Nearly 25 years ago, Jem and the Holograms debuted in living rooms across America and instantly captured the hearts and imaginations of countless little girls -- and gay boys. The cartoon revolved around the adventures of record company owner Jerrica Benton and her rock star alter-ego, Jem, who was created by a supercomputer named Synergy that produced incredibly realistic lifelike holograms. When Jem and her band, the Holograms, weren't busy trying to top the charts, they hand their hands full running an orphanage, the Starlight House, and competing with their arch rivals, the Misfits, who were forever trying to muck up, maim, and even murder anything or anyone who stood in the way of success.
The series, a joint collaboration between Hasbro, Marvel Comics, and Sunbow Productions -- the same team responsible for G.I. Joe and Transformers -- was originally produced to promote a line of Barbie-like dolls. Though the show only ran for three years, it has remained a favorite for some children of the '80s, who to this day watch DVDs of the cartoon, attend Jem conventions around the country, and fondly remember all of the campy glamour and glitter, fashion and fame Jem and the Holograms brought to their lives.
Out tracked down the voice of Jem, Samantha Newark, to find out what she's been up to since the show went off the air, why the show was so appealing to gay fans, and whether she thinks Jerrica's boyfriend, Rio, was a raging two-timing creep or a misunderstood, severely manipulated sweetheart.
Out: How did you get cast for the role of Jem/Jerrica Benton?
Samantha Newark: I was with an agency and the woman who was my agent left to start a smaller boutique agency and she invited me to come with her. There werent that many agents at the time doing voice-over -- it was kind of a niche-y, little group of people that did most of them. My dad always says I landed with my bum in butter, [laughs] which is quite a British expression, because it was like the second voice-over I ever read for and I booked it and I got to work with the best voice-over people in the business. It was just such an awesome start to being part of the voice-over world.
Youre British, but you grew up here?
I came to America when I was around 10 and I still talked funny -- I had my little British accent but I got rid of it pretty quickly.
Not only do you not have a British accent, but I was expecting to get on the phone with Jem/Jerrica and you dont sound anything like her. Did you manipulate your natural speaking voice in some way to do the character?
Not really. There was a slight difference between the voice of Jem and the voice of Jerrica. I think probably just because my voice has matured over the years -- I can still talk like that but I think my voice is a little lower now. I was just more animated and jovial and girlish than now.
How old were you when you first started doing the show?
I was in my teens.
What was the set up like when you were recording the voice-overs?
We were really fortunate as a cast that we recorded ensemble, which they dont do very often these days. Back then it was awesome. Lets say we had a session on a Friday, wed all go in and sit around a huge table and everybody who was in the script for that episode would underline their parts and wed do a table read together -- a rehearsal -- and wed be given storyboards. Wally [Burr], the director, would say to us, When youre saying this line, youre climbing the mountain, and wed make notes in our scripts as to what our bodies would be doing with each line. Then wed break for lunch and after that wed go into the studio and wed share microphones. They set it up so that whoever had the most dialogue would have their own microphone or theyd share with somebody who didnt have as much dialogue so there wouldnt be any issues. As you can imagine, it was really fun. We got in trouble for laughing a lot.
A lot of people dont know this, but you didnt perform the songs. That was Britta Phillips.
Right, that was Britta. When I auditioned for Jem I had already had a career as a singer since I was 7 years old and I thought Oh my gosh, this couldnt be a better fit. This is my job! And at the time they didnt have MP3s or the Internet so all the music and the production side of the music side of the show had already been cast and was already set up in New York. The voice actors were the last to be cast, so I didnt even get a shot at it. And at the time I was bummed and it would have just made sense, but Britta is great and I think she did an awesome job as Jems singing voice.
The show was aimed at young girls, but it had -- and has -- a huge gay following. Why do you think it appealed to so many gays?
It just appealed to the little kid who had a creative soul and who wanted to have a life that was outside of the box and didnt necessarily want to be a doctor, lawyer, teacher, plumber -- some kid that was artistic. So many guys, especially in the gay community, are incredibly artistic -- they want to be the choreographers and the art directors -- and so I think that it spoke to those kids in a really beautiful way. I get lots and lots of fan mail from lots of gay people who say, The show rocked! And it helped me get through a really tough childhood.
I think it had something to do with Jem having a secret identity too. Gay people can always relate to living double life -- the whole idea that theres something inside of you that youre not allowed to share --
Except with a few close people maybe, but not the rest of the world. Thats really true. I never thought of it that way.
