'Jem and the Holograms': Inside '80s Cartoon's Truly Outrageous Legacy - Rolling Stone
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‘Jem and the Holograms’: An Eighties Rock Cartoon’s Truly Outrageous Legacy

How a surprisingly grown-up kids’ show spawned an international cult following

Jennifer Dumlao sits with her daughters Leilani Dumlao and Aurora May Dumlao dressed as Jem at JemCon on August 26, 2018 in Westlake, OH. JemCon is a convention for fans of a popular 1980s cartoon show about a female rockstar and her business woman alter ego.Jennifer Dumlao sits with her daughters Leilani Dumlao and Aurora May Dumlao dressed as Jem at JemCon on August 26, 2018 in Westlake, OH. JemCon is a convention for fans of a popular 1980s cartoon show about a female rockstar and her business woman alter ego.

To some, 'Jem and the Holograms' is a forgotten Eighties relic. But to the show's many devotees — like Jenny Dumlao, pictured with her two daughters at JemCon 2018 — the rock cartoon is a way of life.

Maddie McGarvey for RollingStone.com

By day, Jennifer Turner works in law enforcement in Vancouver. But on this particular late August weekend, she’s in Cleveland, attending JemCon, an annual gathering for devotees of the colorful Eighties cartoon Jem and the Holograms. Turner’s fandom runs deep. She grew up with a single father who supported her love for all things Jem. One Christmas, she woke up to find he had bought her every single Jem-related doll available at the time; other times, he would set an alarm and wake her up early so she could watch the show before school.

“It was such an escape, and so different from the regular narratives that you had about mom and dad,” Turner says of the cartoon, which follows the adventures of a philanthropic-minded orphan named Jerrica — proprietor of an orphanage for teenage girls, the Starlight House — who has a rock-star secret identity/alter-ego, Jem. “I think I identified a little bit with Jem losing her parents.”

In hindsight, Turner, who sports a detailed, full-color tattoo of Jem on her right calf and ink depicting a rival bandleader named Pizzazz on her left calf, also recognizes how the show informed her feminist worldview. “Here was a heroine that owned her own business, was a humanitarian, ran an orphanage, took care of her sister. [She] had a romance, but it was never the whole point of the story. It was about her, and her career. It whisked me away.”

For many, Jem is a forgotten retro footnote. The cartoon had a relatively short lifespan — 65 episodes aired between 1985 to 1988 — and the accompanying doll line enjoyed only a brief burst of popularity. But for fans such as Turner, Jem was a life-changing phenomenon.

Thirty years after the cartoon initially went off the air, and three years after a poorly received live-action feature-film reboot, the Jem universe — or “multi-universes,” in the words of Samantha Newark, who provided the speaking voice for both Jem and Jerrica on the cartoon — remains a vibrant, creative space. Jem lives on via fan art and detailed websites dedicated to the brand. T-shirts mash up Jem characters with art in the styles of Duran Duran, Queen, Mötley Crüe, Poison and the Misfits (who share a name with the Holograms’ rival band on the show). There’s also Truly Outrageous: A Jem Fan Film, a Kickstarter-funded live-action short named after a key line in the chorus of the show’s theme song, and a Spain-made short film, MisfitSized. Newark has even compiled a “Jem Drag Stars” playlist on her YouTube channel, featuring detailed makeup tutorials and drag performances themed around the characters.

That same dedication permeates “How Rock & Roll Infiltrated Saturday Morning Cartoons,” an unofficial JemCon kickoff panel discussion and Q&A. Held at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the event features appearances from three luminaries in the Jem universe: Newark; series creator Christy Marx; and cartoonist Keith Tucker, a storyboard artist on many of the show’s music videos. 

Newark, a beaming presence with cascades of auburn hair, trills one of her character’s signature lines into the mic: “It’s showtime, Synergy!” All three speakers have an easy rapport as they share behind-the-scene tidbits from the cartoon. At one point, Marx draws gasps of wonder by revealing she once pitched a Jem episode set in the Rock Hall that never moved forward.

