Justin Timberlake and Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst are in a booth at Los Angeles club. Verne Troyer, the two-foot, eight-inches tall star of Austin Powers, is with them, standing on a table. The unlikely trio is not the beginning of a “walk into a bar…” joke, though that is precisely the sight that greeted former MTV VJ Dave Holmes when he walked into that bar after a network event 15 years ago.
Holmes worked at what was once Music Television during the last great moment of the network’s music- and artist-driven pop culture reign, hosting shows like TRL, Say What Karaoke, and, during the beginnings of its descent into crass stunt madness, umpteen iterations of Spring Break programming.
It was a time in turn-of-the-millennium pop music when the likes of Britney Spears, blink-182, Destiny’s Child, Kid Rock, DMX, Eminem, Backstreet Boys, and Korn all co-existed—and it was perfectly acceptable to be fans of them all—making the halls of MTV prime real estate to be a celebrity-gawking fly on the wall. Which is precisely what Holmes got to be.
“I was just thinking this is the weirdest thing that’s ever happened,” Holmes tells The Daily Beast at a café in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, a day after marching in New York City’s annual LGBT Pride Parade. He’s still shaking his head, all these years later, in disbelief while remembering the starry ménage à odd.
“You try to be cool and act like you belong, but everyone’s insecure and everyone’s weird,” he continues. “If I were to see Britney Spears and Fred Durst pass each other, I was too insecure to make anything happen in that moment.”
He jars himself out of the absurdity of that hypothetical celebrity run-in, pausing reflectively: “It took me like three years to stop feeling like a sweepstakes winner. Or loser, in my case. It took me a while to to realize ‘I work here. I have this job. I don’t have to keep applying for it.’”
That sweepstakes that Holmes won—well, actually lost—was the network’s first Wanna Be a VJ contest in 1998. He came in second place to living Edward Scissorhands performance art piece Jesse Camp—the spacey six-foot, four-inches tall punk flamingo who continues to mystify the nation.
“I get asked about Jesse Camp all the time,” Holmes laughs, reciting his well-practiced script: “Yes, he was always like that. No, I don’t know what he’s doing now. Yes, I know that I’ll bump into him again at some point.”
His performance in the VJ competition, even though he lost, got him a gig as a writer for the network and, quickly after that, a contract to be on-camera talent. Now a writer-at-large at Esquire—here’s his essay about coming out of the closet after meeting the Indigo Girls at an Applebee’s in 1992—Holmes writes about the VJ experience in Party of One: A Memoir in 21 Songs, released this week.
The book is written from the perspective of a closeted Catholic teen in St. Louis for whom MTV in the ‘80s was a sanctuary. “It showed me a world I wanted to live in one day,” he says. “When I looked around me and I didn’t feel like I fit in, I turned on my TV and knew there was something out there that got me.”
Adding a layer to the purview is the fact that Holmes actually worked at MTV and, in maybe the last years it could lay claim to it, observed its cultural impact first-hand. “I don’t disagree,” he sighs when I ask how he feels when former fans trash what’s become of MTV. “Is Scream the series going to culturally reward young humans? I don’t know.”
Still, the dutiful fly, he gamely reports from his days on the wall, relaying a few juicy celeb stories in Party of One. He was the first person to interview Britney Spears, and she was a total pro.
There’s a wild one about Tara Reid arriving for a Spring Break shoot of Say What Karaoke towing a perennially drunk, nightmare diva of a friend behind her nicknamed “Hard Thirty,” because of the ambiguous age the crew guessed her to be. A month later reading a Page Six gossip item, he figured out who “Hard Thirty” was: a 16-year-old Paris Hilton.
And then there’s the time, during that same 1999 Spring Break shoot, that Kid Rock crashed the hotel hot tub where Holmes was lounging and repeatedly croaked, “All right, Holmes. Where’s the titty bars at? Let’s go get some pusssaaaay!” Holmes’s response: “Yeah, no, Kid, I’m gay.”
