Everybody's favorite video jock these
days is Holy Cross' own Dave
By Ryan Flinn ’00
an MTV video jockey has its perks. You get flown all over
the world, to places like Cancun for spring break or Sweden
for the European Music Awards. You get invited to all the
VIP parties in New York City. You even get parodied on Saturday
Live. But there are also drawbacks to the job, like the knowledge that fame
can fade as quickly as last week's pop song. Or the loss of anonymity. Or the
occasional confrontation with the stranger who accosts you on the street about
a random comment you made the night before. Dave Holmes '94 knows all about the
ups and downs of life as an MTV VJ.
"MTV is the kind of network people watch all the time," he
says. "You'll watch a show on CBS or catch the news on CNN,
but you kind of leave MTV on. And when you're on it, you
suddenly become a part of peoples' families. You're let into
their living rooms, not just once a week, but many times
a day. Right after my first appearance on MTV people started
coming up to me and saying hello and giving me hugs. It's
MTV, now almost 20 years old, is the cable station that
revolutionized the way music was sold, promoted and listened
to. It's hard to minimize the impact that MTV has had on
American pop culture. For two decades now, the network has
been a bellwether of youth culture tastes, bringing rap to
the suburbs, launching cutting-edge film directors and creating
icons out of the likes of Beavis and Butthead and
Tom Green. And at the heart of the music channel these days
is Dave Holmes.
His colleague, Carson Daly, might make the teenyboppers
swoon, but Holmes has built up an image as everybody's best
friend. With an easygoing, laid-back manner, he has managed
to bring a level of naturalness and warmth not often seen
on the network. In a sea of mercurial glitz, Holmes has come
to seem an anchor of downhome charm. He has hosted such MTV
staples as Say What Karaoke, Total Request Live (TRL)
and Spankin' New Music.
The desire to perform
But life wasn't always so exciting for the St. Louis, Mo.,
native. Born into what he describes as a "close-knit Irish
family," he arrived at Holy Cross in 1990 as a psychology
major. In high school, he participated in a suicide hotline
program, and the experience was a turning point for him.
"I actually wanted to be a therapist, a clinical psychologist,
for a while," he says. But it was a side interest in acting
that determined his TV career. "I did a few ACT (Alternative
College Theatre) plays," he explains, "and I performed with
the comedy troupe, The Crusadists."
Holmes says performing with The Crusadists was one of the
most exciting moments in his Holy Cross experience. At the
time, he had become disillusioned with acting because he
was not enjoying it.
"Some people were taking it too seriously," he says, "and
that started to suck all the fun out of it. If you have to
make it into a textbook thing, where's the fun in that?"
But just as he was starting to sour on acting, he received
his invitation to perform with the comedy group.
"When I got my little invite to be in the group, I hit
the roof," he recalls. "That was it for me. At the time,
it was the pinnacle of my career. I remember seeing the group
during my freshman year and thinking-if I could get into
that, if they asked me to do that, I would be the happiest
guy. And so, when I finally got invited to perform with the
troupe, it was unreal. To be able to write and direct and
put together a show that makes people laugh was so great!
And it reminded me that performing is supposed to be fun.
You're supposed to get up on stage and entertain people and
have fun. That's the goal."
The other defining moment of Holmes' college career took
place during the Chaplains' Office-sponsored Spiritual Exercises
of St. Ignatius. He had heard good things about the retreat
from his friends and decided to participate.
"People had raved about the Exercises so much," he says. "It
was like a movie that everyone loved. So even if you're not
necessarily interested at the start, you end up wanting to
More than just an enjoyable time, the retreat proved to
be a pivotal moment for Holmes. "Something happened," he
says. "Something indescribable." And upon returning to Holy
Cross, Holmes' spiritual life began to blossom.
"I can't explain it to you in a simple way," he says, "because
it's all sort of complex, and it wouldn't make sense to anybody
else. But it strengthened my relationship with God, and it
strengthened my relationship with myself. Through the silence
of those five days, I started to hear my own voice more and
Even in the midst of his new hectic and high-profile life,
his faith has not subsided. "I still go to church," he says, "and
I do some volunteer work with the church. I'd like to be
even more active. The Spiritual Exercises definitely ignited
my faith. (Before that) it was never a priority. But by being
in a community like Holy Cross and getting to know the Jesuits,
I figured 'now's my time.'"
Temping & dreaming
After Holy Cross, Holmes bounced around a bit in classic
postgraduate fashion. Wanting to be an actor, but not exactly
sure how to go about it, he moved to New York City, a place
he describes as full of young dreamers. As one of those
dreamers, he found himself a day job and spent his nights
acting. He lived with three roommates in a cramped apartment
in the Upper East Side, where the amenities included mice
and a five-story walk-up.
first job was at the elite advertising firm, Saatchi & Saatchi. Holmes worked
as a media planner. But after work he spent his nights on stage at comedy clubs,
doing improv and waiting for his break.
