Image courtesy of Jamie Campbell

Meet the drag artist inspo behind Everybody's Talking About Jamie

As the popular musical prepares for a big screen adaptation, Jamie Campbell reflects on 10 years with his alter-ego Fifi (and why he's retiring her).

by Gina Tonic
06 November 2020, 11:52am

Image courtesy of Jamie Campbell

For most of us, if a musical was made about our lives at sixteen, the songs would revolve around being fingered in the backseat of a Ford Fiesta and lurking outside shops trying to persuade patrons over the age of 18 to buy us a pack of ciggies and a two litre bottle of cider. As much as the imagined harmonies of the “Ballad of the Happy Shopper” bring a tear to my eye, not many of our stories could have as much impact as that of Jamie Campbell, the fashion designer and drag queen whose life Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is based on. 

The story of the musical, now a film due out next year, was initially based on a humble documentary in which a teenage Jamie — renamed Jamie New for the stage production — decides that he would be attending his County Durham high school’s prom in drag. The problems this caused Jamie in 2011 are hard to imagine now, after a decade of Ru Paul’s Drag Race making female impersonation mainstream. At the time, the BBC doc, originally titled Jamie: Drag Queen at 16, depicted how its protagonist was bullied by his peers for his aspiration and told by teachers he would not be allowed into the dance if he did turn up in full drag. 

As well as exploring family issues, homophobia and high school bullying along the way, the documentary, musical (and presumably the upcoming film, slated for release in February 2021, too) ends on a high. Although Jamie heads to the prom as his drag persona Fifi la True only to be turned away at the door, the dance attendees come outside to demand Fifi’s entry — and thus Cinderella gets to go to the ball.

“I look back at when I was sixteen, and I can’t believe I did all of that then,” Jamie says today. “To do all that stuff so young, I just didn’t really know what I was doing, I don’t think.”

The story, in all its formats, is a heartwarming tale of perseverance and queer power, but, as Jamie tells us over Zoom, a story that feels outdated on a personal level. “It's like being trapped in that 16-year-old self, because Jamie New isn’t me directly… well, he’s inspired by me but he’s not 100% me. And people associate Jamie New with exactly how I am,” Jamie says. “We are obviously quite similar and share a lot, but it was a long time ago, and a lot has gone on since then.”

Of course, the real life Jamie probably didn’t expect the fictional Jamie to stick around for such a long time in our collective imagination. “I didn’t have a clue that it was going to be a big West End hit or anything,” he says of the musical. “I thought it was just going to be a small community centre production or something. I didn’t hear anything for years while they were working on it, so I thought it had been scrapped, just because it had gone so quiet and then all of a sudden it came out, and it was like, oh!”

The most notable change in the time since the original BBC documentary was released, all the way back in 2011, is Jamie’s recent decision to retire his drag persona, Fifi la True. “I got a bit lost in the character. My self-worth was based on Fifi, and all the attention I got out of being her,” he explains. “I had to realise the worth of Jamie, the person who’s behind it all, the person who made Fifi. I’ve been learning to accept myself as Jamie and realising that I can do things as Jamie just as well as Fifi could.” 

As well as looking to find confidence in himself out of drag, Jamie also found the growth in the mainstream popularity of drag difficult to adjust to. At the time of his IRL prom, the veritable empire that is RuPaul’s Drag Race was still in its infancy. Since then, it’s inspired a transformation in how the world views drag queens, inspiring numerous spin off series. “Drag has grown in popularity so fast, but it is a double-edged sword,” says Jamie. “I think it’s amazing that so many people are accepting of it and being exposed to it, but then, as with anything that becomes commercial, it gets watered down a bit.”

“The standard of drag is so high now — everybody’s just so good — and with me not doing it as often, I felt like my drag was not where I wanted it to be either,” Jamie continues. “I was putting out things that I wasn’t necessarily happy with and because of Drag Race and the internet, everybody has become a critic. When really? They don’t have a clue what goes into being a drag queen.”

It’s not just the perception of drag as an art form that has changed in the past 10 years. Jamie’s own life has gone through several transformations. In 2013, the designer — currently working on a collaboration with Snag Tights —moved from his native North East to London to study at LCF. In the years since, clothing and design have increasingly become a creative outlet for him, over performance. But he likens fashion to drag, with both practices enabling him to play and subvert gender roles.

“I’ve never really seen gender with clothing,” he says. “It’s always just been whatever I like, I like. Putting together outfits is just creating different fantasies. Just waking up and saying, ‘Who do I want to be today?’ Then you get to create that as a costume almost. And like RuPaul says,” he adds, “you’re born naked and the rest is drag! Whatever you put on every day is your costume, your drag. I think that’s the same for everybody, whether they realise it or not. What you choose to put on your body is what you’re putting out there to the world and how you want to be seen, whether it’s slacks or a massive look with big heels and bigger hair. It’s still a presentation.”

Currently working on a new line for his own collection, the Geordie explains that gender neutrality, as well as size inclusivity in fashion, is something that’s crucial to his practice. “People who have most clothing readily available to them don’t realise how exclusionary fashion can sometimes be,” the designer says. “Inclusion is so important, it empowers people.”

Almost ten years on from the inspirational, empowering story at the heart of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, it’s this inclusion, and his design practice, that Jamie Campbell hopes will inspire people just as much as his decade-old prom story. Both encapsulate the lively spirit of the creative’s teen and current self. “Sometimes you’ve just gotta grab life by the balls,” he reasons. “Then you take those balls, you tuck ’em between your legs and you put your best fucking frock on.”