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Say What?

Everybody's favorite video jock these days is Holy Cross' own Dave Holmes '94

By Ryan Flinn ’00

Dave Holmes ’94Being 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 Night 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 very weird." 

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 go." 

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 more." 

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. 

His 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. 

He 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 his comedy.

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 world.

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 launched.

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.


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