Victoria Jackson: Tea Party princess
Victoria Jackson hurtles through intersections and down side streets while using her left hand to hold a Flip cam to her face. The inside of her car—a weathered Honda Civic with "Nobama," Marco Rubio, and Tea Party bumper stickers—smells like it's been fumigated with sweet incense. Steering with elbows and the occasional pinkie, she opens a Bible inscribed with her name and quotes scripture in her inimitable high-pitched voice. Then she turns the camera on a reporter riding shotgun. She suspects he's a socialist. "Don't you think that some people are on welfare from cradle to grave," she demands, "because the government is encouraging them never to work?"
"Leaving on a Jet Plane," her ringtone, blares from some unknown recess of her purse, and she's suddenly burrowing through loads of makeup cases to find it. "What if we crashed and died on video?" she says, laughing wildly. "That would be the most viral video of the world! You'd be dead, but you'd have a really viral video!"
At age 52, Victoria Jackson bears little resemblance to that lithe and sweetly dopey girl with the grating voice on Saturday Night Live. And you wouldn't recognize her from those eight mostly forgettable '80s and '90s feature films such as I Love You to Death and No More Baths. She's more plump. Or as Howard Stern recently put it, she "looks like she ate Victoria Jackson."
Her comedy career, which took her from Johnny Carson's stage in Los Angeles to 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City, long ago squeaked its last breath. These days she's a Miami-area suburban grandmother and wife of a buff local cop with a Bad Boys-esque career full of shootouts and commendations. And to some Christian conservatives, she is a seer of truth. The Washington Post once described her thusly: "If you opened her head, it would be filled with cotton candy." Now the former daffy actress is a bizarrely riveting semiregular political pundit on Fox News.
She's no Keyboard Cat. But videos uploaded of her—on cable news programs, on her online talk show, or filmed by her own erratic hand—have in just the past few months amassed more than a million page views. She has strummed a ukulele while harmonizing that Muslims "like beheadings and pedophile weddings." Even Bill O'Reilly laughed at her when she compared Barack Obama to "Castro in Cuba, or the guy in China, or Saddam Hussein." She has declared, in protest of a gay kiss on Glee, that homosexual children need to "pray the gay away" and that there's a "spiritual war in America."
But calling her the lunatic fringe is at most half right. She has been invited to the office of Republican Florida congressman Bill Posey, who commiserated when she said Obama has "the fakest birth certificate I've ever seen in my life." She has gained a sympathetic audience with nearly every GOP candidate of the 2012 presidential campaign (excluding the guy she calls a "fake conservative," Mitt Romney). She rode the Tea Party Express bus with Herman Cain and joined Michele Bachmann at a D.C. rally where the crowd chanted, "There's a communist living in the White House!" If not the captain of the S.S. Tea Party, she's at least the screeching mermaid strapped to its bow.
VICTORIA'S 76-YEAR-OLD mom, Marlene, giggly and moon-faced, pulls out a throne-like seat when her daughter arrives at the family's Miami Shores home with a male visitor. "That's the master's chair," she says cheerily, gesturing for the visitor to sit, before delivering cookies and Coca-Cola in old-timey glass bottles. "The man is the master."
Then Jim Jackson appears. He is a strapping, boyish 83-year-old former gymnast in thick spectacles. A squiggly triangle of pale flesh, left over from a melanoma graft, mars his left cheek. Victoria stands by, barefoot with cherry-red toenail polish and, as always, filming with her Flip cam. The little family gathers around a high-top table.
Soon, Jim begins with booming recollections of his youth as a champion gymnast. "I'm homophobic," he announces while describing why he doesn't like to strip in male locker rooms. "I also don't like fat people. Every time I see a 300-to-400-pound lady or a man sit down to stuff her face, I want to say, 'No, you fool! You're killing yourself!' "
Then he adds for good measure: "Our son is 300 pounds."
