When men dress up like women for comedy, the results are rarely naturalism. Nobody has watched Milton Berle or White Chicks or any Monty Python sketch and walked away thinking, “I feel like I have a deeper understand of the female experience.” But there are moments in the new HBO six-episode mockumentary Ja’mie: Private School Girl — an import from Australia, which premieres November 24 — when you might actually learn something about teenage girls, even though the eponymous teenager, 17-year-old Ja’mie King, is played by a 38-year-old man in a dress.
Chris Lilley, who’s something of a comedy superstar in his native Australia, is the adult face behind Ja’mie, a character first introduced (at least to U.S. audiences) in the 2008 series Summer Heights High. She’s everything negative ever attributed to teenage girls: She’s narcissistic, bullying, racist, classist, sexist, self-delusional, slut-shaming, slut-romanticizing, massively insecure, and as sexually confused as she is obsessed with sex. She’s also a little too proud of her eating disorder. In the second episode of Private School Girl, while bragging about her plans to do aid work in Africa, she mentions how the trip will likely help her future modeling career. After a summer of African-style starvation, she says, “I’ll probably be looking really hot.”
I called Lilley in Australia, where Ja’mie: Private School Girl — which he also wrote and directed — has already premiered and is causing some ruckus. We talked about drag comedy, the perils of befriending teenage girls, old guys who wait for him outside of public restrooms, and baby arms that look like… other things.
Can I be honest? Ja’mie freaks me out a little.
Yeah, she’s pretty intense.
You’ve channeled everything horrible and frightening about teenage girls. And it doesn’t play like satire. It all feels very real and familiar.
We spent a lot of time trying to make it as real as possible. We shot in a real private school, with real students.
Ja’mie’s friends are actual teenagers?
Was that weirder for your or for them? Are teenage girls comfortable around a dude in his late thirties pretending to be one of them?
It’s interesting. On one hand, I’m also the director, and I’m older than them, so there’s this kind of authority thing. But then I have to flip into being their best friend. During the shoot, we’d all be on Facebook together and chatting. I’m chatting as myself, but I’m also kind of a girl, ’cause that’s how I interact with them anyway. It’s a little weird.
That sounds a lot weird.
But doing this show, I had to create a bond with them, because I wanted it to seem real. At the wrap party for the show, the girls saw me for the first time as myself. They had never seen me…
Not in drag?
Yeah. They were very nice about it, but they were obviously out of sorts. And then one of them said to me, “It’s just odd because we were really good friends with Ja’mie and we’re having this big party, and our best friend’s not here.”
They had to mourn that loss.
She was their leader. And their best friend. And now she’s just gone.
There are some jaw-dropping awkward scenes between you and these girls. Like when you’re showing them a cell-phone photo of a black man’s penis.
[Laughs] Right. The dick pic.
How do you do that and not feel like a pedophile?
Well, obviously I’m not playing it as a man.
But you are a man, talking about penises with teenage girls.
I just had to get into it. The thing is, I write these scenes, and I’m imagining how it’ll look on screen, and how funny it’ll be. I think of Ja’mie as someone who’s a bit separate from me. But then it comes time to film it, and I’m like, “Oh my God, I have to do this.”
You didn’t actually show them a photo of genitals, did you?
No, no. I mean, I wanted the girls to look at something on the screen. But not a real dick photo. I didn’t think that was appropriate. So I found a picture — this sounds really weird, I’ve never told anybody this — we found a picture of a baby’s arm. It was a black baby.
Oh sweet Jesus.
We zoomed in on the baby’s arm, and it basically looks exactly like a dick. But it’s not.
So wait, they thought — ?
No, no. I showed the girls the baby, and said, “Hey look, it’s a baby.” And then I zoomed in on the baby’s arm, so they knew it was just an arm. I wanted the girls to have something to look at, to be excited about.
If they were just staring at a blank screen, you could see it on their faces. Like I said, I wanted realism. You can only fake so much.
You don’t see a lot of naturalism in drag comedy, at least not in the U.S.
I guess not, no.
Our drag comedians tend to be over-the-top and exaggerated caricatures, like Robin Williams and Martin Lawrence and Tyler Perry. Did you consciously try to avoid that?
Not consciously. I just do what I find funny, and when I first did Ja’mie for something called We Can Be Heroes [in 2005], I wanted people to tune in and think that they might be watching a real documentary. I wanted them to think, “This seems real.” That was the hook for me, that everything would be edited to have the rhythm of reality.
“The rhythm of reality.” That’s nice. The last big drag comedy we had in the U.S. was something called Work It.
Was that the one with the black guys dressing up like white girls?
No. But yeah, similar idea. Neither one of those things had the rhythm of reality.
That was the most important thing to me. Even down to her hair color. I wanted Ja’mie to have the same color hair as me. It’s already enough of a stretch that I’m a girl, so I wanted to be as natural with it as possible. I think everybody expected me to do a crazy cheerleader with long blonde hair and a high voice.
You’re barely doing a falsetto.
Whenever Ja’mie sings, she sings an octave lower than everyone else. I didn’t want people to be noticing the drag thing too much. To me, that got in the way of everything else.