As the Q&A wraps up, a young woman standing against the wall raises her hand and shares that her name is Jherica —and that she is, in fact, named after Jem’s non-rock-star persona. Incredibly, Jherica Belle isn’t from Cleveland and hadn’t heard about JemCon but just happened to be in town for a work conference and decided to visit the Rock Hall, where she came upon the panel. Her close friends and family call her Jem, Belle shares later via e-mail. “No more than a handful,” she writes. “Not everyone can call me Jem. That name is special.”

Jem and the Holograms was originally created by Sunbow Productions to promote a line of rock & roll-themed dolls produced by toy giant Hasbro, whose other properties included G.I. Joe and My Little Pony. The original Jem doll line is a New Wave fever dream encompassing neon-hued clothing, shoes, accessories and musical instruments. Some toys even came packaged with actual playable cassettes featuring original songs heard in the cartoon.

The show expanded on the dolls’ backstory. After the death of her parents, an ambitious young woman named Jerrica suddenly finds herself running an orphanage and owning half of her late father’s record company, Starlight Music. Simultaneously, Jerrica discovers that her dad created a smart computer named Synergy, who informs the budding music exec that her magical, star-shaped “Jemstar Earrings” can create holograms that allow her to assume the identity of a rock star. Cue the formation of the band Jem and the Holograms, whose lineup features Jerrica’s younger sister, keyboardist Kimber and two adopted sisters: guitarist Aja and drummer Shana.

The show’s 65 episodes boast plenty of over-the-top drama and narrative cliffhangers. Jerrica’s Starlight Music CEO competition is Eric Raymond, a slimy character who constantly tries to sabotage and undermine her. Jem and the Holograms do battle both onstage and off with the Misfits, a gang of felonious (if musically talented) mean girls managed by Raymond. Jerrica also takes care of the Starlight Girls, the foster children who live at Starlight House, and navigates her relations with boyfriend Rio. In true fantasy-land fashion, Rio also falls in love with Jem, but never discovers that the two women are one and the same.

“It’s a character-driven show,” says Christy Marx. “Basically a soap opera for kids is what it was — [or] ended up being anyway.”

This cartoon drama mirrored the press-inflated real-life drama involving the toy lines. As it goes with many real-life female musicians, Jem was often pitted against another female talent: Mattel’s doll juggernaut Barbie. An October 1986 Los Angeles Times article, “Barbie Takes Up Rock ‘n’ Roll to Match Rival Jem,” detailed the emergence of Barbie and the Rockers, a line of rock-themed dolls that debuted in stores shortly before Jem did.

Samantha Newark, the voice of Jem, attends JemCon on August 26, 2018 in Westlake, OH. JemCon is a convention for fans of a popular 1980s cartoon show about a female rockstar and her business woman alter ego.

Samantha Newark, the voice of Jem, attends JemCon 2018. Photo credit: Maddie McGarvey for RollingStone.com

Maddie McGarvey for RollingStone.com

The competition was at least healthy. According to an August 1987 Los Angeles Times story, Jem had sold more than 3 million dolls to date, and the cartoon was drawing 2.5 million young viewers each week, “making it the third most-watched children’s program in syndication.” Unfortunately, Jem’s pop-cultural moment was short-lived: The animated series was canceled in 1988 due to the doll line’s decreasing popularity.

The ongoing fascination with Jem and the Holograms certainly has something to do with nostalgia. Yet Jem isn’t like most children’s entertainment. The show’s sophisticated story lines often involved heavy real-world issues; for example, a runaway hotline was flooded with calls after the phone number ran at the end of one episode. Plus, even minor characters have elaborate backstories, making the show feel more like an adaptation of a novel rather than a cartoon spun off from a toy line.

According to Newark, it was by design that the characters on Jem felt like three-dimensional people. “Our reads had to be very real,” she explains. “They didn’t want cartoony. They were like, ‘No, we want the kids to look up to you, like you’re their older sisters, or their friends.'”

The quality and care that went into Jem’s narratives extended to its in-episode animated videos, whose original music and lyrics also promoted thought-provoking messages. “You might dismiss [the songs] as cheesy, but they’re not,” says Ari Gold, who provided the singing voice for the character Ba Nee, an eight-year-old Vietnamese orphan who was losing her sight. “The messages are good; they’re complex; they’re messages that we still need to hear today. There’s really almost a Jem song about every situation in life.”

