Ever since he came in second place in MTV’s inaugural search for a new VJ, Dave Holmes has become the embodiment of millennial pop culture world forever associated with MTV’s final era of music videos. For a time he served as the “Joan Rivers of TRL,” often co-hosting from inside the mass of teens that crowded Times Square before turning back to sketch comedy and even acting in a few Reno 911 episodes.
Now, Holmes is a writer—often covering the nostalgic look back on the late-‘90s for Vulture and Esquire—and host of Ovation TV’s American Canvas, an artistic and cultural travel series that travels across America. The show’s first three parts toured Austin, Miami, and San Francisco. And the show will explore Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Portland, Ore. when the series returns with new episodes this fall.
Holmes took time between filming an episode of Gay of Thrones and turning a Sizzler industrial film into an Internet sensation to answer our questions about everything from coming out to us back in 2002 and what pop culture moment mattered most to him as a kid.
Out: What point of view does this travel series offer that others don’t?
Dave Holmes: What we wanted to do—and what we want to do going forward—is get off the beaten path and talk to people that have a different perspective. We wanted to visit each city and learn about it through the lens of their artists. We show up in a town and we talk to not only original artists—sculptors and dancers, and that sort of thing—but also cooks, athletes, and roller derby teams. We talk to the people that are doing interesting things.
Did your perspective of any of the three cities change after exploring them on the show?
I got to talk to this woman who had just written her first novel. She’s an illustrator and she wrote a piece of historical fiction—a murder mystery set in the gay and lesbian scene in San Francisco in the 1950s. I had heard about San Francisco’s history, but I hadn’t really ever talked to anybody that went that in-depth for their research. So this was one of those things where I could have talked to her for hours. You hear people talk about the hanky code and friends of Dorothy—these were the only ways gay and lesbian people could recognize with each other. There was this whole other visual language that people had to use to find each other. And there were actual consequences if you got caught somewhere. These are all things you read about, hear about, but it was nice to have an actual conversation with somebody who made it a job to research it.
You learned how to two-step during the show’s visit to Austin. Are you much of a country music fan?
I am one of those people where my favorite types of music changes like every 48 hours so I don’t mind country music. I came of age during the Garth Brooks and mainstreaming of country music, which was never really my thing. But down in Austin there’s good, soulful music—I enjoyed it. Country music is not my number one choice and I’m certainly not much of a dancer, but it was still a good experience.
You came out as a gay man to Out magazine back in 2002 and recently said in another interview that it was difficult to come out because the gay press didn’t care. Why do you think it was so difficult at the time?
I was always out, but no one ever really asked me questions. I don’t think I was not interesting to the gay press, I don’t think I was interesting to the press in general. I was just a dorky, fat guy on TV interviewing bands. Who cares? And it’s weird to think we lived through a time—and it wasn’t that long ago—where we didn’t have social media, we didn’t have blogs, and we didn’t have Twitter. I brought boyfriends to things, I made comments on the air, but no one picked up on it.
My advice to anyone who is in the closet and people are trying to find the truth about them: gain 30 pounds. No one will give a shit about your sexuality.
You came out after your MTV days. Were you ever worried about it affecting your relationship with the network as an on-air persona?
Oh no. Everyone was always really supportive. I remember we wanted to do a Coming Out Day special. We started to develop it and then priorities change, executives change, and things get lost in the shuffle. No one ever wanted to keep me in or anything like that. It was a pretty affirming place. You needed someone to amplify your voice and I didn’t have anyone to help me do that back then.
You were part of this last generation of MTV VJ. Was it hard to figure out what to do next?
It’s weird—I had been there about four years and you could feel the ground shifting underneath you sometimes. You see other people coming in and I was still under contract, but I was less and less busy and I thought, OK it’s definitely time to start making plans for the next step.
There are a couple of different ways you can go from a job like that. Some people try to be a celebrity, try to get their picture taken, and appear in US Weekly—and that didn’t feel like the right move for me. Beforehand, I had a job in advertising and I was doing sketch comedy and improv at night so I thought, I’m going to relocate and get back to that.
Did you ever imagine you would be hosting a travel series on TV?
Oh, no. Never. Never. Never. But it’s going exactly the way I want it to.
In the digital world, you’ve become this voice of pop culture and nostalgia, writing different columns and essays about TV and music. Was this something you always wanted to do?
I had a Tumblr and I liked to write and thought this would be the place for when I’ve got something to say about something and just put it out there. That ended up leading to paying work at Vulture where I got to write about X-Factor, American Idol, and all that weird stuff.
When I started, it was kind of a nostalgic look back at pop culture and then I slowly—my ultimate goal is to write a memoir—put little bits and pieces of stories in these columns and see if A) my editor takes them out and B) see if anyone likes them. And they ended up being the parts of the column that got the best response… So now I’m a contributor for Esquire, and they let me write about whatever I feel like writing about and that has led to doing a memoir — and that’s do in five weeks!
Since you’re a man of nostalgia, what’s one pop culture moment that influenced you most as a gay kid growing up?
I was talking about this recently—I did Gay of Thrones for Funny or Die—and we got to talking—and a little of bit made it into the final of piece—but in Game of Thrones there so much explicit sex and explicit gay sex and I cannot imagine being a 14-year-old and seeing it. Maybe this whole thing isn’t as taboo anymore and 14-year-old kids see and are turned but it isn’t as world-rocking.
I remember there would be TV movies about a kid coming out and how it affected his family or there was movie with Julie Andrews and Ann Margaret as mothers of a gay couple—these were not sexy shows. They were not supposed to be gay affirming, but the idea of a piece of entertainment with an actor playing a gay person blew my mind.
Making Love with Harry Hamlin and Kate Jackson—that was a terrible movie about a guy who leaves his wife for another man. And sometimes it would be on at 10 o’clock on channel 11, and I would sneak downstairs and watch it with the volume turned all the way down. That was the most we had—an occasional TV movie with a gay character—and that was enough.
I also remember there was a scene in Less Than Zero where it was suggested that main character has slept with a boy. Something happens at night and it picks up in the morning, and you’re led to believe they had sex together. I read that passage over and over because it was proof that gay people existed.
Final question: What’s your spirit animal?
My spirit animal? My actual dog is staring up at me right and it feels we’re fully united as dog and owner can be. If I even think about walking him he’ll come in the room and give me the look—it’s a very strange thing, but that’s too easy of an answer. I feel like my spirit animal is Anthony Michael Hall in Sixteen Candles—a little over-eager, a little bit dumb, but not 100-percent pulled together but trying his hardest.
Watch Dave Holmes check out the Hope Outdoor Gallery graffiti wall in Austin below: