Television host and motorcycle-customizing shop owner
Born Jesse Gregory James in 1969, in Long Beach, CA; son of an antiques dealer; married Karla (divorced); married Janine Lindemulder (an actress), 2002 (divorced, 2004); children: Jesse (son), Chandler (daughter, from first marriage), Sunny (daughter), one stepson (from second marriage).
Education: Attended the University of California—Riverside, c. 1987.
Office —Discovery Communications, One Discovery Place, Silver Spring, MD 20910–3354.
Worked as professional bodyguard for rock bands; founded West Coast Choppers in Long Beach, CA, 1992; first television appearance in Motorcycle Mania I, Discovery Channel, 2001; became host of Monster Garage, June, 2002; signed endorsement deal with Yoo–Hoo Beverages, 2003.
Jesse James hosts the cult–favorite Discovery Channel series Monster Garage, a reality show in which he and his team transform ordinary cars for shockingly inappropriate new uses. Monster Garage has had several memorable success stories, including a Chevy Impala that became a fully functioning Zamboni–style ice–resurfacing machine, and the show has garnered a devoted following as well as impressive ratings. James owns his own motorcycle–customizing shop in Long Beach, California, and initially took the television job merely as a fluke. Its success owes much to his frequently displayed sense of the absurd. "Everyone I talked to said I shouldn't do this show, that I'm an idiot," he recalled in an interview with the Boston Herald 's Mark A. Perigard, "and that let me know I was on the right track."
Born in 1969, James was a self–professed gearhead as a kid. He was given his first motorbike at age seven, which developed into a passion for motorcycles as a teen, and he became an avid garage tinkerer. Yet the Long Beach native was also a formidable football player, and admitted to being "kicked out of practice once a week for hitting the quarterback too hard" in high school, he told Men's Fitness writer Andrew Vontz.
James was indeed named after the infamous American outlaw slain in 1882, with a great–great–grandfather who was a cousin to the first, and he confessed to possessing his own lawless streak for a time in his teens. Caught stealing cars, he spent enough time in a juvenile lockup to straighten out and steer clear of further trouble with the law. He never lost his penchant for being argumentative, however. "I inherited the inability to take crap from anybody," he told USA Today writer Elizabeth Kaye McCall about his famous ancestor's legacy. Finding his niche in athletics, he earned a football scholarship for the University of California's Riverside team, but was sidelined by an injury. After some training, he worked as a professional bodyguard for rock bands like Soundgarden, Danzig, and Slayer.
James still loved to tinker, and found his calling in customizing motorcycles. "I never had money, and I always wanted expensive bikes," he explained to McCall in the USA Today article. "So I learned how to do it myself. I would build everything. I'd paint everything, build my own motor, and show up with a cool bike, and people couldn't believe it. They were like, 'Yeah—you bought that.'" He eventually opened his own shop in 1992 in Long Beach called West Coast Choppers. Over the next few years the business became immensely successful, with a client list that grew to include basketball player Shaquille O'Neal, actor Keanu Reeves, and rock–rapper Kid Rock. He and his few dozen employees customized bikes for fees that ranged from $50,000 to $250,000.
A producer for the Discovery Channel, Thom Beers, came in one day to have his bike overhauled at James's increasingly well–known shop, and Beers liked his attitude. He suggested a special about custom bikes that would feature James, and Motorcycle Mania I aired on the cable channel in 2001 to high ratings. A sequel was equally successful, and Discovery Channel producers then offered James his own show. Monster Garage would have a challenge–type concept each week, with James leading a team of fellow gearheads in transforming a mundane car or sport–utility vehicle into an outrageously new vehicle. The show made its debut in June of 2002 with a challenge to modify a Ford Explorer into a working garbage truck via various parts, blow-torches, and sheer ingenuity, and was an immediate hit with viewers.
James and his ever–revolving cast of customizers are given one week to re–tool and re–fit a vehicle, and a budget of just $3,000 with which to do it. Monster Garage 's impressive transformations include a Mazda Miata that became a personal watercraft, a BMW Mini–Cooper that emerged as a working snowmobile, and a Chrysler PT Cruiser that found a new life as a tree mulcher. The show's producers rein in some of his more extravagant ideas, James told FOX News network's John Gibson in a broadcast whose transcript was reprinted on America's Intelligence Wire. "Every car would do a wheelie and shoot flames if I had total control," he joked. He also told Gibson that there was no mystery to his team's success in transforming vehicles, crediting it to "just getting over the fear of taking a brand new car that's got pretty decent value and, you know, don't be afraid to cut it in half."
Monster Garage regularly scores some of the highest ratings on cable for its Monday–night shows, garnering up to 1.6 million viewers. It spawned a Monster House series that also airs on the Discovery Channel, and provided some of the inspiration for MTV's Pimp My Ride. James credits part of the appeal of his series to serving as a welcome antidote to other reality–TV fare. "All the other shows show people at their absolute worst," he told Gibson on the FOX News broadcast. "They're conniving and trying to marry a rich guy and stuff like that. This is the only show that focuses on teamwork, hard work, skills, and, you know, it pays off at the end."
Covered in tattoos, James stands more than six feet in height and packs 200–plus pounds of attitude. He has an endorsement contract with the Yoo–Hoo brand chocolate beverage, and has appeared in a beer commercial with Kid Rock. He hopes to reprise the original Motorcycle Mania for a big–screen project featuring himself, Rock, and Metallica singer and guitarist James Hetfield. A participant in celebrity Grand Prix races and long–distance rallies, James remains a gearhead at heart. He collects classic cars, and one of his prizes is a rare 1949 Mercury, the kind driven by James Dean in the cult classic Rebel Without a Cause. In December of 2003, James began dating actress Sandra Bullock. His estranged second wife, Janine Lindemulder, gave birth to their daughter, Sunny, on January 1, 2004.
James still lives in Long Beach and runs his custom–bike shop. The success of his show made him unlikely celebrity, and the twice–married father of two finds what he calls the "rock star" treatment somewhat unsettling still. "Part of me really appreciates the attention," he told the Boston Herald 's Perigard, "but part of me thinks of all the metal guys, all the craftsmen who came before me and all they did is work and punch a clock and no one gave them a TV show."
America's Intelligence Wire, March 1, 2003.
Boston Herald, June 21, 2002, p. S39.
Brandweek, October 13, 2003, p. 16.
Daily News (Los Angeles, CA), June 2, 2003, p. U12.
Knight–Ridder/Tribune News Service, May 2, 2003; May 9, 2003.
Men's Fitness, January 2004, p. 62.
People, December 2, 2002, p. 112; April 26, 2004.
USA Today, March 2, 2003.
Welding Design & Fabrication, March 2003, p. 6.
"How 'Monster Garage' Works," http://Howstuffworks.com , http://entertainment.howstuffworks.com/monster–garage2.htm (April 21, 2004)
— Carol Brennan