Bailey Ain't Babs

Don't confuse this illusionist with a cross-dresser

It's 28 hours before showtime and Jim Bailey hasn't found his inner woman. He's on stage for the final rehearsal at the Atlantis Playhouse, a strip-mall theater in Lantana where he's doing a 12-show stint impersonating Barbra Streisand. Bailey is trying to sing "As If We Never Said Goodbye," but so far, the words are escaping him.

"Missed the fairytale adventures," he croons, his hand flitting up and down with his nasally voice. But he blows a few of the bouncing notes and forgets the next line. "Oh, sorry, my fault," he says to the pianist and drummer backing him up. Bailey is a little rusty after taking a few weeks off following his last performance three weeks ago in Santa Barbara.

He's sitting center stage on one of two bar chairs and crossing his legs in businessman style. That certainly won't work when he's wearing a cocktail dress and blond wig as Babs. Nor will the black sweatpants with paint stains and faded, black, button-down shirt. His jet-black hair is tousled under a face outlined by an angled chin and jutting cheekbones. "Sorry, I'm just not getting it," he explains.

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

But near the end of his rehearsal, Bailey is so immersed in Streisand that the band claps for him after he holds quivering notes in Babs' extended way. ³And this time will be bigger/And brighter than we knew it,² he sings. ³So watch me fly/We all know I can do it.² The song ends with a trailing verse. ³Oh, please don't ever make me say goodbye-eeeeee.² Bailey has been liberated from his earlier troubles. "Ah ha," he tells the band. "She will hold that one for a long time."

It's not uncommon to hear Bailey talk about his Streisand impression in the third person. After more than 30 years performing as Babs, Judy Garland, and a host of yesterday's female celebrities, he has come to think of himself as separate from his stage persona. After all, the guy has made a name for himself as a woman. He's regarded as the man who elevated cross-dressing from seedy bars to Buckingham Palace. He's performed at the Super Bowl, before English royalty, and for every president from Nixon to Reagan.

Bailey, who's somewhere around 55, has been performing for much of his life. Streisand fans still pack small venues for his act. His shows at the Atlantis, which run until Sunday at the 200-seat theater, were sold out by opening day. Even before opening night, the theater booked him again to reappear for encore shows starting June 11.

Bailey doesn't stay in drag a minute longer than necessary after the show. He explains that he's not a cross-dresser or someone who enjoys wearing dresses but an "illusionist" who doesn't continue the fantasy off-stage.

He pulls off his impersonations with a strict attention to detail that's evident in his preparation. After his final rehearsal, Bailey ducked into a dressing room marked by a placard reading "Ms. Barbra Streisand." He scoffs at the preparations. To begin with, he tells a doting makeup artist that the pile of hand towels weren't nearly enough for him to take off the layers of makeup he would need for the show.

"I'll need at least two big bath towels and maybe a half-dozen hand towels," he informs the makeup artist, who takes down his demands on two pages of a legal pad.

Against the walls of his dressing room are two long tables filled with the things he needs to become Babs. There's the wig, two stacks of stockings, a pile of clip-on nails. A tangle of panties in every color hangs from a clothes rack. He picks up a bottle from the neatly arranged rows. "Now this," he tells the makeup woman, "this is wonderful, I mean wonderful for taking out stains. I use it in the sink with a little warm water. We'll need this when you do laundry this week."

He moves to his right and removes a towel covering four rows of cone-shaped pads the size of a C-cup. Each one has a different shape; some are pointed, others rounded, a few just slightly downturned. The woman with the notepad asks him which ones he wears. "They all correspond with a certain dress," he explains. "Barbra won't know what she's wearing until she shows up tomorrow."

He often explains that his Streisand is fickle, with a quick wit and a hard-to-predict attitude. When explaining the jokes he'll use between songs, he says, "She's funny like that." When choreographing his performance with the spotlight operator, he explains: "She'll be moving during this part. You've got to follow her." Those around him have learned to ask what Barbra will want or do, rather than what he thinks. Bailey gives his backup musicians a couple of alternate songs to play; his Streisand will make the final pick on-stage.

In the hallway, seven cocktail dresses hang on a rack with cowboy outfits and Victorian-era costumes owned by the theater. Bailey brought the dresses from his home in Los Angeles. He inspects a floor-length one with a v-shaped neck that shows off his cleavage. "Oh boy," he says, picking off a few white hairs. "My cats. You've gotta love 'em, but then they go and get into my costume closet."

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."

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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