In 1998, Dave Holmes, who like any other twenty-something then had grown up with MTV, entered its first Wanna Be a VJ contest—and famously lost to Jesse Camp, who ended up being his coworker when the network went on to hire Holmes anyway. Which is how, after a late night at his old advertising job, a car picked him up at home one morning and dropped him off at the infamous MTV beach house in Seaside Heights, where Funkmaster Flex was spinning and there was nary a shirt in sight. "It was just like, Oh, now this my life—a literal 180 degree turnaround over the course of 12 hours," Holmes recalled this week, just in time for tonight's Video Music Awards, this year hosted by Katy Perry.
Before Holmes left the network in 2002, he hosted shows ranging from Eye Spy Video to 120 Minutes to Say What? Karaoke to Total Request Live; spent a lot of time with "super media-coached" former Mouseketeers like Britney Spears; rocked a frosted tip that he'd "rather forget"; and kept a straight face while interviewing Lance Bass at his New Year's party, which Bass showed up to in "a silken I Dream of Jeannie number" that showed quite a lot of side leg.
These memories and more can be found in Holmes's book Party of One: A Memoir in 21 Songs, which came out on paperback earlier this summer, and which also dives into his relationship with music on a deeper level than just the hijinks of MTV in its bygone glory days, like the summer its crew relocated to the Bahamas, and Holmes took a jet ski to work every day to watch acts like Limp Bizkit perform. Here, Holmes, who is currently Esquire's editor-at-large, recalls VMAs past and fills us in on what else he's been up to lately with his culture diet.
What was it like behind the scenes at the VMAs back in your day?
I loved going to them for sure, but they’re definitely made for the home viewer, so they were always more fun to hang out in the lobby during. I’d go for a couple of segments and then go to the lobby bar, where the action was happening and the celebrities were actually mixing and mingling.
What exactly went down at the lobby bar? Which memories stick out?
My first one, I was in line for the restroom with Ben Folds, and I thought I was going to fall out. I was still very brand new, and I couldn’t quite believe it. I remember the after-party of the one where Blink-182 performed "All the Small Things" with all the little people—I felt so bad about that performance, for the little people involved, because I was scared people were laughing at them. But then I went to the after-party and they were all mixing with superstars. They were doing shots, and one was literally standing on a table talking to Bono, and I was like, Relax, Dave Holmes, they’re fine. Yeah... Those were really interesting times.
Do you still watch the VMAs? Do you plan to this year?
I always tune in out of curiosity and stuff, and because I’m sure I’ll have to write about something, so I’d like to know what’s going on, but it’s not for me—and it’s emphatically not made for me, so that’s okay. You know, between that and Game of Thrones, you have to make a decision, and this year especially, it’s a tough choice. But Lorde is performing, and I’m a huge fan of hers, and Kendrick Lamar is performing, which will be incredible. But the Nicki Minaj and Miley Cyrus moment a couple years ago was when I said, Okay, I guess pop music is pro-wrestling now, and it may not be for me anymore.
Getting to what you're up to now, what’s the first thing you read in the morning?
I wish this weren’t true, but I tend to roll over and take my phone off airplane mode and open Twitter, and because I’m on the west coast the first thing I read is, like, the third wave of jokes and reactions to whatever terrible thing happened when I was asleep. Usually something will happen at 8 a.m. on the east coast, and three hours later, I wake up and have to catch up.
Also, I hate this, but especially now on Twitter, like twice a week, someone makes a comparison between me and Jesse and Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. That’s in my mentions a lot now, and I’m ready for that to pass. You know, we have talked recently—Jesse actually hit me up on Instagram, of all things—he sent me a direct message. He’s just traveling the world and taking pictures and continuing to be Jesse. [Laughs.]
What books are on your bedside table right now?
I'm reading We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas, which is an epic story about a big Irish family; and Away with Words by Joe Berkowitz, about his adventures in the world of pun competitions. I also have a galley of a book called Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies by Michael Ausiello, who's written about TV but wrote a memoir about his first relationship with a guy who ended up, I guess, dying.
