doing Marilyn, I only performed as her for about 15-20 minutes in the show. Then I would quick change to myself but with an androgynous look and begin to do all the voices for the 2nd part of my show. Recreating ‘live’ the voices that I do today: Eartha Kitt, Cher, Patsy Cline, Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Bette Davis, Billie Holiday, Karen Carpenter, Mae West, Diana Ross, and now Macy Gray and more.
Jimmy: Some of my Marilyn costumes were designed by a Las Vegas designer named Heddy Jo Star. She was a sweetheart and has since passed away. She used a rare sequinning machine to sew or embroider sequins on to a very thin but indestructible nylon chiffon fabric. The dress itself, besides being beautiful, would act as a very strong corset. I also had a boyfriend who could sew and we would fight all the time because of how meticulous I was about the design of the Marilyn dresses. I wanted them to be exact and in proper proportion. I wanted them very tight but only in the right places. It is very hard to lay fabric flush against the body when you want a dress to be tight in certain places and to give in other places.
David: Do you always have ‘live’ musicians to support your act or do you often use your own recorded music tracks?
Jimmy: I always used backing trax that I would painstakingly produce in the studios. I would hire a musician who could play all the parts. Traveling with trax is much easier and more economical than traveling with ‘live’ musicians, especially when my preference was to play the gay dance clubs, because they were the closest I could get to recreating the ambiance of Marilyn performing ‘live’ for the troops in Korea. I did play a few theaters and cabarets where I did use ‘live’ musicians but the dance clubs brought my recreation of Marilyn Monroe to life. Those kind of clubs were lively and full of energy and fun, and much more enjoyable and party-like than a stale theater or cabaret.
David: What was the best and worst part of working in drag?
Jimmy: The worst part about drag was when some people, or agents and managers, would put me in a very small box professionally. In other words being looked upon as just a “Marilyn Monroe look-a-like” or just a “drag queen.” That was heartbreaking to me given the amount of work I put into the technique of acting, costuming, and music.
The best part might be that for the people who witnessed my performance ‘live’ they were transported to another dimension, so to speak … getting a glimpse of what it might have been like to be in the presence of this great American Star. Another good thing I guess was that it got me on television shows and got me out of Texas and into the entertainment world. Alas, I don’t do the “drag” part of the show anymore so it is much nicer for me now to be accepted as a Voice Impressionist. When I record a record or write a song, the music industry doesn’t care about me being anybody else but myself. I would not be opposed to drag but I will have to be sure it is appropriate for the job. My nightclub show now really is more fun the way I do it now.
David: I have heard you mentioned on a TV interview prior to an appearance in Palm Springs, CA. that you like to do Judy in a ‘tipsy’ way. As you may have heard, us loyal Garland fans are very protective of her on-stage image and only wish to have her portrayed in the best light possible. I don’t mean to sound critical, but why do you choose to portray her at less than her best?
Jimmy: You must understand that I only do a very subtle hint of this, and it is done as a double entendre. In fact when I lift a glass to say “Cheers” to the audience I take a sip and cough with a surprise and exclaim “Water?!” I play Judy as vulnerable, funny, clever, and human. I have seen other impersonators do her very mechanical and contrived and to me Judy was very human, but she exploded with TALENT. She is not a “saint” to me but rather an incredibly human artist with weaknesses and frailties like many of us. This perhaps is what draws so many fans to her. I will NEVER desecrate the memory of any Star that I impersonate. It is not my nature nor my sense of humor to do so.
David: From Judy’s vast repertoire of songs, which ones have you chosen to sing ‘live’ in your act?
Jimmy: I do The Man That Got Away or By Myself or The Man I Love or for special occasions Over the Rainbow, but only sparingly will I sing that song. Sometimes I do a small bit a cappella of You Made Me Love You.
David: Of all the vocal impressions you do, which are the most challenging?
Jimmy: Very challenging for me are Karen Carpenter & Barbra Streisand. Oh, and maybe Billie Holiday too.
Jimmy: One of the coolest women I’ve ever met is Debbie Harry. I loved meeting Boy George and hanging out with him in Miami. Joan Collins was a sweetheart. Joan Rivers was very down-to-earth and nice and let me stay longer on her show even postponing another celebrity. I don’t know …I could go on but I don’t like to be a name-dropper.
David: Do you have any hobbies or interests that occupy your time when you are not performing? By the way, do you have any pets?
Jimmy: No Pets. I started collecting Fiesta [Homer Laughlin China Ware] recently from eBay but only casually! I love going to the movies … I love the whole experience of going to see a motion picture. I consider music and songwriting a great professional hobby. Oh, and I like the most current electronic gadgets even though I’m not very electronic savvy. I’m fascinated by technology but not good at it.
Jimmy: There is one theatrical project that I have in mind but I can’t talk about it because it might not happen, but if it does, you will know about it. It will take a lot of work and mostly depends on whether or not I’m willing to put in the huge amount of effort that it will require. Other than doing my show of Voices now, and promoting my new CD, The One & Many Voices of Jimmy James, I’m still working on songwriting and music.
David: Do you think that someday you would like to write a book about your life and career?
Jimmy: Yes, I would love to do a coffee table book. It would be full of photographs of me as Marilyn Monroe over the span of years that I was recreating her … 1981 thru 1996. I have tons of pictures that no one has ever seen and were never released but yet are beautiful. I would also show the “not so good” photos as well as the original test shots of me practicing the make-up. I was about 17 years old. By the way, if anyone is wondering how old I am … I’m younger than Madonna and older than the Backstreet Boys combined … HA HA! Another dream project would be to do a video of my story, showing me performing in clubs over the years. Here too I have tons of video footage documenting my Marilyn career, but it would also include the voices.
David: Is there something so “very you” that not even those closest to you would ever guess and that you care to share with us?
Jimmy: I never admit it but I really wish that I was taller than 5’5.
David: Are there any particular foods you enjoy? Living in New York you have choices that are not found in many other places in the U.S.A. By the way, are you a good cook or do you like to eat out most of the time?
Jimmy: I love salads but not boring ones. I like really nice well put together salads. Sometimes I treat myself to a big fat Everything Bagel. As far as I know the best bagels are in New York. In Texas I like the Mexican food. I don’t cook but I can make really good salads. In New York we have the new Krispy Kreme Donuts here, but [I have them] only once in a while … I like the Boston Cream donuts.
David: If the “good fairy” were to grant you three wishes for the Year 2,001 (the real Millennium) what would you ask for?
Jimmy: Wish #1: would be to end all racism and hate between people and nations.
Wish #2: would be to end all diseases.
Wish #3: would be to let my mom live for many, many more years.
Thanks David for your perseverance. You had very good questions. I’m glad we finally did it!
Visit Jimmy’s website.
Visit David’s website.
David would like his fans who are Internet savvy and follow him here on TGF to let their non-computer savvy TG friends in the Las Vegas area know when he announces another one of his fabulous shows at The Onyx Theatre.