The inspiring, tenacious real-life story behind new musical epic, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie

Jamie Campbell, whose real-life story inspired the massive new musical film Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, on beating the bullies, drag, and seeing his life play out on the big screen.

Back in 2011, BBC Three released a quietly subversive documentary called Jamie: Drag Queen at 16.

It told the story of Jamie Campbell, a teenager from Bishop Auckland in Durham who delved into the world of drag with help from his supportive and loving mum. It touched people’s hearts and helped to change minds when it first aired – but Campbell could never have predicted where it would end up.

Shortly afterwards, his story was turned into the smash West End musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, and before long, a film adaptation was planned. Now, a full decade after his TV debut, Campbell’s life has made it to the big screen.

Seeing his story brought to life in the shape of an overtly queer, celebratory film was “completely mind-blowing” for Campbell. He and his endlessly supportive mum were given a private screening of the film before its premiere. It was a “really emotional” experience, he says – but nothing could compare to the feeling of attending the London premiere on Monday (13 September), where he watched his own story unfold with an audience full of drag queens and queer people.

“Being there with a big massive audience and just feeling their reactions, people were clapping and cheering,” Campbell tells PinkNews. “It was like watching the live stage show. It was really, really nice – because we love it, obviously, but it was nice feeling what the audience think as well.” 

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie isn’t a direct interpretation of Campbell’s life – needless to say, there was creative licence involved – but the essence of the film is true to life. Much of the film focuses on Jamie’s turbulent experience at school, where his unabashed queerness makes him a target for school bullies and homophobic teachers. Looking back, Campbell says his school days weren’t exactly the happiest of times for him.

“I mean, I came out at 14, and I wouldn’t say the bullying stopped, but it did make it easier for me to report it. They were calling me gay and stuff, and I was like: ‘Well, you’re just stating facts, really.’” I just always tried to not let them see they defeated me. I didn’t want to be a victim, so I just sort of kept to myself, and I had my supportive mum at home.”

Looking back, Campbell says the hardest part of growing up gay in a socially conservative area wasn’t dealing with other teenagers – it was the homophobic abuse he got from adults.

 

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“When I was walking home from school, I remember vividly, it was this guy and he had this little kid, and he was telling this kid: ‘Call him gay, call him all of that.’ That just really hurt my heart because it was like… ‘What if he’s gay, or even if he’s not gay, what if he’s got friends that are?’ And that was hard for me, but I try not to hold anything against anybody because at the end of the day bullies are bullying because of their own insecurities.”

He continues: “I don’t necessarily think bullies are bad people at heart – I think they’re just struggling and they use bullying other people as a defence mechanism. That does’t justify it, it just says more about them than you. That’s what I’d say to people as well – if you’re getting bullied, don’t hold that against you, it’s the bully that’s projecting how they’re feeling onto you.”

Jamie Campbell’s prom experience is depicted in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie

Notably, one of Jamie’s biggest detractors in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is careers guidance teacher Miss Hedge, played expertly in the film by Sharon Horgan. Miss Hedge wants her students to go into good, stable jobs, and she won’t entertain any mention of the performing arts. 

She is also insistent that Jamie mustn’t wear make-up to school and, in her worst moment, she forbids him from attending prom in a dress. That last bit is based on Campbell’s real-life experience. 

In the lead-up to his own prom, Campbell couldn’t help but feel jealous of the girls, who he knew would be attending in gorgeous dresses. When he told his mum how he felt, she replied: “Why don’t you go to prom in a dress?” 

That candid conversation set Campbell on a tumultuous, but ultimately euphoric, path. When parents got wind of his decision, the school intervened, pleading with him to just wear a suit like the other boys. But Campbell wasn’t going to be dissuaded. He ultimately ordered a dress online (local shops refused to cater for him) and turned up on the night wearing his finest attire.

Max Harwood as Jamie New in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. (Amazon Prime Video)

When he arrived, Campbell was taken aside by a teacher and told that he wouldn’t be allowed in wearing his dress. Amazingly, it was his classmates who had that decision overturned. News quickly spread that he had been denied entry, and students rushed out of the prom to beg teachers to let him in. Finally, Campbell was allowed to go to his prom wearing exactly what he wanted.

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie depicts Campbell’s experience almost exactly as it happened – but luckily, his teachers weren’t quite as bad as Miss Hedge.

“I mean there were a few things with teachers but I can’t say they were as vicious as Miss Hedge is at times,” Campbell says. “In real life, I did have quite good relationships with some of my teachers – I do have fond memories of some parts of school,” he says. 

Campbell is also keenly aware that Everybody’s Talking About Jamie could help more young people learn about the world of drag. Some are surely likely to come away with a newfound desire to explore the world of drag themselves. Does Campbell – who performs to this day as drag queen Fifi la True – have any advice for the young aspiring drag queens out there? 

“Practice, practice, practice!” he says. “Watch a lot of YouTube videos and be prepared to spend money. You can do it on the cheap, but even the cheapest is not cheap. It’s not an easy thing – the money isn’t that great, so if you’re doing it to make money, you might make a bit but you’re not going to be rich. You’ve got to do it for the love and the heart and do what feels authentic to you – you don’t just need to copy what you’re seeing on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Drag isn’t just all about that. Drag’s a creative expression, so whatever it is in your soul, project that. And have fun with it, because it’s all meant to be fun. I think drag can be taken a bit too seriously these days, but it’s all meant to be fun at the end of the day.

“I recommend anybody do it, it’s so liberating – and you never know what’s going to come out.”

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is released on Amazon Prime Video on 17 September.

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