If you had to pick one of the characters that might have been gay, who would you choose?
I dont know if I can answer that. Ill have to go back and watch some of the episodes. Who do you think?
Synergy always gave off a majorly dykey vibe --
[Laughs.] I love it.
And I just read this really tender fan fiction story where Eric Raymond [the Misfits manager] and Tech Rat [one of Raymonds henchmen] are up in a tree hiding from the Misfits and they share a sweet little kiss.
[Laughs.] Have you seen the Robot Chicken episode where Jem is standing at a urinal?
Its brilliant. So Jem isnt a sacred cow to you?
Oh God. I think if you can just find joy in it -- I mean, I laughed harder than Ive laughed in a really long time when I saw those Robot Chicken clips. I try not to take myself too seriously. Of course Jem has a really beautiful, sacred place for people a really tender place because it connects into their childhoods. But as adults, [those kind of satires] crack me up. Too good. Too clever.
I have friends who still get stoned and watch the Jem DVDs; there are Jem conventions, theres the fan fiction -- why do you think people are still so obsessed with the cartoon almost 25 years after it first aired?
I think there are really just solid lessons about -- you know, Jems motto is [puts on an earnest, girlie voice] Doing the right thing makes you a super star! Its just lessons like Be a good person, Do the right thing, Character means something in the world and should mean something in the world. I think were kind of watching the world spin out of control and all these lessons we learned as a kid make us say, But wait -- how can these business people do that? And how can the government do that? Whats going on? So I think the more we can connect to those good, real lessons we learned as kids -- I think basically everybody is deep down inside a good person and maybe they just want to connect to that pure I dont know, maybe Im over-thinking it? Theres just a sweetness and people like to revisit that.
Do you think kids today would be into Jem? It seems, to me at least, that the innocence -- maybe even navet? -- I had growing up in the 80s is missing for kids growing up now.
I really do. I think these are human lessons and theyre basic universal stories that we can all relate to. I dont think those stories ever get old, they just get retold. There are a lot of fans now that have kids of their own and they introduce me to them at these conventions. Theyre five years old and they come up to me and say, Im such a Jem fan. Im hooked! And they love it. They completely love it! And my nieces love it and my half-sister, she grew up with it. I absolutely think its still relevant. Maybe theyd make fun of the animation because everything is so sophisticated now, but other than that, I think that if they brought the show back tomorrow itd do really well.
Do you attend the Jem conventions?
I started getting invited to conventions in 2006. I feel so fortunate to get flown around the country and to get to meet the Jem fans in person. I can hardly even describe what that is like, because you feel like youve been a part of something really special. Without even realizing it, Ive made an impact in peoples lives.
Can we talk a little bit about Rio [Jerricas boyfriend]? I had the hugest crush on him as a kid. Do you think he was a total creep who was cheating on his girlfriend and had a desperate need for anger management classes or do you think he was the sweet, misunderstood boyfriend grappling with an emotionally unavailable girlfriend?
I think he was the misunderstood boyfriend. I dont think he had a malicious bone in his body. I think he was just kind a dorky and he gave his power away quite a bit -- I just thought he was sweet. Almost too sweet.
Heres my thing: Jerrica/Jem had proof that Rio was cheating on both of them, and yet, they didnt do anything about it!
They never call him out on it. There were so many storylines that we could have delved into that we just didnt get a chance to do. Last night I did a radio interview and a fan called in and said that there could have been this whole back story with Stormer [one of the Misfits] and Jem because Stormer was really a good girl but she was hanging with the bad girls. It would have been interesting to explore that more, kind of Come over from the dark side!
The other thing I noticed when I was watching old episodes was what a bunch of psychopaths the Misfits were.
[Laughs.] Oh, yeah!
Theyre either setting something or someone on fire or theyre about to run over one of the Starlight orphans with a bulldozer --
It was extreme, right? Like trying to run people off a cliff!
But all Jem does after whatever disaster is averted is kind of weakly shake her fist in the air and say, Oh, you Misfits!
[Laughs.] Its like, Oh, those girls, theyre just never going to give up. You see the extreme and yet there werent really extreme consequences. It was almost like Jem was rooting for them to be good in some way because shes so kind. And like theres enough for everybody Theres enough pie for everybody! We can all be famous! We can all do our thing! [Laughs.]
This summer there was a live action G.I. Joe film in the theaters and there have been two live action Transformer films. Would you want to see a live action Jem film on the big screen?
