There’s a Times Square tour bus slowly coming to a halt down Broadway just past 45th Street. The speaker system crackles: “And that, ladies and gentlemen, is where MTV’s Total Request Live was filmed.” Standing right there, in front of the lobby doors of 1515 Broadway, is Jesse Camp, former TRL host, what they once called a "Video Jockey," or VJ for short.
He's wearing fur cowboy boots, distressed grey skinny jeans, a vintage Kiss shirt paired with a bedazzled blazer, black and baby pink cape, a handful of chains, a wrist covered in festival bands, and a light pink hat that rivals the best you've seen at the Kentucky Derby. He's asked me to hold a deteriorating plastic garbage bag of eight other hats, just in case he needs to make a costume change, which, over the course of two hours, he obviously will.
At every corner we turn from Times Square to Port Authority, Jesse strikes up random conversations. The guy selling comedy tickets? We have to get a picture. The woman on the steps of Port Authority? Jesse has to explain to her how he’s a “wannabe superstar.” But he’s cool with it all, because for those two hours, Jesse Camp is reliving his glory days, one photo at a time.
This was, after all, his turf. Jesse Camp—born Josiah Camp—was the winner of the first "MTV Wanna Be a VJ" contest, reportedly beating out over 5,000 applicants in 1998. What was supposed to be a two-week stint on MTV turned into a year and a half on live television for Jesse, who hosted TRL and had a couple brief spin-offs, including Lunch With Jesse and MTV Rocks Off. Then he signed a major deal with Hollywood Records and went on to record an album with his band, Jesse & the 8th Street Kidz. But even though Jesse defined MTV during its peak years of TRL and VJs, his 15 minutes of fame ran out all the same. His album flopped, and his relevance fizzled out, despite being one of the first stars of his kind—a person whose fame was fueled by a horde of faceless voters. Since, he’s been seen in the public eye twice: once on TMZ pretending to order an 8-ball of cocaine and most recently, in 2014, on a red carpet at a Free the Nipple event. These days, he’s working on a web series of interviews with musicians and celebrities.
Not that every tourist in Times Square recognizes Jesse in April 2016, but they notice him. It may just be that his aura, his shrill voice piercing through crowds of Elmos, makes everyone stare. Later, I ask him if he notices that people stare at him constantly on the street. He seems shocked, and says he doesn’t. And I believe him.
After the brief photo shoot, we head back to the Complex offices to grab Jesse’s larger costume bag—he came prepared with a heaping duffle bag of thrift store finds he has to sit on to close. We learn Prince died earlier in the morning, and then we head outside to smoke a Pall Mall and plan our day. The day before we met, I texted him introducing myself and he promised me “a very entertaining day with a lot of cool characters !!!” Outside, I ask him if he wants to grab a mid-day drink, but Jesse doesn’t like alcohol—his only vices these days are weed and a few cigarettes. He did spend a few years in his twenties doing speed, but stopped for good on April 15, 2009. “I’ll put it to you this way: at my worst, I was only doing about an eight ball of a speed a month,” he later tells me. Later, when I meet his fraternal twin Marisha and ask her about Jesse's speed years, she corroborates his claims: “Jesse was a functional addict.” If his twenties were for partying, his thirties have been for exploring his creative endeavors and growing up a little bit. The next decade—he’s 36—will be for settling down.
We take the subway downtown to 8th Street; for the entirety of the ride, between balancing bags of costumes, we talk about how he hoards clothes. He says he once dropped $30,000 on vintage T-shirts. We talk about his first days at MTV and whether or not the persona—and look—were contrived, or altered at all, by his MTV bosses. “Don't try to give me the Old Navy version of what I'm wearing,” he says, his way of saying the network didn’t change him at all.
Like so many other reality TV stars, the question of authenticity always came up in regards to MTV’s first crowdsourced VJ. Jesse Camp, no doubt, was a character, but was it all just an act for TV? One might think the creation of Jesse Camp was all an elaborate scheme to bolster the then-18-year-old kid to superstardom. But there is an alternative: maybe the young punk kid with the crazy hair and even crazier outfits you saw in Times Square was just Jesse being Jesse.