There’s a great moment in the second episode, where she’s rehearsing a dance solo that she says is about her upcoming aid work in Africa and “all the sad stuff I’m going to see.” It’s ridiculous but also strangely touching.
Because it’s played so earnestly. You’re not trying to milk the laughs. When you’re dancing, you’re clearly trying to make it something epic.
I choreographed that entire dance by myself. That was an original piece.
I believe it.
[Laughs] Thank you?
No, actually it felt like you stole the routine directly from a teenage girl. It was that real.
Well, it was inspired by my niece. She and her friend came over to my house, and they wanted to show me a dance they’d been working on. They launched into this ridiculous contemporary dance. And I was like, this is the funniest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.
You didn’t say that out loud, did you?
Oh no, no, no. I pretended to take it really seriously. And afterwards, they told me what it was all about, what their dance represented, all the themes. Everything about it was amazing.
Are you like Jane Goodall but with teen girls? Have you spent a lot of time in the field, observing their behavior?
Yeah, I do a little bit of that. But it’s not like some people think. I read an article that was like “Chris Lilley Stalks Girls.” They said I videotaped girls talking and then mimicked their mannerisms in front of a mirror.
And that’s not your creative process?
I never do that!
But you have talked to them?
Mostly they’re fans of mine who are talking to me constantly. Or it’s my niece, who’s 16. I went to her birthday party and talked to her friends. But that was a minor part of the research. I do the research mostly to get details. Like, when you’re at a party, who drinks, who doesn’t, who’s smuggling in alcohol, what music are you listening to, how do you dance? And a few kind of current buzz words or whatever is going on out there. But then I decided it kind of works for Ja’mie to have her own style. She’s got her own language and she says things that teenage girls don’t actually say.
Like “box gaps“?
Well — [Laughs]
That’s a real thing?
That is something I overheard some girls talking about.
If we can explain this to people who haven’t seen the show yet.
A box gap is the gap between a girl’s thighs.
Directly below her lady business.
That’s right. The gap below her box.
And this is a terminology that teenage girls actually use?
So I’ve been told. I wanted Ja’mie to be one of those hideous girls who’s all about her image and clearly has body image issues and is constantly seeking approval. So the box gap rule seems like something she’d be into. I included it pretty early in the show, because I wanted to freak people out right away.
Your show has already premiered in Australia. Are they big box gap fans?
That phrase was trending on Twitter for a while. It’s the number-one thing that people really responded to during the first few episodes. And I feel kinda bad about it.
I don’t want girls to walk around genuinely thinking that they have to have legs like that.
As opposed to everything else that Ja’mie says or does?
She’s not the best role model.
You think teenage girls are watching this show and taking it seriously?
I hope not. I hope people realize that it’s a joke, that I’m making fun of her. But at the same time, she’s sort of a hero on the show. I could see why people would probably want to be her.
She’s popular. And from what I’ve watched thus far, there are no repercussions for her actions.
I guess it could be giving permission to girls to start talking and acting like that. But that’s not my responsibility. I’m just in charge of the funny stuff.
Who’s watching this show over in Australia? Are they older, younger, men, women?
It’s a huge cross-section. I was a bit nervous that this show would be confronting to straight guys, that they’d find it really foreign and uncomfortable. But most of the people who come up to me are straight guys who think Ja’mie is the funniest thing ever. They really connect with it. They understand that it’s not about glorifying these girls. I’m taking a piss out of them.
Ever had an old dude who was maybe a little too into Ja’mie? Who was like “She is so fine”?
Yeah. Absolutely. It happened over this last weekend. A 70-year-old man was waiting outside the public toilet for me. I came out and he’s like, “Sorry to interrupt, mate, but I love Ja’mie. I’m 70, so I know I should be too old for this. But I can’t help it. I love her.”
That is profoundly creepy.
It happens all the time. I’ve done signings where elderly people will line up to get photos with me and ask me to sign things. They don’t even pretend it’s for their grandkids. They’re like, “No, it’s for me.”
You’ve been accused in the past of being racially insensitive.
I get upset. But I try to block it out. I don’t read a lot of stuff.
Or whatever. But you still hear when people get angry. Especially after Summer Heights High. Jonah talked about rangas and redheads, and that’s probably the number-one thing that people were upset about.
It’s short for orangutans. I still get a lot of redheads coming up to me, saying, “You’ve made my life hell.” Well, it’s not my fault. People were making fun of redheads before I came along.
You’ve done blackface.
Yeah. In Angry Boys.
We had some controversy here recently over blackface. Julianne Hough went to a Halloween party dressed like an African American character from a TV show.
Yeah, I saw that.
She got some grief for doing that. But you think it’s possible to play with racial identity and not be racist?
I don’t think there should be any rules. Things seem to be a little more relaxed in Australia with that kind of thing. But I think it’s all about the context. The stuff I did in Angry Boys, it was designed to be confronting and challenging to watch. It’s all about that context. If I just dressed up like a Japanese woman and started doing stupid voices, I don’t know…
That would be different?
Maybe not. [Laughs] I’d still find that funny. My line is a little further out than everyone else.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on Esquire.com.)