Miss. girl turned L.A. woman: Natchez-born actress never tires of Hollywood

Published 12:01 am Sunday, January 8, 2012

Submitted photo, Illustrations by Ben Hillyer — Gina St. John, a Natchez native, found her way to Hollywood, where she now works as an actress.

NATCHEZ — Nearly 20 years after she packed up her car for a 3,000-mile trip to Los Angeles, jogging past Madonna is still totally cool for actress Gina St. John.

“It’s all good. It’s L.A. It’s Hollywood,” said the actress in a rushed, raspy voice that helped kick off her former stint as a disk jockey.

“In this town, anything can happen,” St. John said. “Life can change indelibly for the better overnight.”

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As the host of “E! News Live” from 1997-2008, through her career and as a resident of Hollywood, St. John has had her fair share of run-ins with the A-listers.

Born in Natchez, St. John will return from the City of Dreams to make her emcee debut in the Miss-Lou as the host of the Nubian Social Aid and Pleasure Club’s Mardi Gras Tableau Ball on Jan. 21.

Her return to her birthplace surely will serve as a reminder of how interestingly her life in the L.A. entertainment industry has unwound.

And she never takes for granted how lucky she is to be a working actress in Hollywood living among the people that inspire her, she said.

For example, while the host of the celebrity news show, St. John was seated at a table near the then-couple, Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston.

St. John was surprised to see the pair — now on the outs — seemed to recognize her. They looked at her, began whispering and then left separately.

“They thought I was there with a camera crew, but I was just sitting there with my girlfriend (probably) sobbing about a boyfriend,” St. John said.

“You forget when you’re on TV that other famous people know you.”

St. John’s career shifted from radio to on-camera after she left jobs in Roanoke, Va., and Cleveland, Ohio as a DJ.

She tried acting as much as she could in the Midwest, taking jobs for industry films, such as one such gem called “Wendy’s World,” which was sent to stockholders of the hamburger fast food chain.

“I was horrible,” she said.

When she and a number of other DJs were laid off from the radio station after a change in formatting, she saved up to make the crawl to stardom.

After moving to L.A. during a three-day trip that left her sleeping nights in her car, she lodged her foot in the door of the L.A. radio scene.

“I sat in the lobby of every major station in town, and after a series of crazed coincidences and because I sat in a lobby, I got a show,” St. John said.

She landed the E! hosting job after hosting CNET, a TV show involving computer technology.

“When I left there Ryan Seacrest got my job. He was the cutest kid,” St. John said.

More recently, St. John has appeared on a number TV series playing one- or two-time roles as reporters or newscasters.

She has played reporters on “CSI: Miami,” “NCIS,” “Criminal Minds,” “Heroes,” “Ugly Betty” and the Jim Carrey film “Bruce Almighty.”

St. John said reporters can be difficult to cast because real TV reporters aren’t apt to memorize lines, and other actors tend to exaggerate what they imagine a newscaster sounds like.

“Here at this thing today, we have 50 bodies,” St. John mimicked in her best Walter Cronkite.

Since St. John has nailed the role, she’s become a go-to actress among all of the casting directors that already know her, she said.

One of the joys of the job is meeting the people she works with, St. John said.

On a recent project playing a principal on ABC’s hit show “Modern Family,” St. John discovered Ed O’Neill was as funny in the flesh as he is playing TV dad Jay Pritchett.

“Ed O’Neill was hysterically funny and nice, and he laughed at my jokes — and that’s what I cared about,” St. John said.

St. John said it’s been difficult to believe, in some cases, how amazing some well-known actors were in person.

“But (others), I could not believe they were ever successful because they’re personalities were so ugly,” she said.

Some of her favorites tended to be the older industry veterans, like Debbie Reynolds, “That woman was hysterical,” Betty White, “She is sharp, funny, witty and naughty,” and Clint Eastwood.

“That man was just hot, I was surprised,” she said of the “Dirty Harry” star.

“He was so charming. You’d have to lean in to hear him, which you didn’t mind doing.”

Living in the vicinity and attending the same events as the big names she’s seen on screen serves a reminder that celebrities are just as human as the rest of us, she said.

“It is inspiring, to see their struggles and learn what goes on behind the scenes to truly make it last and succeed,” St. John said.

As an actress, she has a different perceptive of shows like “Dancing with the Stars,” she said.

“It’s publicity for anyone who hasn’t gotten work in the last few years. People don’t realize that (the industry) uses people up in a particular way but they’re still here and they still want to work,” she said.

St. John said getting to the point of making a living from an L.A. acting career hasn’t been easy. And she admits she has been tempted during the toughest times to settle for her parents’ aspirations for her — to climb the corporate ladder.

But knowing what she wants, the same thing she’s wanted since she was a child — to be on camera — has been essential to making it happen.

“You must have faith in yourself,” she said, despite what others believe.

“The funniest thing is that most people who love you are not going to understand the artist in you and try to convince you not to do it,” she said.

“It’s up to you to know you’re willing to do what it takes to be professional, to learn your craft and (to) make your living at it.”

And no matter how many roles St. John lands (her next goal is to land a regular role in a TV series), she will never get blasé about living among the people she’s watched on the big screen with popcorn in her lap or jogging the on same route as Madonna, which has happened.

“I still get inspired when I see celebrities in restaurants. I’m still thrilled to be in a film with someone what I know.

“It’s wonderful. In this town anything can happen.

And while she looks forward to her visit to Natchez, L.A. has other perks lost on the muggy South.

“And add to that sunshine and palm trees and a pool in every back yard.”