Risk Jockeys

When MTV’s original VJs signed on 20 years ago, the notion of a channel devoted to music videos seemed so unlikely, “our folks thought we were doing porno, because it was on cable,” says Alan Hunter. That the five jocks shared a coed dressing room may have added to the confusion. Within two years, however, the VJs were as recognizable as the rock stars they covered. That brought bigger pay-checks—for some, a raise from less than $30,000 to more than $200,000—and a host of perks. “Suddenly we got into restaurants and clubs,” recalls Mark Goodman. “Our faces were our backstage passes.” And, as J.J. Jackson recalls, “we all got dressing rooms.”

Martha Quinn

ON THE DAY IN 1985 THAT SNARLY BRITISH PUNK rocker Stiv Bator was scheduled for an interview at MTV, he arrived two hours late. “Little Martha ripped this guy up,” recalls fellow VJ Mark Goodman. ” ‘Who do you think you are? You can’t just show up two hours late!’ ” In fact, Martha Quinn was Bator’s main squeeze at the time. The diminutive NYU broadcasting grad may have looked like a Girl Scout, but, as Goodman puts it, “Martha was pretty definitive about things.” Moxie aside, Quinn, now 42, was blindsided when MTV failed to renew her contract in ’86. After three years of TV guest spots, she was rehired—only to be dumped again in ’92. She went back to bit parts, punctuated by stints cohosting Ed McMahon’s Star Search (1994-95) and hosting a segment on CBS’s The Early Show (1999-2000). “It wasn’t jetting around with Bono,” she says, “but it was a good day’s work.” Today the host of radio’s Martha Quinn’s Rewind shares an L.A. cottage with her husband of eight years, TV-ad composer Jordan Tarlow, 35, and their 4-year-old daughter. (A second child is due in January.) While she cherishes her MTV memories, she says, “I’m a mom now—so when I watch the Spring Break coverage, I’m horrified.”

J.J. Jackson

THE ELDER STATESMAN OF THE original VJs, J.J. Jackson was already a nationally known radio personality in Los Angeles when MTV hired him—and he was thoroughly ambivalent about his new gig. In fact, during his second week, fellow VJ Martha Quinn had to talk him out of quitting over the handling of a news story on a blues musician. “She said, ‘If you leave, I think you’ll regret it for the rest of your life,’ ” recalls Jackson, now 54. “From that point on, she was like my little sister.” Jackson soon settled in nicely, says MTV Networks president Judy McGrath, who praises his on-air style as “always knowledgeable and welcoming.”

But four years later Jackson grew restless again. “I had an interview with Keith Richards and Mick Jagger that had a lot of meat, and they used none of it,” he says. Soon afterward Jackson saw the hiring of “Downtown” Julie Brown as a sure sign that his days were numbered. “I can’t imagine,” he remembers telling her, “that MTV is going to have two black VJs at the same time.”

When Jackson’s contract expired in ’85, he returned to radio and L.A. Currently he’s deejaying at KLOS-FM and hosting installments of two syndicated FM shows, The Beatle Years and The Superstar Concert Series. The twice-divorced father of two grown daughters, Jackson seldom watches MTV’s present incarnation. “It’s probably my age,” he reports, “but I find VH1 more to my liking.”

Alan Hunter

AT HIS FIRST MTV AUDITION, THE STRUGGLING actor nearly struck out. Not only did Alan Hunter show up in a “very tacky plaid shirt,” he recalls, but “I had been doing theater, so I sounded Shakespearean. They wanted me to be myself.” His natural boy-next-door charm helped him score the job—and a $500 wardrobe stipend. “I went straight to Macy’s and got so much stuff it was unbelievable,” says Hunter, now 44. Still, he held on to his bartending gig for a few more weeks. He knew he’d hit his stride six months later when he did a cartwheel on the set and accidentally broke the TelePrompTer with his foot. “I got a memo from [MTV co-founder] Bob Pittman that said, ‘Like it!’ ”

Succumbing to the temptations of instant fame, Hunter briefly dabbled with drugs (“cocaine—I certainly did it in the ’80s”). But he kept his marriage to actress wife Jan intact until 1997, when the couple divorced after 18 years. After quitting MTV in ’87, Hunter appeared in music infomercials (and had a bit part in Police Academy 6) before returning to his hometown of Birmingham, Ala., where he is now an independent film producer and single dad, sharing custody of Dylan, 15, and Callie, 12. Hunter is proud that his son is carrying on a family tradition: “Dylan is a hipmeister in school, and he wears the dinner jackets I wore on MTV.”

