The Jester Interview:
Wendy Jo Smith
“Wendy Ho,” Wendy Jo Smith takes command of a room in a way few
performers do. “Ho” is a bawdy diva, singing her own R&B songs that are
as hilarious as they are sexually over the top. Smith, who hails from
Kansas City, Kansas and earned a degree in theater, has been performing
as “Wendy Ho” in New York and elsewhere for about three years, and has
recorded an album of the character’s songs. She has performed as “Wendy
Ho” at Caroline’s, Comix and in a one-woman show at Ars Nova, has
brought the character to cable television and is working on further
developing a “Wendy Ho” stage show and a second album.
Jester: Is “Wendy Ho” the only thing you perform? Are you involved with
any other shows or groups?
Wendy Jo Smith: I do musical theater, but I’ve taken a break from doing
that for quite some time. I’m an actress as well. But I’ve taken a break
from doing that to concentrate on doing Wendy Ho, because it brings me
the most joy and it’s really opened me up to songwriting, because I
really like to write songs, and I love to sing. I feel in moving here --
I was working a lot regionally in musical theater before I came here. I
moved here … and casting directors didn’t really know what to do with me
because I had a very mature voice and could sing very soulfully, so they
didn’t know what to do with this white girl who sings like a black girl.
So I just started trying to strike out and write my own songs and when I
did that, I completed a couple and wanted to go perform them. I just
sent out an e-mail to everyone that I knew asking if they knew anywhere
I could perform songs like this that are funny, sexy and lewd.
People answered back that I should do them in comedy clubs. I really had
never thought about doing stand-up before. I never considered myself a
stand-up and I just kind of tripped and fell into the comedy circuit
here. Once I started doing that -- I remember one time I got up in a
comedy night at Therapy, a gay bar here in midtown that let me sing in
their room, and the people went crazy for the stuff that I did. I got a
really great response. I thought, ‘Wow, I could really do this!’ I still
thought, it’s a gay crowd, and I wasn’t sure how this would play in
front of regular folks, well, heterosexuals. I booked a gig at
Caroline’s, and not only that, because it’s an African American-inspired
character, I didn’t know how it would play in front of a diverse
audience. I went to Caroline’s and sang a couple songs there, one of
them was ‘Fuck Me,’ and they really enjoyed it. The response was great.
Of course, getting that response just inspired me to continue to write,
develop and … I work with Craig Levy, as a producer and co-writer, at
the Little Pioneer Recording Studio in Brooklyn. We work on things
together and developed it and put out an album last year, and now we’re
getting ready to start a second one. We’re shopping the first one to
labels to see if we can get some sort of deal worked out. We’re also
going to be putting out a couple videos. The first video I did, “Bitch I
Stole Your Purse,” landed on Logo, which is the gay and lesbian channel.
So we had really good luck with that and I want to continue to make
those. At some point I would love to do a movie. I just got done doing a
one-woman show with the same name as my album, ‘The Gospel According to
Ho.’ That played at Ars Nova and I just got a development deal with
them. We’re going to develop the show and hopefully in that process as
well, write more songs and material that I can perform, just continue to
flower and blossom.
I would like to, at some point, do more characters. It’s definitely in
me. But right now I’m having so much fun with this one and it’s so
developed that it’s what I have time to do.
I’ve been writing and doing snippets of this character at parties and
stuff since college, for 10 years. The character came from my name --
Wendy Jo. I made up raps about people in college and people would laugh.
They would say, your name’s Wendy Jo? You’re Wendy Ho. It stuck.
J: I haven’t seen too many people command a room like you did with this
character. How do you do that?
WS: I just love her so much, and there’s so much theatricality to what I
do that I really do look at it every night that I’m getting on stage,
like I’m stepping into the shoes of this woman. I get so excited because
I lay out my costume and my wig and put my makeup on. Usually during the
process of laying out the costume, I’m like [exaggerated in character],
‘Oh! Miss Ho! You are every woman I ever wanted to be!’ The shit I get
to wear as her -- I find myself shopping for her more than I do for
myself because I get bored -- and Wendy Ho gets to wear leopard prints,
zebra prints, Afro wigs and all of this. I get really excited.
I’m lucky that I have vocal chops that I can always land on, something
that will go right with my comedy and my banter with the audience. It’s
just stepping into it fully. The funniest characters are when people are
just fully committed. When I first started out thinking about doing
Wendy Ho, I was intimidated by how sexual it was, calling myself Wendy
Ho, and really ashamed of it, in a way, almost. I just got to this point
where, I don’t know what happened along the journey but I really started
to embrace -- she’s definitely an extension of me -- I really started to
embrace that part of me.
There’s a lot of it that goes into women not being allowed to be that
bold or women not allowed to be that outspoken or strong. I can see how
that might be somewhat of a turnoff, but for the most part if you’re in
on the gag, if you know -- with this character, the joke usually always
ends up on me -- I’m Wendy Ho. It’s just enjoyable. That’s the only way
I really know how. I used to get up and apologize for her or say ‘Hi, my
name is Wendy Jo Smith, I’m going to do a character now,’ rather than
just being, ‘no, you’re coming to a Wendy Ho show, that’s what you’re
going to get.’ Once I really started to develop that mindset, that this
is a Wendy Ho show and we’re not going back -- I won’t do interviews as
her because it leaves too much open. I don’t know -- I did one before on
the radio and it was so weird because they were asking me questions and
I had to go through in my mind and think of how would she answer that
question. My improv skills are good but answering those questions and
speaking for her could be put on the spot, wide open as to whether that
was really what she wants to say or is it me. I’m much better at writing
and then getting up and crafting it for me.
I always looked at Wendy Ho as just a joke -- just a funny thing I do at
parties. Even when I left school, I put out three albums. One was
theater songs, one was guitar blues, and then the third one that was
just little snippets or riffs as Wendy Ho, called “Wendy Ho: Bitch Off A
Leash,” and that was the one everyone wanted. That started to clue me
in, even though I still had a lot of stuff to break through before I
could embrace my “Ho”-ness.
J: How many songs do you have for this character?
WS: 13 songs -- 9 on the album and one is like a skit. I have parts of
another song and am working on a Hillary Clinton-inspired song right
now. I don’t usually put those kinds of songs on albums because they’re
topical and I don’t feel like they last. I’m working on that. This next
album is really going to surpass what the first album did. I feel like
we were such babies in making the first album -- we have that repertoire
of songs and that’s great, and I’m thankful for it, but we also relied a
lot upon heavy sampling on that first album, a few parody songs -- which
I want to continue to do, and we’ll do a mix-tape type thing to go along
with the actual album. I do want to continue to do that. I think
parodies are funny and great if they’re cleverly done, that there’s
still really a place for them. For this next one, I just had a meeting
with him today, so I’m really fresh and inspired, and really excited to
get back into the studio and start working on that.