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Interview with Kamala

Under the persona of Kamala “The Ugandan Headhunter” James Harris entertained crowds around the world. Whether it was in large arenas in the then named World Wrestling Federation or in smaller venues for regional promotions, Kamala was a character that fans paid money to see.

The world of professional wrestling is driven on the personalities of their talent. Many are over the top, but wrestling fans are self-conditioned to suspend their disbelief regardless of how outlandish the performance is. With that said, even by wrestling standards the idea of a man who looked like he was a cannibal, appeared to be unable to speak any language and always to have a handler guiding him around the country appeared to be a gimmick that seemed to over the top to possibly work.

Kamala 2Not only did it work, but it was a major success for fifteen years. James Harris played the part to perfection, delivering an Academy worthy performance without ever speaking a word. His dialogue was little more than groans and wails, but he executed facial expressions that switched back effortlessly from animalistic to innocence. People believed that he was not just in the ring to beat an opponent, but to possibly eat them for dinner. Nobody cared about the logistics of a man travelling across the country without adopting a single American custom or how somebody who could not communicate would be able to be taught the basics of wrestling. It didn’t matter, because Harris made you believe that HE WAS Kamala.

Kamala worked programs with virtually every great good guy in his era, and likely had the most eyeballs on him during his three stints with the WWF. While there, he was booked in major programs with Andre the Giant, Hulk Hogan and the Undertaker respectively; all of which were Main Event positions. Each time, fans believed that Kamala was a major threat to these popular babyfaces and thought that their heroes were in serious jeopardy. Sounds like James Harris would have made a lot of money during these runs didn’t it?

Unfortunately that perception is inaccurate. Many wrestlers generated a lot of income from World Wrestling Entertainment during their mid-80’s boom t today but Harris was never compensated appropriately for his position in the company. In fact it is not a stretch to say that he was completely abused financially by the wrestling juggernaut, and is still being disrespected today.

Recently, Kamala lost his leg due to diabetes and is no longer able to perform in the ring. However, I write this not to ask you to pity him, because he does not ask for pity. Although the conversation I had with James Harris had some sad overtones to it, he is good spirits and reflects far more on the positive in his life than the negative. He was one of my favorite people to interview and easily the kindest. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed talking to him.

First off I just want to say on a personal level that you were always one of my favorite wrestlers to watch.

“Thank you, I appreciate that.”

I think that what I always found interesting is that for a gimmick that seemed one dimensional, it really didn’t matter to fans. It worked with them every time, and you played it so well.

“I did my best. Back then most believed in it. I used to hear fans in the crowd telling me to go back to Uganda. They didn’t really mean it because I think I was pretty exciting to see.”

From what I read, the gimmick came from Jerry Lawler, is that true?

“I had started doing it in England. When I came back to the United States, Lawler and Jerry Jarrett came up with the name ‘Kimala’. The first two or three times, Lawler painted my face, but I did myself from then on.”

Was it easy to develop the character?

“It was really easy! Lawler had asked me at first if I was embarrassed (to play the character). I told him ‘No, let’s get in the ring, you’ll see!’ I liked it.”

That raises a question I wanted to ask. As an African American man, did you worry about playing a stereotype as in playing a savage from Africa? Or did you view it as not doing anything anti-African American, and that it was just what wrestling was?

“I think it’s just what wrestling was. I think that ninety percent of the people liked it, but there were some who were against a big black man acting so stupid and having a white manager. It didn’t bother me at all, because I knew it was all just acting.”

The first time, and please correct me if I’m wrong that you were on the semi-national stage was when you worked for Fritz Von Erich in World Class. You had a very long run there. Did you have fun working in Texas?

“Oh yeah! I had a great time working for Fritz! There was a lot of driving, but I enjoyed my time with Akbar and Friday. We always had a lot to talk about. It was just Akbar, me and Friday on the road riding together.”

Who played Friday?

“Gene Steven was his name.”

That makes me think of another question. Now you are six foot eight right?

“No, my true height is six foot four.”

Kamala 3Which still makes you a very large man, much taller than the average man; so you would still stand out in a crowd. Now you competed with a painted face, which obviously you didn’t have in public. Were you able to be anonymous in public?