Gold, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, notes that their character’s signature song, “A Father Should Be,” is “about the ideal father that so many of us didn’t have.” As another example, they cite “Alone Again,” a rather serious song touching on depression and feeling self-conscious that was sung by a young character dealing with drug addiction. “I mean, this is a cartoon in the Eighties for children. This is before Oprah was talking about this stuff,” Gold says with a laugh. “It was so ahead of its time in so many ways.”

The lyrics were set to equally high-quality music, courtesy of co–composer-arranger Anne Bryant, who noted in a 2009 interview that the Holograms’ songs were orchestrated with real horns, woodwinds and strings, while the Pizzazz-led Misfits tunes had electronic elements and guitars. “[Anne Bryant] was writing pop music, but with a lot of key changes,” says Britta Phillips, who was the singing voice of Jem and is now better known as a member of the band Luna and duo Dean & Britta.

“It was all very sophisticated, and not simple vocally at all,” Phillips says. “I feel like I really learned how to sing doing that. I had a really powerful and high voice, but not a lot of nuance or flexibility or any of that until I started doing the Jem stuff. That all came from that, from working with Anne.”

The show’s smart, non-pandering approach can be traced to Marx, who is revered by fans. Stefan Spierings recalls being “extremely nervous” before he and his cousin Rob met Marx at the 2007 JemCon. “To us, it was almost like meeting Madonna,” the Netherlands native says. “She’s one of our heroes.” A cosplay fanatic named Raven, who published her first book in 2016 under the pen name Evelyn Whitney, could be seen furiously scribbling notes during one of Marx’s JemCon presentations and also considers the creator a writing role model. “I want my career to look like hers,” she says.

The respect is mutual, however. As JemCon unfolds, it’s clear that Marx, who also wrote 23 episodes, takes her role as the shepherd of Jem’s legacy quite seriously, and answers fan questions about character motivations with care and respect. The attention to detail makes sense: Marx grew up an ardent fan of comic books, and worked in TV production before becoming a writer.

People photograph Jem dolls that are displayed on a table at JemCon on August 26, 2018 in Westlake, OH. JemCon is a convention for fans of a popular 1980s cartoon show about a female rockstar and her business woman alter ego.

Jem dolls displayed at JemCon 2018. Photo credit: Maddie McGarvey for RollingStone.com

Maddie McGarvey for RollingStone.com

When Marx signed on to the Jem project, certain elements were already locked in place, including the rock-star premise and the Jem/Jerrica secret identity. Yet many other elements were in flux, right down to character names (Jem was originally known as “M”). Marx also recalls being given conflicting directions as she began to flesh out and develop Jem’s world. “They said, ‘OK, it’s a girl’s property, and it’s got to be romance and fashion and glitter and glamour,’ and all of this stuff. ‘But we’re afraid the boys might change the dial, so there’s got to be action!'” She laughs. “It was really interesting how they were trying to juggle all of this.”

Despite such seemingly divergent directives, she says working with Sunbow Productions was “a dream” and adds that Hasbro was, for the most part, “hands off. They had moments, perhaps, when they exerted a bit of control over certain stories, but not much. They really let us have a lot of creative freedom.” That helps to explain why Jem explored deeper themes than other cartoons of the time and featured such a stereotype-breaking female lead. Jem herself is a quintessentially Eighties icon, a fashion plate with a shock of pink hair and cutting-edge outfits who’s also whip smart and a total boss. Despite the tragedies Jerrica/Jem has faced, she seemingly has it all: a fun, glamorous and successful life full of romance, rock and responsibility.

The cartoon’s progressive approach toward ethnic diversity — Holograms member Aja is Asian-American and Shana is black — also resonated with fans such as Christina Santisteban, who sports pink glitter eyeshadow, a blue wig and a yellow lace dress. “There were very few other cartoons that were so diverse in its characters, and so inclusive,” she says. “Where do you get a girl band that had sisters that were of different backgrounds? It was very, very well representative of what the ideal should be, in a sense. Jem was a wonderful microcosm.”

