Greg London is a man of many talents. As an actor, singer and occasional dancer, he has worked in Shakespearean theater in New York and travelled the globe while appearing in stage presentations of the Broadway shows “Hairspray,” “Fiddler on The Roof” “The Sound Of Music,” “Annie” and “West Side Story,” among others.
Now he’s trying something a little different and in an alternative medium: social media. To be more specific, we’re talking YouTube and TikTok and comedic drag queen cooking clips (called “The Betty Jean Baker Show”) with a character (Betty Jean) named after his mother and inspired by a few significant TV personalities and southern Carolina women who shaped his life while growing up.
“I grew up in Charleston and Kershaw, South Carolina,” says London.
Although Kershaw is not considered part of the Charlotte Metro region, it is just a stone’s throw away. It’s 60 miles from Charlotte and plenty of Kershaw residents make the trek to the Queen City for work, shopping and entertainment.
“I remember coming to Charlotte when I was much younger,” says London. “Compared to a tiny little place like Kershaw, Charlotte was pretty cool.”
London had a lifetime of experiences ahead of him when, as a young gay man, he would venture in to Charlotte and visit gay and gay-friendly clubs like Scorpio and Pterodactyl. It was at Scorpio where he was first exposed to Charlotte’s specific brand of drag entertainment at the time.
“My knowledge of drag culture started with Charlotte queens at Scorpio,” he reminisces. “They were all such legends back in the day – Boom Boom Latour, Tracy Morgan, Grand Prix.”
But drag queens weren’t all he found at the club on Freedom Drive, which has been in operation now for over 50 years. “My first night out at Scorpio back in the 1980s, I walked into the bar thinking I would never see anybody from Kershaw, but there were seven people [I knew]. I thought we must be doing something right down in Kershaw ‘cuz we were turning ‘em out like crazy.”
Fast forward to 2021 and London is living and working in the Myrtle Beach and Conway, South Carolina area. He’s the Executive and Artistic Director at Long Bay Theatre, Myrtle Beach’s newest non-profit and professional theater company. They’ve staged original presentations and classic Broadway shows such as “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Forever Plaid,” “Ring Them Bells,” “Godspell” and more.
To date, he’s appeared in 14 episodes of “The Betty Jean Baker Show,” which you can stream on YouTube and TikTok (there are a number of short outtakes and bloopers on the latter not available on YouTube). London even has a website for the venture, available to explore here (https://www.thebettyjeanbakershow.com/)
London explains the method behind the madness that led him to create “The Betty Jean Baker Show,” which features the six-foot-four man dressed as a southern queen, generally sporting a blond Loni Anderson wig and any number of costumes ranging from a standard Julia Child blue cooking dress to various floral prints he admits he picks up at Dillard’s for an authentic “southern woman” look.
The focus of the show is storytelling and southern cooking. And the food is no joke, either. London confirms he enjoys spending time in the kitchen and hopes viewers will get a good laugh, while trying their hand at some of the delectables Betty Jean has to offer, like Meatloaf Wellington, Dragzilla Extravaganza Macaroni and Cheese, Brown Butter Peach Cobbler, Betty Jean’s Pimento Cheese and a fried chicken biscuit with bacon and hot honey mustard.
“I guess how it all happened, and this is how I write so many of my plays, I woke up in the middle of the night and said out loud, ‘Betty Jean Baker.’ I thought to myself what am I doing with this, where am I going?
“Then I thought I would love to do a character that is based on all of the women I knew growing up. I was raised primarily by southern women. I never knew a father and I was raised by all these crazy southern women. They were loud, obnoxious, hilarious and irreverent southern women. All of my life was spent standing with them in the kitchen.”
When prompted, London admits various sides to his Betty Jean character include an inspired blending of all the good parts of television personalities like Julia Child, Paula Dean and even a bit of Tammy Faye Bakker.
Along with the golden fried goodness of Betty Jean and her various edible items comes the stories she shares, which roll off London’s tongue like fast-paced improvisational theater.
“I’d say 90 percent of the stories I tell are absolutely real,” London chuckles. “I’ve even had cousins reach out to me and say, ‘I can’t believe you told that sorry it’s so hilarious.’ They may have been based on my cousin Becky or my cousin Sherry, I usually change the names, but they’re absolutely real stories and most of them are my family.
“I don’t script anything. I don’t even know what I’m going to say when I start cooking on these shows, but I do know I wanted to be a drag queen storyteller that made really good food.
“Sometimes I get so engrossed in the story. I have a little mini crew, a camera crew [with] my friend Silas and my friend Tilman and I have them remind me to keep cooking because I will just lean over and start talking to the camera and there like, ‘Hey, hey, it’s a cooking show,’ and I’m like, ‘oh yeah, let me put some ingredients in here.”