Marlene and Jim met around 1950 in Chicago, where he was raised and she was studying to be a nurse. Victoria's mom was from a family of Baptist zealots near Windom, Minnesota, a plains town about three hours southwest of the Twin Cities. During the Great Depression, the whole family went door-to-door preaching the evils of alcohol, caffeine, movies, music, dancing, dice, and cards.
Marlene's much-adored sister, Angeline Rose, had developed schizophrenia as a teenager and died in a state hospital. Marlene blamed God, and in revenge she married the happy-go-lucky gymnastics-obsessed Jim, whose only religion was Fred Astaire and Burt Lancaster movies. They moved to Miami in the early '50s, partly because Jim was inspired by Clark Gable's Mutiny on the Bounty.
Born in 1959, Victoria lived in the shadow of her tormented aunt. Marlene was convinced her daughter could avoid schizophrenia only if she became an extreme extrovert. So Victoria was banished from doing any "woman's work," her mom says—no household chores or cooking.
She became attached to her dad, a physical education teacher at North Glades Elementary, near Carol City, where they lived. Jim Jackson believed his family had a gene that inclined them toward obesity. "He said I was 'genetically inferior,' " Victoria says. "I think it made me nuts. That's probably where my eating disorders came from."
Her childhood was spent on balance beams and parallel bars. From age 4, she could do a handstand, a move that would make her famous on SNL.
Nearly every hour that wasn't spent in school or church, she practiced in their yard or at a nearby gym. She would tumble on gravel until her hands were bloody. "I did not like gymnastics at all," Victoria says. "My hands were ripped. My hip bones had bruises on them. My knees are permanently injured. My neck got cracked once. I mean, doing 200 situps is not fun."
Her brother, Jim Jr., one year younger, was too introspective and ruminative for his dad. "We thought he was stupid," Jim Sr. says.
The son is now a Los Angeles architect. "I was a disappointment at birth," Jim Jr. says.
The kids were trapped in Dad's cinema-inspired fantasy world. Jim Sr. had Victoria flip through rings of fire. Or her brother would hang upside down over a burning log while she threw torches at it. "The flames started licking at my hair," Jim Jr. recalls. "I was frozen stiff, frightened out of my mind."
In 1974, Jim Sr. paid $52,000 for a more upscale, three-bedroom place in Miami Shores. Victoria became a cheerleader at the private high Dade Christian. She dated a perfectly postured Baptist boy named William Paul Wessel, who was so strait-laced he carried a briefcase to class.
By the time Victoria graduated in 1977, Saturday Night Live had premiered its rookie cast, including Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, and John Belushi. But she had never watched the show. The family had no TV set. The only movies she knew were The Sound of Music and The Love Bug. When her dad asked what she wanted to do with her life, she remembers earnestly replying, "I'd like to be Julie Andrews on the top of a mountain singing with my children in matching outfits with a ukulele."
But then, says her brother: "Vicky went a little crazy." She got engaged to her beau Paul before he dumped her, she says, "for the girl who used to wink at him in church."
She bounced from Broward's Florida Bible College to South Carolina's Furman University before finally ending up at Auburn University in Alabama. It was in Birmingham in 1980, just before her senior year, when she first tried out for a professional theater production. She won three minor roles. Her pay: $600.
During a rehearsal of Meet Me in St. Louis, a celebrity fellow actor took notice of her helium voice and penchant for flip-flopping across the stage. Johnny Crawford had played Chuck Connors's son on the TV Western The Rifleman 20 years earlier and then become a second-tier theater nomad. He took Victoria to lunch. Along the way, she did a handstand on a fire hydrant and then a tractor tire. "I felt like I had discovered something really special," Crawford says. So he offered her a one-way plane ticket to Los Angeles, where she could make it big.
She quickly decided to quit school and accept. (She finally earned a bachelor's degree in 2010 from Palm Beach Atlantic University.) She lived in Crawford's guesthouse in the Hollywood Hills and tooled around town on a moped. Together they spoofed Hamlet at the Variety Arts Center in downtown L.A. He introduced her to Hugh Hefner at the Playboy mansion. She stood on her head and recited poetry while half-naked Bunnies looked at her quizzically.
That strange shtick became Victoria Jackson's comedy act. She was upside down, warbling a song about a mugger, when screen agent Dolores Robinson first saw her in a tiny upscale Beverly Hills wine bar called Englander's. "I'd never seen anything like her before," Robinson says.
"Some people thought I was a genius," Victoria recalls. "Some people thought I was retarded."
AT AGE 22, Victoria met Nelson "Nisan" Eventoff. He was a fire-eater and sword-swallower who played the piano in blackface. She was smitten. Victoria claims Nisan rolled the first joint she ever smoked. "It made me very creative, horny, and paranoid," she says. Then he brought her to the Silver Lake home he shared with several other hippies, dogs, finches, and a ferret. There she lost her virginity to the fire-eater.
"I had a nervous breakdown," she says. She flew back to Miami and confessed to her mother, who took Victoria on her first visit to a gynecologist. Assured she was not pregnant, she then pondered her premarital predicament. If I married him, it wouldn't be such a bad sin, she thought. If I don't marry him, God will say, "She's a slut."
The couple wed in Los Angeles in 1984 and two years later had a daughter they named Scarlet. Soon, Victoria snagged a role on the sitcom pilot Half Nelson as Hollywood security guard Joe Pesci's ditsy blond secretary. The show was canceled after six episodes, but she bought her first house—a two-bedroom Lookout Mountain bungalow in Laurel Canyon—with the paychecks.
She was a regular performer on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, where in one of her most memorable bits she channeled Patti Smith, singing about being an "angry woman" while doing tricks on a balance beam.
In 1986, she flew to New York to audition for SNL. Executive producer Lorne Michaels, she remembers, curled his lower lip and lamented her lack of comedic characters. So the next time she was on Carson's show, she continued the audition by doing impressions of Diana Ross and Edith Bunker and inventing a character: a glum boss interviewing Carson for a job. She joined the SNL cast that season. With a new baby in tow, she and Nisan bought a four-bedroom Colonial in Weston, Connecticut. They split time between the two homes.
But Michaels's trepidation had been spot-on. Victoria's castmates included Chris Farley, Phil Hartman, Adam Sandler, Mike Myers, and Dana Carvey. She couldn't keep up. "I lived on pure adrenaline," she says. "You always think you're going to get fired. You're always competing with your cast members for air time."
Coming up with characters and premises for skits was a supreme struggle. She confesses that one of her funnier sketches—"Victoria's Secrets," in which she wore lingerie and throatily fumbled at being sexy—was a product of begging castmate Jon Lovitz and writer Conan O'Brien for ideas as they walked down an office hallway.
Her nasal voice nixed nuanced impressions. Besides doing backbends and reading poetry on the "Weekend Update" news desk, impressions of Roseanne Barr and Zsa Zsa Gabor were her only recurring gags.
Critics and former castmates haven't been kind. Nerve.com recently ranked her dead last of 92 all-time cast members and wrote that her "cute-ditsy-idiot act got pretty thin, [and] it turns out it wasn't an act." And in the 2002 book Live From New York, an oral history of the show, castmate Jan Hooks sniped, "I just have a particular repulsion to grown women who talk like little girls. It's like, 'You're a grown woman! Use your lower register!' " (Victoria, by the way, claims her weird voice is the result of a medical defect: a "congenital palatal insufficiency." )
Look, I'm not qualified for this, Victoria recalls thinking. Maybe this is my mission field. I'm supposed to tell my cast members about Jesus!
But Hartman didn't want to talk about the Son of God. And Lovitz asked how Jesus, "a grown man," could have fit in his mother's womb to be born again. When Victoria left audiocassette box sets of the Bible in each castmate's mail slot for Christmas, they were angrily returned.
Writer and performer Al Franken, now a Democratic U.S. senator for Minnesota, cornered her once, Victoria says. He said he was "offended" by her "ditsy" act. "Maybe I'm overcompensating," she retorted, "because everybody here is dying and going to Hell, and I'm supposed to tell them about Jesus."
