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Volume 26, Number 2 — February 2019

Living A Hollywood Dream

Jayma Mays co-stars with Kevin James in
Jayma Mays co-stars with Kevin James in "Paul Blart: Mall Cop."

Local Girl Appears in TV Shows and Movies

By Joe Tennis | Bristol Herald Courier | March 02, 2009

*** This story was published Feb. 15, 2009 in the Bristol (Va.) Herald Courier. ***

As a young girl, the little red-haired tyke looked much like "Annie," the famous orphan known for her rag-mop curls and choice chutzpah. Jamia Suzette Mays loved "Annie," and she danced like Annie, showing off for her family at home in Grundy, Va. "She knew all the lines," said Jamia's father, James Mays. "She just loved that musical. She sang it and acted it out at home."

Oh, and how she loved to act. "The child wore a different costume every day," said her mother, Paulette Norris Mays. "I did nothing but make costumes for her the first 12 years of her life."

So, being such a firecracker fan of "Annie" and looking so much the part, this little girl must have figured she had a sure-fire stab at the role she seemed born to play when Theatre Bristol scheduled a production. Try as she might, though, little Jamia Mays didn't pass that Bristol audition. And for a while, her family remembered, the rejection was devastating.


Two decades and a couple of name-spellings later, Jayma Mays might still resemble "Annie." The little red-haired girl from Grundy is now a 5-foot-4 red-haired woman, living among the stars of Hollywood, yet still clinging to her childhood heroes Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett, a couple of redheads who proved they could be funny.

Just like Mays, 29, who now stars in the box-office hit "Paul Blart: Mall Cop."

"I definitely know that I'm quirky. I know that I'm different," Jayma Mays said during a telephone interview last week. "Red hair definitely made me different growing up."

Redheads also are a rarity among Hollywood's sea of cookie-cutter blondes and brunettes. Perhaps that hair has helped Mays stand out in the past five years, attracting appearances in such television shows as NBC's "Joey," HBO's "Six Feet Under," CBS's "How I Met Your Mother" and ABC's "Ugly Betty."

Then there's her movie career. She co-starred in the box office hit "Red Eye" (2005), showed up as a nurse in Clint Eastwood's war drama "Flags of Our Fathers" (2006) and made moviegoers laugh at her character "Lucy" in the satiric "Epic Movie" (2007).

But don't count on hair color alone. "None of us here at the high school are really surprised at her success," said Debbie Raines, one of Mays' former teachers in Grundy. "She would entertain us while she was here."

'Street Sweet'

The actress' original name "Jamia" a female version of James, inspired by her father was altered to "Jaima" because too many people mispronounced it. That second spelling didn't work, either, though, so she came up with the current derivation.

It is that name JAYMA MAYS that shows up in big letters in the opening credits of "Paul Blart: Mall Cop," an action comedy now seen on theater screens nationwide and one of the year's biggest hits.

"It's been a very big deal for our students at the high school," said Raines, a longtime Grundy High School English teacher. "It's such an encouragement for them to see someone go from a small town and become a success."

Actor Kevin James ("The King of Queens") plays Blart, a dumpy shopping mall security guard who goes gung-ho. Blart also falls in love with Mays' character, a sales clerk named Amy.

"I like to call her 'street sweet,' " Jayma Mays said of her character. "She's a smart girl. She's a tough cookie. She's not going to be taken advantage of, but she's also a very kind person."

Born in Bristol

Jamia Suzette Mays was born at Bristol (Tenn.) Memorial Hospital on July 16, 1979. Just barely. Paulette's water broke at home in Grundy. But instead of boiling water, tearing sheets or telling her husband to grab the suitcases, Paulette just rolled over, like she was going back to sleep. Reality soon kicked in. Paulette and James took off for the hospital with Paulette's mother, Victoria, now an 87-year-old resident of the Grande Court in Bristol, Va.

The expectant parents as Victoria would suggest all along the way simply could have stopped at hospitals in Richlands, Lebanon or Abingdon. But Paulette insisted on seeing her own doctor at Bristol. James, in turn, somehow condensed the 90-mile ride from Bristol to Grundy into a whirlwind 1 hour and 15 minutes. Paulette delivered her third child about two hours later.