In past interviews, he’s said that the man you saw on camera was a creation: “at least 50 percent of who he was.” Today, it seems like there’s no real “character.” If there ever was one made up 20 years ago, Jesse flat-out adopted it permanently. In public, he's probably a more amplified version of himself, especially if you catch him early in the morning, but there’s by no means an act to hide a “true” personality. What made Jesse Camp stand out amongst those 5,000 "Wanna Be a VJ" applicants is the same thing that makes him stand out on a crowded R train at lunch hour. How could this person really been this on at all hours of the day?
Of course, his look is and was a big part of it. He’s now in the same furry cowboy boots and Kiss t-shirt, ripped and bleach-stained skinny black jeans, and another bedazzled blazer, topped off with some sort of fedora and his now more tamed side-swooped shoulder length hair hanging out from underneath. “That hair was crafted by Astroglide,” he says, rambling off a variety of products he used to get his trademark spiky hair.
And then there’s his voice, the spacey, high-pitched voice that, as I learn throughout the day, heightens a little bit only when he’s calling to lock in interviews for a new web series called "Born to Rock and Roll" that he’s shopping. He says he gets most of his interviews for the show by showing up to venues, being cool with someone who works there, or just relying on people remembering him from MTV. "Born to Rock and Roll" has been in the works for a few years, but since January of 2015, Jesse and his sister Marisha have been working non-stop compiling footage for the show. “From filming in West Virginia and Kentucky to Mexico, to Oklahoma, Wayne Coyne’s house in Oklahoma,” Jesse says. “I’m talking interviews with Korn, the Darkness, Rick Springfield. Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day. George Cliton. Miley Cyrus.” Marisha explains that a week later, they’d be going on hiatus. Jesse has an apartment in Los Angeles, Marisha has one in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The two bounce back and forth between coasts, but Marisha says it’s critical that he goes back to L.A. and she delve deep into the last year and a half of footage to start editing.
“‘Just the guy from mtv,’ if that's all that's on my tombstone, that's amazing.”
Our first journey of the day is to Jesse's friend Mike Denied’s house in the East Village. Mike plays in the punk band The Murder Junkies, who are known mostly for being GG Allin's last backing band. Jared Leto shadowed Mike when he was preparing for his role in Requiem for a Dream. Jesse hasn’t been down St. Marks since Trash and Vaudeville shuttered a few weeks back to move into a new location on E. 7th Street. This is where he shot his album cover for his 1999 glam metal debut album, Jesse & the 8th Street Kidz, which he dropped after signing a million-dollar record deal with Hollywood Records. The empty Trash and Vaudeville is a sad sight, but it gets us talking about Jesse’s legacy. “‘Just the guy from MTV,’ if that's all that's on my tombstone, that's amazing,” he says. “The fact that people still give a fuck 20 years later, I'm really proud of it.”
At Mike’s apartment, Mike grabs himself a Four Loko Gold, me a Modelo tall boy, and, well, Jesse is pretty much sober aside from the two joints he rolls up. The studio apartment's walls are littered with punk posters, tapestries, and Christmas lights. Mike's bed, covered in cigarette ash, serves as a couch, and the TV is playing Turner Classic Movies. There's a closet full of leather jackets; empty Fireball bottles collect dust on top of a black mini-fridge that's completely empty, aside from a tupperware container filled with rigatoni and red sauce. While Jesse hops on the phone, Mike tells me about the time he spent on Rikers Island with Lil Wayne. “He was talking about wanting to do all this shit with punk bands,” says Mike. “We started talking about music, he knew who my band was. That’s how you know he knew about punk. He knew about GG Allin.” Meanwhile, Marisha joins us. She’s the one who’s able to piece Jesse’s life together in a way that, frankly, he can’t. He just gets way too sidetracked.
So here’s what we know: Jesse Camp was born in Hartford, Conn. in a middle class family; his mother was a special needs teacher at an elementary school and his dad was an economics and Western Civ professor at the University of Hartford. Jesse interjects to explain his dad is 6’4”, his mom is 6’1”, and that’s why him and his sister after over six feet tall. His parents met when his mom, originally from the Netherlands, came to America in her early twenties for a teaching program at the University of Hartford. This New England, family-oriented upbringing is what brought Jesse flack during his MTV run. Jesse was seen by many as a kid who was essentially faking being homeless, just another white guy from Connecticut, running around New York during its peak, crust punk days with a bunch of vintage clothes and an eclectic personality.
