Jay Pharoah: The Real Character Behind the Master Impressionist

"I was the ugly duckling personified... I'm a swan now," says comedian and actor Jay Pharoah, as he describes how faith and laughter helped him flourish.

Words by John Pearson
and Pete Samson
Portraits by Reto Sterchi

The challenge when profiling an impressionist is figuring out where the characters stop and the real man begins.

During our afternoon with Jay Pharoah, we are swept along in a whirlwind of laughter, enjoying his iconic impersonations of famous folks from Barack Obama to Johnny Depp, and his natural flair for entertaining. But perhaps the most special moments are when we’re given a rare glimpse behind the high-energy performances, to learn what makes this talented artist tick.

The stand-up comic’s magnetic personality exudes self-confidence. But we also learn the ‘Saturday Night Live’ alumni had a tough time at school, and began entertaining his peers with impressions aged six and he searched for happiness and belonging.

“I was very awkward at school,” he tells us. “I was fat and didn’t have a lot of friends. I used humor to make people forget about the exterior, but I never felt like I could get away from getting joked.

“But it’s cool man, I made SNL. I’m the ugly duckling personified. I still select my friends, but everything else has switched. I’m a swan now!”

Jay Pharoah // 📸 : Reto Sterchi
Jay Pharoah // 📸 : Reto Sterchi // Jay wears suit by BRUNELLO CUCINELLI

Jay, born Jared Farrow, joined SNL in 2010 aged 23, and remained on the hit NBC show until 2016. Eddie Murphy, one of Jay’s comedy heroes, is the only Black man to have made the celebrated cast at a younger age.

Now 34, he’s grown into a bona fide Hollywood leading man. ‘Out of Office’, a comedy about the challenges of working from home, is the latest in a series of recent movies to be released with Jay as the star, and hits our screens Labor Day weekend on Comedy Central. Next, he stars in horror comedy ‘The Blackening’ which debuts at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.

And among the edgy jokes about strip clubs, cocaine and sex, he tells us he credits his focus and success to his faith in God, handed down by his Apostolic Christian parents.

“I have veered off the path and got back on many times,” he says. “But as the bible states, a saint is just a sinner who fell down and got up.

“I feel like a lot of my success was attributed to how close I was with God at the time. I literally spoke everything into existence. I spoke SNL into existence. I spoke being on the screen into existence. There were some really creepy prayers where as soon as I would pray for it, it would happen.

“Everybody has their center point, and God is mine. That’s where I find solace, where I can always go.”

In our ‘Who the F*** Are You?’ profile with Jay, where he answers the 20 questions that get to the heart of who we are, he reveals an intriguing window into the man behind the famous celebrity impersonations. Check out the video below, and keep scrolling for the print version and photoshoot.


Who the f*** are you?

I’m Jared Farrow. The white folks are like, “Yeah, he’s one of us now!” I had white privilege before I got on SNL and I’d use that to my advantage. I’d use my white voice to call people. I didn’t have no problems booking anything over the phone. You don’t think Jared is going to be a 6’2″ Black guy, who kind of resembles Eddie Murphy and Will Smith having a kid.

I’m an actor, stand-up, artist, comedian. Also, an introvert. The pandemic was so good for me. I loved it. I love not being around folks. I’m around people when I get paid!

And something else, man. I come from an Apostolic background. People don’t know that. It’s another form of Christianity. Strict household, grew up raised in the burbs.

Jay Pharoah // 📸 : Reto Sterchi
Jay Pharoah // 📸 : Reto Sterchi

How are you feeling right now?

I’m amazing, man. Headspace wise, I’ve done this thing this year where I’ve switched my mentality of work. I used to say things like, “Oh, I have to do this…” “What are you doing, man?” “Well, I have to do this. I have to do that.” But it’s not that you have to do it. It’s a privilege to be able to do it. So, now I’m like, “Well, I’m doing this, I’m doing that.” And I’m taking the blessings that are happening, and all the accomplishments, and I’m sitting in them.

