“Drag”: When women were not allowed to be actresses in theater, William Shakespeare called it Drag when a male actor “DRessed As Girl” played the female part.
“Drag Queen”: A man who dresses as a flamboyant woman in order to entertain others.
We know about them, but do we really understand them? For many heterosexuals, there ‘s a lot of terminology that is still misunderstood - namely terms like “Drag” and “Drag Queen”. Who else to better define those terms than one of the best drag queens in show business: Vegas’ own Jimmy Emerson. Jimmy headed the talented cast of “An Evening At La Cage” for years in Vegas as not only one hilarious emee, but doing incredible female impersonations of celebrities like Wynonna Judd, Roseanne Barr, Anna Nicole Smith, and the outrageous trailer-trash bimbo, Tammy Spraynette. Jimmy always had that kind of incredible sense of humor that drew you to him and made you feel like you’ve known him all your life. STRIPLV interviewed Jimmy many times over the years - but this time we thought we’d get a little more personal, delving into some more intimate questions and hear his personal story about his first experience of transforming himself into a woman through makeup and clothing. Opening up to us, he shares his accounts of coping through difficult times as he was tormented and bullied for being gay. Through amusing tales and heart-wrenching affirmations, one thing’s for sure, Jimmy is a unique talent and a one-of-a-kind man that has made us laugh out loud at the world.
STRIPLV: In the beginning, when you were just a teenager, tell me what it felt like to transform yourself with makeup and look like a woman.
JIMMY: I had a very good friend in junior high school, a little bit older than me, and he was the first drag queen I ever met. He moved away and went to college while I was still in high school and he got involved in female impersonation. As a kid, I’d gotten into my mother’s lipstick and eyeliner, and I can’t tell you how many of her poor shoes I broke running around the house in them! She didn’t think much about it because I guess kids do that. The first time I got put in drag, I was in college. I’d moved in with my friend and we shared an apartment at La Marr University. He was already performing at the local club as a drag queen with the stage name Monica Kristy. I saw him all made up and I thought that it was amazing, and I’d never seen it done to that extent. Just putting blush and lipstick on, that isn’t it. Drag is slightly different than theater characters, because you’re also going for glamour. He was the first person to teach me. (Jimmy proceeds to hilariously mimic the entire makeup process) “Take a Max Factor Pan Stick and just rub it all over your face and block your eyebrows, too. Then you take a sponge and smooth it all out. It’s moist, so you have to powder it all down with translucent powder and that makes a blank palette. Then you can paint the eyebrows, the eyes, and the colors,” he said. Then he did it for me. I just sat and watched him do it. (Jimmy becomes hilariously flamboyant, speedily yipping out the directions like a Chihuahua on crack) He’d say: “Now shut up and listen. You take this and go like this, and be sure to powder, because some of these queens don’t powder, and you’ll look ridiculous if you don’t powder. So powder, powder, powder.” And he’s right, that’s how you do it. Then he’d say: “Observe the eyebrows. Do you want thick ones or thin ones, straight ones or curved ones? Your face is like this, you need hair away from your face, because you’re fat. You need bigger hair, because it makes your face look smaller. Bigger lashes, because it makes your face look smaller.” (laughter) Within two or three times of him helping me get in drag, I had it down.
STRIPLV: How did you feel when you looked in the mirror?
JIMMY: I knew I had happened onto something and that I’d be doing this for a long time. I saw a whole new character and a whole new reason to be me. When I put that face on, I became a drag queen named Roxie Starr. My first song to lip-sync to was All That Jazz from Chicago. My friend, Monica Kristy, went to Catherine’s Stout Shop which was equivalent to Lane Bryant and found this dress on sale. It had a single strand of fringe sewn around it. Well, I thought I was gorgeous! I borrowed my mother’s silver fox furs, and with this dress and big hair, did my first show, and the place went nuts! They handed me a microphone, and literally, a star was born. I was eighteen. I’d been doing this schtick out of drag, doing plays and shows, but not as Roxie. Then I became the emcee for every contest, every pageant, every talent night. They wanted Roxie to host it, because I was funny.
STRIPLV: Do you think you would have been a stand-up comic if you hadn’t gone into drag?