“You mean, did people notice me?”

Right. Did people know who you were when you just walked around in your street clothes?

“No. Most people didn’t know it was me. I was in a bar a couple of times, but I was not the type to go in bars and hang out with the wrestlers. Now, if I was with a bunch of wrestlers in a restaurant or something like that, than yes I would be recognized. They would put two and two together easily.”

Did you find it easier not to be recognized? You had more privacy I imagine than a Jerry Lawler whose looks is recognized outside of the ring.

“Absolutely. Now down here in my home town they figured it out. The word just spread here. But when I was living in Louisiana, I lived in an apartment building among a lot of wrestling fans and they didn’t know the whole time I was there, and I was there a year and a half.”

You must have enjoyed that quite a bit as so many wrestlers are harassed all of the time outside of the ring.

“I know. But I had a lot of privacy. Usually in a restaurant (when touring) it would just be me and whoever were my managers were. They would do the checking in of the motel for me. It was really nice, I was never recognized. Another thing, we never did stay in the same motel as the other wrestlers unless we just couldn’t help it.”

And that was to keep the gimmick afloat?

“Right.”

That brings me to another question, and I have generally asked this of every other wrestler I talked to. Do you prefer nowadays where you and I could have a conversation like this, or twenty five years ago when you couldn’t break kayfabe?

“I miss the old days. Very few fans were able to get my (phone) number and if they called me, I could say they had the wrong number. I would say, “Kamala? Who’s that? What is a Kamala?” They would never call back again. I prefer the old days, but I know they are never coming back.”

Yet wrestling still survived and many people thought it wouldn’t after they unveiled the curtain.

“Oh yeah, it still survived.”

Now you had three successful runs in the WWE; in fact as Kamala you were pretty much successful everywhere. Now I hope you take this as a compliment, because this is how I mean it. I always thought of you as the ultimate Territory guy. What I mean is that you were the perfect guy to be brought in, destroy a lot of mid-card baby faces on your way to challenging the top guy in the territory, before putting him over in front of a large crowd and then maybe putting over someone else before leaving for another organization. It also never got old seeing you in this role. You were in fact able to that three times in the biggest promotion going. People wanted to believe in your character.

“I wanted the people to believe in it. But you said three successful runs in the WWE. As far as popularity and being known, yes it was. But you just don’t know the price I paid for it.”

What do you mean?

I really paid a price for being in the WWE. When I was in the WWE, I just didn’t make any money. I can remember sometimes, it was me, Kimchee, and my manager Dr. Harvey Whippleman. All three of us would get a room together. They (WWE) paid for our flight, but we always had to get our own rooms. After renting a car and being the third man and renting a room, I would sleep in the rental car and not stay in the room so I could save money. We didn’t let the boys know that and I begged them not to let the boys know that. I wanted to save as much money as I could to send back home or bring back home. That’s what I mean by I paid the price by being there.”

You weren’t treated well financially by the WWE?

“No. I was not any of the three times I went there.”

Why do you think that is? I did read in other interviews you did that at the Summer Slam 92, with your match with the Undertaker that he was paid $500,000 and you were paid $10,000.

“If I have to bet my life on what the Undertaker got paid, I wouldn’t do it. I would never ask him. What happened was Steve Lombardi, you know him?”

Yes.

“He’s in with the office and has been there some twenty years. He was running around and went into the room where Pat Patterson was.   Patterson had left, and left his briefcase. He (Lombardi) was scrambling through his books, and he saw what I made and he was exactly right. He saw what the Undertaker made, and he said the Undertaker made a half million. Like I said, I couldn’t prove it, but he hit it right on the head with what I made, so I believe him about the Undertaker. You know, I’m not knocking the Undertaker. He’s a gentleman, and I like him. He’s a super nice man. I think he deserved every dime he got, but what about me?”

That certainly makes a lot of sense. There was a lot of people who paid money to see you go against Hulk Hogan or the Undertaker or Andre, and they (WWE) still show those matches on WWE Classics on Demand.

