AND SO IT BEGINS …
My frustrated, grizzled high school guidance counselor Ed, the one who told me I had nice knees, was fed up with my bad grades and told me I would either become a star, or I’d end up broke and homeless and I’d regret squandering my precious high school potential as a strangely dressed loudmouth. Two years and two months later I was on a plane bound for New York City ready to start my job as an MTV VJ. There is no more potent force in society than a misfit with something to prove.
Transforming from an average Oregonian teenager to a late-night radio DJ to a certified TV personality waiting for my name to be etched in the annals of pop culture along with the likes of Alan Hunter and Adam Curry seemed like a clever joke that could evaporate at any minute. From 1992 to 1997 that feeling stayed with me, tucked uncomfortably inside my mental pocketbook, as if at any minute, with the wrong insult or impulsive act, it could vanish as quickly as it appeared. How did I become a VJ? Hell if I know. More important, how can YOU become a VJ? You can’t, because the job doesn’t exist anymore. Like sexual harassment in the workplace and two-martini lunches, VJs are the stuff of urban legend whose time and train have passed, but I was fortunate enough to sneak onto the express and ride it through the greatest age in MTV history. In the nineties MTV was a wonderland of musical genres where hip-hop, metal, and a burgeoning alternative rock scene mingled like shallots and fresh basil in a bubbling, cultural stew. MTV was always finding its voice, lending a megaphone to a new generation to amplify and project its immortal tastes onto a blank, waiting screen. When I arrived it was in blissful transition from metal to grunge, and having come from West Coast alternative radio I was well aware of a shift within the songs and bands I knew, and I was delighting in the domino effect music was having on every part of culture.
As the plane rolled down the LAX tarmac my new and former boss Andy Schuon looked back at me with a bug-eyed smirk that shot bolts of fear and excitement into my abdomen, searing the feeling into my memory like a calf brand. In one look he was saying, “This is real. It’s happening. You were an intern at the radio station ten months ago and now you’re going to New York to work at MTV and millions of people will know your name. Now don’t fuck it up.” Andy did in fact pluck me from the KROQ intern program. He was the program director at LA’s world-famous alternative radio station where at eighteen I started answering the request line, opening mail, and sorting music. One day the cherub-faced wunderkind of modern rock called me into his office and asked if I’d like to do an air shift, which meant he was going to let me talk into a microphone and broadcast my eager, nasally voice to the two million people who regularly came in contact with the station. I’ve never been short of confidence, a trait that has landed me in serendipity and shit, and I was pretty sure being a radio DJ was the greatest and easiest job in existence. But I thought either I misheard him or he’d gone insane, and his last act before they carted him out on a stretcher would be to let me hold the listeners hostage for a few uncomfortable hours.
After leaving high school with no diploma and dropping out of my required college courses to make more time for my unpaid internship, I knew enough that maybe I wasn’t the most trustworthy steward of the airwaves, but I was an ambitious fool so I took the challenge. A shaky two-night audition went well, and with my low salary and his lower expectations I became a part-time overnighter. My shift was from one to five thirty in the morning. Lots of chain-smoking and Dr Pepper double Big Gulps got me through the lonely early morning hours, as did taking irrational requests from long-haul truckers, insomniacs, and coke fiends at 4:00 A.M. Kevin and Bean was the struggling morning show that started after me, and by default I was hired as an in-studio producer, which is a fancy title for “paid intern.” It wasn’t my impressive radio acumen or ability to handle difficult divas, but I had a pulse and a car, so I could pull their music and fetch them Del Taco and doughnuts. They had nearly been fired for a fake on-air murder confession that landed them on Unsolved Mysteries, and I was the force charged with keeping them on track and on time. I like to think I was hired because they wanted an eyeful of this budding brick house to make their mornings smoother. In reality they were appalled by my wacky fashion sense, which involved a lot of turbans, polka dots, and granny boots, and technically I am the lesser half of a brick duplex since I only possess a ghetto booty with no attached upper deck.
Soon after I started with Kevin and Bean my life became their on-air fodder and they relentlessly made fun of me for my foul mouth, my small breasts, and my short-lived tobacco-chewing habit (I couldn’t afford the nicotine gum, so I chewed Skoal Bandits to wean myself off smoking; it totally worked). Lisa Berger, a West Coast MTV executive, heard me and called KROQ producer Maria D’Arcangelo to ask about this odd girl who was becoming a bigger part of the morning show. Maria was, in addition to Kevin and Bean’s wrangler, Adam Sandler’s manager. She had taken the baby-faced boy comic to MTV when he was nineteen, so she knew something about placing people with brown hair on MTV before their careers began. When I was Maria’s intern the highlight of my week was talking to Adam because, although he had only been on SNL for a year, he had starred on MTV’s Remote Control, my high school obsession. Maria set up a meeting with Lisa, and I bought a new pair of men’s pajamas so I could make a good impression, because nothing says “Hire me!” like a rehab escapee. Berger and I hit it off and she tried for months to find a place for me on the channel; she envisioned me as a correspondent on MTV’s movie show The Big Picture after she saw me harassing stars for Kevin and Bean at the first MTV Movie Awards in 1992. My next critical break came in May 1992 when Andy was hired as MTV’s new senior VP of programming. The boy wonder had transformed a stagnant radio station into a national force, so he was expected to do the same with the cable music channel. Together Andy and Lisa plotted, I wore an ill-fitting green bandage dress and some more pajamas to an official audition (not at the same time, but I wouldn’t put it past me in 1992), and assumed it went poorly and would never materialize because Andy didn’t call me five minutes afterward to beg me to move to New York. After a few weeks of regret and hand-wringing on my part Andy finally called, much like he’d done in his office nine months before. “I’d like you to come work for me in New York as one of our VJs.” The only thing I can compare this call to is the shock you feel when someone phones to tell you a close friend has died, without all the loss and sadness. I wanted to scream and drop the phone, but I just opened my eyes really wide to shake off the tunnel vision and tried to let the thought of holding the most coveted job in pop culture sink in to my undulating gray matter. I would be honored. Wildly unprepared and totally in over my head, but honored.