I didn’t do that when I was younger. It was like, “Yeah, that killed. All right, what’s next?” Now I’m like, “Yeah, that killed.” And I’ll sit in it for a second. Like last week, I did the ESPYS, and that went great. Then I was in the gym with my homeboy, and I was talking on the phone. And my homeboy was like, “Who was that?” And I said, “Oh, that was Steph Curry.” To be able to just say that, that’s a blessing.

So, I find that sitting in it, and appreciating the work, has allowed me to just keep working. And it just seems like there’s an overabundance of work now. So, it’s really dope.

Where did you grow up and what was it like?

Chesapeake, Virginia. Oh my gosh. Nothing out there but pregnancy and failure! You got to leave! But it’s a charming place to raise your family. And now I see what my mom and my dad were doing by moving there. I’m from the burbs, man, country clubs. We went snowboarding on the golf course. That’s the type of stuff we did.

My parents are still together. They’ve been together for 41 years. So, that idea to me is not foreign. I know it can be achieved. Even though Instagram is now in the way, because it’s literally like a buffet when you go there. You can just pick what you want. You can type in the hashtag, everything you want, and the girl would come up. But have you noticed that a lot of the women are starting to morph into the same woman? They’re like Daisy Duck in a porn. You notice that? I like butt, but I like it not genetically modified.

Jay Pharoah // 📸 : Reto Sterchi
Jay Pharoah // 📸 : Reto Sterchi

What excites you?

Wow. This is real deep. Are we talking about just on the everyday level, or are we talking about in the bedroom? I got to clarify…

Making people forget about their problems. That makes me feel amazing. Especially in a stand-up space, where you live in a place where it just seems like folks are so scared to touch and talk about things. Forget that, I don’t subscribe to that. Say what you got to say, but make it smart, and make it witty enough where everybody will understand where you’re coming from. Make your point lucid enough so you can do the joke again and not get canceled. Making people forget about their problems is my thing.

Of course, I could have said strip clubs, but that’s not my thing no more. I used to frequent. I used to put people through college. It’s philanthropic. People get mad that folks want to go strip clubs. But listen, man, Jesus hung out with actual prostitutes. So I’m doing the Lord’s work. Well, that’s what I used to do.

What scares you?

Not leaving a legacy. That scares me. I want to leave something so huge everybody is forced to talk about it. You could talk about little successes, like changing the impression game. I was told a year before I got on SNL that my impressions were too good to be funny by somebody who worked there. Safe to say, when I started working there, they were fired, because they didn’t know what they were talking about. But you always have to stick to your guns. My guns were, listen, I’m not going to dumb down my impressions or my stand-up. If it’s good, it’s supposed to be good, because the funny thing is the mirror and the exactness of the impression. And now I add funny stuff to it too. I’ve been on the road with Charlie Murphy, Eddie Murphy’s brother. He took me on the road when I was 19 years old. He’d say, “Yo, man, you and my brother got the same chops. And I know him, man. I lived with him.”

Jay Pharoah // 📸 : Reto Sterchi
Jay Pharoah // 📸 : Reto Sterchi // Jay wears suit by BRUNELLO CUCINELLI

What is your proudest achievement?

My proudest achievement is that I’m not on coke and I’m 34! I’ve got ADD, so sometimes I come off as quick and kind of cokeheadish, but I’m not. There was this comedian who said when I was 19 years old, that by the time I’m 30, I’m going to be on coke and all of that. And I was like, “That’s not my jam!”

Now, at 35, oh boy. I might just start!

What is the hardest thing you’ve ever done?

I think the hardest thing I’ve ever done was booking SNL. Jesus sent me a text message, and he was like, “I got a job for you.” I was like, “Word.” He was like, “Yo, but you got to be fully committed.” I said, “Okay.” I texted him back. The phone was disconnected. And then I got the show. That’s not how it happened!