“Yeah, and you know my royalties from my dolls…they say my dolls don’t sell. If they don’t sell, than why in the world do they keep making them?”

That’s a good point.

“They (WWE) sent me a contract to sign. They know I’m broke, they know I don’t have much money, I never had any. They sent me a contract and a check for $10,000. What they do is take that $10,000 back out of every three months out of what they say I make. I don’t have any proof of what I make. I don’t know. I could make $10,000 that quarter, but they send me a statement saying what I make which could be maybe $400. Actually, that is exactly what it was this quarter. They take that $400 against the balance you owe of that $10,000. That’s the way it goes.”

Wow. So they pay you $10,000, but they don’t pay you anymore until you make that ten grand?

“Yes, that’s right. They take that $10,000 back.”

Kamala 4Oh my God.

“It will probably take about five years to make all of that money back. After that, they (the WWE) will send me checks for about $200, or $300 or $150 or whatever it may be. They say my dolls don’t sell. I had the CEO call from Toys R Us as he read my story somewhere. He told me ‘James, please don’t let them do you like that. We have your dolls in my store, and we can’t keep them. They sell like crazy.’ If he’s telling the truth, I just don’t know what to do.”

I don’t even know what to say to that. It sounds horrible.

“Yeah. I had lawyers. I had three different lawyers. It isn’t that I tried to sue Vince (McMahon). I really don’t like that word (sue). But I had them to get my financial records. Not just from Vince, but from Toys R Us, Wal-Mart, Target; all the ones that sell my merchandise. They told me that I have to do it. I can’t go to Wal-Mart and say I need all my financial records. They’d have me locked up.”

Do you think that racism may be playing a part in this? Were you a victim of it back in the day?

“Yes. The reason why I know, now you tell me what you think about this. I used to always get to the arena early, me and KimChee and Dr. Harvey Whippleman. We would get there before anybody. I would find myself a decent dressing room to do my face paint. When some of Vince’s agents get there, they would ask me to leave that room. They would say ‘We need this dressing room for Hulk Hogan. We need it for Andre the Giant. We need it for Randy Savage and Miss Elizabeth. You find somewhere else to get dressed.’ After they did me like that a few times, we would go out of the building; KimChee and I and look for old curtains or tarps and find strings and tie something up like a rent and make me a place where I would have some privacy. A place where I could get dressed and put my paint on.”

Sometimes Hogan or someone would come looking for me, or whoever I was wrestling that night so we could go over the finish. When Hogan would see me in this little hut, he would laugh but he didn’t know the deal. He didn’t know what the agents had done. Anyway, what would you call that? They never did nobody else that way!”

That all sounds pretty negative to me. Did Hogan treat you well?

“Hogan treated me VERY well.”

You made a lot of money with him…or you made a lot of money for him.

“I made a lot of money for him. I used to feel so bad, when Hogan used to come to where I am and he when he saw me he would say ‘There goes my money’. I would put a smile on my face because he was so friendly, but Hogan wasn’t the payoff man. He didn’t know how I was being treated.”

I guess this is something that I never understood about wrestling.   I never understood that how in wrestling you never really knew what your pay was going to be, how it so arbitrary.

“Yeah, I don’t know if it’s that way now, but I know when I was there you signed a contract to stay with Vince for however many years. Now, I don’t know if he did anybody the way he did me or not, but it’s not a money contract. It’s a contract for you to stay with him for two years and that’s it.”

So the contract didn’t pay any money at all?

“No, it doesn’t say that you will make X amount of dollars. Vince told me that ‘I don’t even give Hogan money contracts’. But how true that was, I don’t know. I don’t believe it.”

Would you ever accept an invitation to the WWE Hall of Fame?

“You know I’m really undecided about that. I know that they don’t like me in the WWE because of things that I’ve said, like I’m saying now. But I have no beef with Vince. Vince always was nice and kind to me. But in terms of the payoffs, I think the WWE was disgusting. I think though I would if they asked me.”

I think you should be in the Hall of Fame. Your character was great.

“I’ll tell you who I think was a better character, and I really love the guy, is the Undertaker. I really love his character.”

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