Mark Goodman

TOWARD THE END OF MY TIME AT MTV,” SAYS MARK Goodman, “a fair number of musicians I was meeting were like Mötley Crüe. I had nothing to say to these guys, and they had nothing to say to me either.” Before his ennui set in, however, this Philadelphia native was one of MTV’s more prominent voices. After quitting in 1988, Goodman, now 48, tried acting—he snagged a recurring role on One Life to Live and appearances on several sitcoms—but was usually stuck playing disc jockeys or record executives. “My face was so recognized,” says Goodman of the typecasting, “it’s like, What does William Shatner do after Star Trek?” In the ’90s he returned to his rocking roots, first as a DJ (his pre-MTV profession), then as VP of an Internet music site. His next venture will be as host and coproducer of Gigspanner, an upcoming TV magazine series about touring bands. Separated from his third wife and living in L.A., Goodman shares custody of daughter Spencer, 8, with wife No. 2. And though Spencer isn’t allowed to watch the channel, says Goodman, she often brags, “My dad was the first VJ on MTV.”

Nina Blackwood

OFF-CAMERA SHE’S A GOOD-LOOKING WOMAN,” SAYS fellow jock J.J. Jackson of Nina Blackwood. “But on-camera she was stunning. Mark Goodman and I used to say, ‘How the hell does she do that?!’ ” Of course, the Massachusetts-born model and actress was more than just eye candy. Blackwood, 48, began studying piano at 4 and by high school had switched to harp. Her true love, though, was rock and roll, and for her, MTV was its pinnacle. “It was an incomparable experience,” she says of her five-year tenure. “We had the world in our hands.” She and the network parted amicably in ’86, after which Blackwood did on-air stints at Entertainment Tonight and Solid Gold. These days she shuttles between her home in Tarzana, Calif., and Denver, where she works as an FM DJ. Divorced in 1991 after a four-year marriage, Blackwood is now seeing stage actor Kelly Vincent. All of which leaves little time for TV viewing—especially “that Jackass show,” she sniffs. “You’d have to pay me to watch that.”

The Next Generation

These on-air talents also left their mark on music television before stepping away

Jesse Camp: 1998-99

AFTER BEATING OUT SOME 4,000 contestants to win MTV’s first “I Wanna Be a VJ” contest in 1998, Jesse Camp became known, in his words, as the network’s “18-year-old freak.” But this prep-school grad from Granby, Conn., proved cannier than he looked. Before his yearlong contract expired, Camp, now 21, used his MTV connections to land a $1 million recording deal. Although the disc, released in ’99, flopped (“People were like, ‘Oh, it’s that crazy kid from MTV,’ ” says Camp), the guitar-playing singer refused to call it quits. In March he moved to L.A., where he’s writing tunes he describes as ” ’70s-style rock, but more soulful” for his second album. In fact, though Camp still gets requests for autographs—”He’s recognized every time he leaves the house,” says his live-in girlfriend, dancer Holly Romanowski, 20—he’s ready to leave MTV behind. “You can only be so proud of your work,” he says, “when you’re saying, ‘Here’s another video.’ ”

Kennedy: 1992-97

AS A TEENAGE DJ AT A LOS ANGELES RADIO STATION in the early ’90s, Kennedy (full name: Lisa Kennedy Montgomery) modeled her on-air bravado after that of shock jock Howard Stern. “I said to myself, ‘I’m going to be sassy and speak my mind,’ ” she recalls. The approach landed her at MTV in 1992—but didn’t go over well with viewers, who often named her as their least-favorite VJ during her five-year stint. Kennedy’s professed love for Dan Quayle didn’t help, nor did antics such as obscenely licking a microphone during a 1994 appearance with New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Still, with her hornrimmed glasses and untamed hair, Kennedy “was a great image for women, countering the girls in lingerie in the background,” says MTV Networks president Judy McGrath. By 1997, however, Kennedy felt ready to move on, settling in Seattle with boyfriend Dave Lee, 28, a snowboard instructor, and eventually hosting a local radio show. The couple married in May 2000 and last fall relocated outside Los Angeles, where Kennedy, 28, just finished her freshman year at Santa Monica College. But she hasn’t abandoned her small-screen ambitions (she has a TV talk show in development) or her outrageousness. “I would like to see Jerry Springer face-to-face,” she says, “and say, ‘Bring it!’ ”