Okay, so how I got the show… I had an agent in 2009 that saw me at a showcase I did at Carolines on Broadway. It was the first club Charlie Murphy took me to in New York, the same weekend he passed away, The agent saw me, and we put together an audition tape in 2009, when they were contemplating doing a mid-season replacement. They decided not to do it that year, then I sent another audition tape in 2010, and then called me in for an audition in August. And I ended up, after that first audition, booking the job. The guy who was shooting on the camera said, “We haven’t seen an audition like that in a long time.” And it wasn’t even that I was trying hard, it’s that my ex pissed me off, and we had broken up, and I said, “I’ll show you.” So, shout out to my ex. It’s all because of you, I did it.

Jay Pharoah // 📸 : Reto Sterchi
Jay Pharoah // 📸 : Reto Sterchi

Who was your greatest mentor, and what did they teach you?

Well, a couple. I have to say Charlie Murphy. He always told me, like I said, “Yo, Jay man, whatever you do, man, don’t do coke.” I was like, “All right, cool.” Freez Luv, who was his homeboy, he always told me to pay it forward and pay it back. If you get a chance to help somebody who’s on the up, and you have the platform, give them that opportunity. And another, Steve Harvey, said to me, “You don’t recognize how much power you have. It’s a responsibility when you have that much power.” I think Kanye West said the same thing. He says, “You have a lot of people who are going to watch you, so it’s very important that what you’re putting out there is something substantive for people to latch onto, because they will pay attention to you.” Not that Kanye was my mentor, but that was some good advice. Those other three, my mentors, for sure.

You’ve got to help people. I give a scholarship away each year from my high school, The Jay Pharoah Scholarship at Indian River High School. My goal for that is to embolden folks who don’t know how to carry themselves out in public. I want to have etiquette classes to teach them how to speak out there in the corporate world. Also, to show people how to interview. You have to carry yourself in a certain way. Some people don’t know how to get their foot in the door.

Who are your fictional and real-life heroes?

My fictional hero is Goku from ‘Dragon Ball Z’. He is the embodiment of courage, strength, defying odds, and constant leveling up. And in reality, my heroes are Muhammad Ali, because he always stood for something. If you don’t stand for anything, you’ll fall for everything. Eddie Murphy, just comedically, and the way that he shaped his career, he was the biggest comedian in the world at one point. The way that Kevin Hart has taken a network and employed so many different Black folks to work for him, and people in general to work for him. Bernie Mac, Robin Harris, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, George Carlin, Jim Carrey.

I like Bill Murray, but I had to body slam him. He was drunk one night, at SNL, and he was hitting me. I did it soft. It was on the couch. But I had to Samoan drop him. I watched a lot of wrestling when I was a kid, and The Rock is another one of my heroes in real life. That’s a good segue to this next hero!

Jay Pharoah // 📸 : Reto Sterchi
Jay Pharoah // 📸 : Reto Sterchi

What is your favorite item of clothing in your wardrobe?

I’ve got the same jacket that Eddie Murphy had on the ‘Raw’ tour, the jacket he would wear when he walked off stage. My friend, Brian Monarch, got it for himself, but he gave it to me, and said, “I’m not cool enough to wear this.” He’s like, “I don’t think a white 6’5″ guy should wear this Maybe you should.” When I put it on, man, I feel like a superhero.

What music did you love at age 13, and do you still love it now?

Ludacris. Ludacris was the first rapper I had an album from, because my parents didn’t let me listen to a lot of stuff. They tried to shield me. I played ‘Back For the First Time’, his first album, so much it had scratches on the disc. And I remember one time my dad came home and I was blasting it, and he took the album from me. But it was a burned disc, so I just swapped it out and listened to it when he wasn’t home. But when that car pulled up, I’d mute that Ludacris.

I still think Ludacris is one of the best rappers of the 2000s. He called me on the phone and we talked, because one of my friends does his makeup sometimes. Even though he blocked the number. I don’t know why he did that. He didn’t have to do that! But I get it, it’s fine!

When I was younger, in my 20s, I would always blast Drake or Kendrick Lamar or J. Cole before I went on stage. Now, I just need silence.

Jay Pharoah // 📸 : Reto Sterchi
Jay Pharoah // 📸 : Reto Sterchi // Jay wears suit by BRUNELLO CUCINELLI

What’s the most inspiring book you’ve ever read?