What TV shows have been keeping you up at night?
If I’m gonna spend some time in the TV, it’s probably Coronation Street. I’m addicted to British soap operas—they’re fascinating. Everyone’s normal looking, everyone's poor, and when someone dies, they’re actually dead. Nobody's ever faked a death; nobody has an evil twin. I hesitate to say that it's real, because it's not, but it's realer. And I'm addicted.
What’s the last movie you saw in theaters?
Just yesterday I saw Brigsby Bear, the Kyle Mooney movie. I think he's an absolute genius, and I loved the movie. It's much heavier than I expected.
What’s the last thing you saw at the theater?
I ended up at an outdoor regional staging of Newsies, up in Sullivan, California, and it was exactly what my soul was craving. We went up there for a weekend of wine tasting and stuff, and we had tasted the wine by the time we checked into our hotel, and they said, "Oh yeah, Newsies is up the street," and we were like, "That is exactly what is about to happen." So we threw our bags down, ran up, and got the last two seats. It was meant to be; it was really something.
What’s the last piece of art you bought, or ogled?
I don’t know if this counts, but there’s this British graphic designer that makes street signs based on songs and albums, and I have these two things hanging in my office that are like British highway signs—one points to a town called "Malice," and the other says "Going Underground." So they're based on old The Jam singles, but they're British road signs.
What’s the last museum exhibition that you loved?
This goes back a few months, but in London, I saw the Björk virtual reality show. She takes you to another reality anyway, but then when you put on a helmet and you're fully immersed, it's really jarring. There’s one where you’re literally inside a flaming Björk as she sings. It was almost too intense.
What release are you most eagerly anticipating?
I'm hoping that the second season of Take My Wife will find a home, because it was on Seeso, which is now going away. It's such a funny show, but it's also really important, because there's real queer and female representation on it—and it's just funny.
What’s the last song you had on repeat?
I can't get enough of "On the Level" by Mac DeMarco—I've been listening to it all summer. The whole record is great, but that song in particular is just really beautiful.
What’s the last concert you went to?
A couple of weeks ago, I saw Matthew Sweet at the Echo in L.A. I'm a huge fan of his, but his opening act was Tommy Keene, who's been one of my favorites since I was 15—he's like this unsung hero of pop-rock music. Susanna Hoffs also made a cameo, and she's ageless and super cool. So it was one of those shows where I felt like I was surrounded by my people—everyone who showed up, I was like, Okay, we're friends.
How do you discover new music these days?
It's really hard to keep up, and I don't know how much of that is a function of age, and how much of that is just that it's coming at you from a billion different directions at all times. It used to just be the radio and MTV, and that was how you found out about things, but now there are a zillion blogs and SoundCloud and what people are tweeting about. So even when I find a new album that I'm in love with, I listen to it a few times and then something else comes in and I forget about it.
What podcasts do you listen to?
I just started one called Homophilia with Matt McConkey, who's a writer on Heathers. It's just LBGT people having fun, deep conversations. But I listen to Throwing Shade, and my friend Drew Droege's podcast Minor Revelations, where he and his guests just tell stories they've never told before.
What are your favorite social media accounts to follow?
My favorite thing is that the people I grew up worshipping are now on Twitter, so I don't have to wait for another book or TV show or movie or whatever to hear their thoughts—Merrill Markoe, Albert Brooks, and more geniuses I loved when I was a teenager are now just tweeting, which is amazing. If we get Fran Lebowitz, we'll have a full house, though I can't imagine that.
Last thing: What’s the last thing you do before you go to bed?
Oh boy. Okay, so we’re deep into American Ninja Warrior season, and that's a show I genuinely, unabashedly love. Each episode is about two or three hours long, so we sort of parcel it out, and when it's bed time, we'll pull it out. I find it soothing.
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