James Mays, meanwhile, took a step outside, where he left his car parked in the emergency lane. To his surprise, he found two flat tires on the right side. It was a miracle, James figured, that the family made it to the hospital at all.

"It is the most ridiculous story," Jayma Mays said, laughing. "It is so silly, all these events surrounding the day. But that's my family. That's how we roll."

'Doing Long Division'

Lively and lovable, young Jamia easily won hearts. And it was not just for her adorable hair, often tied in pigtails. It was not simply for her brown eyes so big they seem to define her whole face. It all had to do with her larger-than-life personality, contend her parents, who now live in Bristol, Va.

Once, Paulette Mays sent Jamia to the next room to entertain some house guests. A moment later, Paulette found her tiny daughter with a microphone in her hand, interviewing everyone in the room.

About that same time, at age 4, Jamia began taking piano lessons. By 9, she had learned enough to play at a wedding. She was a cheerleader. She played sports. "She excelled in anything," Paulette Mays said.

The girl liked math, too. But, the question is: just how much? Countless Web sites note Mays' spare-time hobby of "doing long division and multiplying fractions." And Chuck Hayes, a retired professor at Radford University, spoke of his former student like he was letting out a secret. "She took calculus for fun," he said. "She took advanced mathematics courses for fun."

Jayma Mays laughed at the question. "I'm not sure where that's coming from," she said. "I don't know that I have a big fascination with mathematics. ... I did math in school, obviously. And I loved all my math teachers."

Growing Up in Grundy

Mays learned basic rules of math at Grundy, the friendly courthouse town of Buchanan County. She also learned what added up in life, growing up along isolated winding roads nestled behind rocky mountains and shouldered by a seemingly singular industry: coal mining.

"I really didn't think acting was an option for me," Mays said. "You just don't think that, growing up."

Her father taught for seven years at Grundy Senior High School, then worked a quarter-century in the coal-mining industry, operating Levisa Testing Co. Now retired, James and Paulette Mays have since relocated to a townhouse near Clear Creek Lake in Bristol. During the 1980s, the Mays family built a second home in Bristol along Booher Road, near King College. They later bought a mobile home near Painter Creek.

Fanciful Jayma spent her summers and weekends swimming in South Holston Lake with her older sister, Julia, and her older brother, Jonathan. She dropped quarters in the arcade at Bristol Mall and took day-trips to Gatlinburg, Tenn.

And while she may not have nabbed Theatre Bristol's role of "Annie," Mays never stopped thinking and singing about tomorrow. She continually fostered dreams of bright lights and grand stages after soaking up shows at Abingdon's Barter Theatre, or simply going to the cinema in Bristol.

"That's where we watched movies, actually," Mays said. "We didn't have a movie theater that was open when I was a kid. So that was where I would have gotten any movie experience at all, really, was at the Bristol Mall."

'Real Introduction'

Teacher Debbie Raines spotted 15-year-old Jayma in the high school hallways. "She was a standout," Raines said. "I noticed her in 10th grade, and I immediately wanted her in my forensics program."

Mays practiced drama and oral interpretation with Raines what Mays called her "first real introduction to doing acting and doing drama and doing stuff in front of people. It's not just me being at home and entertaining the family but actually doing something with that that skill."

Raines encouraged Mays that there could be a world beyond Buchanan County or even Bristol. "She kind of pushed me into thinking, 'You can do this. This is something you should consider. And don't give up on this idea.' "

Graduating from high school in 1997, Mays earned an associate degree the following year at Southwest Virginia Community College near Richlands. There, once again, people took notice. "She was just different," remembered Frank Horton, the college's dean of continuing education. "I thought she had that striking Orphan Annie-type hair. She had the curly red hair. You could tell that she was a little bit special early on."

Horton became an adviser to Mays and also suggested she try to pursue an acting career.

One year, during SVCC's Festival of the Arts, Mays played a lead role in "The Sweet Bye and Bye." "And she was extremely creative," said Julie Forehand, a former drama instructor at SVCC. "The Festival of the Arts gave Jayma the opportunity to discover this career."

