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The Jester Interview: Wendy Jo Smith

As “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.




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