When I spoke with Neil Arthur James, he’d just returned to his Brooklyn home after a shift “slinging cupcakes in a fancy Tribeca bakery.” His day job is a far cry from the gloriously over-the-top Dandy Darkly persona he’s bringing to the Tampa International Fringe Festival, but even over the phone it’s clear a similar mischievous spirit imbues both.
James, 42, is a self-described “Southern-fried sissy” who grew up in a small rural town in Northwest Georgia with a “foot-washing Baptist church down the road and a snake-handling church further down.” He came out at 20 while a student at the University of Georgia in Athens where, despite a crush on Doogie Howser, he abandoned plans of being a doctor and found his way into acting — and later, in NYC, into writing, where in an astrology column for the gay mag HX he began to establish his “bitchy, vaguely metaphysical” voice. He began exploring the character of Dandy on a blog he was writing about “a bitter occultist,” and first brought the character to life five years ago on the national gay holiday (aka Halloween) in a performance at — where else? — the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. Establishing a presence in the downtown performance scene, he moved from producing “vaudeville cavalcades” into a solo career, which has taken him to Fringe festivals and clubs around the world. On May 6 he celebrates the publication of his first book, Dandy Darkly’s Six Hundred and Sixty-Six Tales of Sex and Death (Volume One), at the Bureau of General Services — Queer Division in NYC.
James lives in Brooklyn with his husband, musician Bryce Edwards, who helps create the soundtracks for Dandy’s shows.
Your writing’s been compared to Poe and Tales from the Crypt. Dandy’s been compared to Liberace and Paul Lynde. What do you make of comparisons like those?
I am humbled to be compared to such luminaries. I grew up enthralled with the hissing backhanded compliments of Charles Nelson Reilly, Paul Lynde — this is my tribe! My particular drag pays homage to the mean old sissy — I don’t think the mean old sissy gets enough credit. But at my core Dandy is deeply sentimental.
How did the Dandy Darkly character (and look) evolve?
When I was a little fat boy in rural north Georgia, my sexual awakening [came] at the height of the AIDS crisis, [which] linked the two together in my mind. The voice I’ve created through Dandy really follows those themes of sex and death, particularly among gay men.
I had always had an interest in ghost stories — I have recordings of me at 5 years old telling ghost stories on my dad’s 8-track recorder — and sex. I’m a big old dirty Southern boy. I’m not afraid of sex — a lot of Dandy’s material skews unabashedly into the blue.
At first Dandy was defined by an idea I had — maybe he’s kind of a steampunk fussy dandy with little lacy gloves and a bowler — but from there I started creating costume styles based on the subjects of the pieces. For Trigger Panic, which focuses on gun violence, I was a Howdy Doody goth cowboy. For Myth Mouth, we were going toward glam camp sci-fi spectacular — like Queen of Outer Space starring Zsa Zsa Gabor. The focus in Myth Mouth was to look at religion addiction, how people can become addicted to these religions and cults, and how pop culture is the new mythology. The top hat for Myth Mouth has elements of a pope’s miter — and the jabot is very Shakespearean.
Do you make your costumes?
Piecemeal at first, but I do a lot of bedazzling onto existing pieces. Now I’m working with a wonderful costume shop out of Memphis that does these jumpsuits. They are so enthused about Dandy. I love collaboration — it comes from having a theater background.
You’re a Fringe vet: four Edinburgh appearances, the New Orleans and Chicago fringefests, Queerly and FRIGID fests in NYC. But this is your first U.S. tour.
It’s the start of my little tour and the start of Tampa’s Fringe. I’m performing at St. Matthew’s Tavern in Orlando, then Fringe festivals in Providence, Chicago and San Francisco. Orlando is the oldest U.S. fringe; Edinburgh Fringe is celebrating its 70th year. So many voices wouldn’t exist without these festivals that celebrate the avant garde, celebrate the strange.
Have you been to Florida before?
There was always one destination for all the white trash families of redneck Georgia — Panama City Beach. One particular summer when my brother was with his youth group, he was able to go off to Disney. I was seethingly jealous. But then I went with my grandparents to St. Augustine — I was entranced!
We’re having a hot spell at the moment. Are you prepared?
I might turn my catsuit into hot pants!
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