Franken went white, she says. "He never talked to me again."
Victoria struggled to make the leap to film acting. Her biggest role was as a costar in 1988's Casual Sex?, an insipid rumination on sexual relationships in a post-AIDS world. It flopped. "The movie is exactly like the real thing," the Washington Post opined. "Kinda empty, kinda unfulfilling, and you feel just awful afterward." Victoria also played Weird Al Yankovic's love interest in UHF. Again, not a Brando-esque turn.
Besides the film proceeds, Victoria was making $20,000 per weekly episode of SNL, according to divorce records. In 1991, her ill-conceived marriage to the fire-eater finally came to an end. "He hated me more and more each day," she says. "One night he was fumbling around in the gun closet and he was drunk, and I thought, Is he going to kill me?"
A Connecticut judge ordered Victoria to pay Nisan alimony of 15 percent of her income, but not less than $3,000 a month, for three years. He also received a portion of the residuals from her films and, less financially momentous, her catalogue of ditties such as "I Am Not a Bimbo" and "I Wanna Be a Slut." (Victoria sells her songs on a self-published CD called Use Me. "Even my friends haven't listened to it," she admits.)
Nisan declined to be interviewed for this story. Still in Connecticut, he's now known as "the Magic Genie." His website boasts he "offers quality magic tricks at discount prices... He can even levitate one of the children! Fire effects are optional."
After the divorce, Victoria reconnected with her former fiancé from Miami, Paul Wessel. Also divorced, he had become a Miami-Dade Police SWAT officer. In 1984, according to Paul's personnel file, the tip of his pinkie was shot by his own partner in a firefight with a drug suspect. In 1991, with a single round he killed an Opa-locka man who pointed a revolver at officers. At an inquest, the man's widow beseeched, "Why did they have to shoot him in the heart?" Paul's lethal actions were ruled justified. One year later, he used a shotgun to obliterate a pit bull that was attacking his partner. To date, Paul has been honored with 71 department commendations.
But Paul had a competitor. "I kind of had a crush on Weird Al Yankovic," Victoria confesses. "We kind of went on a date, but I don't know if he loved me or not."
In Victoria's brain, "there was this fork in the road." Down one path: Paul Wessel and Jesus, with their matching abs, and life as a poor, pious housewife in Miami. Down the other: Weird Al, SNL, and loads of sinful showbiz cash.
After making up her mind, she got a tattoo of Paul's initials on her lower back. "Because he's the one that ruined my life," she explains without irony.
That's why she quit SNL in 1992, she says. She headed back to "the swamp"—as she calls Miami—to marry Paul. Two years later, they had a daughter named Aubrey. Victoria's movie career quickly dried to a crust.
But there's one problem with her morality tale, in which she sacrificed riches and fame to make the perfect God-fearing family.
"No, no, no," agent Dolores Robinson clucks when relayed her former client's claim that she quit SNL. "They dropped her."
OUTSIDE A MIAMI LAKES Starbucks in the pouring rain, Victoria sits under an awning that provides only partial cover. Water soaks her bare legs and pools on her Mac laptop and cell phone. With her Flip cam balanced on a stack of conservative books—Marx & Satan, Socialism Shakedown, The Manchurian President—she recounts taking her youngest daughter, 17-year-old Aubrey, to a "gay party" held by Victoria's "newest gay friend, Seth." (Victoria claims to have three gay friends—Seth, Alex, and Glen—and she makes frequent mention of them.)
"After we left, I asked my daughter what she thought," Victoria says, her eyeglasses missing an earpiece and tilting down her nose. "She said, 'It felt like they were sad and ashamed.' Out of the mouth of babes!
"If you get killed because you're gay, the murderer gets extra time. It's hilarious! Alcoholism is a sin too, but you don't see an alcoholic pride parade. Alcoholics hide in little rooms in basements and they go, 'Hi, I'm Fred.' "
A pair of women huddling from the rain gape at her. Victoria sometimes wonders why she can't get a mainstream gig. Is it her weight? "It's okay to be a liberal and be fat," she complains. "You've got Oprah, Rosie, you've got Joy Behar, you've got Whoopi, you've got the other ones on The View. [Or] if you're black, you're allowed to be fat, and that's sassy, sexy. But if you're white, you're not really allowed to be fat."