JIMMY: Oh yes, it was just born in me. I get it from my dad, ‘cause he was always the jokester. He always wanted to make people laugh. After a hard day’s work, he’d come home and say the funniest things out of the blue. Everyone loved my dad because he was jolly. He was big too, and everyone called him “Big Daddy”. He was just funny, just genuinely, naturally funny.
STRIPLV: Tell me the difference between a drag queen and a cross-dresser or transvestite (a person who likes to dress up in the clothes of the opposite sex). Is it a sexual thing?
JIMMY: I know that there’s a huge population of cross-dressers who are straight married men with children, and they’re doctors, lawyers, executives – all who like to put on women’s clothing. We have a group coming to see our show in April. The man who set the reservation is named Curtis and his girl name is Cynthia. He called and said: “Hey, Jimmy. This is Curtis. We want to come see your show. You know, we’re the group of about 200 men that are professional cross-dressers.” They strictly do it because it’s something they want to do. It’s not sexual with this particular group. Then there are what we call Trannies, who happen to be beautiful, thin, pretty men, who maybe feel they were born in the wrong body, but that’s another whole thing, and that’s a transsexual. A female impersonator, which is what we are, is an actor who dresses up as a female for the purpose of performing. That’s why the term Drag Queen became such a common term, because it throws everyone in one big group, like “You’re all a bunch of Drag Queens,” which means you’ve got women’s clothes on and you’re men. I’ll say Drag Queen, meaning Female Impersonator, because I like to be funny about it. But I’m not putting anybody down if I call them a Drag Queen, especially our show. We’re a show full of female impersonators.
STRIPLV: You’ve told me you are openly gay. How old were you when you realized you were first attracted to men?
JIMMY: I was attracted to men at puberty, probably 12 or 13, but I never acted on it. I was flamboyant, but I didn’t want to disappoint anyone. In the South, the last thing you wanted to be called was “Queer”, so I fought against it. I dated my high school sweetheart, Melissa, through my junior and senior years, and I was pretty sure we were going to be married. My parents were very thrilled about that, because they kind of figured I was gay. Everybody did! I’d already started doing the Drag Queen thing. My mother suspected, but she never got to see me perform before she died. My dad got to see me perform many times. It was right after Melissa went off to college that I had my first full gay experience with a man that I fell in love with. I thought: “This is ridiculous, I am totally gay!” What the irony is, was that Melissa was gay, too. She turned out to be a Lesbian. (laughing) We both realized we were trying to please our parents in high school. It was a small town and finally we said: “We are what we are, and we have to live our lives.” We’re still very best friends.
STRIPLV: Did you ever experience any hate-related occurrences because you were gay Down South?
JIMMY: Oh, God yes! In high school I was horribly tormented, and I wasn’t even out then. I was just flamboyant. I took ballet, tap, jazz, and I was in all the school plays and musicals. I was still being me. In a different world, like today, I’d just be out. I would have accepted my sexuality much sooner. I’m glad we’ve made strides in the gay world and kids can now come out and be who they are, without having to pretend.
STRIPLV: What would you tell a young 14 to 16 year-old kid who was hesitant to come out?
JIMMY: I’d tell them: “Make sure that’s what you want, but don’t be afraid.” That’s what we fought for. My generation fought to make it okay to get rights, and now we’ve come a long, long way and we did it so that 14, 15 year-old kids don’t have to suffer like I had to suffer all those years. It was very tough! I was shoved in lockers, things were thrown at me, and I was very much bullied, but I always fought back with humor. It was always my defense mechanism.
STRIPLV: I fully believe that being gay is genetic and you’re born the way you’re born. Do you think that environment or learned behavior has anything whatsoever to do with someone becoming gay?
No! I just can’t believe that for a moment. That whole issue about gay parents raising a child and that it will cause the child to become gay is nonsense. That child is going to be who they are, whether two women, two men, or a straight couple raises them. You just can’t make someone something that they’re not! There’s always that 10% gay factor, and it’s always been there, and it’s always going to be there as far as I know. It’s like if you’re born black and they want you to be white…how can you correct that? It’s just who you are!
STRIPLV: Do you get exasperated with people who ask these kinds of questions?
JIMMY: No, not at all. I’m glad you ask these kinds of questions, because I think people should be asking them more and more. We just have to talk about it.
STRIPLV: You have a partner named Jimbo, correct?
