Ask any child of the '80s about their favorite cartoons and "Jem and The Holograms" will inevitably be at the top of their list. The show, which ran from 1985 to 1988 and featured a character named Jerrica Benton who utilized her late father's hologram technology to create a rock star alter ego named Jem, struck a chord with young girls and boys who couldn't get enough glamour and glitter in their lives.
26 years later the show has maintained a huge cult following and Jem dolls and related merchandise fetch hundreds of dollars on Internet auction sites. Though a DVD collection of the first three seasons of the cartoon was released in 2004, it soon went out of print and fans who hadn't already scooped up collection were left empty-handed.
However, on October 11 they'll get another chance to bring Jem home when "Jem and the Holograms: The Truly Outrageous Complete Series" is released by Shout! Factory. The Complete Series will include 11 DVDs with bonus material like the documentary featurettes "Showtime, Synergy! The Truly Outrageous Creation of an '80s Icon," "Glamour & Glitter," and "Jem Girls (and Boys!) Remember," as well as original commercials, and more.
To celebrate the release of the new DVD collection, we caught up with Samantha Newark, the voice of Jerrica and Jem, to chat about what she's been up to since the series wrapped, Jem as a feminist, the cartoon's gay appeal, the "Jem" parody on YouTube starring a foul-mouthed drag queen and more.
How did you end up becoming the voice of Jem?
I was with a boutique talent agency. They had a voiceover department and there weren't many agencies that had them back then. I just started going out on auditions and Jem was one of the very first things that I ever auditioned for and I booked it.
15 of our favorite Jem and the Holograms/Misfit videos (interview continues below):
Did you know what the premise of the show was when you were auditioning?
I did. I knew that she was a singer. I don't think I knew the dual identity thing but I knew that she was a rock star and I kind of freaked out. I'd been a singer my entire life and I was like "It's perfect!" I remember when I auditioned at Wally Burr's studios -- Wally Burr directed the show -- they had all of the storyboards that showed what all the characters looked like taped up on the wall. So I got a glimpse of who I was reading for. I don't know if I auditioned for anyone other than Jem and Jerrica -- I can't remember.
You were in your teens then?
I was. I was the youngest one in the cast. It was a bit intimidating but what a great way to learn.
Once you got the part and you started to find out more about what the show was really about did you think Wow, there's actually a lot of messed up stuff going on here?
[Laughs] I was shocked at how -- I don't want to say violent because "Tom and Jerry" was pretty violent if you think about it and nothing ever came of it. It was just an extreme way to teach a lesson, but there were bombs going off and car chases [in the episodes of "Jem"]. It was like "Wow!"
Right. And then you've got Synergy, this woman who lives inside of a computer, floating around in her aerobics gear and all of the trippy music videos. Looking back, I feel like whoever thought this show up must have been on a lot of acid.
[Laughs] Isn't it funny what you don't see as a child and then you get to be an adult and you think Where did all of this come from? I think [the creators] were just really creative people. I don't know what went on behind the scenes, but it's still entertaining for adults.
I don't think everyone realizes that you weren't the singing voice for Jem, you were just the speaking voice.
This was before you were able to shoot MP3s across the country, so all of the music and musicians and songwriters were already in place in New York. They found voice actors [in California] to do the speaking voices. So none of the people who sang got the chance to do any of the speaking voices and vice versa because it was all on two separate coasts. But they did an amazing job of matching us all up and hence the illusion of everyone thinking that it was the same person, but it wasn't.
The DVD box set is coming out 26 years after the first episode aired. Why do you think the show still resonates so strongly with people?
You do have to wonder why does a show like "Jem" continues to touch people when other shows that also had talented people working on them and clever writing haven't continued to hold the same connection for people. I think it's just something you can't put your finger on and something that just happens every once in a while with a show. I think "Jem" had something for everybody in it and really wholesome great messages at the same time.
Speaking of something for everyone, as a gay little boy I couldn't get enough of "Jem." It was obviously targeted towards young girls, but why do you think it held -- and holds -- such an appeal for gay men?
I don't want to stereotype, but my gay friends are all incredibly creative. They're either in fashion or choreographers or they're in the creative arts and they didn't want to be the G.I. Joe or the Transformer -- it didn't resonate with them at all. They wanted the fashion and the music that Jem offered. So I think that had a huge appeal and they hooked the little boys because it was on during the time slot between "G.I. Joe" and "Transformers" and maybe some of those little boys didn't know they were gay back then, but they knew they liked "Jem!" [laughs].
I was reading something about the show today and someone had commented that Jem was "Barbie -- but interesting." Which got me to start thinking about considering Jem from a feminist point of view. How do you feel about envisioning her as one of the first feminist Saturday morning cartoon characters?
I don't know if I can put her in a box like that. She's definitely not any kind of man hater and she celebrates her femininity and loves children and is kind of a den mother to all of these children…
Oh, I'm thinking of a more contemporary definition of feminism. I meant she has a career and she owns a record company and she is in control of her own life and is making big decisions -- she's autonomous. She's her own woman.
