When a stage audition came up for Little Voice a few years ago, it certainly piqued the curiosity of one aspiring actress. But there was a major stumbling block – while Jess Robinson was great at impressions and had a good singing voice, she had never before tried to marry the two.
“I told a fib,” laughs the bubbly 34-year-old, who last week wowed the judges and audience alike on ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent (BGT) with her uncanny mimicry of Shirley Bassey, Julie Andrew, Katherine Jenkins – and even Cheryl Cole. “I told them I’m wonderful at singing impressions and asked if I could audition. They said yes.”
Robinson went on to star in the title role of the 2012 production of Little Voice, alongside Coronation Street actress Beverley Callard and X Factor star Ray Quinn – and made the north Londoner all the more determined to pursue a career in showbusiness.
Opportunities have come her way, including stints on Horrible Histories, as well as adverts for The Disney Channel, Cartoon Network and
CBeebies, but Robinson has mostly remained in the background and reveals she would love to one day become a household name.
“I’ve been working at this and trying to make it my full-time profession since I was 18,” she confesses. “I am a professional, but
I still have day jobs. I work as a special needs assistant with children and teach singing, but I’ve also done telesales, I’ve been a waitress. I’ve done all sorts!”
The chance to show off her talents at the Royal Variety Performance is one she would relish not only for her career, but also for personal reasons. Her grandfather, Jules Ruben, was a distinguished jazz pianist and a regular on the same variety circuit as Bruce Forsyth and Morecombe and Wise.
“I think I was quite similar to my grandpa in many ways,” she recalls of Ruben, who passed away in 2006, aged 94. “When I was a little girl, I used to sing with him at the piano, which was lovely.”
Her 101-year-old grandmother, Rosi, was also an accomplished music teacher and trained at the Royal Academy of Music – and is bursting with pride at all the attention Robinson has been attracting of late.
“She’s really excited by all of this. She’s still bright as
a button, really sharp and extremely supportive,” she says of her Polish-born grandmother, who came over to Britain on the last Kindertransport in 1939.
In fact, musical talent runs throughout the family. Mum Jackie and sister, Katie Miller, are both music teachers. Her other sister, Jo Miller, is a gifted pianist who was diagnosed 10 years ago with Huntington’s Disease, a hereditary and progressive brain disorder. She now lives at Jewish Blind and Disabled in Mill Hill, where she plays piano to the other residents.
Robinson, who attended Gan Kinneret Nursery in Edgware, before moving as a young child with her family to Hertfordshire, discovered her talent for doing impressions by “taking the mickey out of my teachers and family – much to their dismay”.
While some doors have opened along the way, Robinson admits the road to “making it” has at times been hard. She has taken her own show to the Edinburgh Festival for the past three years, but last year’s production left her £4,000 in the red.
When the BGT auditions opened again, Robinson felt the time was right to showcase her performance to the wider public and achieve the career she has always dreamed of – but confesses she felt a huge amount of trepidation when turning up for the audition.
“I was worried the judges would tell me I wasn’t any good, that I would feel crushed to be told that when I’m trying to make this my profession.”
She was finally persuaded to go for it by her family and friends – including fellow impressionist and former BGT finalist, Francine Lewis. All her fears quickly melted away as she stormed her way through the audition and prompted a standing ovation from the audience. “I was in shock; it was really overwhelming and just incredible,” she says of her performance, which aired earlier this month.
Hopeful of making it through to the live semi-finals and beyond, she adds: “There’s no other platform like Britain’s Got Talent to show people what I can do. The chance to perform for the Royal Variety would be amazing, so it’s a huge opportunity for me.”
Britain’s Got Talent continues on Saturday, 9pm, on ITV. Viewers will get a chance to see if Jess Robinson makes it through to the live semi-finals next month.