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San Antonio native Jimmy James returns home for the holidays

From drag queen to diva impersonator, Jimmy James finds his voice

T wenty years ago, Marilyn Monroe helped San Antonio's Jimmy James run away from home. They have since gone their separate ways, though the parting was amicable. And now he's coming home for the holidays on his own. Except, of course, for the voices in his head.

"I knew I wanted to be an entertainer, but the only performers I saw making money were the drag queens in the clubs," James says. He parlayed a natural facial resemblance to Monroe, his cosmetics acumen, and serious gift for vocal impression into a performance phenomenon that quickly outgrew the local club scene.

Soon, James' was THE definitive Marilyn, lauded by the pop culturally savvy on both coasts. His one-man show, Marilyn and Voices, was in high-demand worldwide. An ad for Kenar, a women's clothing manufacturer, featured James as three of his divas - Marilyn, Bette Davis, and Judy Garland - posing with supermodel Linda Evangelista on giant billboard in Times Square.

"I ended up as a supermodel," James says. "I was satisfied. I'd already done all the TV shows, I'd toured all over the country, I'd gone a few places in Europe. I did Marilyn longer than Marilyn did Marilyn. It's got a limited shelf life, and you know that from the beginning." In 1997, James retired his Marilyn, and drag in general, to focus on his vocal impressions.

The transition wasn't easy. James worked for five years on the new act, gradually weaning himself and his audiences away from a dependence on the visual characterizations of the divas he channels. A weekly gig in New York City allowed him to experiment with creating their essence using minimal props and no costume changes, à la his idol, Lilly Tomlin. He admits that making the change was "terrifying." But he had been building the foundation of the new act for years, adding more and more voices to the Marilyn show, which were becoming increasingly popular with the audiences. When a director told him "Jimmy, your show is right there," and pointed to his throat, James knew he was right to try to move away from the titles of "female impersonator" and "lookalike," which he felt discounted his vocal talent. Finally he was free to concentrate on getting the voices, rather than the "drag," right.

The decision paid off, opening doors in ways he could not have imagined. In addition to touring his sell-out shows, he has been asked to perform for celebrities like Elton John, Deborah Harry, Luther Vandross, Cyndi Lauper, Patti LaBelle, Jane Seymour, Eartha Kitt, Star Jones, Natalie Cole, Neil Sedaka, Whoopi Goldberg, and others.

Jimmy James:
Home For The Holidays
Thursday, December 18-
Saturday, December 20
Jump-Start Theater
108 Blue Star
And now James, who lives in New York, will bring his latest show, the multimedia Divas R 4Ever, to Jump-Start Theater for the holidays. He will perform in his own voice (his 1998 hit dance single, "Who Wants to Be Your Lover?") and as a multitude of divas: Billie Holiday, Eartha Kitt, Diana Ross, Patsy Cline, Madonna, Macy Gray, Norah Jones, Judy Garland, and both voices in duets by Sonny and Cher, and Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond. A hilarious video montage backs up his Bette Davis version of "Feliz Navidad," a special nod to San Antonio audiences, and there will be a video tribute to his Marilyn years, featuring never-before-seen, private footage. The family friendly show ("My family will be in the audience, so I have to keep it clean!") features a few seasonal surprises as well.

Both James and Jump-Start hope to make a Jimmy James show a SA holiday tradition. Jump-Start artistic director Sterling Houston is a particular fan. "What I admire most about Jimmy," he says, "besides his self-evident talent, is his willingness to be true to his own vision of who he is. His uncompromising approach to his work has elevated the field and brought respect to a genre that has often had to fight for legitimacy."

James hopes this is true. "My journey," he says, "has been that I want to be able to stand on my own two feet as an entertainer, and to be respected as an artist. When drag was becoming so big, I was getting out of it. I wondered if I was doing the right thing. But you have to be true to yourself. You can't be an artist if you're lying to yourself."

Don't think he's discounting his drag roots, however. "If I could be a bridge between drag artists and the broader public that would make me very happy," he says. "Drag artists work very hard at the their craft, and they deserve to be credited. They deserve to be paid, and to be seen as artists." He would like nothing better than to help people see beyond the dress (or lack thereof) and appreciate the talent. After all, as he says, "talent is genderless." •

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