While the program has evolved, so has London’s approach and Betty Jean’s look.
“I’ve tried to play with the format. I obsessively watch cooking shows. I really like Claire Saffitz, an angry little cook that was with ‘Bon Appetit.’ She’s not afraid to fail. And I stole that from her. It’s okay to do something wrong in front of people. You don’t see that with the Martha Stewarts of the world. Martha would never turn the blender on and have flour shooting up everywhere because she’s working with a different food processor. This is real, and I like to keep it that way.”
As for the changing look, says London: “It’s been a brand journey for me and I’m not sure I have landed on it just yet. The wigs changed because I started cutting [the main one] and I absolutely fucking ruined it <laughs>, because it just kept getting shorter and shorter and shorter! I want to get back to the Julia Child or the Paula Dean look. I really want that helmet hair look, but I think I finally shot myself in the foot because I was contacted by ‘Chopped’ on the Food Network, and they wanted to do a drag cooking show. Nothing ever happened with it, so now I’m thinking I should’ve simplified. I think my brand got fuzzy and I kind of lost who [Betty Jean] was.
London’s mother, who’s soon to turn 80, was surprisingly receptive to her son’s idea to name the character after her.
“Betty Jean is my mother’s name,” London explains. “[One of] my grandmothers’ maiden name was Baker. When I came up with the idea, I called my mother and asked her how she would feel about me doing a drag character named Betty Jean Baker. She said, ‘You’re going to use my name?’ I told her yes, and she said, ‘I love it!’”
London admits he had reservations about the way he expected some friends and family would respond to Betty Jean.
“I thought the world would accept it so differently than it has, but maybe that’s because of the way I grew up. I thought some members of my family might be a bit perturbed. I thought some of the redneckiest and trashiest people would say, ‘Oh my God it’s Greg, he’s a fag and he’s wearing a dress.’ Instead, they messaged me and said, ‘It’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen,’ and ‘you’re telling Kershaw stories.’”
London says response has been so positive, he’s even had friends and acquaintances share other quirky stories about Kershaw he hopes to incorporate in future episodes.
As a reader, you’ve just been fed the crash course on the Betty Jean Baker Show, and the man who created and channels the character.
But there’s been a lot of living between the time Greg London left Kershaw and returned to South Carolina and the place he is today – both personally and professionally.
“I lived in and out of New York for the last 30 years,” he says.
There are parts of that journey he recalls with a slightly bittersweet edge.
“On one of my moves back to New York, I had a very tragic auditioning season,” he laughs. “It felt like nobody liked me and everybody hated me and I was about to give up. I wanted to come home for a visit. It was all so tragic! [If there was] a movie version of this whole moment – but this is actually true – I was late to the train station because of the subway, and I missed my train. I was taking the train to go visit my family in South Carolina from New York and I didn’t have any more money, and they wouldn’t refund my ticket.
“So I’m at Penn Station in New York, devastated, not knowing what to do. I had a dollar twenty-five left to my name. I’m standing at the Dunkin’ Donuts eating a stale bagel that I bought and ‘Blue Christmas’ starts playing on the radio. Then one of the Christmas decorations falls off the ceiling and hits me in the face!
“I thought, I hate New York. Everything about this is a sign that I have to go home, so I called my best friend and she said ‘I’m buying you a ticket, go to LaGuardia. Just get there, and come home immediately.’
“So I did. I went home and when I got to her house I got a phone call saying that a company wanted to cast me as Edna Turnblad in the traveling version of Hairspray. It was a national tour and that was a big shock to me because I had never really done drag before, except like most gay men, at an occasional party here and there. I didn’t really have any experience.
“I even told them that when I auditioned. I said I can’t do that, I’m six-foot-four. And they said, ‘Oh well, Harvey Fierstein is six-foot-three! So I did it, I took the part and my version of EdnaTurnblad was a nod to my mother and a mix of Ethel Merman.”
But the whirlwind journey didn’t stop there for London.
Not long after, he was offered the role of Daddy Warbucks in “Annie” and Admiral Von Schreiber in “The Sound of Music.”
“Out of them all I picked the one that sounded the most fun. And I did the Hairspray tour for a year, moved back to Myrtle Beach for a year and then returned to the role of Edna in Hairspray for another year-long tour, that later took me to China, Japan and Korea.”
Along the way there was college and a later return to school for a Master’s in Contemporary Theater, as well as stints spent teaching and roles in multiple plays too numerous to cover here.
Now in his 50s, London seems happy to be where he is with Long Bay Theatre and Betty Jean, and the Carolinas are lucky to have a versatile talent so eager to entertain.
If you’re up to date on all the latest episodes of “The Betty Jean Baker Show,” the next one hits the small screen on YouTube and TikTok just before the Christmas holiday.
Moving forward, London says he expects to continue refining the series and release a new installment each month.