Why church choir made a lasting impression

JESS Robinson was used to impersonating someone else from a young age.

Despite growing up in a Jewish family, she sang in her village’s church choir — where her mother was, and remains, its organist.

“At the end of the service, everyone goes up to my mum and wishes her ‘Shalom’,” Jess told me.

“I was raised with a Jewish culture, but singing in the choir gave me a respect for other people’s beliefs, which was a nice way to grow up.”

Years later, Jess is an established actress, singer and impressionist.

She takes off everyone, from Cheryl Cole, Kim Kardashian and Mary Berry to Beyonce, Adele and Nicki Minaj.

And she will showcase the best of them on her new tour, No Filter, which begins in February.

Dates include Glasgow’s Oran Mor (March 22); Liverpool’s Hot Water (May 2) and The Lowry, Salford (May 3).

“There will be more celebrity impressions than you can shake a stick at,” Jess said. “It is a little bit cheeky, but not so much, so people will be able to bring their grandmas, too.

“There will be a lot of laughs and it is a real feel-good show.

“We also do a section called Celebrity Volleyball, where the audience picks a random song and a random singer, so I could end up with Julie Andrews and I’ve Got a Brand New Combined Harvester and Walk on By, but sung by Katherine Jenkins.”

Born in north London and raised in the Hertfordshire village of Aldbury, entertainment runs through her veins.

Her mother, Jackie, and her grandmother, Rosie Ruben, both studied at the Royal Academy of Music.

Her grandfather, Jules Ruben, was a jazz pianist and bandleader who did impressions of well-known jazz pianists, while her father, Brian, is an artist and painter.

Jess started young as an impersonator, regularly taking off her mum, grandma and teachers at her local school — where her mum also taught.

“I was always very musical and I loved singing, too,” the 34-year-old recalled.

“I had planned to be a classical singer and attended the Royal Academy of Music, as my mum and grandma did, but I ended up getting parts in Snow White and then The Wizard of Oz . . . and I never looked back.”

She attended the Tring Park School for the Performing Arts, in Herts, and caught the eye when she starred as Little Voice in The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, in Stratford-upon-Avon.

It was thanks to that part that she landed her first role in television.

“Geraldine McNulty played my mum in Little Voice, where I did a lot of impressions of different singers like Judy Garland, Shirley Bassey, Marilyn Monroe and Edith Piaf,” Jess said.

“She knew Bill Dare, who produced Dead Ringers, so I sent a show reel to him,” Jess said.

It led to her securing a role in the last two series of the BBC comedy impressions show Dead Ringers.

“I had never thought of being an impressionist before, but I was so desperate not go back to working in the stockroom of a big store in Oxford Street, which I had been doing before,” she explained.

Jess went on to provide the female impressions in ITV animated satirical series Headcases, as well as appearing in The Impressions Show with Culshaw and Stephenson, and Horrible Histories.

But she continued with theatre, too, starring in Never Mind the Botox, Hamlet! The Musical, The Queen of Hearts and Full Circle — alongside Dame Joan Collins — as well as reprising her role in the 2012 tour of Little Voice.

She is also currently appearing as a panellist in new ITV series The Imitation Game.

But she doesn’t think of herself as an impressionist, which she admits is “crazy”, considering it makes up a lot of her performances.

“I guess I am an entertainer, as I like making people happy and making them laugh,” Jess added.

And, despite having a talent for impersonating others, it is something she works hard to hone.

“I do have a natural aptitude for it, more so than maths, I guess,” Jess laughed.

“I will listen to someone’s voice and, without realising it, it will filter through. Then I will record my voice and compare the two.

“It can be quite painstaking and pedantic work to do.

“I have a good ear, but you also have to train yourself for hours and hours — and you have to enjoy doing it.”

She has met two of the people she regularly takes off, in the shape of former X-Factor contestant and now TV presenter Stacey Solomon, and journalist and broadcaster Janet Street-Porter.

“Stacey, as you would expect, was absolutely lovely about it, while Janet was far scarier, but she was a good sport,” Jess recalled.

Jess was a contestant on ITV show Britain’s Got Talent last year — but found herself on the end of some sharp criticism due to her stage and screen career.

She explained: “It is a funny one, because the producers approached me over a number of years and I always said no.

“They asked again and I thought I would give it a go, otherwise I would always wonder, ‘what if?’.

“The producers’ line is that it is open to amateurs and professionals.

“As far as I was concerned, I hadn’t had the massive break I had been waiting for in terms of showcasing my singing and impressions.

“It was quite a difficult experience, because they were very prescriptive about what they wanted me to do.

“I have no regrets about it though, as it got me my first tour.

“The really frustrating thing was that they didn’t keep in the bit where I explain I am a performer and want to raise my profile.

“They are in charge, but it did feel a little bit like they had thrown me under the bus.”

Having already taken four shows to the Edinburgh Fridge, she took her own show, Here Comes the Girls, around the country last year to critical acclaim.

And her Leicester Square Theatre gig was filled to the brim with residents of her native Aldbury.

Of her new tour, No Filter, Jess said: “Having singing as well as impressions in the show adds an extra dimension.

“There is no greater feeing than when I am singing in front of band or pianist.

“It came about because a lot of audience members wanted me to sing, so I have put it in.

“I love the way music makes people feel reminiscent or have a bit of a boogie if it is someone like Katy Perry or Nicki Minaj.

“I want people to know that the show isn’t just a lot of different impressions and a few songs, as I like to open up about my life and my opinions.”

Joining her on the London leg of her tour will be her band, Jessington’s World of Adventures.

Jess’ next aim is to have her own TV show, with sketches, impressions and singing.

She possesses “lashings of chutzpa”, which is a big help in the business she is in.

“You have to be a bit pushy,” said Jess, who is engaged to Jonty Fisher.

“My mum is the same and I guess it is part of being culturally Jewish.

“I do feel like a bad Jew, as I would like to be able to speak Hebrew and learn more.

“My sister taught herself Hebrew and had a batmitzvah when she was 40.”

Jess’ grandmother, Rosie, died last month and she would like to perform some kind of tribute to her.

“Grandma arrived in the UK from Poland on the last Kindertransport in 1939,” she said.

“All seven of her siblings were in the concentration camps, but all of them survived, amazingly.”


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