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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, May 11, 2003

Outlaw biker riding 'Monster Garage' hit

By Matt Nauman
Knight Ridder News Service

In the lobby of San Francisco's ritzy Fairmont Hotel, a tough-guy TV gear-head with the unlikely but nearly perfect name of Jesse James sits sprawled in a plush chair.

On his lap is his wife of six months, former adult-film star Janine James. The couple share "sleeves" — heavily tattooed arms.

Surrounding them are James' entourage, all in blue work shirts bearing the name of his custom motorcycle company, West Coast Choppers.

James, 33, is the star of "Monster Garage," the Discovery Channel's monster hit. Airing Monday (Oceanic Channel 34 at 5 and 8 p.m.) and repeated several times during the week, "Monster Garage" draws 1.6 million viewers and is the most popular show with male viewers on cable television.

The premise is both simple and irresistible. With James as the hard-nosed lead wrench, a new crew of mechanics takes $3,000 and five days — trimmed to one hour of TV highlights — to create oddities from the ordinary.

A Ford Explorer sport-utility becomes a garbage truck. A Chevy Impala is transformed into an ice-smoothing Zamboni. A Chrysler PT Cruiser gets chopped into a wood chipper.

And those are the mild maneuvers. James and crew also turned a Chevy Suburban into a wedding chapel. A well-used RV was turned into a skateboard park with some help from Tony Hawk.

James' favorite — so far, at least — is a 1984 Ford ambulance that was changed into a wheelie car. Of course, a '74 big-block Corvette that about-faced into a mud-bog car with a 650-horsepower nitrous motor was kind of keen, too.

Surprised as anyone by the show's success, James seems to be taking it all in stride — despite being named one of People magazine's 50 sexiest men, rating an interview on "The Big Story with John Gibson," and rumors of becoming an actor.

Thom Beers, executive producer of "Monster Garage," has been quoted calling James "the perfect Gen-X anti-hero." And although he's like a come-to-life Vin Diesel character, James knows the secret to his success.

"I think it's just a lot of guys that you would never see on TV, including myself," he said. "It's the guys who change your oil and stuff like that. It's not celebrities or even people that desire to be stars. It's kind of just your average blue-collar worker."

James got injured playing college football and then again as a celebrity bodyguard, so he returned to his love of motorcycles and building things when he opened West Coast Choppers in 1992. His Long Beach company was able to attract celebrity clients such as Shaquille O'Neal and Kid Rock for bikes costing $55,000 to $250,000.

James' work became the subject of the documentaries "Motorcycle Mania I" and "Motorcycle Mania II," which aired on Discovery in 2001. That and the success of reality shows led to "Monster Garage."

James said he agreed to the first four episodes "as kind of a goof, to see if people would like it."

Each episode brings together a new team of mechanics to create a new vehicle. James is the straw that stirs the drink. In speech peppered with profanities, he dismisses any idea that sounds idiotic.

Janine James, who married him about six months ago, says the wild popularity of "Monster Garage" hasn't changed him.

"Absolutely not. I'm pretty surprised by that. I keep waiting. When we fight, I'll say, 'Yeah, well you're a celebrity,' and he hates that. He gets livid," she said.

What has changed are the demands on James' time.

His shop is busier than ever — "like Graceland for bikers," he said.

In April, he drove in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach celebrity race, finishing second behind "Days of Our Lives" star Peter Reckell. In San Francisco, he used a break in filming episodes to take part in the start of the Gumball 3000, a 3,000-mile, six-day, cross-country rally.

He was sponsored by Yoo-hoo, the chocolate drink sold by Snapple, which bought him a 2003 VW Eurovan. He added a supercharger, stiffened the suspension and equipped it with a Kicker stereo and GameBoy Advance SP games. The body got custom paint and lots of flames, a James favorite.

Kristin Krumpe, Yoo-hoo's marketing director, said the company's promotions these days are "all tied into popular car culture today, and Jesse is the master."