That punchline, really, encapsulates what Party of One is actually about. More than a tell-all about his days hanging out with 2000’s most ridiculous celebrities, it’s a sharp and sharp-witted reflection on what it was like to grow up gay and feeling like you never belong.
Tracing his experience coming to terms with his sexuality at a Catholic high school to coming to terms with expressing it at his Catholic university to coming to terms with actually enjoying it when he finally moved to New York City and eventually became a celebrity, Holmes grapples with his feelings of never fitting in at the party—but having a hunch that the party would be pretty fun if he ever figured out how to belong.
“There’s the internet now,” Holmes says. When you’re young and gay or questioning, you can find your community. I didn’t have that. I remember there was a recorded hotline for gay events, it was 36-PRIDE. It was just a recording of a guy saying ‘at such and such community center there’s this meeting’ or whatever. I would call it and listen to it just to hear the guy’s voice. Just to know there was somebody else out there.”
Serving as the backdrop to his journey is MTV. Well, media and pop culture at large, really—both when he was a consumer of it as a kid roller-skating to the Xanadu soundtrack and when he was disseminating it live from Times Square each afternoon.
Holmes was out at MTV, but not on MTV.
Sure, he’d playfully make an offhand comment about hot Justin Timberlake was, but he never overtly came out, so to speak, on air. “And the fact is that I wanted to be out, because I had needed someone like to me to have been out when I was fourteen,” he writes in Party of One. “If [former ‘80s VJ] Kevin Seal had been gay and said something about it, that moment would have been a seismic event in my life.”
He told an MTV talent executive, who was also gay, that he wanted to come out publicly. “I think…” the executive began, “I think you should be just exactly like you are.”
He finally came out as gay in a 2002 Out magazine piece, which, with no correlation, ended up being right around the time he let his contract with MTV expire. It felt good to be an out television personality, he says. There were not many of them, and still aren’t.
The news didn’t “break the internet”—that wasn’t a thing back then—but it did affect his career, and not always in the best way. There were hosting gigs he lost out on post-MTV because they were “family shows.”
Sometimes there would be a panel chat show looking to cast a gay member, and he’d be passed over for not being really gay. Translation: a stereotype. They’d be looking for a fountain of pizazz, someone who speaks in zingers, uses the word fierce, loves fashion talk, talks in constant sexual innuendo, and, most cripplingly, has chemistry with Tori Spelling.
I ask him if, now 45, he wishes that he had been more adamant about being an openly gay VJ from the get-go.
“I wish I had been out,” he says. “I do wish that I had forcefully said it, because a younger generation could’ve benefitted from that.”
I was 11 when I started watching him on TRL, I say. I can’t imagine the effect it would have had on me then for the guy hosting the show I was rushing home from school to watch had been publicly out.
“Well,” he begins, “at the same time I’m glad that I didn’t because I also wasn’t really put together yet. I still had that shitty feeling: ‘I’m out, but I’m not like that guy. I don’t do those kinds of things.’ I was still defining myself negatively.”
“It’s a dumb stage in my gay life that lasted longer than it should have,” he continues, “where you have to prove to the world that you’re not like the rest of gay guys. I was afflicted with that for much too long. And I think I was still very much caught up in that when I was at MTV, so maybe I wouldn’t have been the best model.”
Laughing about having missed out on his “gay 20s” and making up for it now in his 40s, he jokes that he and his friends are “going through a second adolescence” right now.
Having just marched in the pride parade, what does he think of the climate now for young gays? The ones who are, more than any generation before them, freer to express and be comfortable with their sexuality at earlier ages than ever?
“I’m happy for them?” he says, almost as if a question. “I’m a little jealous, obviously. But also really happy.” He thinks for a bit before ruling that he’s ultimately glad he had to work hard to get to the place of self-acceptance he’s now reached. It made him stronger. “I hope we don’t up with a generation of boring gay people,” he laughs, taking a beat to reassess what he just said: “It’s a luxury to be boring.”