Erika Smith was one of the ladies featured in our original “James Girls” article, published in June of 2014. Erika, who did her first shoot with Mike James in late 2004, is one of several ladies who has regularly appeared before Mike’s camera over the years, ever since their first collaboration.
These featured candid shots of Erika are from her most recent shoot with Mike, as well as a few from a 2011 shoot. Unlike previous “Behind the Scenes with James Girls” articles we’ve published here, this one includes an exclusive, and very candid, interview that Erika was gracious enough to grant us to go along with these “outtake” photos. Above is one such candid shot of Erika on Mike’s deck, during their most recent shoot, shielding her eyes from the midday sun in a photo entitled “Blinding Sun.” Since Mike even titles his photos that aren’t planned for release, the outtakes have titles as well as the keepers. Of course, it goes without saying who all the photo credits here go to.
You’re quite famous for your onstage Marilyn Monroe impersonations. Were you inspired to do Marilyn because someone told you that you resembled her in some ways?
ERIKA SMITH: I guess my VERY first comparison to Marilyn was around 2004. I had red sheets on my bed. I was laying nude on them and my boyfriend at the time said I looked like that famous Marilyn Monroe calendar pic of her on the red sheets. That was flattering because he was a big Marilyn fan. Around that time, I played the role of Marilyn in a play about the Rat Pack. Then, in 2007, I had several callbacks to play Marilyn in a movie called The Itch, which was about the making of The Seven Year Itch. I did a lot of research on her for that. Unfortunately, the movie never got made. So, even though I hadn’t started my tribute act, which began in 2009, I was being cast as her well before then.
My favorite time playing Marilyn was in 2013. I’d co-written a play, a musical. That same boyfriend, who was by then my ex, wrote a beautiful sad song for me to sing about Marilyn saying goodbye to Joe DiMaggio. It was about how only he knew and loved the REAL her. I sang it more as Norma Jean, not in full Marilyn-mode. All in all, it’s been about 13 years.
You also sing and play the Ukulele. What inspired you and made you pick it up?
ERIKA: Well, music is my formal background. I studied voice in music school. All the singers were also required to learn the piano to help with music theory. Around 2008 or 2009, I was going to audition for the role of a ukulele player in Boardwalk Empire, so I went to the store, bought a ukulele and learned it. It was easy because of my music theory background. Much easier than the piano or guitar, because it only has four strings. Because it’s so easy to play, it allows me to concentrate more on my singing.
Do you have any hidden talents that most people don’t know about?
ERIKA: I’m pretty good at memorizing things. If I read something on a page, I can remember it in just a few minutes. That comes in handy for acting and learning lines. I’m also a pretty good mimic, and it comes pretty naturally. If I see a film with a really good performance by an actor, it kinda gets inside me, I’ll walk out imitating that character. For example, I recently watched a movie with Scarlett Johansson called Under the Skin. She’s really stoic in that. I wound up doing that character for the rest of the day. So I took ScarJo into my Marilyn gig.
How did you first meet Mike James?
ERIKA: In late 2004, I shot a movie with Erin Brown for E.I. Independent Cinema called Sinful. It was a psychological horror movie where Erin’s character is jealous of my character and dreams about killing me. Erin and I went to Mike’s studio in Pennsylvania to shoot the DVD box cover art for it. Erin’s great, very sweet and supportive and down to earth. She drove us to Mike’s. That was my first trip to his studio. Everything went like clockwork and we had a lot of fun. I’ve also acted with some of Mike’s other models. Tina Krause is fun to work with, very cool and professional, also down to earth. And shortly after my first shoot at his studio, Rachel Robbins, whom I’ve also done a few films with, suggested that I do a shoot with Mike. I told her I already had.
What was maybe your worst experience modeling?
I was only 19, new to the industry, I didn’t know if this was how it was or what, but he got me really drunk. At one point, I was on the bed in lingerie and I look down and see his hand in my panties. I was so drunk I just said, “Why are you doing that?” He said, “Because I want to.” I asked him to stop and eventually he did and got all huffy. We stopped shooting and he drove me back to my apartment and dropped me off. Didn’t even wait to see me in. I threw up outside my apartment and never heard from him again.
Mike shoots lots of different pin-up character archetypes, from nice to naughty, innocent to devilish. Are there any roles you prefer?
ERIKA: I’m not crazy about dressing up like Lolita. I’ve been that character and that doesn’t interest me anymore. I get the appeal, it’s just not me. In this last shoot I did with Mike, I dressed up like a Nazi dominatrix interrogator with a whip, interrogation chair, and hanging light. That character interested me. I think, “Who would this character be in a movie?” Another character that I like and I find people wanting to cast me in at this point in my career, is the “Femme Fatale.” She’s dark, moody, dangerous, mysterious. Maybe has a tortured past that made her like this. I like characters that have depth. Maybe they’re dangerous and powerful, but underneath that, they’re vulnerable, they’ve been wounded. She’s both.
