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Profile: Jim Bailey
I once saw Jim Bailey perform in Las Vegas. The audience was from a plumbers convention. When he was introduced as Judy Garland, the illusion was uncannily realistic. One plumber turned to his wife and said, I thought she was dead. She is, the wife replied, This is the daughter.
The first guy-in-a-gown entertainer to attain headliner status and a national (read straight) following, Bailey does one character per show, usually Garland or Barbra Streisand. He does it all himself, without high-tech hocus-pocus; famously, Bailey doesnt lip-synch; he sings in character. Audiences can catch him on tour this winter, and spring marks the appearance of his new CD, The Best of Jim Bailey. He wont call his art drag or Female impersonation or even impression. He prefers illusion, and illusion it is.
Bruce: Where were you born?
Jim: Philadelphia, and not in a trunk.
Who were your role models?
Not my family. Actually, a lot of people, although I never saw anybody do what I do.
When did you first dress up in female clothing? Was this something you always wanted to do?
With me its all onstage. Its all about being in character. And its a lot of work. The other day I was watching a tape of outtakes from THE HOLLYWOOD PALACE, and Judy was on. She was wearing some sort of suit with a jacket and tie and vest. There was a break in the taping, and she undid her tie, and you could hear her mutter, I wouldnt be a man for nothin.
Why Barbra? Why Judy? Why not say, Bette Davis or Tallulah Bankhead?
None of those ladies sing, except comically. Judy and Barbra are legendary singers. And my work comes from a singing place, not a comedy place-although theres plenty of comedy in my shows, patter, the whole reconstruction of one of their evenings. Other impressionists dont sing, as a rule, and if they do, they dont do the complete illusion. When I was doing an act in which I appeared as Judy and later as myself, people used to say, Gee, when you came out as yourself, you really sang well. It didnt occur to them that I was singing as Judy.
Its been said you changed entertainment history and certainly drag history along with it, Could you explain?
Well, Ive been explaining for 27 years that I dont do drag. Theres nothing wrong with it, but its not what I do. Nevertheless, I did open doors for a lot of people, like RuPaul. When I headlined in Vegas, it became acceptable to appear as a woman on a stage outside of a gay bar. This had been done once briefly on Broadway, but not really in any other mainstream venue. It needed somebody to pioneer it.
Did you ever think the whole drag idea would get to be so popular?
Honestly, never. If someone had told me in 1971 that drag would be on TV and in movies, I would have said, You know, I doubt that. It was mind-boggling for me to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show or The Carol Burnett Show or The Streets Of San Fransisco. I thought I would be the only one who ever got to do such a thing. Now I wish Id hung on to all those history-making dresses.
What do you want to be remembered for?
Isnt that something they ask Miss Idaho on the pageant? OK-I dont want to be remembered as one of those guys who wore a dress and pretended to be female. I want to be remembered for the uniqueness of the art form I created. Not just lip-synching, not just wearing dresses, but singing, acting, the makeup, the details the full monty.
Copyright ©2005 Jim Bailey. All rights reserved.
Master Tony Bonazzo: Tbonazzo@snet.net