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The Miseducation of Jesse Camp

How a burnout-looking teenager became the new attitude of MTV

Jesse Camp

Jesse Camp, 8th Annual Gotham Awards, September 23rd, 1998.

Ron Galella/WireImage/Getty

Compromise – part of every healthy relationship. A husband and wife, a father and son, a vast multimedia conglomerate and a freaky-haired, Ozzy Osbourne-worshipping, burnout-looking teenager who somehow wins a contest to become a very visible employee of that conglomerate.

Take, if you will, the issue of Jesse Camp and his underwear. Before he won MTV’s heavily promoted “I Wanna Be a VJ” contest in April, he never wore any. There was, Jesse says,”a big hoo-ha” when he showed up in wardrobe his first day. He’d been sleeping on the streets, so his hair hadn’t been washed in months, and his Gary Glitter-meets-Sid Vicious clothes weren’t much better. “I walked by a monitor and saw him,” recalls MTV news presenter Kurt Loder, “and I thought, ‘Gee, that’s kind of annoying.’ ” The MTV stylists – accustomed to tackling problems like how low can one cut Serena Altschul’s neckline and still make her look “newsy” – were equally horrified. “I was wicked, wicked dirty,” Jesse says. “And MTV had this meeting: ‘Jesse’s stinking up the joint. What are we going to do?’ ”

Turns out the smell problem was somehow related to the underwear problem, so Ananda, one of the other VJs, took matters into her own hands, and Jesse happily complied: “Leopard-skin briefs, man!”

Then, as far as compromises go, there’s the fact that Jesse was never supposed to become a real employee of MTV in the first place. “We thought a two-week stint on the air would be pretty good,” admits Dave Sirulnick, MTV’s executive vice president of news and production.

But days after Jesse won the contest, calls about him were pouring into MTV headquarters. TV executives, modeling agencies, managers, agents – all wanted meetings with the new 18-year-old VJ. Maybe it was the fact that he got bleeped twice (once for swearing, once for rambling) during the press conference announcing him as the winner. Or his pronunciation of Hanoi Rocks (Hanny-O-Rocks!). Or his easy rapport with celebrities like Tori Amos, Ozzy Osbourne and Van Halen. Whatever. “A week after Jesse won,” Sirulnick says, “it became apparent that this guy had to be on television.”

So MTV created Lunch With Jesse, which ran every weekday during the summer, and ratings in the time slot shot up 150 percent.

***

A year ago, things were considerably different for Jesse Camp. He wasn’t famous. He wasn’t homeless. He didn’t have the $25,000 he won in the contest, and he wasn’t broke. He was a senior at the Loomis Chaffee School, a prep school in Windsor, Connecticut, where, according to friends, his extracurricular interests included walking around campus with a huge boombox blaring Kiss and Aerosmith; singing and playing guitar in his band, Easy Action; making announcements at school assemblies (“There will be a party, where there will be free Lays … potato chips!”); and taking impromptu weekend trips to New York, where he’d somehow always manage to hook up with someone famous. In the section of the school yearbook where seniors are invited to submit candid snapshots of themselves with friends, there are three of Josiah Camp III, as he’s identified. In two of them, he’s with Beck. In the third, he’s with supermodel Shalom Harlow.

On the home front, Jesse’s life was more complicated – mostly, it seems, because of his relationship with his father. “We’re both stubborn people,” Jesse explains. “We don’t see things eye to eye, and things escalate.” For Jesse, that meant fictionalizing large chunks of his family history: that his parents divorced when he was eight, that his father cruelly wrenched Jesse and his sister from California to Connecticut four years later, that his dad owned a roofing company, that he pulled strings so that Jesse could graduate from high school. The real story is less dramatic: Jesse grew up in an intact family in Connecticut and occasionally spent summers with an aunt in Sacramento; his father is the chairman of the humanities department at the University of Hartford. Friends say Jesse always made stuff up about his family but that it became a problem only when the embellishments started turning up in print and his parents got upset about it. Now, in an effort to make amends, Jesse is in therapy and says he has sworn off the lies. “It was my way of dealing with a lot of other issues,” he says.

A year ago, though, Jesse was getting as far away from those issues as he could, and after graduating he set off for his fantasy home state of California with some friends from Easy Action to start his heavy-metal career. “I’ve always had these fantasies and dreams of rock & roll and all this shit,” explains Jesse. “Basically, it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do with myself. I was never going to go to college or any shit like that. Give me a break. I’d rather be some fucking idiot just sleeping in some stupid asshole’s basement than ever be, you know, doing something that’s not in my heart.” But after he lived for a few months in a “kind of seedy” room in North Hollywood, trying to make the rock & roll life work, things fell apart. His friends gave up on the dream and went home to their parents, and Jesse ran out of money and was reduced to stealing groceries to survive.

“I fell to real new lows,” Jesse says. “I mean, I always stole shit, but I became the fucking master thief. I’d go to the grocery store with a big baseball jacket on, and I’d zip it up, pile all the food down the front and then just walk out with my hands in my coat pocket to cover the bulge.”

Eventually he hitchhiked back to New York, shoplifting clothes and food along the way. “He traveled around the country, and he picked up a lot of stuff,” his sister, Marisha, says. “Some of the clothes he wears on MTV are even shoplifted. Everything except the pants.”

And, of course, the underwear.

***

Now that Beavis and Butt-Head has been canceled and MTV can seem at times to be one endless loop of The Real World, the network has wisely hired, in Jesse, a built-in advertisement for what it would like to consider itself to be: a countercultural, hard-rockin’, cool but accessible place to be. “In the early days of MTV, there was a bit of rawness, a bit of ‘Wow, what are these people doing?'” says Sirulnick. “Jesse has a similar quality.”

“It’s rare that something so genuine gets through the mill to appear on TV,” adds Kurt Loder. “I think some people think he’s a drug brat or some street guy, but he’s actually not. It’s a Cinderella story. He had a rock & roll dream and it came true. How often does that happen?”

For the fall, MTV has a new mission for Jesse: He’ll walk around Times Square and do what he does best – chat people up. “I can talk some good shit every now and then,” he admits. “I do pretty much what I do – going around and meeting people and just being a big lush, and just kind of shooting the shit with everything and everyone.” But, he adds, “it’s a whole lot more work than I thought, man.” He hurries to correct the impression that he’s complaining: “It’s still a real, real easy job, and I hope that MTV wants to keep me, ’cause, I gotta say, this is, like … it’s really good.” He pauses, then adds, “Maybe at some point we can play a little more hard rock.” 

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