Mean girls don’t come much meaner than Ja’mie King.
The high school senior at Sydney, Australia’s prestigious Hillford Girls School is not only the queen of smug elitism, casual racism, haughty homophobia and the well-timed insult about flat chests and chin acne, she’s also the best at everything and the hottest, facts she’s not shy about trumpeting. After all, her name is pronounced Ja-MAY, as in “ja-mayzing,” she says in one of her less self-aggrandizing moments.
But the she is really a he: 39-year-old Australian comedian/performer Chris Lilley, who transforms into his Facebook-obsessed, boy-crazy teenage alter ego in the slyly hilarious HBO mockumentary miniseries Ja’mie: Private School Girl, beginning Sunday night and running for six episodes. A sequel of sorts to the 2010 HBO series Summer Heights High, an ambitious and brilliant evocation of the traumas of high-school life in which Lilley portrayed three characters including Ja’mie, Private School Girl is — judging from the first two episodes — once again a witty and sometimes uncomfortable stroll past the lockers of the lucky ones and the losers. At its best, it’s The Office with report cards.
Actually, this is Ja’mie’s third incarnation, as she first appeared in Lilley’s We Can Be Heroes: Finding the Australian of the Year, a 2005 mock-doc that aired in the U.S. on the Sundance Channel. And she’s just one of the many characters Lilley has assumed since first making a splash in Australian TV sketch comedy in 2003.
“Originally, I wanted a schoolgirl who was a bit of an outcast and a bit overweight and a bit of a nerd. Then it evolved. At first, me dressed as a girl, I didn’t know if it was going to work,” he says by phone from Los Angeles, but then he decided to just own it. “I figured if I just act like I’m hot, people will accept it.”
Now, he just enjoys putting on that dress. “I just like the idea of expanding on her world and her life,” he says. “She’s a lot of fun to play.”
It’s true that what at first seems weird, awkward and discomfiting — a grown man hanging out with teenagers — evaporates by the second or third episode as Lilley becomes consumed by his character. It helps that the writing, a cascade of teenage obsessions and girl-code bonhomie, feels authentic.
Lilley says he learned a lot about being a young girl from Facebook. “It sounds creepy but so many fans follow me on Facebook and they tend to be young girls and in just the way they communicate with me, I pick up stuff,” he says.
The one thing he says he’s not is an imitator. “I’ve never copied mannerisms,” he says. “It’s more instinctive. Once we’re shooting, and I put on the dress, and surrounded by the scene, it comes out.”
Though Private School Girl often feels improvised, Lilley says it’s heavily scripted. “I need to have the structure of the jokes and the story. We have to shoot it so that it can come together like a documentary,” he says, though occasionally he will veer off-course. “It’s fun to throw in a few lines to shock [the cast], but if you’ve read the script, you’d see how close it is.”
Adding to the authenticity is the fact that most of those on screen are actual high school students and the series is shot in real Australian high schools. In fact, some parents at Melbourne’s Haileybury school were “horrified,” according to that city’s Herald Sun, to find that Private School Girl was partly shot there.
“We used to be proud of our roots at Haileybury and now to go back and see that they are promoting racism, homophobia, bullying, picking on kids for their weight and size is just horrible,” one former student was quoted as saying.
Lilley doesn’t respond to the criticism. “I don’t read any of the press,” he says. “I just don’t get involved in that stuff.”
Certainly, though Lilley has won many awards in Australia, his work has not been universally loved, especially when he plays nonwhite characters. In his last project, the sprawling but less-than-satisfying Angry Boys — shot on three continents and featuring six Lilley characters, two of whom were a Soulja Boy-style African-American rapper named S. Mouse and a Japanese mom of a skateboard champ. In Summer Heights High, the most moving character was Lilley’s Jonah Takalua, a troubled student of Tongan heritage. A white American comedian might be wary of navigating those choppy racial waters for fear of negative blowback.
Lilley has been on the sharp end of some criticism, especially for S. Mouse. The Aussie pop-culture site The Vine (thevine.com.au) surveyed some American rappers on what they thought and their reaction can be summed up by L.A.’s Open Mike Eagle: “Hell, yeah, it’s offensive.”
“I think it’s about the way it’s done and the context,” Lilley says. “I’m not going to pull up a bunch of stereotypes. They were really sympathetic characters, and there was a backstory and depth to what was going on.”
This season, Ja’ime gets more involved in her charity work with African immigrants in Sydney’s hard-pressed western suburbs, while not seeing the disconnect between that and her contempt for Hillford’s Asian students.
But Lilley says he’s not making any statement about hot-button issues like race or immigration. “It’s more Ja’mie trying to be this amazing person but she’s this person who thinks that hanging out with black people will make people think she’s nice,” he says. “As for the Asian thing, it’s just to point out how much of an idiot she is.”
The one thing that did make Lilley pause this season was Ja’ime’s flirting and cuddling with a new boy, Mitchell, from a neighboring all-boys school, played not by a student but an actor, Lester Ellis Jr. “It was awkward. You have these ideas and then you have to go through with it,” Lilley says. “[Lester] was a bit nervous about it. But it’s a matter of committing to it. Luckily, he’s a 22-year-old guy even though he looks like he’s 16.”
Which raises the question of just how long Lilley can play these characters. While he has played his age or older — Mr. G., the wonderfully self-centered theater teacher from Summer Heights High, and Gran, a female guard at a juvenile detention center in Angry Boys (arguably his best performance ) — his stock-in-trade is people half his age.
“It doesn’t matter. I’ve always been far removed from all the characters I’ve played,” he says. “You just have to commit to it and do it. If you just commit to it, everyone goes along with the illusion.”