One of the sunniest faces in 1990s NYC nightlife was that of glittery drag star Jem Jender, a trained ballerino who went from performing with the drag parody troupe Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo to gogo dancing at parties thrown by Susanne Bartsch to dancing at the Roxy, the roller-rink-turned-disco where gays swarmed for euphoric times every Saturday night. I just talked to Jem — male name, James O'Connor Taylor — for a pas de deux down memory lane
Hello, Jem. Let's start at the beginning. Are you from North Carolina?
I'm from New England, but I went to North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem (I studied classical ballet); then I came to the School of American Ballet on a scholarship. And that was my ticket to New York City.
How did you get into drag?
I danced with several companies in the U.S. and had an apprenticeship with the Joffrey and needed a regular paycheck, so I auditioned for companies in Atlanta, San Francisco, and Houston and received contracts from everybody. I didn't want to leave New York, so Ballets Trockadero wound up contacting me and I thought, "Hmm. Let me see what this is all about." They offered an amazing contract, a tour of the world, and health insurance, and I said "Yes."
Was that the first time you did drag?
Yes. All the guys in the company were helping me with my eyelashes and my wig. That was in maybe '89. I wound up becoming their prima ballerina, which is how Susanne Bartsch found me. She saw my "Dying Swan" at City Center. She talked to Mike Gonzalez, one of the Bartsch girls at the Copa, and he was in the company. She asked about me and he gave her my phone number. He said, "Would you like to work for Bartsch at the Copa?" I thought, "I've never been to a nightclub, and I don't smoke or drink. I don't know what I'd do there." I got a nice message from her: "I'd love for you to work with the girls at the Copa." The rest was history. I became part of the Bartsch world.
Is the name Jem Jender like a cartoon character?
No, it's just Jem Jender. A play on words. My grandmother with her loose teeth used to always call me Jemmy. I added Jender and I dropped the G and added the J. "This works."
How did you get your drag look together?
It evolved over the years. My makeup changed drastically. Matthu Andersen tweaked me and Danilo stepped in and rewhipped my wig. Different makeup artists would sit me down. My outfits started from Trockadero and then I locked into a wonderful designer, Oswaldo Muniz, who does everything for me. I like beaded, very corseted looks, thanks to the Susanne Bartsch school.
Did Bartsch give you any advice about performing?
"Oh, just carry on, girls. Have fun and carry on."
How did you adapt to a world that was new to you?
I was so green and a novice. I remember walking to the dressing room the first night and RuPaul, Joey Arias and Madame were all there. I was meeting all these larger-than-life nightlife personalities and thinking, "How am I gonna fit into all this? I have pointe shoes and a tutu." But it became a family and I wound up running all over the place with them and all of us were never arrested. [Laughs]
How did you end up dancing at the Roxy?
I was enjoying working with Susanne so much. She didn't really encourage us to go out and work with anyone else. We were pretty much stamped as Susanne Bartsch girls. But I knew so much was happening with [promoters] Lee Chappell and David Leigh at Roxy Saturday nights. I chatted with Lee and said, "When I'm in town and not working with the ballet company, I'd love to get on a gogo box and be an energy hostess with you and join in the magic." This was in the early '90s. I did it pretty much till it closed. There was also Lahoma, Baroness, Madame, Olympia, Angel Jack, Joey Arias as Justine, Brandy and Brenda, Constance, and Lavinia Co-op. Candis Cayne was one of the candy girls when we first started. She walked around selling cigarettes — always charming.
And did your "never had a drink" stance change after that?
Just a tad. [Laughs] I certainly enjoyed some libations and the famous Teddy that was passed around. God only knows what was in that. It was a drink — a super sized, jumbo drink that Madame or Olympia would pass around. As the night went on, they'd pass it to everybody and it had quite a kick to it. We were certainly kicking high after drinking it!
And to this day, you don't know what was in it?
Oh, Jesus. I'm better off not knowing.
Did you ever need to seek help for drinking?
Dear God, no. I was always strictly three cocktails a night. "Thank you for the drink tickets, John Blair and Lee Chappell, and for the tickets for all my friends."
Did you get any performing advice from Lee Chappell?
"Go and have fun." I'd set myself free and roll around the stage and they'd die laughing.
How much did you get paid?
I got about $250 a Saturday night, plus drink tickets. It was a very glamorous job. It was pure joy. Saturday nights at Roxy were like a trip to Disney World. It was packed with energy and everyone had survived their long week in Manhattan and came to dance and have a good time.
You were mainly stationed downstairs on the stage.
Yes, though I'd go up and spend some time with the DJ there, Andy Anderson. I loved when he'd play Pat Benatar for me, "Love Is a Battlefield."
When you gogo danced, did you ever call on your ballet expertise?
Sometimes I'd break out my pointe shoes and carry on in a tutu. With Susanne, I'd do a Dying Swan or be en pointe.
After a while, with John Blair promoting, the Roxy became filled with shirtless muscle queens.
I got to watch the transition of how the crowd changed over the years. The Chelsea boys started appearing and the look started changing, which was fine, and everything evolves over time. Early on, it was sprinkled with so many different characters — guys, girls. There wasn't a Chelsea look that was developed.
Why do you think that Chelsea look came about?
I don't know.