In reality, Jesse, who grew up in Granby, a suburb of Hartford, went to public school before receiving a scholarship to attend Loomis Chaffee, a prestigious boarding school in Connecticut. When he graduated in 1997, he was offered another scholarship to attend UCLA for drama but instead, he packed up an ‘82 Volvo with his sister and went on a cross-country journey. Afterwards, for a bit, he was bouncing back and forth between New York City and Connecticut, where he—by his own fruition—was sleeping on subways and couches, and then going home on weekends. A few days before he tried out for MTV’s "Wanna Be a VJ," he was scouted to be a model. But he chose MTV. “It was a fairytale thing,” he says. He guesses he made about $120,000 from MTV over his time there—and he got that record deal. “I was using the MTV thing to get my deal—being an artist was the goal,” he says. But when the album came out—and didn’t even manage to break the Billboard charts—he says he ended up owing more money than he made.
“If we made Jesse Camp towels, that would've sold the record,” he tells me. “It wasn't the time. It was a really Guns n Roses album but in 1999, it was all NSYNC and Marilyn Manson, Korn.” Mike Denied thinks that the real fail of the album was that Jesse’s uniqueness—his sound—didn’t come through because there were too many people involved with the project.
When I ask about the idea behind the character that defined those MTV days, his sister Marisha has a rather perfect definition of how Jesse Camp became Jesse Camp:
“In the spirit of Andy Kaufman, we were working to develop personas. As small children we knew all of this ‘80s rock. It was the good old days—all you’re doing is watching MTV and not talking to child molesters online. Then there was an enormous shift in the zeitgeist, this enormous shift where everything needed to be appreciated ‘ironically.’ We felt that maybe a certain sincerity in the world had been lost. I think that sincerity, in a sense, never came back. But I vividly remember in ‘97 hearing that my friend had some vinyl of the first Motley Crue album. For some reason, that just jammed it into place in my head. There was this other era—what can we do to bring that back? We talked out this idea of this ‘Jesse,’ and this Jesse lived in a trailer park in Southern California and was straight up rock ‘n’ roll, man. In reality, we went to school in Connecticut.”
That character fueled the rise of Jesse Camp, but in the background, while he was living his dream and doing what made him happy, his parents—and sister—knew how incredibly young he was, and how overnight his success had been. “Talk about zero to hero,” Jesse says, laughing it off. They also knew that, because of all that, he was going to need to be smart.
“Jesse doesn’t blow money,” his sister says. “Jesse is as disciplined as he could freaking be.” Because he was only 18 when his career took off, his father ended up taking over financial responsibilities to invest—and save—that $120,000 MTV made him. “Jesse did not blow through MTV money at all,” his sister says. “I know that’s not a good story.” So what is he living off of now? “I do not have a cash flow problem,” he says. “I’m a good businessman, I’ll put it to you that way. I’m a really free spirit and bohemian. I have a low overhead.”
While his money is intact and he’s pursuing his new web series, being Jesse Camp isn’t always easy. “There’s a huge privilege in being Jesse and there’s a huge privilege in getting to live a life where you can just be you and can stay in character,” Marisha says. Jesse interrupts to insist, again, that there’s no character. “You get to be you all the time!” she says. “I always thought that life had given him this tremendous gift. Being able to fully explore yourself and be you, these [are] things that the rest of us have to repress. That’s the compromise of adulthood.”
So what’s the dark side? To Marisha, it was that all of those eyes on Jesse during the MTV days put a lot of pressure on him when he was 18, as opposed to right now, at 36, when he’s far more self-realized. “Did it affect you?” I ask. “Jesse thinks no. I think yes,” Marisha says. Jesse intervenes: “Hugely. There’s probably some post-traumatic stress from that year. But that was such a crazy, intense year. Basically, I mean, this all happened within nine months of graduating high school.”