Julie Brown: 1986-92

HAVING SHIMMIED HER WAY INTO THE BRITISH SPOT-light as a teenager with a victory in the 1979 World Disco Championships, Julie Brown arrived at MTV seven years later ready to deliver what she calls a “wild and crazy” voice to the network. But while that image suited her well during the five years she hosted Club MTV, it was less successful the rest of the time. “She would try out for every TV pilot,” says fellow VJ Adam Curry, “but at the end of the day, she was known for showing her butt.” That association still burns Brown, now 41, who says, “The perception of me swinging from chandeliers is completely wrong.” After leaving the network in 1992 (“I didn’t want to do the daily thing anymore,” she says), the woman nicknamed “Downtown”—the result of a half-court basket she sank during a Detroit Pistons basketball game—posed for Playboy and held a series of high-profile TV gigs, including a two-year stint hosting The Gossip Show on the E! cable network. But since meeting husband Martin Schuermann, 36, an investment banker, last year (the two wed in April and now live in Marina del Rey, Calif.), she has focused on a different pursuit: raising Schuermann’s daughter, Gianna, 7. Says Brown: “I’m Julie Mom now.

Adam Curry: 1987-94

HAVING ALREADY HOSTED HIS OWN MUSIC PROGRAM in Europe before coming to MTV, Adam Curry “was probably the first VJ we hired who had VJ experience,” says former director of on-air talent Steve Leeds. Hosting Headbanger’s Ball, Curry, a native of Washington, D.C., became known as “the hair guy,” he says, thanks to his blow-dried blond mane. “It was quite a job to keep it nice,” says Curry’s wife, entrepreneur Patricia Paay, whom he married in 1988. “You had to trim it and wash it and bleach it.” Also challenging was trying to live a rock-star lifestyle on $175,000 a year. “As someone well-known, I couldn’t fly coach,” says Curry, now 36. “I spent all of my salary upgrading.” His money woes are history. After leaving MTV in 1994, Curry cut his hair and founded an Internet consulting firm that helped companies like Reebok and Chrysler build Web sites. Two years ago, he sold his brainchild and became a multimillionaire. Now living in Amsterdam (where he was raised from age 7), Curry shares a 10-room house with Paay, 51, and their daughter Christina, 10, and is working on several new ventures, including a commuter helicopter business. “Life has never been this busy,” he says, “or this exciting.”

Tabitha Soren: 1991-99

TABITHA SOREN ARRIVED AT MTV IN 1991 AS A “ROCK chick” who “did our first-ever interview with Axl Rose,” recalls Dave Sirulnick, now the network’s senior vice president for news and production. Viewers, however, are more likely to remember Soren, now 33, for the grillings she gave politicians on Choose or Lose during the 1992 and ’96 presidential elections. Whether asking Bob Dole if he had any gay friends or Bill Clinton who his favorite Beatle was (answer: Paul), Soren’s edgy coverage—for which she won a prestigious Peabody Award in 1992—forced the Washington establishment to take youth voters seriously and turned her into a mainstream media star with a guest-reporting stint on the Today show and a nationally syndicated column for The New York Times. But in 1999 Soren, her husband, nonfiction writer Michael Lewis, and their daughter Quinn Tallulah, now 2, moved to Paris so that Soren could focus on motherhood. “I wanted to spend Quinn’s first couple of years with her,” she says. Recently resettled in Berkeley, Calif., where she and Lewis, 40, own a three-bedroom house, Soren says she’ll “probably go back to reporting in the way that I used to.” With one difference: “In New York it was about money and working as hard as you could. That’s not my mind-set anymore.”

Related Articles