That's very true. I've heard people say that Jem is milquetoast and I say, "Really?" because if you watch the show and revisit the show, she doesn't put up with anything. I kind of wish that I had more of that quality in myself growing up. She really knew how to take care of herself and if she saw injustice, she would confront it. She was very strong in that way. I think people mistake kindness for weakness. People say, "Oh, but she was just so nice." Yes, but the Pollyanna archetype is incredibly powerful and transformational.
Agreed, but I do have to fault her for how she handled her relationship with [her boyfriend] Rio. Here she has irrefutable proof that the guy is two-timing her and hooking up with both of her identities, and she's more worried about how he'd feel if he found out her secret! Did the cast ever talk about how ridiculous that was?
[Laughs] She was such a young girl. She needed to keep her secret and it kept the tension in the storyline because she kept having to confront it with Rio and make excuses and he was never satisfied with the answers and he knew something was up. I think it made for good tension. I don't think any of [the actors] ever talked about it. I just remember they would make fun of me because I was so nice. The mean girls would make fun of me -- all The Misfits would be like "Oh, you're so nice" [laughs].
Have you seen the parody of "Jem" on Youtube that stars a foul-mouthed drag queen named Jiz?
Yes, I have seen Jiz! I forwarded it to a bunch of my friends.
That makes me so happy. Jem loves Jiz!
[Laughs] It's so vile and so hysterical. I don't think I've laughed that hard in a long time. I have a really good sense of humor, I think, and that made me laugh out loud. I just kept thinking Oh no he didn't! He went there! It's so disgusting that you have to laugh.
So it doesn't offend you? You can see the fun in it?
Oh, yeah. Anything that's so pure of heart [like "Jem" is] has to be offered up like a sacrificial lamb at some point! [Laughs]
And for someone to go to all the work of creating something like Jiz means that "Jem"'s cultural significance -- or at least the admiration for the show -- had to have been huge. It just reinforces how much that show meant to people.
I absolutely agree with you. There's also the "Robot Chicken" episode where Jem is urinating at the urinal. If people are offended by that then they need to lighten up. It's so funny and it's like "Jem" is expanding into all of these unusual worlds in people's heads [laughs] and it's awesome.
Tell me about your participation with the DVD box set.
Shout! Factory [the company releasing the box set] contacted me and Patricia [Albrecht], the voice of Pizzazz, and we both live in Nashville, so they wanted a film crew to come out. We actually did it the same day in the same location. So, we got together and it was such a great day. [Shout! Factory producer] Brian Ward did an amazing job -- that was a lot of footage to edit and it's awesome. I couldn't be happier.
Had you seen Patricia before that? Do you keep in touch with the cast?
I keep in touch with Patricia a lot. We became fast friends since I moved to Nashville, which is so bizarre. All of these years later we're friends in Nashville! She's just a doll. I also reunited with Louise Dorsey, who played Jetta, but she has a little baby so she's so busy. The three of us had a dinner party where we got to reconnect but I haven't seen her since because she's always flitting off to England and doing all these other things. Her dad is Engelbert Humperdinck. It's pretty cool.
I love the idea of you and Patricia walking into a gay bar and revealing who you are and what you're responsible for and the pandemonium that would ensue.
We would love that! We've talked about it. We'd love to be the global ambassadors for Hasbro and get out there and meet the fan base.
What are you up to outside of the "Jem" universe?
I've always been a singer. I've sung on Playstation games and I was a back up singer for Leonard Cohen. But people get confused because Britta [Phillips] was the singing voice of Jem and so when I say I sing they don't really get it but I just released a CD single and I have an album coming out on October 21 and it's a very fun, sexy, dance-influenced synth pop record. So I'll be promoting that and making some videos and touring.
For some people, when they've played such an iconic role, it can be hard for them to shake the association with that role later in their lives, often times much to the detriment of their career. Do you think playing Jem has been a blessing or a curse?
I would say it's been an absolute blessing. It's always kind of been this amazing underground swell that I've been experiencing over the past few years and now it's really starting to catch on again, obviously because it's back on television on The Hub and the box set is coming out and Hasbro is going to be at New York Comicon. They won't tell us what it'll be, but it's something. They're reintroducing all their retro brands, so we don't know if it's going to be dolls or what they're up to.
Will you be at the announcement?
No, I won't be in New York but I'm doing two conventions in Nashville in October. One of them is with Tiffany -- remember her? The pop singer? She's amazing. We're going to have our merch tables next to each other. It'll be an '80s extravaganza!
With Hasbro bringing back their retro lines, if you were to pick a current pop star to play Jem, who would it be?
It's hard because I guess I'm somewhat biased. The people that I've seen out there -- Lady Gaga has so much heart. I love her. She is a good girl. She is a sweet girl. She also has a very edgy side, so I don't know if that would work for Jem. I would really love for them to champion an unknown. I was an unknown and it's been so amazing for me and there are so many talented kids out there. We can launch The Search for the New Jem!
And you could host the show.
Exactly! Or if they did some kind of fabulous revisitation of the animated show, I know the original cast members would love to revisit their roles and I think the fans would love it, too.
Let's start a petition. Or we'll get Huffington Post readers to storm Hasbro.
Samantha Newark's new album, Somethin' Good, will be released on October 21. For more details, including upcoming appearances, visit her official website, SamanthaNewark.com.