Bailey Ain't Babs

Don't confuse this illusionist with a cross-dresser

He ducks back into the dressing room, where he sits on a simple kitchen chair covered with three mismatched bath towels. He summons Steve Campbell, a strapping man with a goatee and a bevy of earrings, who serves as Bailey's booking agent and untitled personal assistant. "I'm just so hungry I could faint. Can you go and get me something to eat?" Campbell disappears to microwave a bowl of chicken teriyaki and vegetables. "And coffee!" Bailey yells into the hallway.

It's easy to see how Bailey can become Streisand. His skin is so milky that it appears touched up, and his slender frame barely needs the girdle he'll strap on for the shows. Looking into a lighted makeup mirror, he runs his index finger along the small bags of dark-colored skin under his eyes. "I'm really worried about that microphone," he says to no one. The theater's only cordless mic fell off its stand during rehearsal. It worked fine afterward, but Bailey has so far unsuccessfully insisted they find a backup. "What would happen if that just stopped working in the middle of it? She'd be done for."

Several minutes later, as he shovels the teriyaki into his mouth from a paper plate, Bailey runs through his career with the speed of someone who's told the story a few thousand times. His father, a machinist in Philadelphia, didn't understand Bailey's flamboyant side. When the young Bailey got his first big break doing Phyllis Diller at the Flamingo Casino in Las Vegas, he flew his parents out to watch the show. Since then, they've followed his globetrotting exploits, which included a short stint as Madonna in Australia 12 years ago. "I wouldn't do her again," he says. "She's so high-energy. It's just sooo hard."

Jim Bailey has a few layers of makeup and two hours of preparation left
Colby Katz
Jim Bailey has a few layers of makeup and two hours of preparation left

Bailey continues eating as he explains that he missed lunch. A big piece of something falls out of the corner of his mouth, bounces off his leg, and falls onto the floor. "I'm such a mess," he says, smoothing out the fabric of his sweatpants. Campbell returns with a Styrofoam cup of coffee. "More cream?" Bailey shouts after him. Then he stops chewing to explain his secret. He doesn't try to imitate Barbra or the others. He becomes his subjects.

He doesn't like to talk about his life offstage. He's a hermit, he says, a recluse who stays home with the cats and rented movies. "I've done the whole premiere thing and the Hollywood party thing," he says. "I'm done with it."

There isn't much to say about the offstage Jim Bailey, he concludes. "I'm dedicated to my work. I can say that. I know I'm not Barbra or Phyllis or Judy. I'm Jim Bailey, I guess. I don't know."

The plate of chicken gone, he staunchly defends his use of third person when describing his act. "I'm not Barbra; I'm me." He pauses. "Until tomorrow night." His act is about giving audience members what they want: to pretend Barbra is on stage. "At the end of it, people will be screaming out, 'Barbra, we love you.' They don't see me doing Barbra. They see Barbra Streisand. They want to believe it."

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