Your eyes do not deceive you — yes, this is that Jesse Camp. After he skyrocketed to celebrityhood in 1998 for winning MTV’s inaugural Wanna Be a VJ contest, Camp’s mug was plastered all over the network for the next two years, most notably on its immensely popular Total Request Live and his own short-lived show, Lunch with Jesse. Visually striking, with a David Johansen–like physique, Camp copped facial mannerisms from another Doll (Johnny Thunders) and had a voice that sounded like a pubescent crackhead. Unfortunately for Camp’s celebrity, the road down was nearly as precipitous as its ascent.
Photo by Kevin Scanlon
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Camp, born at the end of the ’70s in Granby, Connecticut, was raised in a family that emphasized education. His father was a history professor, his mother the principal of an elementary school. They sent young Jesse to the prestigious Loomis Chaffee, a boarding school that boasts such famous alumni as John D. Rockefeller III and former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz. Upon graduation in 1997, Camp and his older sister traversed the United States in a dying car, their own On the Road adventure. After a nine-month trek — which included a stopover in a religious cult/meth lab in Idaho — Camp and sis found themselves back in Granby (sans the car).
Soon after, Camp caught wind of MTV’s Wanna Be a VJ contest. “This was before American Idol,” he says. “MTV hyped this contest where anyone who wanted to could go to the studio and audition. I was 18 years old and I was really hungry and determined. And I wanted to make my mark in any way I could …”
He did just that, beating out the square-looking Dave Holmes for the coveted job. Initially, Camp was enthusiastic. “That first year in 1999 was actually pretty cool because MTV hosted its summer programming thing in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. I could kind of make awesome things happen — like get great hair-metal bands to appear on the show. But I couldn’t get them on my show as ‘Ratt.’ They were just ‘Jesse’s friends.’ At that time, metal was really dead.”
But it wasn’t easy being MTV’s go-to goofball. “The suits had this concept for Lunch With Jesse. They said, ‘Oh! We’ve got this freaky, crazy guy named Jesse. Let’s put him with some old woman who makes ice cream! Let’s stick Jesse with some weird volleyball team!’ It was really lame. When I look back, honestly, it was almost too embarrassing, the stuff they would want me to do. But I didn’t want to say no. The shit was blowing me up a lot more than what I was doing five months earlier in Nampa, Idaho.”
Discouraged, Camp intensified his focus on his band, Jesse and the 8th Street Kidz. A deal and album with Hollywood Records soon followed. Released in the heyday of the New Economy (that nefarious late-’90s business paradigm that promoted media deregulation, as well as risky ventures in dot-coms and record labels), Camp’s debut — which, according to him, was backed by a million-dollar deal — tanked.
“That sounds great — a million-dollar record deal,” recalls Camp. “Realistically, it wasn’t. This was back when compact discs were actually bought. When record stores still existed … before the onslaught of online and satellite radio. We sold 80,000 copies, which is actually a lot, but not for the amount of money invested. It’s ridiculous — we had a $250,000 recording budget. I could make a record for a dollar now with Pro Tools. It was stupid money … a $200,000 video, tour support like you wouldn’t believe. They were just like, ‘Okay, unknown 18-year-old person, what do you want to do?’ By the end, we owed Hollywood Records $200,000.”
By 2001, Camp had left both MTV and Hollywood Records. After a couple of dark years in New York and a brief cameo in the 2002 Britney Spears disaster Crossroads, Camp and his then-girlfriend (now friend), Nina Tahash, moved out to Los Angeles. He’s not performing much music anymore, instead making films with his sister and doing production work with Tahash — most recently a music video for the Miami metal band Black Tide.
All things considered, Camp seems fairly well-adjusted. He still speaks in an elliptical style reminiscent of Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s last books — although some of the affected screeching has been put to rest. What really comes through is his affability.
“Things are really good at the moment. As long as you have a vision, that will create enough positive energy within you to keep going. There were a couple of years in my mid-20s where I didn’t have that. Y’know, I envisioned this band, this record … it didn’t quite work out. But the thing with my sister, it’s something I’m really passionate about and can’t wait to see come to fruition. It just makes everything good for me.”