If they could produce it so that it had the sweetness that I think the show had, then yes. Somebody was recently talking about Miley Cyrus because Hannah Montana is really the same thing as Jem. I just hope that if they did it, theyd cast somebody who has the sweetness and the kindness -- the softness about Jem. There was a softness about her that was really appealing, because she was a gigantic pop star and yet she didnt have an attitude -- she just wanted everybody to win. She was very much a Pollyanna archetype, so if the [writers and producers] could pull that off, oh, yeah! Id love it. Little girls everywhere would be freaking out.
Is there anyone in Hollywood that youd want to see playing the role of Jem?
I dont know. Personally, selfishly, Id love it if they did some kind of awesome 3-D animated movie where all the voice actors that originally were involved could revive their rolls. I think thatd be really cool. Itd be awesome to be Jem again.
So if you got a call tomorrow and they asked you to reprise your role, youd be up for it?
Absolutely. Absolutely. I reflect on it all the time -- what a lovely opportunity I was given back then and if I could reach more people with the message and the sweetness of the show, Id be down in a heartbeat. Id love that.
You put out an album last year and youve getting songs played on MTV and different television shows.
Yeah, my record got licensed to MTV and that was actually quite recently, so its going to be in their library. I actually dont know what its been used on until I get a check from ASCAP and then it gives me the breakdown and Im like, Ooh, it was on such-and-such. I just got one the other day and one of my songs was on The Ellen DeGeneres Show! I was so excited because I love her. I have songs in the Warner telepictures library so they used one of my songs on her show. Ive been trying to find the episode but I havent been able to so far.
Where did the song Jem Boy come from?
I was working with this producer/writer in Nashville and we were originally just going to write together -- we didnt intend to do a record together -- and I was telling him about the Jem fan base. I said, There are so many fans all over the world and I would love to bridge the gap from Jem to my music world, which has always been there, because so many of them dont realize that I sing. So I was telling him about the fan base and especially the boys. Its a given that the show was for girls but there are so many boys who watch the cartoon -- gay boys, straight boys, just lots of boys. I came back to the studio a couple of nights later and he said, I should have waited for you to cowrite this but and he ran with it. He wrote Jem Boy and it was so campy, I loved it immediately.
I read that Jem was originally a 7-minute cartoon they played in between two other longer cartoons aimed at boys. The creators wanted to reach female viewers, but they wanted there to be enough action for the boys so that wouldnt change the channel.
They had great storylines. It was like a soap opera for kids with all the different characters and subplots. And there were enough car chases and all the things the boys liked to keep them watching. And the girls got all the fashion and the music videos and the girlie stuff.
And I know there were a lot of boys -- myself included -- who didnt care about the action and just wanted more of the girlie stuff.
[Laughs.] There was something for everybody.
Did working on Jem influence your music at all?
Not really. Ive always been a fan of 80s music, growing up with Madonna and Pat Benetar and all that. So in that regard, Im sure some of those songs were influenced by the artists that were out at the time but Ive just pulled from so many different kinds of music. For a long time I didnt even know where I fit as an artist because I love pop and I love singer-songwriter and I love country and electronica. I was like, Oh God, who am I? I feel like I finally figured that out and thats a nice place to finally be.
What else are you working on besides your music?
Im mostly focused on the music right now, though there is a guy in Nashville who got a hold of me and hes doing a project that seems to be along the lines of a Robot Chicken kind of parody and he wants to hire me to do some voice-over stuff. So thatll be really fun. Otherwise Im just writing songs for my next record. Im working with a couple of different writers, so Im full on with that.
Did you tour with the last album?
Im doing this independently so I dont have the big guns behind me to fund a tour, but what was really cool was that at a lot of the conventions I was invited to attend I played live. It was really fun. I got to meet the Jem fans and then they got to come to a concert. Last year when I went to JemCon in Los Angeles I was doing a concert and there were a bunch of people dressed as the Holograms and they looked so amazing so I said, I need my girls! I need my band! These girls came up on stage behind me while I was singing one of my songs off my album and I was backed up by the Holograms. It was a pretty cool moment. All I was missing was my pink hair.
Have you ever dressed up as Jem?
Not completely, but when I was in Atlanta at the convention they asked me to dress up and I didnt have the whole outfit but I had the pink wig and I had the makeup. Ive got pictures on my MySpace page. That was the closest Ive gotten. I need to work it one year, maybe for Halloween? Im not really a show off kind of person, so itd just be strange. Itd be like, Who are you? Jem? and Id be like, Yeah. I am. I really am! [Laughs.]