Impressionist Jess Robinson tells Lara Lewington how she got on TV — by never saying no.
A lot of talent, a bit of luck, and a “ridiculous” amount of chutzpah have propelled Jess Robinson on to prime-time television.
At just 26, the impressionist has already appeared in the BBC’s Dead Ringers show and voiced characters on ITV’s Headcases. Now she is appearing, alongside Jon Culshaw and Debra Stephenson, in The Culshaw and Stephenson Show in a coveted Saturday night slot on BBC1.
Millions of viewers are likely to tune in to see Robinson mimic Claudia Winkleman, Jools Oliver, Emma Watson and Mary Poppins — characters she has added to a range that includes everyone from Amy Winehouse to Hillary Clinton.
Culshaw describes Robinson as “a real rising star”, declaring that “her hyperventilating Claudia Winkleman has to be seen to be believed”. Meanwhile she speaks fondly of him: “He has been my mentor — he’s really taken me under his wing.”
Debra Stephenson has also been the source of some useful advice: “I remember going in for our first read-through and she asked what I wanted,” says Robinson. “I told her I’d like my own show like her, and she said: ‘Well, I’ve got 12 years on you so just keep going’.”
I am so pushy sometimes I need to know when to stop. I hope I’m not irritating, but I think I am!
The exchange is typical of the kind of confidence Robinson possesses. “The chutzpah is ridiculous,” she admits. “I am so pushy sometimes I need to know when to stop. I hope I’m not irritating, but I think I am! It comes from not taking no for an answer and thinking: ‘Oh well, if no one’s going to write a show for me, I’ll write it myself’.”
Robinson acknowledges that her extreme chutzpah may have something to do with her background. Although from a non-religious family, she is proud of her roots — and culturally feels very Jewish. “Our family are very close. We like to get together a lot and have a nosh,” she says.
Born in Edgware, Robinson is the daughter of a piano teacher and artist, and granddaughter of the late jazz pianist, Jules Ruben. She always seemed destined for a showbiz career.
As a teenager she attended the Arts Educational School, hoping to become a film composer or session singer. Her first steps into comedy acting and impersonation happened by accident, aided, she says, by a lot of “blagging”.
Having finished her training as a singer, she heard about a production of Little Voice and was determined to secure an audition. The role required the ability to impersonate various famous singers. “I said: ‘Oh yes, I can do singing impressions’. So I went home and taught myself”.
She got the job and soon after that contacted Dead Ringers’ producer Bill Dare. “He said: ‘Very good singing impersonations, but we don’t really have any call for Kate Bush on Dead Ringers. Can you do speaking impressions?’ I couldn’t, but I decided I would say yes and give it a try. Two weeks later I got an audition, which led to a part impersonating Billie Piper.
"They soon asked if I could roller-skate for a Teri Hatcher sketch — I couldn’t of course, but again I said ‘yes’, then spent the following two weeks at roller discos full of 13-year-olds.Sometimes I need to learn to say no.”
Robinson regularly updates her repertoire of characters. The process of learning a new voice starts with a short recording of the person in question, which she will listen to over and over again. She will then start recording herself having a go until she is happy that it is right.
Once she has mastered that, she studies their mannerisms. And while prosthetics are often used to make impressionists look like their alter egos, Robinson’s roles have involved simply hair, make-up and the odd added extra.
“As Claudia Winkleman, the brown contact lenses were the bane of my life, my eyes just wanted to spit them out,” she says. “Then just by the way the make-up girl added my eyeliner, and I started to look like Claudia.”
Robinson has yet to come face to face with any of those she has mimicked. Naturally she would be delighted if they liked what they saw, but if they didn’t? “I’d say the BBC made me do it.”
The Culshaw and Stephenson Show, BBC1 Saturdays, 9.45pm