For ’90s kids of a certain age, there’s no forgetting MTV’s bizarre “I Wanna Be a VJ” contest, where they rounded up 20-somethings from all over the country in a competition to become an MTV VJ.
The first-place winner was the inscrutably deranged Jesse Camp, a whining affectation who seemed to know about nothing but how to grab attention. But the real winner was Dave Holmes, who came in second place but managed to turn the contest into a life-changing career opportunity.
Dave was my guest this week on The Sewers of Paris, a podcast where I talk to gay men about the entertainment that changed their lives. You might know him more recently from his show International Waters, a sort of trans-oceanic comedy quiz show, or from his incisive articles in Esquire or his new book, Party of One. No matter what medium he appears in, Dave is possessed of a quick wit and extensive knowledge when it comes to music — probably because music changed the course of his life.
Among the earliest music that affected him was Annie, the musical about abrasive singing children. The appeal for Dave was that it concerned “weird kids finding their home” — a topic of unending interest, from shows like Powerhouse to The Bloodhound Gang to the X-Men.
Music formed the basis of his connection with family, especially when his older brothers brought home records of The Clash and The Specials and Blondie from college in the early 80s. He couldn’t relate to them via sports, but music was a cornerstone of their conversation.
Then MTV came along. His brothers were a little too old for it, but Dave was obsessed with the strange, arty, underground feel. He loved the connection it provided, and that music lovers all over the country had one single source to which they could tune in to stay informed.
Music continued to be pivotal for him, particularly obscure music that he could introduce people to. For Dave, introducing a friend to a musician was the best way he knew to express his friendship, and he loved artists like Tommy Keene — himself a gay man.
But during this time, it was hard for Dave to accept that he was gay. He wanted to diminish it as an aspect of his personality, and to keep it hidden. He also repressed his interest in music, assuming that it could only ever be a hobby. He didn’t feel worthy of a career in entertainment, and worked instead in advertising.
But then came that MTV contest. For the first time, Dave found himself immersed in the world that gave his life meaning when he was young, and he realized he had a place there — not just as a gay man, but as an entertainer and as a music lover.
“For the first time, the things I felt strange about were in my job description,” he said. He left his boring office job and never looked back.
Ironically enough, it was losing the first-place prize in the contest that led to his great victory over the self-doubt that held him back.