For all of Jem’s over-the-top flash, the show also offered subtler messaging to some fans. “[The show] did have an unconscious appeal to the LGBT community, because [of] the secret identity, and being afraid of people finding out and using it against you,” says Garth Jensen, who’s known in the fan community for his seamless custom mashups of Jem cartoon songs with Eighties hits such as New Order’s “Blue Monday” or Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is a Place on Earth.” “And just the idea that it was OK to be different — and it was OK to have that side of yourself that was fabulous, and you could bring that out. Being your true self is your ultimate goal.”

Will Edwardson, who boasts colorful, intricate tattoos of the faces of the Misfits and Holograms on his right arm, had a similar takeaway from the cartoon. As a gay teenager growing up in rural Kentucky, he turned to music for solace. “It was a comfort for me, because I was, of course, an outcast,” he says. “[I] didn’t fit in in my area. Being gay was just not the thing to be. It was pretty lonely and isolated.”

Developing an affinity for Jem and the Holograms music- and glitz-filled premise was a natural next step. “I’ve always loved movies and [been] attracted to showbiz and fame,” he says. “So here’s a show of someone who has a dual identity — you have to be someone here, and you have to be someone else here — along with the music, the colors and the clothes. I just identified so much with that.”

Neither Marx nor Newark were aware of how much of an impact Jem had when it originally aired. But as Newark has started attending more conventions, and met fans, she’s seen the show’s profound, enduring effect on people.

Will Edwardson shows his Jem tattoo at JemCon on August 26, 2018 in Westlake, OH. JemCon is a convention for fans of a popular 1980s cartoon show about a female rockstar and her business woman alter ego.

Will Edwardson shows his Jem tattoo at JemCon 2018. Photo credit: Maddie McGarvey for RollingStone.com

Maddie McGarvey

“I have a lot of criers,” she says. “They just burst into tears. Nostalgia’s so powerful, and I realized quite a long time ago that I am custodian of something very precious, and I take it seriously. They’re, of course, like, crying and apologizing, and I’m like, ‘No, I understand.’ They’re suddenly eight years old again, or five years old, or however old they were. And the show’s just meant so much to them.”

Jenny Dumlao — a gregarious, enthusiastic New Yorker who traveled to JemCon with her two daughters, eight-year-old Aurora May and six-year-old Leilani — in particular gets extremely emotional when she talks about the ways Jem has provided her with guidance and comfort throughout her life. Born in the Philippines, she moved around frequently as a child after coming to the U.S., and fell in love with Jem early on. In fact, she and one of her best friends would play “radio” using a boombox, and pretend to be DJs talking over the Jem music cassettes — idle play which sparked a lifelong love of music and even a future foray into real-life radio DJ’ing.

“[The show] stays with you, and you experience it in so many different ways as you’re getting older,” she says, adding that she also sees now how big of an impression the show’s ethnic diversity left on her. “I was a kid that would get very excited if there was a character that was like me. And so Aja was the first favorite character. Because you’re like, ‘Oh, she’s Asian, but not only that, she’s so cool — and she’s so smart.'” A few minutes later, she becomes overcome with emotion as she talks about the power of this representation. “I don’t know, as a parent and just even back then, that’s really important to me in media, seeing yourself.”

When her daughters were old enough, Dumlao naturally introduced them to Jem and the Holograms. This introduction came at a time when she was leaving the girls’ father, as their relationship had turned toxic. “Sometimes bad things would be happening, and our safe space was in my room, in the bedroom away from stuff,” Dumlao recalls. “And we would watch [Jem].

“I didn’t think it was happening at the time, but I know based on how [the girls] would talk about the show that it was helping us in those times,” she adds. “And sometimes it was helping me too — whether at that moment I was getting inspiration, or whether I feel like I was going to a simpler time.”

Dumlao and her girls are in a much better place these days. Unsurprisingly, both Aurora May and Leilani are now mega-knowledgeable Jem fans in their own right. (During Friday night trivia, although they seem to be concentrating on coloring, they very quietly answer some difficult questions correctly.) Dumlao recognizes their Jem fandom might not always persist in the same form, but she sees how they’ve soaked up lessons from the cartoon, including the value of hard work, as well as the idea that girls can be anything and everything they want to be.

