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The Monroe Doctrine

July 26, 2017 2:18 pm0 commentsViews: 25

Jimmy_James_2017_300dpiHow Jimmy James Took America, and the Central African Republic, By Storm

by Steve Desroches

On an impossibly beautiful and scorching summer day Jimmy James is all smiles. His show History Repeating sold out the night before. His smile brightens again and he let’s out a satisfied sigh. He’d been worried. After all, it’s been eight years since he last performed in Provincetown. He laughs that the last time he was here he still had a flip phone. And since that time, RuPaul’s Drag Race, rising prices and changing demographics in town, and the unpredictable fickleness of what crowds on Commercial Street want to see on stage have created a whole new landscape for this seasoned performer. James wondered if people would even remember him, never mind want to see his show. He has his answer and it’s a resounding yes.

Jimmy James is a legend. His vocal impersonations of everyone from Cher to Stevie Nicks to Diana Ross to Eartha Kitt are as unsettling as they are impressive and entertaining for the sheer pinpoint accuracy. Plus, James’ shows are high-energy cabaret that, even 30 years on, still remain unrivaled in presentation and fun. There is no one like Jimmy James.

Long before the current gender revolution James brought not only drag elements to his show, but also an ambiguity that was pioneering for its time. It was here in Provincetown in the summer of 1986 that everything coalesced for him and his career took off. And it came just in time. He had left his home in San Antonio, Texas, for a gig in a drag revue in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where for two years he did 13 shows over six days a week impersonating Marilyn Monroe.

“All I did was lip synch to ‘I Wanna Be Loved by You,’” says James. “They wouldn’t let me sing live. It was torture. But then I came here and was set free.”

James sent a VHS tape of his work, including his live singing and impersonations, and quickly received a call offering him a summer long gig. His portrayal of Monroe left audiences slack-jawed for both his visual and aural perfection. Soon the whole country would know what Provincetown already did, that he was a star. In the spring of 1987 James appeared as the Hollywood blonde bombshell on The Phil Donahue Show and his career shot to the stratosphere, allowing him to tour the country from the attention the appearance brought, much the way “the RuPaul girls do now,” he adds.  No matter where he went, though, each summer James returned to Provincetown, a place that inspired and rejuvenated him both personally and professionally.

It really was Marilyn that allowed audiences to hear James present his full range of talents. He may have hooked fans with the breathy, sex kitten voice of Monroe (a character he retired in 1997), but night after night James packed houses with his vocal impersonations of not just the stars of yesteryear, but of the day, showing a masterful control over his ability to hear and recreate some of our culture’s most famous voices. But James also presented his own music that he wrote. He opens this summer’s show History Repeating with the Propellerheads song of the same name, providing Dame Shirley Bassey’s show-stopping vocals. He’s performed far and wide, and James is quite certain that there is no town like Provincetown, with its support of non-traditional live performance. The audiences here are the best, no contest.

“Provincetown is the perfect mix of people to get what I do,” says James. “Straight people get it. Gay people get it. Everyone gets it. It’s the level of sophistication that’s here that makes that happen. Audiences in Provincetown are educated, well-traveled, and cultured.”

James continually reinvents himself by maintaining the classic elements of his performances, but also by taking risks that allow him to span and then connect generational differences. History Repeating features the classic songs of Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli, and current pop singers like Adele and Lana Del Rey, as well as a performance of his love letter to Provincetown “Summer Sun,” and his dance hit “Fashionista,” which earned him a Millennial fan base as the original video had 25 million views on YouTube and inspired young fans to create their own work set to his music.

The 1990 L.A. Eyeworks ad featuring Jimmy James.

The 1990 L.A. Eyeworks ad featuring Jimmy James.

James continually surprises fans, old and new. But earlier this year it was he who received a surprise, as did an obscure African nation and philatelists around the world. It is a common practice for poor countries to issue commemorative coins and stamps, as a way to generate badly needed revenue. In 2014 the Central African Republic issued a series of stamps honoring the late Marilyn Monroe, featuring her in a variety of iconic images. However, on one of the stamps it’s not Monroe, but rather an image of James posing as Marilyn based on a photograph taken by Greg Gorman for a 1990 ad campaign for L.A. Eyeworks that also featured John Waters, Grace Jones, and Andy Warhol. It took three years for someone to

notice that rather than honoring the legendary actress it was actually a man in drag. In January 2017 the stamps were pulled from circulation and the country did its best to hide the images on the Internet. The whole thing still elicits a deep laugh from James, especially once he read about the nation’s terrible record on the rights of LGBT people.

The Marilyn Monroe stamps issued by the Central African Republic.

The Marilyn Monroe stamps issued by the Central African Republic.

“The major joy I get from it is that the country has major issues with LGBT people and there I am on a stamp,” says James. “The biggest pride I take is that they need to lick the back of my gay ass to mail a letter.”

Jimmy James presents History Repeating at the Pilgrim House Showroom at Sage Inn, 336 Commercial St., Provincetown, Thursday through Sunday at 9 p.m. until September 3. Tickets ($30 general/$40 for VIP) are available at the box office and online at sageinnptown.com. For more information call 508.487.6424.