Holmes eventually quit advertising altogether and began waiting tables and sometimes
working temporary jobs with banks, taking orders from financial analysts younger
than he. His friends from Holy Cross were finishing up law and graduate school,
starting to find their places in the world. And Holmes was barely scratching
out a living with "temp" jobs.
began to hear a lot of the same advice-that there were too many people trying
to be actors in New York City; that he was just one in a million. But he managed
to ignore the naysayers and find a way to keep performing, addicted to the feeling
he got when an audience became enthralled with
A glimmer of hope came in 1998 when MTV sponsored an open casting call for new
video jocks. Holmes woke at four in the morning to wait in a seemingly endless
line. More than 4,000 people tried out for the gig, while MTV devoted an entire
week to the contest. Holmes impressed both the producers and the home audience.
He ended up one of two finalists for the job. The other candidate was the now-infamous
Jesse Camp, a rail-thin heavy metal extrovert with spiky hair and a crackling
voice. Unfortunately, Holmes lost to Camp. He had beat out thousands of others
to come in second place-no contract, no national exposure, no golden staircase.
In an instant, after seeing his hopes rise so far, he was thrown back into the
uncertainty of the temping
At the contest wrap party, the producers offered both their sympathy and their
business cards. "Keep in touch," they told him.
And so he did. Holmes called continuously until the producers asked if he would
like to write for the network. He recalls thinking, "I can finally do something
I like during the day and perform at night-that's the perfect situation."
His various writing assignments for the network allowed him to get to know some
of the MTV staff, and he began to look for on-air openings. At the same time,
MTV was developing a new show called Eye Spy Video-a series in which bar
patrons would be shown music videos and quizzed on their content. Holmes screen-tested
for the show and won the job. The pilot was picked up and a new MTV career was
The making of a celebrity
His transition from "temp" to "celeb" was particularly memorable. Before starting
work at MTV, Holmes had missed so many days of temp work because of the auditions
that he found himself broke. The night before his first day on television,
he had to put in some extra hours at a bank in order to pay his rent.
"I had already hit my dad up for cash," he says. "So there I was, at this bank
where the walls and the carpet and the people were all gray. Everything was gray.
But the very next morning, in a span of a few hours, I went from this bank to
the MTV beach house on Sea Side Heights, where everyone's in bathing suits and
there's a DJ, and interns are running to get me coffee."
Did he ever think about quitting, about giving up on his dreams and getting
a "real job"?
"Temping was not my career," he says. "Just the thought that one of these days
the work was going to pay off kept me going. You have to know that, otherwise
you'll die. You'll truly die."
Since his debut, Holmes has hosted a number of series, seasonal specials and
award shows. These days he finds himself something of a "utility player," stepping
in-sometimes quickly-whenever and wherever he's needed.
But spontaneity comes with the job. It's the nature of the medium and a trademark
of MTV itself. Holmes never knows when he'll be given a moment's notice to
pack his bags and fly to an assignment anywhere in the world. And he never
knows what kind of characters he'll come into contact with--like the woman
who wants to be a professional wrestler and insists that Holmes act as her
manager. "She sent me all this information," he explains. "She told me what
her signature move will be, what she's going to wear, all that stuff."
It's an example of one of the biggest problems facing a television celebrity:
people tend to think of him as "a character that exists entirely in the box
that sits in their living rooms." When reality rubs up against fantasy, "people
don't know what to do-especially teenagers."
Sometimes Holmes finds himself without words. Because he does not play a character
on MTV, viewers get to know his personality and his sense of humor. Which means
fans approach him as if they were his old friends. "People will come up to
you," he says, "and continue a conversation that they were having with their
TV set, a conversation that you were not really involved in at all."
Which is one reason he's looking forward to his post-MTV career.
"I want to do some sort of long-running show," he says. "I want to have the experience
of being a character for an extended period of time. And I want to work with
people on writing something for stage or television. Actually, I'd love to be
on Saturday Night Live or to host it."
Holmes also would like to work with a couple of fellow alums, Brian Gunn '92
and Mark Gunn '93. The cousins are the creators, writers and producers of MTV's
first sitcom, 2gether.
But whatever the future might hold, Dave Holmes has a clear perspective on
the realities of show business. "It's difficult to plan for any longevity in
this type of field," he says. "Tastes are fickle, and these things change quickly.
Even if you make all the right choices, it still might not work out. So you
have to do what you're interested in. You have to do what makes you happy."
Ryan Flinn is a free-lance writer from Greenwich, Conn.