“I remember one time the girls said to me, ‘You’re like Jerrica — you work really hard, Mama,'” she recalls. “And I was like, ‘Wow. Thank you for noticing that.'”

JemCon kicks off bright and early on Saturday morning with toy designer Stefanie Eskander, who draws a rapt audience to a fascinating, photo-packed presentation covering her time working on Hasbro’s Jem doll line back in the Eighties. To the delight of everyone in the conference room, at one point she reveals her original concept art for Jem’s pet llama, Rama Llama, a fan-favorite cult item that ended up being available only as a mail-in incentive.

People furiously snap photos of a slide featuring Eskander’s drawing of the pink-hued animal, which she initially named Dolli Llama and gave accessories such as a smart bowler hat and hatbox. For a capper on the reveal, she pulls out a prototype llama figure that’s pale yellow, not shocking pink; it occupied a prominent place on her art table in the vendor room all weekend, a mini-celebrity in its own right.

Over the three-day weekend, more than 140 people from all around the world — two attendees short of the all-time JemCon attendance record — will converge on (and brighten up) this otherwise nondescript suburban Double Tree Hilton. The JemCon agenda is packed with activities, including trivia, a costume masquerade and late-night disco, panel discussions, karaoke, a charity auction, and a vendor room full of Jem ephemera for sale and display.

People listen to a demonstration on styling doll hair at JemCon on August 26, 2018 in Westlake, OH. JemCon is a convention for fans of a popular 1980s cartoon show about a female rockstar and her business woman alter ego.

A demonstration on styling doll hair at JemCon 2018. Photo credit: Maddie McGarvey for RollingStone.com

Maddie McGarvey for RollingStone.com

Loyalists devour this kind of minutiae, and have impressive knowledge of every inch of Jem’s narrative world, judging by Friday night’s competitive trivia round. (Sample: “This San Diego Comic Con-exclusive doll had issues with mold in the packaging.”) The Jem-inspired cosplaying is also truly, truly outrageous (and impressive). A willowy 17-year-old named Erica Hill — an aspiring graphic designer who “became totally obsessed” with the Jem and the Holograms cartoon via TV reruns — sports three separate outfits painstakingly constructed by her mom, Andrea, from a combination of thrift store finds and homemade flourishes. “She’s a MacGyver when it comes to birthing cosplay ideas,” Erica says proudly.

JemCon founder Liz Pemberton, who came to Jem after she started collecting the dolls in the early 2000s, launched the convention in July 2005 as a one-day event at the University of Minnesota. That initial installment drew 50 people and, from there, JemCon has happened every year since then in various cities. “Which astounds me,” Pemberton says with a laugh. Even more impressive, JemCon is still a very grassroots, DIY effort: It doesn’t have huge sponsors, and is a volunteer effort planned by a different person or group of people each year.

“I just wanted to get people together to look at our [doll] shoes and fashions,” says Pemberton, a thoughtful speaker who wears her silver-gray hair pulled back into a ponytail. “That it has grown into this much more comprehensive [thing], and that it has become such a welcoming place for such a diverse lot of people, continues to amaze me and makes me very happy.”

In Cleveland, every JemCon attendee has a different story to tell about how they came to Jem or why the franchise is meaningful to them. There’s Ankur Malhotra and TJ Schuessler, who started dating after they met at JemCon; Ilana Pernica, who has fiery red hair and cat-eye glasses and stresses with great urgency that she is the biggest fan of the Stingers, a fictional band introduced later in the series; and first-time attendee Becky Scott, who first loved Jem after hearing cassettes of the music.

Many fans have traveled great distances to JemCon or have parlayed their fandom into a career. Italy native Davide Quatraro learned English from watching the cartoon and now works in the dubbing industry; in fact, he even translated the Jem and the Holograms movie into Italian. “It was a huge thing,” he says, “when you can have your greatest passion turn into a job.”