Mike’s told me he approaches pinup with less concern making an “arty” pic, and more on setting up and communicating powerful psychological triggers to attraction, deliberately employing subliminal messages, placement of props, shapes of fingers, that affect viewers strongly on a subconscious level. That seems a bit like what you are describing, the deeper psychological messaging of characters.
ERIKA: Yeah. That’s usually my first step when I’m developing a character, whether for a film or photography, or even a song for that matter. Their psychology. Not just how they think, but why they think that way. What’s their story? I try to make up something I can relate to, or want to experience. And then, how can you convey that? But, you figure all that out BEFORE the shoot. For film, I really prepare, do my homework, so I can do the job well. Then, come time to shoot, you throw all of that knowledge out, in order to be in the moment. Art’s not a science. Yes you should understand the role you’re playing very well before you play it, but then you have to let it live instinctually. Also, sometimes it’s not JUST the role I’m playing, sometimes I have to find a way to get myself in there too. Somewhere in the middle, if I can meld those two people together, that’s the best case scenario …a convincing character.
What is your creative process like?
ERIKA: When I’m in my creative space, when I’m alone writing a script, or a song, or creating a character, I’m very focused, often for long periods …I’m in my head. Then, if I have to go out and deal with people, it takes a while for me to get out of that head space. It’s literally a different part of your brain. I need to stop thinking with one part of my brain and respond to the person in front of me. I think that can make me seem kind of spacey.
Modeling is creative work. So having every day conversations with Mike while we’re shooting can pull me out of that creative space. So can spiders crawling on me outside when I’m laying in the grass in skimpy clothing. In stressful physical environments, like extreme cold, it’s also hard to stay creatively focused. The good thing about photography though, is all you need is a split second. So, if I’m cold, but can stop shivering and hit the expression I need to hit for just one exposure, we’re good. If I can stop swatting at gnats flying around my head, to get one good exposure, we’re good.
Another thing I like about Mike is, like me, he’s prepared. He knows what he wants before the shoot begins, has the outfits laid out. Sometimes sketches of poses. His sketches are a good jumping off point. But he’s not anal about it. He sometimes gets new ideas on the spot and improvises, scrambling for different props to flesh the character out. He likes me to improvise as well. If we have a good idea, we’ll go for it. That keeps it all fun and interesting. I love winging it.
What I also appreciate about Mike’s creative process is that it’s exploratory. He’s always looking for different ways to express beauty, or something provocative, or erotic. He’ll dance all around a subject to find something that clicks in a new way. And I don’t have to worry that what I suggest to him will be dismissed. We don’t agree on everything, but we explore, play, and get a lot of great work done that way.
Left: “Step Rest” – Erika during her most recent shoot with Mike and her most recent hair color, taking a break on the spiral staircase that several James Girls have posed on. Right: “Sun Dress” – Erika wearing a very special sun dress and spike heels on Mike’s lawn. Mike regarding how that lawn and spike heels don’t mix: “I have shot so many girls in inappropriate heels for a lawn. The heels sink into the ground, sometimes by several inches, so extricating the heels and moving around to ‘rest’ is problematical, but a must on that grass.” As for the sun dress Erika is wearing, Mike says; “I’ve shot that dress on at least six models now. You simply cannot wear a bra or panties with it. It is a nude only dress. That is because is made from amazingly thin and amazingly stretchy material which hides nothing. It’s like skin. I mean, you can see the outlines of navels and the tiny bumps on nipples. On one model, I even had to retouch, i.e. smooth out, the material around her pubic area because the dress revealed gooseflesh bumps from where she’d recently shaved. I like the dress for those reasons. It’s the closest thing one can get to be fully covered and still look nude.”
Left: “Mirror Selfie” – Snapped just before one of the shoots during her most recent sessions with
Mike. Right: “Shed” – An outtake after that shoot, which was done in the shed. To quote Mike:
“I was already out and she was still inside and flashed me her boobs …and I clicked off a shot.”
“Lake Dressing” – Erika changing outfits in the outdoors in 2011. No need for a dressing room as the entire property is privately owned by Mike, who informs us; “It’s 15 acres of wooded land with a 20 acre pond. Officially, I only own about 5-6 acres of the pond, but have riparian (water) rights to boat on all of it. There are other properties that own a piece of the pond, but of the two properties that have cabins on them, they remain unoccupied for all but about two weeks per year. In 21 years here. I’m the only one I’ve ever seen using the pond.”
“Boat Ready” – Preparing for a shoot. If that rowboat of Mike’s could talk, it would have
just as many tales to tell as his brown Chevy pickup truck, as they’ve both had their
share of James Girls aboard.