The plane touched down, we made our way to Manhattan, indulged in white pizza, and I checked into my new home for the next thirteen weeks, the Paramount Hotel in Times Square. This place was loud and modern and smelled exactly like every other Ian Schrager hotel in the world. I can’t quite describe it other than to say it smells like a cross between my utter shock and desperation, with a hint of gardenia. I called Sean, one of my best friends from LA who’d moved out to New York to work in TV production and he took me on a tour of Times Square, which in 1992 did not have a boldly lit Hello Kitty store, although I’m sure there might have been an adult theater with a similar name. We found such a theater, went in to scare up some trouble, and within minutes had a guy ask if we wanted a threesome. Sean’s response? “I don’t know about her, but we just had a fivesome back at the hotel so I’m hosed!” I could not keep a straight face, and though it was creepy that it happened within an hour of my touching down on the streets of Manhattan, it remains a fond memory to this day. What a sweet angel of a man trying to make friends with a pair of strangers.
Having grown up watching Late Night with David Letterman I had developed a robust and unhealthy obsession with New York City, and as a young adolescent went so far as to call random numbers in the 212 area code in the middle of the night asking people if they loved living in New York. Even at thirteen I wanted to be a part of something I had so idealized on the other side of the world, far from the madding crowd in the mean suburb of Lake Oswego, Oregon. To my surprise people would actually talk to me for a moment, before they asked me to never call them again as they hung up. In high school I visited Manhattan on a theater tour with my fellow choir nerds, and after a week of taking in musicals and bus tours I managed to talk my way onto the floor of the commodity exchange for an up-close-and-personal look at futures trading. I was trying to land a summer internship, but being sixteen my mom wasn’t as thrilled at the notion of me spending a summer shacked up with a trader in his TriBeCa loft working for free in the Big Apple. Prude. This was the same trip where I ended up in a hotel room, also in Times Square, wearing a Seton Hall men’s basketball uniform alone in a room with half the men’s basketball team. Even back in the late eighties my life themes were crystalizing. Lust, impulsivity, sports.
With a more permanent stay in mind—the backdrop to my unfolding caper—my love of New York knew no bounds. If New York were a big line of coke I would have snorted the whole thing off the Statue of Liberty’s dong, but she’s a woman. The entire time at MTV I was drug-, alcohol-, and smoke-free, a vegetarian, and a virgin. This was going to be one muted straight-edge party, but I did have one vice I was happy to indulge and MTV was my ultimate codependent: music. I had no idea how or when I’d have access to bands, but I didn’t care. I wanted to see shows and hear songs and get lost in tapes on my fancy, futuristic Walkman as I bounced around from one end of the island to another.
And then there was the actual WORK. My first MTV shift I was filling in for a vacationing Duff in prime time. Karen Duffy is, to this day, the most photogenic person I have ever seen. Light dances off her cheekbones and caresses her straight, black hair in a manner that remains unmatched. Her face literally perfects itself when she’s on camera, as the proportions of her wide eyes and tiny nose bend and soften when they meet the eye. I met her briefly at the 1992 Video Music Awards the night before I left LA; she introduced herself with a firm handshake and a disarming warmth that cannot be faked unless you’re Ted Bundy or Mary Hart. A crew showed up at my hotel bright and early Monday morning, and all had agreed to let me wear my own clothes. My fashion confidence was less serendipitous and bordered on dysmorphia. I slipped into my velour black catsuit and my best tan suede coat with the fussy fringe layered over the chest and up both sleeves, and I topped off the ensemble with my cowboy boots that had little horses painted on them. I looked like an autistic child masquerading as a stand-in for George Custer, and if I kept going in this style vein my first stand would be my last. With makeup applied, lips penciled into a perfectly matte shade of brown not unlike the color of an official NFL football, and tarantulan eyebrows plucked and tamed, Duff’s producer Angela Carbonetti led me to the bright pink lights that would hopefully lead to longevity as a video vixen and tidbit procurer for a rabid young audience. When the segment aired that night we gathered around Andy’s huge TV in his apartment and I learned a lesson I have not since forgotten: Watching yourself on TV in front of other people is like getting an unanesthetized alien anal probe. It is strange and uncomfortable, and very, very awkward. The light didn’t quite dance off my cheekbones—at a bad angle I thought I looked more like Rocky Dennis than a Degas painting. Brutal. My mom called a few days later. I was sure she was going to smother me with compliments and well wishes from the home front, but instead she sounded so concerned. “Is everything okay, honey? You look so sad.”
“No one told me to smile, Ma!”
“You know who has the most beautiful smile, dear?”
“No, who, Mom?”
“Duff. She is just beautiful.” This was going to be a bumpy train ride.
Copyright © 2013 by Lisa Kennedy Montgomery