Victoria often blames Democratic policies for her modest, Honda-driving life. Her family lives in a $200,000 townhouse with a concrete dock on a murky green pond. Her husband, now an MDPD helicopter pilot, makes $120,000 annually. But, she says, alimony to the fire-eater left them broke. Public records reveal that Nisan sued her in 1995, claiming she owed $89,000.
The cash shortage spawned a sad, short standup comedy career. In the early '00s, Victoria worked clubs around the country while the couple raised two daughters. She made about $4,000 a weekend, she says. Her material was mostly riffing on hating Miami. She did gigs with SNL alumni Lovitz and Kevin Nealon, as well as forgotten former cast member Joe Piscopo. That last pairing was called "the most depressing Saturday Night Live reunion ever" by the Onion's A.V. Club.
In 2004, she released a self-produced full-length documentary about the grief of being away from her family. It debuted at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival. "Nobody watched it," she says. Much of it is close-up footage of her sobbing in hotel beds.
But then she discovered something life-changing: When she talked about Obama being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, people watched—and cared. Then job offers came.
In 2007, 15 years removed from SNL, she traveled back to Tinseltown for a last-ditch stab at becoming an "airhead on a sitcom." She explains, "I liked the idea of getting $100,000 a week for having five lines that someone else wrote, and I could do airhead better than anyone. That's my specialty! It would be effortless."
Victoria says she knew nothing about politics and rarely voted. But because "everybody in Hollywood is liberal and Jewish," the best way to network was through a cagey group of industry conservatives.
She refuses to name what she calls a "secret organization," but Victoria is clearly talking about Friends of Abe (FOA). Celebrities who have confessed to being among its 1,800-plus members include Pat Boone, Jon Voight, Kelsey Grammer, and Gary Sinise. Started in 2007 by "two guys in their trailer whispering that they respected Bush," Victoria says, it's something like a support group for conservatives who fear being blacklisted for their beliefs.
She joined these new friends at film screenings. They watched Blocking the Path to 9/11, which claimed Bill and Hillary Clinton squelched a muckraking documentary. And then there was Hype, about the radical Chicago connections of then-candidate Obama. For Victoria—though she wouldn't appreciate the metaphor—it was a Malcolm-X-picking-up-the-Koran moment. This is Orwell! This is 1984! she says she thought about the movie. "And I was like, No! I gave a copy [of Hype] to my agent. She never thanked me."
The conservatives asked her to speak at a gathering in a Mexican restaurant in Burbank. That first political speech's talking points: "The Ten Commandments have been kicked out of schools. We're killing 37 hundred-something-thousand babies a day... I don't know, 37 hundred a day or something like that. A million a day, I don't know. I'm not good with numbers. We're killing lots of babies every day. It's infanticide. Its genocide. We are... How can God bless our country, seriously?"
She then attended what she says was L.A.'s first Tea Party rally, on the Santa Monica Pier, in February 2009, carrying a sign reading, "We don't want no socialism." She read to the crowd of 50 the definitions of capitalism, communism, and socialism. A week later, she was waving a Bible on The Sean Hannity Show. Soon she recorded a new song, "There's a Communist Living in the White House," in both English and inanely broken Spanish.
Victoria returned to Miami for good in 2010 to be with her pregnant (and married, she states pointedly) 25-year-old daughter, Scarlet. That airhead sitcom never panned out. Instead, she became a self-described "conservative journalist." In early 2011, she began writing for the right-wing website World Net Daily. She received loads of attention for her editorial on a kiss between two male actors: "Did you see Glee this week? Sickening!"