JIMMY: I have a wonderful partner, Jimbo. We’ve been together twenty years now. We got married two years ago in San Diego, officially, but we’ve been a couple for twenty years. He works at Citibank, and I’m under his insurance. I had a hip replacement and they paid for it.
STRIPLV: Were you on his insurance just since you’ve been married?
JIMMY: I’ve been on his insurance for about ten years now. They accept domestic partners. Levi Strauss was one of the first companies to allow domestic partners, then IBM did it, and then a lot of companies followed suit. All you have to do is prove that you’ve been a couple, and we’ve had a joint checking account for fifteen years, and we’ve lived at the same address. It was obvious.
STRIPLV: Now, out of your closet and onto the stage. Tell me about the other impersonators in the show.
JIMMY: Brent Allen does Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand. I think he’s one of the best in the business and always has been. Ryan Zink does Reba, and then there’s Carlos Rodriguez who does Madonna and Lady Gaga. He moved here a few years ago and was working the gay clubs here in town. Carlos stopped by one night dressed as Madonna and said: “If I can ever help you with your show, I’d love to.” I told him to go ahead and do Madonna, and he went over big. He was a really good find. We have him doing Lady Gaga too, but his real look-alike is Jennifer Lopez. It’s striking! Frankie Kein, who does Lisa Minnelli and Marilyn Monroe, is amazing, and we’re thrilled to have him. His real name is Frank Castro, and he’s Cuban. Whenever he flies, he gets pulled aside, because his last name is Castro. I guess that’s the world we live in, but he’s not related to Fidel. Kenneth Rex is our newest addition to the show and he’s wonderful. He does a big variety of stars: Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Cher and Dolly Parton.
STRIPLV: Have you ever read your reviews online?
JIMMY: I've received the best comments. Most of the reviews are very kind and it’s nice to hear. I want to be the star, I want to be funny, I want to be out there, but I don’t want that to be the only reason people come to see the show. I’m happy sharing the spotlight.
STRIPLV: When something upsetting has happened during the day, how do you bring yourself up before you come out on stage?
JIMMY: It’s funny you say that, because that happens more often than you think. You can have a very stressful day, but I’ve done this show for so long now that I know that once I get on the stage and I get my first laugh, everything’s going to be okay. It’s almost an escape, because I know that for the next ninety minutes, I have to focus on nothing else except the show, and getting out there, and delivering my material, and making people laugh, and bringing on the acts. I think sometimes it’s saved people’s lives. (laughing) I really do! It’s not an escape, because it’s what I do for a living, but it’s truly a Godsend some nights, that I have to stop and forget all the crap that’s happened all day and do the show, because I have to focus on that.
STRIPLV: What celebrity have you enjoyed impersonating the most?
JIMMY: Until recently, I would have said Tammy Spraynet, because it’s always surefire laughs. I think Wynonna Judd has become my new favorite. Wynonna has become a new character for me that I have worked on and gotten her looks and mannerisms down. I’ve actually met Wynonna now, when she was at The Orleans last year. I get great recognition and people start pulling out their cameras. I’m not used to that, because I don’t really look like anybody. If you look like Roseanne, it’s no big deal, but if you look like Wynonna, it’s pretty cool. People ask me every day: “Why don’t you do Paula Deen?” I’m from the South and I’m big, but Paula Deen is hard to put in a show like La Cage, because she’s a cook. She doesn’t sing songs or act, and she doesn’t even dance. How would you do Paula Deen…come out and fry some chicken and eat a stick of butter? (laughter) It would work great as an SNL sketch as Paula with some lines, but to come out and do three minutes of a Paula Deen routine…I’m not sure what I’d do. Maybe: “I like to eat butter, y’all, and I want some sour cream. And be sure to put an extra stick of butter on it.” If you’ve ever watched her show, if the recipe calls for three tablespoons of butter, she’ll chop off three tablespoons of butter and then just stick in the rest of the stick every time. (laughing)
STRIPLV: What is your best attribute?
JIMMY: I think it’s my personality. I can usually turn a bad situation around with whatever it takes. Kill them with kindness.
SLV: What attribute do you wish you had?
JIMMY: I wish I could play the piano. I regret never learning it. I had every opportunity, but I was just too lazy to sit and practice. I also wish I could sing better. I sing in the show, but I’m a belter.
STRIPLV: If you could have any item from a star’s dressing room, name the star and the item.