As a kid, Rachel Pankiw — host and organizer of the Cleveland JemCon — was first drawn to Jem and the Holograms by the bright, eye-catching packaging of a VHS tape. But once she watched the cartoon, she saw her own life reflected in the story lines. “I really related to this whole story of the Starlight Girls, and the whole thing with kids not getting attention or getting left out,” she said, adding that her parents were divorced when she was small, and her dad wasn’t around much.

Independent of one another, and without prompting, multiple people express that JemCon feels like a family, which would be a cliché if it didn’t feel so absolutely true. This inclusivity isn’t just lip service, confirms Will Edwardson’s husband, Steve. “I’ve made a lot of good friends here,” he says. “With him being the collector and the one into Jem — and me being a supporter — they’ve made me feel very welcome.” In fact, the soft-spoken Southerners decided to get married in a surprise ceremony at the 2010 JemCon in New Hampshire, since same-sex marriage was then still outlawed in their home state of Tennessee. “We talked about it, and we said, ‘What other place to get married than at JemCon?'” Steve says.

Jem dolls are displayed on a table at JemCon on August 26, 2018 in Westlake, OH. JemCon is a convention for fans of a popular 1980s cartoon show about a female rockstar and her business woman alter ego.

Jem dolls. Photograph by Maddie McGarvey for RollingStone.com

Maddie McGarvey for RollingStone.com

Pemberton gets choked up while mentioning the Edwardsons’ JemCon marriage, and that Malhotra and Schuessler also connected romantically there. “Their lives have changed,” she says. “You don’t go into a convention going, ‘I’m going to change people’s lives.'” She laughs. “Just the way you don’t write a cartoon going, ‘I’m going to change people’s lives.'”

Certainly those attending JemCon represent a cross-section of the most dedicated Jem and the Holograms fans. Pemberton realizes that, in the greater scheme of pop-culture fandom, the brand’s impact is small. When she attended the official 2010 Barbie convention to promote JemCon — while dressed as the Misfits band member Pizzazz, bright green wig and all — “nobody recognized me,” she says, save for one man she knew from the Jem message board. But an interesting twist, Pemberton recalls that there were dancers dressed as Barbie and the Rockers at the convention who “made some joke about Jem and Jerrica, some little insult kind of joke.” She laughs as she adds, “And I’m like, ‘Mattel certainly knows who Jem is still!'”

That Jem and the Holograms hasn’t been given more of a modern second chance is curious. Nostalgia for Eighties cartoons shows no signs of abating, judging by the popularity of modern iterations of My Little Pony and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and a buzzed-about new Netflix reboot, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. Unfortunately, the cartoon’s polarizing reemergence into pop culture has something to do with it: The 2015 Jem and the Holograms movie was lambasted by critics (it has a 20-percent-fresh Rotten Tomatoes rating) and earned an anemic $2.3 million worldwide at the box office.

Perhaps because the show remains a cultural underdog, fans are intensely loyal to the franchise and its principals. Newark has parlayed her time with Jem into a musical career, and records danceable synth pop in the vein of Kylie Minogue or early Lady Gaga, while Britta Phillips too has Jem fans come see her live. “The confidence it gave me later in life, hearing that people were still so into [Jem], has given me confidence as a musician, in my singing,” she says. “It took me a long time to make a solo album, but I made one a couple of years ago, and the Jem fans were so supportive of that even though it sounds nothing like Jem.”


Unsurprisingly, JemCon attendees also have very detailed opinions over why the 2015 Jem movie does (and doesn’t) succeed. “Christy Marx wasn’t given the opportunity to write the movie,” says Katie Brandt, who’s attending JemCon with her younger sister, Colleen O’Leary. “That’s why it didn’t work; that’s why it fell apart.” This isn’t an assertion out of left field: Even producer Jason Blum apparently admitted in June that the movie should have had Marx involved.

Still, Marx did make a cameo in the film, portraying Lindsey Pierce, a Rolling Stone reporter, and received a warm welcome on the set — to the extent that when she asked to change some of her lines, she was given a green light with no hesitation. Marx is also extremely complimentary toward the actresses in the movie, even as she too expresses wishes that she had been involved with the writing.