The PTSD has driven Jesse to pursue his real love of interviewing, and knowing, just about anyone that crosses his path. “Jesse has this real natural drive to entertain people,” Marisha says, while she starts to detail their new web series. “My natural drive is to understand people. That’s where the conflict is when we do work. To me it’s like, let me get into that world and get into it enough that I’m coming from a place of not sympathy but sincere empathy.” Jesse interrupts again: “It’s like Paul McCartney and John Lennon.” Marisha is John Lennon, Jesse is Paul. “I never ever get burnt out feeling like I have to be on because what drives me in the first place is such an enjoyment of other people,” he says. “As long as I get to interact with other people, I’m having a ball.”
“I never ever get burnt out feeling like I have to be ‘on’ because what drives me in the first place is such an enjoyment of other people.”
We have to go to a Terry Reid show at The Cutting Room in less than an hour so that Jesse can attempt to find his manager and introduce himself, in the hopes of getting an interview with Reid later that night. Naturally, we walk from the East Village to Midtown. This is a Wizard of Oz journey, his sister says. I’m Dorothy, Marisha is the Lion, Mike is the Scarecrow and Jesse is the Tin Man. Within a block, Jesse and Mike are doing an improv comedy skit at a bodega on Ave. C and E. 6th Street. “This is ‘On the Street,’” Jesse screams. “Do you ever get exhausted?” I ask his sister. She nods.
Jesse’s really excited about his web series, but it’s hard to book interviews when you have no content out yet and you’re banking on people remembering you from MTV in the late ‘90s. Before we left the apartment, Jesse made a phone call to Reid’s manager. He put on his ‘Jesse Camp’ voice—half an octave above his real voice—and curled up on the floor. "Do you have kind of an idea of who I am? It's the old MTV Jesse," he said, before realizing we’d have to go to the show and play it by ear. “I don't know if the young kids will know. I'm not kidding myself—I don't think a lot of Beliebers will know my stuff.”
Jesse has, in five hours, made me believe that most people are genuinely good and that most people in New York are not terrible, just lonely. His ability to talk to anyone, anywhere, is strangely admirable. He sings a song about every person we pass—a couple in love, a Bernie Sanders supporter walking a dog, someone reading Please Kill Me. In the middle of Tompkins Square Park, he makes a new friend with a man named Pharaoh, a Door Dash delivery guy on a bike with a Newport 100 in one hand and a bottle of Hennessey in the other. Marisha meanwhile, is recording everything. "We're here with the homie, clearly he's rock and roll on steroids,” Pharoah says to the camera. He gives Jesse the bottle of Henny. Jesse drinks it, cringes. "We've all got hoop dreams," Pharoah says.
The crowd around The Cutting Room is all mid-40s to 50s. David Johansen, Billy Squier, and Steven Van Zandt show up, and Jesse and Marisha immediately start running around to secure interviews with them. For the first time all day, Jesse is a little uneasy. Squier, Reid, Van Zandt—these were the artists who inspired the “Jesse Camp persona,” the “other era” of ‘80s hair metal and ingenuity they tried so hard to bring back through Jesse. After 30 minutes of hustling around the venue, Mike, Marisha, and Jesse head outside, sit on the sidewalk, and smoke a few cigarettes to calm their nerves before the show starts. Despite their efforts, there’s still no way to confirm whether or not an interview with Terry Reid will happen until after the show ends.
When Reid finally takes the stage, he’s wearing striped Vans jeans, a magenta-pink tie and shirt with a cummerbund, and black jacket glasses. Jesse watches the show from a balcony above, his eyes fixated on Reid for the entirety of his performance. Twenty years ago, Terry Reid was touring the U.S. and Hong Kong, and a teenage Jesse Camp was idolizing him and planning his own future. Now, Jesse Camp is still watching his idols, this time from a little closer, and crossing fingers that they’ll remember him, and recognize his dedication to his dreams. Even if the general public has forgotten the Jesse Camp they thrust into the spotlight back in 1998, and even if Jesse’s rockstar dreams came to a crashing halt almost immediately after they started, he’s still got that same spirit, the drive that made America fall in love—or hate—with him.
He never became a rockstar to the world, but he’s one to himself, and he’s still just trying to chase down the ones who inspired him to be him, Jesse Camp.