I went to an all-girls high school on the North Shore of Sydney. It wasn’t a private school, but we played those girls at netball on the weekends. Their hair was always long and straight, their skin was always smooth and tanned. They grew their nails longer than regulation, and would covertly scratch our upper arms as they gracefully leapt from centre court. Their half-time oranges always looked more orange than ours. Mostly, they would win.
Ja’mie King is a netball State Champion. She’s also a State Champion of hockey, tennis, swimming, jazz ballet, debating and chess. She was awarded school colours for drama, diving, hockey and debating, and is the school captain in her final year at the prestigious Hillford Girls Grammar School, the most expensive school in the state. She’s a shoo-in for the Hillford Medal too, awarded each year to one student who has achieved excellence, and epitomises the Christian school spirit.
She’s also a total bitch. “She’s awful and manipulative and racist and homophobic, and selfish, and just so wrong,” says her creator Chris Lilley. “But at the same time, she’s the leader of her group. She’s fun, and she’s always got lots of great ideas. I don’t know, she’s just so charismatic – so you end up falling for her anyway.”
I spoke with Chris Lilley last week, ahead of tomorrow night’s premiere of his new show, Ja’mie: Private School Girl. The third ABC series that Lilley has pre-sold to the BBC and HBO, Ja’mie is structured as a mockumentary in the same style as 2011’s Angry Boys, a huge hit overseas which still stands as the most popular program on iView. Angry Boys followed 2007’s Summer Heights High, and both were loose spin-offs from Chris Lilley’s first TV success, 2005’s We Can Be Heroes. With his collection of ghastly, deluded but lovable characters, Lilley has built something of a cult hero status in comedy circles in Australia and abroad. And Ja’mie King — back from her traumatic year in the public school system at Summer Heights High — already has 150,000 likes on Facebook.
Watching the first episode was a trip for me. Of course Ja’mie‘s a parody, so by its nature it’s exaggerated, but Lilley really brought back to life the kind of 17-year-old that tormented us on the Willoughby Leisure Centre courts each Saturday. We were terrified of these girls but would still try to emulate them, from the breezy way they’d push their hair out of their eyes, to how they would drip off of each other: overly affectionate in a powerful pack, laughing together and too loudly, flipping their legs onto one another’s laps as they lounged, bored, on the benches before warm-up.
Lilley spent a lot of time studying teenage girls. He finds them, for the most part, hilarious.
“I grew up on the North Shore in Sydney, too, so I was around it a lot,” he says. Lilley was a boarder at Barker College. “But Ja’mie’s been around for ages now, and I’ve had to update her each time. There’s so much you can find out now just from popular culture and stalking Facebook… Going through Facebook pages and seeing the way girls talk to each other — their love for each other is SO INTENSE, and so over the top.
“I remember it from when my friends’ daughters were becoming teenagers,” he continues. “One of my friends, who’s a mum, was like, ‘Oh no! Maybe my daughter’s gay!’ because she was so affectionate with all her girlfriends. I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I think she definitely is, the way she puts her legs on the other girls like that.’ We both thought it would be awesome — ‘She’s going to have a lesbian daughter! Great!’ — but nope, they’re all like that. That’s what they do.”
As part of his research, Lilley would meet and talk with lots of young girls. “My nieces are that age now, so I hung out with them for ages, creeping around their parties and stuff,” he says. Once, for instance, he was asked to pick up a niece from a party – but instead of turning up at his pre-ordained arrival time, the 38-year-old arrived two hours early. Just to watch. “There’s a party scene in the third episode, so I was like, ‘I just wanna observe, and make sure I’ve got that right’. It’s good to get the little things accurate. Like, what do they wear to a party? What are they doing at the party? How are they dancing? Things like that change so quickly! I was surprised at the type of music – this heavy dance stuff is really big with kids at that age. And even just what they drink, and how they smuggle it in.”
If it’s difficult staying up-to-date with changing trends, it becomes impossible when trying to do it across borders. Lilley shot everything in Melbourne, but did all the research in Sydney. A lot of the jokes were lost in translation. “The Sydney girls would say, ‘Oh, I’m thinking of wearing this dress, but I dunno, maybe TITF.’ And ‘TITF’ [pronounced “tittiff”] is ‘took it too far’. I said it to the girls in Melbourne, and they were like, ‘What are you talking about.’”
His solution was just to make Ja’mie’s language up. There’s ‘ILY’ (I love you), ‘gramming’ (Instagram) and ‘awkies’ (awkward) — and, early in episode one, Ja’mie introduces her already infamous term, ‘quiche’. “Me and my friends are all pretty much quiche, if you can’t tell by looking at us,” she says to camera, surrounded by her flock. “It’s a step above hot … There’s hot, and there’s quiche. One of the main measures of quicheness is your box gap.” Here, Ja’mie instructs one of her prefect besties to stand up and demonstrate the gap where others’ thighs would meet. There should be enough room there for at least three fingers. “If you’ve got your thighs rubbing together from fat then you need to think about what you’re eating, or just maybe accept the fact that you’re never gonna be quiche.”
When Clueless came out in 1995, my friends and I were ten years old. We adored the beautiful Cher Horowitz, and coveted her easy, wealthy, well-dressed life. We were too young to understand that the film was a satire, and that Cher was actually selfish, sheltered and often cruel. We thought she was the hero, and we wanted to be her.
Ja’mie King is a similar character on many levels. She’s spoilt and self-centred, and she’s racist (“I’m gonna ‘Gram it and hashtag #friedrice”), homophobic (“Is it true that you guys are all vagitarians?”), and atrocious to her parents: “Can you tell your loser wife to stop bitching in my face?” she snaps at her dad. “Where the fuck is my Coke Zero?”
But she’s also hot and popular and, if she takes home the Hillford Medal, she’ll have her likeness immortilised in a bronze statue outside the school forever.
Obviously Ja’mie is different to Cher. For a start, she’s played by a man who’s nearing 40 — but there’s a suspension of disbelief that comes hand-in-hand with Lilley’s work, whether he’s embodying a Tongan boy, a gay drama teacher, or a pushy Japanese mum. Is there a chance that younger viewers might take the wrong message away, and want to be more like the awful Ja’mie King?
“You kind of assume the answer is ‘no’,” Lilley starts, “but I think, well, maybe they will. She’s so powerful and she thinks she’s so good looking – she acts like she’s really good looking – and somehow she pulls that off, even though she’s just this giant horsey person. She sells it, and there’s something really appealing about people who have that confidence.” Here, he starts laughing. “I’m talking about her like she’s a real person again.”
Vitally for the show, the rest of the cast slips into the game just as easily. “We choose the right girls, who are good at getting into the illusion,” Lilley says. He prefers to cast real people over actors, and Ja’mie’s prefects were found in various private schools around Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. While shooting, they never saw him out of costume. “Part of them really does get into it. We all got together at the wrap party, and I could see that they were a little bit confused by the fact that she wasn’t there. They were like, ‘It’s so good seeing you as yourself, but we really miss Ja’mie! She’s our friend!’”
There are men in the cast too, and Ja’mie flirts with all of them — her teacher, her love interest, and even her dad. “They’re fine with it — the only one freaking out is me!” Lilley laughs. “It’s so awkward for me. I find it really uncomfortable doing stuff with all of them, the girls and the boys. The boy stuff is probably a little step weirder. But that’s part of what I love about the show: it’s confronting.”