When Jesse Camp — the infamously haystack-haired, lanky-legged winner of MTV's 1998 "Wanna Be a VJ" contest — resurfaced last month on a Hollywood red carpet, after years of relative seclusion, the Internet was instantly abuzz.
The now-34-year-old Jesse (flatter-haired and slightly grizzled, but still rocking his signature St. Mark's Place street-urchin look) had become an overnight MTV sensation nearly half his lifetime ago, only to drop out of sight just as quickly — thus leading to all sorts of speculation and gossip about whatever happened to the enigmatic rocker. Had he died? Overdosed? Found God? Was he really spotted working at a pet store? Did he really try to score drugs outside a Total Request Live wrap party while TMZ filmed the entire transaction? Was he planning a comeback?
Jesse's seemingly random appearance only reopened these questions and raised others. But now, in a rare interview, Jesse is trying to offer some answers… in his own roundabout, rambling way. Still sounding a bit like the loopy 18-year-old who refused to read his TRL cue cards in the late '90s, while occasionally lapsing into somber moments of self-reflection, Jesse has a lot to say.
"I think it's f---ing amazing that still, to this day, there's still so much controversy and craziness and so much of a legacy with the Jesse Camp character. I mean, it still derives so much hate from people — and so much love, too," he says, marveling at the unexpected viral reaction that his paparazzi photos received.
Wait a minute… a character? Jesse Camp was a character? Back in 1998, Jesse's authenticity was called into question, when he claimed in a notorious Spin interview that he'd grown up on the wrong side of the tracks and was homeless — only for it to later come out that he'd attended a posh boarding school as a kid and that his father was a University of Connecticut professor. But for Jesse to pull back the Oz-like curtain on his own persona now is a surprising new development.
"What is Jesse Camp? The Jesse Camp you saw on television was at least 50 percent who I really am. But was Jesse Camp a character? Oh, no doubt, yeah, it was a complete character," Jesse, whose real first name is Josiah, admits now. "I kind of acted dumb during the contest because that's what I thought people were really digging on, so I kept that up. But I wasn't really thinking long-term — that if I won this thing, I'd have to keep up this goofy-doofus character. Now it's really hard for me to dissect how much of the character was me, but the bottom line is, it was a character, very much along the lines of Cyndi Lauper or Pee-wee Herman, or even Alice Cooper or Marilyn Manson. It was kind of an Andy Kaufman sort of thing."
Perhaps it's time to backtrack here, and delve deeper into the story of Jesse Camp: the man, the myth, the demi-legend. Jesse's stardom, as short-lived as it was, pre-dated the American Idol era by several years, and in many ways he was the first rock 'n' roll reality star.
[Photos: TRL Hosts: Where Are They Now?]
After winning the "Wanna Be a VJ" contest over the more sedate and coherent Dave Holmes (who actually went on to a legitimate television-hosting career, and ironically lasted longer on MTV than Jesse did), the supposedly homeless rock 'n' roll ragamuffin landed a cushy gig on the cable network. An unlikely instant star, he was soon adored by preteen fans, who crowded around him devotedly as he paraded through Times Square in feather boas, leather trousers, sparkly Steven Tyler scarves, and mismatched leg-warmers during his wacky man-on-the-street segments for MTV. Some skeptics may have speculated that Jesse was a poser, or even that the "Wanna Be A VJ" contest had been rigged, but it was undeniable that he injected MTV with something it'd been missing for far too long: rawkin' outlaw spirit.
"I was always so proud of what I did on MTV, no matter what people's opinion on it," Jesse says. "I didn't really realize at the time, but it was just one of those situations where magic correlated to make something amazing happen. I don't think what I did on MTV can be replicated again in this era, because we're oversaturated now with this whole world of reality and looking for, like, the next star."
Of course, Jesse probably alienated many people at the network (including then-TRL host Carson Daly, who always looked like he wanted to punch him), by inviting his '80s hair-metal heroes like Faster Pussycat to guest on his afterschool show, Lunch With Jesse — or, in one of the most surreal MTV moments ever, convincing Tori Amos to randomly sing Aerosmith's "Dream On" with him (SKIP TO 13:44 MARK BELOW):
Lunch With Jesse was a show that, given its so-bad-it's-great trainwreckiness, was clearly unscripted. Unscripted television! Yes, in some ways, Jesse was a reality TV trailblazer.
"That show was not MTV's idea. The whole nucleus behind Lunch With Jesse was basically every opportunity I got to appear on camera, I was trying to champion hard rock and glam," Jesse explains. "And in my naiveté, I thought at 18 that I singlehandedly could help start a renaissance to bring back the best music of all time and the coolest looks and the coolest spirit — which to me was [Finnish glam band] Hanoi Rocks, the blueprint for Guns N' Roses. I really thought I could do it, and even be a part of it… until the week my album came out and it sold, like, nothing."
For a while, it did seem like Jesse's plan was working. He eventually left MTV in 1999 to sign what at the time was the biggest deal in Hollywood Records' history. He assembled a band, the 8th Street Kidz, featuring members of Vixen, Dogs D'Amour, and even Sam Yaffa of his beloved Hanoi Rocks. He made a Rob Cavallo-produced, big-budget album with impressive guest stars like Stevie Nicks and Cheap Trick's Rick Nielsen. He shot an over-the-top music video (which premiered on MTV, of course) featuring cameos by Run-DMC's Reverend Run and the Ramones' Dee Dee Ramone. He hung out with Vince Neil, Van Halen, Gene Simmons, Steven Tyler, and rock muse Drew Barrymore, and he interviewed his heroes like Ozzy Osbourne and Sebastian Bach. He was living out his rock 'n' roll fantasies.