I think it was ‘The 50th Law‘, Robert Greene and 50 Cent’s book. That one was really inspiring. Just learning how to take any situation and try to flip it to your advantage, no matter if it’s bad, good, whatever it is. I think if you have the mind where a million negative things could be happening, but if you keep that positivity going, the negativity can’t permeate you, it can’t affect you. It’s not going to break through. Your shield is too positive for that shit to happen.

What is a movie that left a lasting impression on you?

Oh, come on man! Which one you want to hear about? Okay. I’m going to give you one so left field. ‘Lord of the Rings’. ‘The Two Towers’, specifically. At the time it came out, I was depressed, I was sad. And that movie took me away from that pain. It made me feel so good, because there was just so much triumph in it. That’s what I really like.

And ‘The Saint’ with Val Kilmer and Elisabeth Shue, 1997. That was one of the movies that made me want to play other characters and do them seriously. You can still be funny a little bit, but really finesse them. And ‘Coming to America’. Eddie Murphy was the guy. That one was the movie that showed me that you can play characters funny as hell.

Jay Pharoah // 📸 : Reto Sterchi
Jay Pharoah // 📸 : Reto Sterchi

What’s your favorite word or saying?

My favorite word would have to be spurious. Don’t say lie, say spurious. It trips off the tongue like some Shakespeare shit. My favorite phrase? My dad always said, “I could complain, but nobody would listen.” That’s real talk. You could complain, but for what? It’s life. Get it together.

What do you want people to say about you at your funeral?

I want people to say that he helped me and gave from the abundance of his heart. And he was an entertainer, he was a comedian, he was a philosopher, but he was also a sweetheart. If they say that, I’ve accomplished everything I need to accomplish. But like I said, man, my main goal is just to make people forget about their worries and their woes and struggles. So, he was a good man. He was funny. He was an entertainer. He was a philosopher. He was a sweetheart. I want people to say that.

And he was a lover. But I don’t know if I want the girls to get up. They’ll be a few of them showing up at this funeral.

Jay Pharoah // 📸 : Reto Sterchi
Jay Pharoah // 📸 : Reto Sterchi // Jay wears suit by BRUNELLO CUCINELLI

And finally, a quickfire five favorites…

Car?

I have to say Acura Legend, 1990. It was my favorite car when I was growing up, and I got the car from my parents, and then I ended up getting in an accident. But I loved that car. It was red with sparkles in it. It was beautiful.

Sports team?

The Rams. I was a Rams fan before they went to LA, when they were in St. Louis. We didn’t have teams in Virginia.

Jay Pharoah // 📸 : Reto Sterchi
Jay Pharoah // 📸 : Reto Sterchi

Meal?

Meatloaf. My grandmother makes a good meatloaf. So, meatloaf and mashed potatoes, and put some asparagus on the side. Yeah, I like my pee to smell weird!

Grooming product?

I use this oil, it’s got sunflower, peppermint oil, jojoba in it. And Prada Black cologne. Gets them excited.

Clothing label?

Let me see here. Who do I want free clothes from? Alexander McQueen. It looks good on me. I’ve got this red suit. I put it on and the chest pops out. I look like Terry Crews in it, but it really fits nice. Also, honorable mentions for J.Lindeberg, Dolce & Gabbana, Dior, Yves Saint Laurent.


Grooming by Stacye Branche

John is a world-renowned male model who has been the face of countless leading fashion houses. During his 36-year modeling career he has also moonlighted as an actor, writer, restauranteur, editor, and producer. He co-founded Mr Feelgood to provide a safe space for candid discussion and sharing ideas.

Pete began his career on Fleet Street more than two decades ago, and has worked for some of the world’s biggest news, entertainment, and wellness companies as a writer, editor, and media executive. He co-founded Mr Feelgood to help demystify the world of personal development, and to encourage men to discuss and improve their mental health, by sharing the wisdom and lessons learned of inspiring leaders in their field.

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