This article was first published in Attitude issue 280, March 2017
Seven years ago Jamie Campbell (top right) shocked his school friends by turning up to prom in drag. Almost immediately, the BBC made a documentary about the teenager from County Durham. Now his story is being turned into a musical...
Jamie Campbell was only 16 years old when he caused a commotion by going to his school prom in full drag. Seven years and one BBC documentary later, his story has been adapted into a musical, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, featuring original songs by The Feeling’s Dan Gillespie Sells.
Jamie is played on stage, at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre, by John McCrea (top left) but, although the actor has spent years developing the role, he has never met the real-life inspiration behind it. Until now.
I join Jamie and “Jamie” for that first meeting, ahead of opening night. We meet for an early morning coffee at the Ku Bar in Soho and I walk into what feels like a slightly awkward Tinder date: John knows Jamie probably as well as Jamie knows himself.
All three of us are a bit groggy and definitely ready for the first coffee of the day. While they both seem a little tentative, luckily “real Jamie” isn’t at a loss for words. “Drag back then,” he says, “especially where I am from in County Durham, was looked down on, but I just really wanted to do it. It’s where Billy Elliot was set, so you can imagine...”
The parallels between actual Jamie and fictional child dancer Billy aren’t a million miles apart — both are northern, both working-class, both born to be fabulous. But Billy’s “secret” was not revealed anywhere near as dramatically as Jamie’s.
Jamie Campbell (right) has been played by John McCrea (left) in both the West End and the show's original run in Sheffield (Photography: Victor Hensel-Coe)
The prom was his debut outing in drag, and he says: “What better way to tell everyone you want to be a drag queen than to do it at a spectacular occasion?”
But from where did someone so young draw inspiration? “I loved The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. That was my first encounter with drag on film, but I was inspired by the old-school drag in the clubs. That’s what it’s like up there. You’d go on holiday and see drag acts. It was fabulous. I’d done drag in the house — dressing up in mum’s clothes and trying make-up, but only a couple of people knew.”
Jamie, today wearing a divine candy pink and denim ensemble, exudes confidence but I can only imagine the courage it must have taken school-age Jamie to rock up in a frock.
“I was absolutely petrified. I’d set myself up for a fail. I worried that I wasn’t even going to get in, I thought I’d get turned away. I wasn’t expecting the reaction I got, with everyone coming up to me and supporting me. It took me aback,” he says.
Jamie reached out to the BBC because he felt telling his story might help others. “I thought if I could help even one other person, it was worth being a martyr,” he laughs. “They came and made the documentary and it was what it was.”
The documentary, Jamie: Drag Queen at 16, aired on BBC3 in 2011. “I was ready for a backlash,” Jamie reveals. “But, honestly, out of thousands of messages I received after the show, only a handful were negative. So many people told me I’d helped them on their journey.”
After the show aired, Jamie continued to do drag on the club scene up north before moving to London in 2013.
John McCrea on stage as Jamie Campbell in Everyobody's Talking About Jamie
“Since then, I’ve become a total club kid,” he says, adding that he frequents Room Service and Savage.
Almost as soon as the documentary was screened, producers approached Jamie about the possibility of turning his story into a musical.
He immediately agreed but admits things then went quiet for a while until Gillespie Sells was brought onboard.
The show was initially workshopped and that’s when John, a product of the famous Sylvia Young Theatre School, became involved.
“We did a week where we put together everything we had. About a year after that, we came back with the show in a completely different form,” says the actor, who has the poise of a dancer and cheekbones to die for.
“We tweaked it, and there were new songs. Then we were finally ready to start rehearsals.”
John has been portraying Jamie on and off for three years without setting foot in front of an audience. “The songs are great. That’s what drew me to the show,” he says. “It’s a pop musical with original songs, not just old favourites shoe-horned in because everyone knows them.
“Dan writes such wonderful, theatrical songs so it works really well for musical theatre.”
I ask Jamie what old favourites he would have wanted shoe-horning in if it had been a jukebox musical. “Lots of Kylie, obviously,” he says without a second’s hesitation.
“You have to find a rhythm with the character and not just do an imitation" - Everybody's Talking About Jamie star John McCrea
The script was written by Doctor Who screenwriter Tom MacRae. “Dan was told to write an album and Tom was told to write a screenplay,” John explains. “So it feels very different to most musicals.”
Jamie is certainly impressed. “The music is great,” he enthuses. “It’s got a bit of camp in it, obviously — it’s a musical about a drag queen — but it really captures that time in my life.”
To keep things fresh, Jamie has not been involved creatively and John hasn’t watched the documentary.
John says: “You have to find a rhythm with the character and not just do an imitation. I couldn’t do Jamie justice that way. It’s true to Jamie’s story, but we’ve changed the location to Sheffield and brought out the relationship between him and his mum. Really that was at the heart of it. It’s so tender. It’s actually about mothers and sons.”
And Jamie adds: “You have to make things more dramatic for the stage. Some things have been changed, it’s not 100 per cent my life.”
Josie Walker will play Jamie’s mum and, according to John, the standout moment of the play is her song My Boy. “We have a pseudo mother-son relationship now,” he adds. “I think that comes out on stage.”
Jamie’s real-life mother can hardly believe it — the song is taken from her words in the documentary.
John and Jamie with Attitude's Juno Dawson (Photography: Victor Hensel-Coe)
When the show opens, it’ll be the first time Jamie sees art imitate (his) life. “Opening night is gonna be a spectacle. I’m going in drag, I’m bringing a load of drag queens. We’re gonna be red carpet ready,” he promises.
“It has all the makings of a new Billy Elliot or Kinky Boots. All the elements are there.”
He is planning to take his mum and thinks it’ll be hankies all round. He hasn’t seen the play yet, but is awestruck at the scale of the production.
“When I first got the email, I thought it was going to be some shoddy, small-scale musical, but it’s such a big deal. It’s huge.”
We wrap up the interview and prepare for a photoshoot. John and Jamie share a passing resemblance but are polar opposites in terms of energy: Jamie is a drag queen, gregarious and bombastic; John carries himself with zen-like serenity.
I can’t wait to see how John, like Jamie, will become Cinderella in time for the prom. I suspect it’s going to be fabulous.
Words: Juno Dawson