And then… Jesse & The 8th Street Kidz sold only 10,805 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
The album didn't even crack the Billboard 200, despite the fact that Jesse had been beamed into prospective teenage record-buyers' living rooms for more than a year. This could have been because the album was critically panned (although Jesse's own former "Wanna Be a VJ" competitor, the above-mentioned Dave Holmes, now considers it an underrated lost classic, and has even compared some tracks to the Hold Steady). It could be that Hollywood Records should have gone with "Summertime Squatters," not "See You Around," as the lead single. (That's Jesse's personal theory, at least.) Or it could have been because the TRL crowd at that time was more into Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys, not New York Dolls-derived glam/garage/metal.
"Hollywood Records weren't totally wrong in signing me. When you look at the stats on paper, I had a huge fanbase of people that really loved me. But they loved me for my comedy and my personality. So like, if we had put out Jesse Camp Hair Oil and Jesse Camp Toothpaste, just Jesse Camp novelty-type stuff, that probably would have done a whole lot better than, like, an actual record," Jesse says now.
Whatever the reason for the album's failure, what followed was a tough time for the starry-eyed young rocker. "Basically, in the span of a year, I went from being just a kid traveling around the country with his sister in his car, to winning this huge MTV contest, to becoming an MTV celebrity, to getting a record deal — and not just any record deal, but a million-dollar record deal — to making a half-a-million-dollar music video, and all of this buildup, to then the album flopping," Jesse reflects. "I mean, I didn't have a 'Leif Garrett moment' where I was driving a Lamborghini around the Hollywood Hills with my best friend drunk and then I paralyzed him, you know. And I still have all my hair. But I will not lie: It did take me a long time after MTV to kind of end the disaster of that album, and to get my footing again. I did have a bunch of years that were kind of lost."
And that brings us to 2008, a decade after Jesse's "Wanna Be a VJ" victory, when he was invited back to MTV for the TRL series finale, and that damning TMZ drug-deal footage was shot. Jesse, who says he's been sober since April 2009, claims that that it was all an elaborate ruse. And while his explanation may seem far-fetched, since Jesse Camp is a "character," it's difficult to know for sure if he was play-acting or not.
"If anyone knew me back then, cocaine was not my drug of choice. That whole thing was me having fun and trying to do something crazy," Jesse insists. "I thought TMZ were kind of in on the joke. I was trying to say something really outrageous and hilarious because TMZ were filming, so I just pretended to be ordering bags of cocaine. I guess it just speaks volumes about what a crazy, bad reputation I have that people didn't realize I was joking."
Jesse is serious, however, when he discusses his future. He's playing music again in a couple of projects — one with some members of comedian/actor Hal Sparks's band, Zero 1, and a "heavy-metal EDM" duo with Ethan Kath of Crystal Castles. And he's acting, too. (Fun fact: Jesse was once the recipient of a UCLA drama scholarship, although the offer was rescinded after his senior-year high school grades came in.) Just before this interview, Jesse went on an audition to play a "pervy tattoo artist," and he's appeared in a couple music videos: the Virgins' "Flashbacks, Memories, and Dreams," playing (what else?) a VJ, and the forthcoming "2017" by veteran rocker Eddie Star, out next month, which will also feature a cameo by transgender icon Amanda Lepore and was shot by Jesse's sister, photographer Marisha Camp.
Perhaps most excitingly, Jesse reveals that he and Marisha have spent the past year and a half working on a road-trip docuseries, and he says the project has garnered interest from Spike TV, Vice… and even his old stomping grounds, MTV. So he may be back on the small screen very soon. And in this viral age (in which Jesse is constantly on Instagram, by the way), Jesse Camp seems primed for a comeback. Let's face it, if YouTube had existed in 1998, his Tori Amos duet would probably have millions of hits by now.
"This is a totally crazy idea, and I don't know if there's definitely a market for this, but you know how all your favorite TV series have these DVD collections, like The Complete Golden Girls or whatever? Well, it would be f---ing epic, I think, if MTV could take every single clip of, like, every single show and appearance of mine in chronological order, and release The Complete Jesse Camp," Jesse suggests. "But I think I'd have to become some kind of Brad Pitt-level star in order for MTV to say OK to that. Worst-case scenario, I have so much of that footage on VHS that I could always digitize that and just upload it to YouTube, I guess."
While Jesse confesses that some of the negative attention he received from his recent red-carpet appearance hurt ("That was a punch out of nowhere; like, what did I do to deserve that, just for having my picture taken?"), he adds: "The bottom line is, I'm going to be plagued with that 'Where's Jesse Camp Now?' stuff until I come out with something new. I have no one to blame but myself, because I haven't put out a new product or a new thing for people to judge me by. Just bear with me a little longer. I have a little more dental work to do. As soon as I've fixed my teeth, I'll be out there!"
More seriously, Jesse adds: "After MTV went downhill, I really did think of myself as a failure for a long time. But now where I am in 2014, I feel better than I have in ages. I've been through so much, but I've proven a lot to myself, too. Now I really feel like I'm in the 'I don't give a s---' golden years. That's how I felt before the MTV contest; I felt like that young kid on the cusp of doing something really great. And that's the energy I feel again now."