Jack E. Jett was—is—an exception to just about every rule in life.
Jack’s journey from North Texas son of a Baptist preacher to Zoolander-esque international supermodel via Japan, to Playgirl centerfold, to CBS Television talent scout, to Go-Gos / Belinda Carlisle road manager, to public access cable icon, to America’s first gay TV host alongside comedian Sandra Bernhard would be unbelievable if it weren’t true.
Jack’s death from a heart attack in 2015 at age 58 was a tragedy for queer people and lovers of video entertainment.
Recently Jack was saluted by Hollywood’s online temple of the excellent and the strange, The Museum of Home Video:
We all owe Jack a debt of gratitude for fighting for the artistic and the strange, through decades of hostility, anti-LGBT bigotry and the can’t-do attitude of square, mainstream American society that crushes the spirit and refuses to get weird.
Jack got weird—he went really really far out!—that was his aim. The resulting cultural moments, obscure though they may be at the moment, are surprisingly gentle and kind and human in retrospect. I’m not going too far out on a limb to say that everyone who knew him misses him terribly.
Follow the links in this post to immerse yourself in the Jett legacy and I promise—between the laughs and the gasps of “Oh my gosh I can’t believe he did that“—you’ll be missing him too.
From son of a Texas preacher to “Jhett,” the world’s first male supermodel
One of the reasons Jack was so fun to hang out with—and so good with artistic advice—is that he had already been to the tippy top of the entertainment world and fallen all the way down to the bottom (there’s a joke in there) long before most of us had left kindergarten.
Here’s a bio excerpt (which I believe was written by Jack) that sums up his run as the real-life Zoolander nicely:
Through a fluke meeting at The China Club in the early 1980s, Mr. Jett was offered a contract to model for Cinq Deux Un (“521”), an agency in Tokyo, Japan. Jett’s modeling career lasted for the next eight years. Then known as “Jhett,” he became one of the highest paid male models in the world in 1982, with contracts in Milan, Paris, Los Angeles, and Barcelona. Jett also appeared in Playgirl that year, in a profile about his career and life in Beverly Hills
Jack’s Playgirl spread is the Eighties-est of the ’80s. “To the max!” as they used to say.
I mean—just look at those fans, those Miami Vice colors, the palm fronds… It just screams “WEHO!” when West Hollywood was new and cool and extra gay.
And there’s Matt Dillon on the cover no less, plus some clues about Jack’s upbringing (“To the manner born…”). Check it out—click to expand each image:
Interestingly, the Go-Go’s are also featured in the very same Playgirl issue… hmm. Did Jack barter his bare booty for some coverage? Whatever—it served him well because…
Jack road managed the Go-Go’s & Belinda Carlisle at their peak
This promo bumper starring lead Go-Go, Belinda Carlisle, is from much later, but shows their goofy, intimate relationship. The contacts Jack made with Carlisle and the Go-Go’s left Jack itching to get back into the limelight.
Paradoxically, he had to return to Texas to get there.
Jack became a cable access icon who’s been copied by nearly everyone
Seriously, the careers of Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim, Eric Andre, Steve Brule—the whole freakin’ Adult Swim line-up!—owe a major debt to The Jack E. Jett Show, a Y2K cable access mainstay across the country.
That’s because Jack knew, from his early brushes with fame, that you gotta hustle (and mail out a shit ton of VHS copies of your show to TV stations) if you want to reach the big time. Fortunately, he had help:
In his journey back to Hollywood, Jack boosted the careers of a lot of Texas people in the process.
America’s first gay talkshow host with Sandra Bernhard
Jack finally made it—again—and he was bigger than ever as America’s first gay TV talkshow host on The Queer Edge with Jack E. Jett.
Sandra Bernhard co-hosted along with an insane roster of guests that included Judy Tenuta, Goddess Bunny, Butch Patrick, Omarosa Manigault, Glen Meadmore, Reichen Leimkuhl, Marissa Winokur, Keegan Michael Key, Pamela Des Barres, Kim Coles, Alan Cumming, Bobby Trendy, Dread Zepplin, Bridget the Midget, Pauley Perrette, Charo, Nicole Sullivan, Lucy Lawless, Julie Brown, Debbie Matenopoulos, Bobby Lee, Paul Vogt, Ch Chi Larue, Leisha Haily + Kate Moennig, Dot Jones, Lloyd Kaufman and Mo Collins to name a few.
And then there were the underground L.A. rockers and edgy entertainers that Jack loved so much: Creekbird, Nora Keyes, The Top Drawer, Laco$te, Michael Lucid, Bedroom Walls, Fireworks, Joanna Angel, Books On Tape (aka Todd Drootin), and DJ Swamp.
It’s too bad Jack never got the wider exposure that he deserved, but the world just wasn’t ready—the network that carried Queer Edge went out of business.
Today we celebrate Jack E. Jett’s legacy and learn from his example: Do your thing—and make it weird. And queer!