This was still an early time for AIDS, and I think guys were beefing up as a result. "I'm invulnerable."
Yes — and no one will think you're sick. So everyone went to extremes to become as big as they can be so everyone would think they were healthy and HIV free.
Did you find those guys hot?
Oh my god, yeah, of course. Who didn't?
Did you have a boyfriend?
Not at that time. I was just too busy. I had no time. I dated a few people, but I did not have a serious boyfriend.
You're not trans, right?
No, I'm not, and people ask all the time. Though sometimes people see me in drag and can't believe I'm a man under all that. Yes, I'm a man.
Did guys used to come on to you?
Oh God, yes, which was charming. I never went in that direction with anyone. It was just healthy flirtation and drunken stupors in middle of the night.
Did a guy ever come onto you thinking you were a woman?
It would constantly happen. And some gentlemen would become upset with me when I said, "I'm a character here. I'm flattered, however I've got some plumbing you might not be happy with." Joey, Constance and I, staggering out of Roxy in the wee hours, would go to Sally's Hideaway or Edelweiss or the Vault, and that always became rather challenging at about four in the morning. Holding Justine up with a broken water balloon titty... It's a miracle the three of us didn't wind up in jail, we were three very bad girls. They'd put me onto the street. I'd pull a garbage truck over and the three of us got into it and they drove us from Roxy to Sally's. Joey was getting very aggressive with the driver...
Did you have to blow them?
No, I was always a lady. Joey on the other hand... I'm not saying a word. He was Justine at that time. He's let go of her. She was a bad girl character. A fun girl, but a very bad girl. [Laughs]
Did you see outrageous things in the clubs?
I certainly did, and those stories will stay with myself. I'm very much like Angie Dickinson — no kissing and telling. I respect everyone's privacy. I saw their high points and low points.
Did you see messy behavior?
Of course, every Saturday. I'd call security and let them know, "somebody seems to be in a little trouble here," and they'd take care of them. Unfortunately, when that horrible stuff GHB came on the scene, that was not a very good thing and the club was really aware of it. If we saw that someone on the dance floor was in trouble, we got help and took care of that. It's sad that having a good time turned into that for some people, but it was certainly a reality.
Did you ever try GHB?
Oh God, no. I'm so Pollyanna.
How was owner Gene DiNino to you?
I loved Gene. He was like a big teddy bear dad. I'd sit in the office with him and we'd chat, on my little intermissions for the gogo box. He was a lovely, quiet man and a sweetheart. I miss Gene.
Your drag was always very upbeat.
Yeah I'm very Technicolor. Very MGM girl gone ballet.
Who were your old-style movie idols?
Ginger Rogers! Bonnie Borne-Singer was one of my amazing teachers in Chautauqua when I was a kid. Bonnie's dad, Hal Borne, played piano for all the Fred and Ginger movies. Ginger was her aunt, and became ours as ballet kids. I learned about gluing on eyelashes and lifting them up at the corner and filing them in with eyeliner from studying Ginger's makeup. She also beautifully coached me on a waltz choreographed by Jean-Pierre.
Amazing! What other classic movie stars do you admire?
I'm certainly a fan of Cyd Charisse, though she's not blond. And Vera-Ellen was a spectacular dancer — and that waist.
It couldn't have been more than a 20.
I think she got it down to 19.
Yikes. Did you feel the world was ending and we were having fun, sort of dancing on the edge of the volcano? I know I did.
Guys would jump up on the stage. Things would happen on the spur of the moment. You never knew what was going to happen.
What were you thinking, careerwise, at the time?
To focus on entertainment, writing, performing, working on film. At the end of the Roxy, I wrote a musical called Diva Diaries, The Musical, which had wonderful run.
Do you miss gogo dancing?
Oh my God, yeah. I think in 2018 I'm gonna get my groove thing on and I'm long overdue to go to one of Bartsch's events. First to attend and then we'll see what unfolds.
Do you still do ballet?
I'm in my 40s. We retire. But I'm still dancing and taking classes. I worked on the new Mae West musical called Come Up and See Me — three performances of an Equity reading at the York Theater. It was the first time I had to get onstage and sing again since I was a kid. Tony winner Debbie Gravitte played Mae West. I played Mae's drag buddy Bert Savoy, the one who taught her how to become Mae West.
Do you have a day job?
Yes, freelance. At Bloomies, Saks, and Barney's, I'm one of the spritzers. I've been doing it on and off for years. When I was working with the ballet company in France, I met the Guerlain family. They said, "When you're back in New York, if you want to learn about the industry, we'll put you to work at Bergdorf Goodman." I had time off and I would rather not collect unemployment, so I did it. It's great fun, and you get to chat with all different people, lots of tourists, and it makes people smile. I'm a people pleaser.
It sounds a little bit like gogo dancing. Any particular show biz dreams right now?
It's time to write a book and maybe a new musical — The Roxy. Who could possibly create the music and lyrics of the underbelly of the Roxy? I think John Mercurio.
Do you have a significant other today?
I do — my beau Michael. We're going on 11 years in February. I was going to see Grey Gardens on Broadway. It was pouring rain. He was standing in front of the theater. We started chatting. He asked if, after the show, I'd like to have a cocktail. I said, "Sure, why not?" So we met at Grey Gardens. We still joke about that — Big Edie and Little Edie.
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