JIMMY: Barbra Streisand has a huge Art Deco collection that she started when she was a kid. Art Deco is my favorite thing. I love Erte, anything that’s from that era, and even Art Nouveau with the sleek lines. I love all that! Anything from Streisand’s collection, I’d love to get a hold of.
STRIPLV: What’s your favorite cuss word?
JIMMY: Oh, my Lord…it’s not fuck…I don’t like to say fuck very much. I think, it’s shit!
STRIPLV: Tell me what you consider to be a perfect day.
JIMMY: A perfect day is when I don’t have to do anything and all the bills are paid. (laughter)
STRIPLV: If you were to take a week vacation, where would be the perfect place?
JIMMY: I would go to the South of France with Jimbo, and we’d walk on the beach, and we’d gamble, and we wouldn’t have to worry about money. I’ve never been to France and I’ve always wanted to go. I’m going to go one day soon.
STRIPLV: What makes you sad?
JIMMY: Animal abuse. Child abuse. I can hardly take it. It just makes me very sad.
vWhat makes you laugh out loud?
JIMMY: Spontaneous humor. When people do something that they don’t mean to do and it’s funny. I don’t laugh just because people trip and fall down, I don’t necessarily think that’s funny, unless they were trying to fall down, and then I think it’s hysterical. (laughing)
STRIPLV: Do things you find personally funny work in the show?
JIMMY: When I find things funny, I have to deliver it in such a way to make it funny for the audience. I think everyday events are hysterical, if you tell it right. Just driving to work…you can do a five-minute monologue just on that and have people on the floor laughing. That’s what people relate to; something normal.
STRIPLV: What is the best part of living and working in Vegas and what is the worst?
JIMMY: The best part is that it’s a 24-hour town. They say that New York City is the city that never sleeps, but I’ve been to New York many times and you can’t get a burger after 10 o’clock. Here, you meet people from so many different places, and I’ve always liked that. The worst thing about Vegas is the traffic, although it’s getting a little better and you learn how to deal with it. Maybe the extreme heat in the summer, but I love the dry climate. I grew up in the South and it’s so humid there, and I feel so much better here.
STRIPLV: Do you ever consider working in a city like San Francisco that has a large gay population?
JIMMY: I wouldn’t be successful in San Francisco. My act and my persona appeal to a straight audience. I was told that years ago when I started doing drag. The Queens that were doing their lip-sync acts were very popular. I’d get the laughs and stuff, but I wasn’t as popular as they were. My slapstick style of comedy appeals to straight people. The biggest gay bar owner in Texas told me that in the ‘70’s. He said: “Jimmy, go to Vegas, work in front of a straight audience in drag, and you’ll be successful.” He was absolutely right.
STRIPLV: I know you love to cook, but do you have a favorite restaurant here in Vegas?
JIMMY: I like The Bootlegger, because I love anything Italian.
STRIPLV: What’s your favorite meal to make?
JIMMY: Veal Sorrentino, which is veal parmesan with eggplant on it. I make the best!
STRIPLV: Do you listen to music and sing at home?
JIMMY: Oh, I do all the time. Frank Sinatra, anything big band, anything Broadway, it makes me happy. When I’m in a bad mood, I can put on a favorite Broadway album and be very happy.
STRIPLV: Do you ever envision yourself retiring and not being on stage?
JIMMY: I see myself semi-retiring, so that I can take vacations, but I want to work right up to the day that I can’t work anymore. I don’t know an entertainer that doesn’t want to. I’ve never heard one say I’m retiring at 65, 70 or 80. Look at Don Rickles, Phyllis Diller – they’re all still working.
STRIPLV: Is there something that’s on your “Bucket List”, besides the South of France?
JIMMY: I’d love to experience working on Broadway in a Broadway Show, whether it was in drag or not. Even if it was a bit part, I’d love it – and to live in New York City for a period of time, like six months or a year.
STRIPLV: How do you envision your tombstone?
JIMMY: I saw the best tombstone down in Key West. It said: “I told you I was sick!” (roaring with laughter) I’m thinking that I’d like all my friends at my funeral to party, be happy and laugh. I see lots of vodka cocktails, music, a band and karaoke.
An Evening at La Cage has closed since our interview with Jimmy, and we wish him the best in his future endeavors.