“I think that the essence of Jem got lost, and we lost a great opportunity to genuinely reboot Jem,” she says. “I’ve had so many ideas over the years — of ways to reboot Jem, to bring it back, to rejuvenate it—and yet could never get any traction to do that. And so I think it’s just a shame that opportunity didn’t get pursued.”

“I think there’s a lot that can be done to update it, but keep it true to its essence,” she adds. “So I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen. I kind of doubt it at this point. “

Still, Jem is staying alive in pop culture. In recent years, Integrity Toys launched a high-end Jem and the Holograms doll collection. There’s a special edition, Jem-themed Manic Panic hair dye that glows under black light, while Adult Swim’s Robot Chicken has featured Jem in multiple episodes, once envisioning the character as a pop star who’s fallen on hard times since her Eighties heyday, another time as a foul-mouthed sexpot. (For an even raunchier take on the show and characters, there’s also a mega-NSFW fan parody on YouTube dubbed “Jiz and the Mammograms.”) The original Jem cartoon is finding a new audience as well, in the form of a comprehensive DVD release and, in recent years, syndicated reruns on the Hub (later Discovery Family) and Netflix.

One of the most groundbreaking extensions of the Jem and the Holograms legacy is the IDW Publishing comic book series produced between 2015 and 2017 written by Kelly Thompson. The comics feature characters with body diversity — a particular strength of artist Sophie Campbell, who drew many of IDW’s Jem issues, Thompson says — and expand the backstories of some Jem regulars; for example, Holograms keyboardist Kimber and Misfits keytarist Stormer are openly gay. Later in the series, the comic also introduced a musician named Blaze who is a transgender woman.

“I was interested primarily in drawing out the spirit of the original, which was incredibly diverse for its time, and making sure we continued that tradition by modernizing it and making it even more diverse,” Thompson says.

At JemCon, the Saturday evening festivities especially embody Jem’s spirit of diversity, and playful music and fashion. The impressive costume contest possesses both an abundance of inside jokes and attention to detail. Cherise “Tootie” Sims, who’s cosplaying as Jem’s boyfriend, Rio — specifically as he is in an episode where he kicks a plant in frustration — draws raucous laughter as she mimes kicking a tiny manicured fake plant with exaggerated anger. A veteran JemCon attendee named Jacques, who’s dressed as Jerrica’s late father, Emmett Benton, sports a lab coat and carries a working, light-up prototype of supercomputer Synergy.

With a giant smile on her face, Raven sweeps around the room wearing a floor-length cloak over a black miniskirt and yellow print leggings; she’s portraying a character dressed like an oracle, as seen in the beloved episode “Midsummer Night’s Madness.” Pittsburgh resident Danna Kurela glides gracefully in a costume handmade on her embroidery machine: a shiny gold dress with a fur-trimmed collar based on the Integrity doll line’s Glitter ‘n Gold Jem. The eventual winners are Dumlao — who draws laughter as she does ballet moves around the floor while dressed as Synergy, complete with purple body paint and a silver jumpsuit — and her girls, cosplaying as Jem and Jerrica.

Once the contest is over, the musical portion of the night kicks into high gear. Jem-themed musical karaoke goes longer than it’s supposed to, simply because everyone is having so much fun belting out the songs from the show, although Dumlao (under her DJ name, Jenny Doom) eventually packs the dance floor by spinning an all-killer mix of tunes: Prince, the B-52s, Madonna, Cardi B, Sugarhill Gang. The time ticks away toward midnight, and JemCon has been going full steam for nearly 15 hours.

Plans are already in motion for the next JemCon, which will take place in September 2019, in Buffalo, New York. An agenda and guest list are still being worked out, but it’s safe to say many in attendance in Cleveland are already looking forward to next year.

“I meet so many little kids now,” Newark says. “Some of them come in full cosplay, like a little tiny Pizzazz or a little Jem. I always wondered if [the cartoon] would translate, because it was set in the Eighties, but they don’t care. They love the whole thing: the color, the music, the sparkle, the glamour. [There are] new little Jem boys and Jem girls running around. It’s so cool.”

“The characters, the stories, the emotional elements of it, the fashion, the music,” Marx adds, “I mean, it all came together in a perfect storm, and became this amazing phenomenon that’s called Jem.”

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