'Too Antsy'

Mays attended Virginia Tech in Blacksburg for one year after SVCC. Then she spent the next year-and-a-half at Radford University. "I didn't stay put anywhere too long," Mays said. "I was too antsy."

By now, she had a fierce, new determination: She was going to be an actress.

Retired Radford University theater professor Chuck Hayes directed Mays in a 2000 production of "Arcadia," which also featured visiting soap opera actor Matthew Ashford. "She went toe-to-toe with the pro," Hayes said. "She realized the part. And I can't think of anybody doing anything better."

In turn, Radford's drama program introduced Mays to all facets of show business, from directing and design to writing and lighting. "I had a costume class, so I had to learn how to sew," Mays said. "And what's so great about it is you really develop an appreciation for every job involved."

She graduated in December 2000 and set out for California. First, she completed an internship, working with actor (and East Tennessee State University graduate) Timothy Busfield of TV's "thirtysomething." Then, in 2004, the screen roles started rolling in NBC's "Heroes" and FOX's "Stacked," which starred blonde bombshell Pamela Anderson.

"I've been so encouraged at her [Mays'] versatility," said Raines, the teacher in Grundy. "She does just as well in drama as she does in comedy."

Most notably, Hayes points to Mays' role in a 2006 episode of FOX's "House, M.D." and calls it her most dramatic and riveting role. "There's no being funny to it, which really tends to kind of creep into most of the characters that I do," Mays said.

In the FOX series' "Sleeping Dogs Lie" episode, Mays plays a lesbian suffering from bubonic plague. "They start making you look sick with makeup and prosthetics," Mays remembered. "Then they put you in the hospital gown and lay you in the hospital bed. By an hour or two into it, you actually start feeling sick."

Mays laughed. "When you see yourself in the mirror, you're kind of yellowed and jaundiced and your eyes are red," she said. "They put stuff in your eyes. You actually start feeling sick, just by the way they make you look."

Full of 'Glee'

Abundantly healthy in real life, Mays married fellow actor Adam Campbell in 2007. Now, she is anxiously preparing to star in FOX's musical comedy "Glee," playing guidance counselor Emma Pillsbury. "And I absolutely love her, because she's so nutty," Mays said. "She's off. And that seems more natural for me to do something that's a little quirky and offbeat." Expected to debut sometime in the next few weeks, "Glee" co-stars Matthew Morrison as Will, a high school Spanish teacher.

Meanwhile, amid all the success of "Paul Blart: Mall Cop," Donna Ratliff, the manager of the movie theater at the Grundy Community Center, has proposed hosting a homecoming celebration. "We're hoping to have a 'Jayma Mays Day' here in Grundy and have an autograph signing here at the theater," Ratliff said. "Everybody's proud of her and her accomplishments."

Hearing that possibility, Mays paused. "I would love to come back to Grundy," she said. "But 'Jayma Mays Day' makes me feel embarrassed and self-conscious. I feel very undeserving of a day."

Such humility matches what people say about Mays. Horton, for one, described the actress as "a splendid example of the best of what these mountains produce in terms of niceness and politeness" someone who is "complimentary of all who helped her."

Raines calls such qualities part of Mays' "Southern charm." "She's still pretty grounded," Raines said, "and I think that goes a long way."


Television Appearances

"Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip"
"Ugly Betty"
"How I Met Your Mother"
"Six Feet Under"
"The Comeback"
"House, M.D."
"Ghost Whisperer"


"Red Eye" (2005)
"Flags of Our Fathers" (2006)
"If You Lived Here, You'd Be Home Now" (2006, TV movie)
"Epic Movie" (2007)
"Bar Starz" (2008)
"Paul Blart: Mall Cop" (2009)

What Others Are Saying About Jayma Mays

"I didn't really think she had the comedic chops that she turned out that she did have."
Chuck Hayes, retired professor of theater, Radford University

"I thought she was a wonderful student to have very, very sharp and very driven and extremely creative."
Debbie Raines, English teacher, Grundy High School

"I think she's going to keep going. All her life she will be meeting challenges that's just Jayma."
Paulette Mays, mother of Jayma Mays

A! ExtraTopics: Film