Around that time, she met Brandon Vallorani, founder of the website Patriot Update (motto: "A free press for the conservative revolution"; Chuck Norris is a columnist), on the Tea Party Cruise for Liberty, a weeklong boat ride. "We hit it off immediately," Vallorani says, and he conceived of an online show for her and three other mostly unknown conservative female contributors: PolitiChicks. It's billed as The View for right-wingers, and Victoria says she earns a "modest" living from it.
They've tackled the mystery of Area 51, with Victoria earnestly wondering whether Jesus died for aliens' sins. Then there was the episode titled "Who's More Racist, Blacks or Whites?" in which the discussion centered on a conversation the hosts had with a black airport baggage handler. Also: "Can Christians Vote for a Mormon?" (Answer from a cohost: "As long as he's not a Muslim, I think that's fine.")
The PolitiChicks videos that have gone viral have been roundly mocked on mainstream websites such as the Huffington Post, Gawker, and Comedy Central's Indecision. "A drugged-up 7-year-old" was how the site FilmDrunk described her oratory style. "She must have been dropped on her head," wrote a Daily Beast commenter. "This is so bizarre it seems satirical."
Victoria is hardened to derision. Her cohosts aren't. "We do want to be relevant," PolitiChick Ann-Marie Murrell says. They're looking for nonconservative guests and even a liberal cohost. "We don't want to be laughed at. That's something we're working on."
But in today's highly charged political climate, few Republican politicians are bold enough to declare her beliefs abhorrent. Republican Brevard County congressman Bill Posey, the author of the so-called birther bill challenging Obama's citizenship, recently welcomed her into his office to film an interview. The footage ends with a bare-footed Victoria kicking a stack of congressional bills while yelling, "That's what I think of Obamacare! We the people!"
Victoria was a Michele Bachmann fan until she was knocked out of the presidential race. Now Rick Santorum is her fave. And one day, she might become a candidate. "I would run for office," she says casually. "I mean, especially since I'm getting old. I don't really want to be in front of the camera, but I kind of like to be around people."
Later she says, "I feel like I'm the only person who has reason, common sense, and sanity."
VICTORIA'S MOM, Marlene, had only one doll when she was a poor kid in Minnesota. So she has overcompensated in adulthood by clogging her daughter's old bedroom with hundreds of them. Most are from Goodwill. Heaped on shelves in Victoria's darkened room, they're in various stages of disrepair and hair loss.
On a reporter's recent visit, Marlene digs out one of her favorites, and while Jim and Victoria talk about gymnastics and politics around the table, she makes it kick and punch. It's a Barack Obama action figure. "I just think Obama is a very nice person," she explains matter-of-factly. "I like his wife and children. I think he's a good family man."
She also likes Oprah Winfrey, she adds. That sends Victoria into a spiel about how Oprah "brainwashed an entire country of housewives into the new-age movement—the oldest false religion in the world." (Yes, she's talking about yoga, karma, and nag champa.)
Jim punctuates her statement with his thoughts about Oprah: "I don't like her because she's fat."
Victoria's dad doesn't seem to put much stock in what Marlene says, though she's often an acute judge of her daughter. When the question of Victoria's motivation arises, she remarks, "I think she has tried to impress her father."
The conversation swerves to Obama's chances for re-election. "I think he has a good chance," Victoria says, "because the Latins will vote for him. The illegal aliens will vote for him."
"Illegals can't vote!" her dad interrupts. "How can they?"
Victoria is stumped. "Because... because of cheating."
Tomorrow morning, she's headed to New York City to be on Fox & Friends. She'll plug Marriage Retreat, a Christian film about the sanctity of matrimony. Her small role, even she admits, "isn't going to win an Oscar." The demands of her new career, she laments, keep her away from her daughters and granddaughter. In a couple of weeks, she'll go "on a conservative cruise for [her] journalism job, and [she's] gonna do a handstand next to the Mayan rock that says the world is going to end in 2012."
As Victoria gets up to leave, father and daughter continue the list of who will vote for Obama: The liberals. The gays. The Muslims.
Says Jim: "Those who were aborted would if they were alive."
The family bursts into manic laughter. "Jim!" Marlene says. "You made a joke!"
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