For decades, no matter who you were, or how old you were, everyone in Chicago nightlife knew Jojo Baby.
A hairdresser, they were the mastermind behind Dennis Rodman’s psychedelic hairdos. A quasi-celebrity in the Chicago club scene, they designed outlandish, phantasmagorical nightclub looks that made them a draw.
An artist in their own right, they were an early star of the drag scene as well as someone who challenged it, a model and a muse to artists like Nick Cave, Geoffrey Mac and Greer Lankton and the subject of a Clive Barker documentary.
Over the years, Jojo Baby built as eclectic of a career as you could in Chicago and came to symbolize an era of drag culture that existed well before reality TV popularized it.
Then Jojo Baby announced earlier this fall another bout with cancer, prompting a hasty career retrospective as friends and performers across Chicago began organizing events to raise money to help pay medical expenses. The events are training the spotlight back on one of Chicago’s most influential, living queer artists.
The celebrated house music DJ Lady D will headline “Cancer is a Drag” on Dec. 3 at Metro and Smartbar. On Dec. 7, drag queen and longtime friend Pottymouth will host “My Friend Jojo,” a cabaret show at Hydrate where some of Jojo’s art work will be raffled off.
Some in the drag community say Jojo’s illness shows the inconsistencies in health care for performers and artists. “(Jojo is) a perfect example of someone who’s in the medical system of Cook County,” said Mark Bazant, known in the nightlife scene as Silky Jumbo. “They don’t have the best health care, so they’re having to deal with a lot of issues, and not pretty issues.”
Jojo, who is gender fluid and uses they/them pronouns, said despite tough bouts with chemotherapy, they are still answering the call of performance.
“I do Sam Zell’s birthday and Christmas party every year,” Jojo said. “(The organizers) just said, ‘You’ve been here for 20 years. We need you to be at the party.’ So I did it.”
Channeling the beautiful and the grotesque
Even in a scene epitomized by difference, Jojo’s story is remarkable.
Now 51, the Logan Square native — whose mother coined the pet name “Jojo Baby” — recalls how their mother worked as a bunny in Chicago’s Playboy Club in the late 1950s and early ‘60s to pay for medical school. She would go on to work for the Teamsters’ health maintenance organization; her boss was Jimmy Hoffa.
Jojo’s grandmother played organ for silent movies at the Chicago Theater and their grandfather made trumpets for bandleaders Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong. But it was Jojo’s mother who taught them how to sew — claiming it was a skill that would mean they never had to depend on a woman. “I made her eat those words later,” Jojo said recently.
Elaborate costumes would become a trademark. So would the makeup to match. Jojo described, as a child, tagging along with their mother to Mary Kay parties, where they learned how to do makeup “long before somebody should.”
Jojo left home at 14 in the mid-1980s due to their father not wanting a homosexual in the house. After having wanted to become a Franciscan monk in order to “pray for everyone,” Jojo dropped out of the Archbishop Quigley Preparatory Seminary when a priest said they were too theatrical and should go into show business.
“So I listened,” said Jojo, and began working at Shelter, a club on West Fulton Street, even though they weren’t old enough to even get in.
Jojo and other club kids lived in a Lake View “shanty” that sat atop a track system that ran underground to the Music Box Theater — a relic of Prohibition, when their home was a speakeasy. Jojo says theirs was a scene that extended far beyond the well-known club kid era in New York City or drag’s celebrity performers today.
Jojo and company worked the clubs’ doors. They hosted parties. They walked runways as models and muses for designers. Said Bazant, “I don’t want to be a ‘we-did-it-first’ kind of person, but I see a lot of folks on Instagram acting like they invented drag. We were all doing it the same way back then, but we didn’t have Instagram.”
“I’m constantly absorbing everything from everywhere,” Jojo said. “I always said if you mixed Jim Henson, Clive Barker and Boy George in a blender, you’d get a Jojo.”
The AIDS crisis influenced Jojo’s style. Jojo said the response to so much death was to create looks that were louche, freaky and unsexy: “We covered ourselves in blood. We wore braces. We did lots of things that people would consider ugly.”
“I knew I could be beautiful, and some drag queens would get really upset with me, because they knew how beautiful I could be,” said Jojo. “They were like, ‘Why do you choose to look this way?’ And I was like, ‘I can be beautiful tomorrow; I want to do this today.’ It was a different art form.”
Lady D met Jojo when she was living in Lake View in the early ’90s, and the city’s punk and club scene would converge at a doughnut shop parking lot known as the Punkin’ Donuts at the corner of Clark and Belmont.
“People were interested in elevating and amplifying flamboyancy, but with characterization and also outlandishness,” she said. “Clubbing, back at that time, was about more than the DJ and a space. It was like, ‘OK, what can we do? What theme can we hop on, and what installations can we add into that to make it a more interactive or immersive experience?’ Then what else do you put on top of that?”
The art of adaptation
Nightlife is about catering to a certain kind of crowd, Jojo said, and as subcultures changed, they adapted. In 2013, they made a float in Chicago’s Pride Parade, turning it into a gigantic dress the size of a house. They hosted Queen!, the queer Sunday night weekly showcase at Smartbar, for the better part of the last decade.
Pottymouth called Jojo a member of a generation that changed drag.
“Yes, you’ll see a lot of drag queens who have been around for a long time. Yes, they’re legends,” Pottymouth said. “A lot of times I feel like older drag queens kind of fade into the past, into the mist, which I think is something that Jojo has dealt with a lot.
“The world of drag and the world of art are always rotating very quickly.”
Jojo described trying to get cast on the popular drag TV shows, such as RuPaul’s Drag Race, but never making the final cut. “I see some of the people who look to me for ideas being on their shows,” Jojo said. “And I’m not getting credit for my work.”
Prominent artists also took inspiration from Jojo and other nightlife regulars and brought them into their fold.
Jojo Baby was an apprentice to the LGBTQ artist Greer Lankton, who was known for making dolls that took on a slanted representation of real people. Her interest in bodies came from her experience as a transgender woman.
Lankton, who studied at the School of the Art Institute before achieving fame in New York’s East Village in the 1980s, taught Jojo how to make the wire and wooden skeletons that made her dolls lifelike.
“I still do the work that Greer used to do, where I make a full skeleton out of wood, wire and plastic. Then they’re wired, weighted and padded so they can stand by themselves and be poseable. Glass eyes. Porcelain, animal, human teeth. Human hair,” Jojo said.
“I put a full chakra system into their bodies, which is something Greer didn’t do, so essentially my dolls are like voodoo dolls. And then I sew them with the voodoo love oils, in the hopes that if they ever leave me, someone will love them as much as I do.”
Jojo hasn’t reached the same level of art stardom as Lankton, perhaps because they stayed in Chicago, said Richard Meyer, a Stanford University art history professor and co-author of Art and Queer Culture. But that doesn’t diminish the knowledge of the craft passed down by Lankton, who died in 1996.
“I think it’s hard to move from visibility in the club scene to visibility to be taken seriously as an artist,” Meyer said. “This may be an example that Jojo Baby has success, visibility and belovedness in certain arenas, but there’s no stable, strong bridge to the commercial gallery world.”
Jojo said people are sometimes surprised to learn their work is in museums; their art is now in collections at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Streeterville, the Illinois State Museum in Springfield and Luxembourg + Co. gallery in New York.
But Jojo said the body has always been the primary canvas.
“I love taking my view of Ivan Albright or Salvador Dalí and twisting it and making it mine,” Jojo said. “Some people never step foot in a museum, so it’s nice to show them different forms of art through yourself.”
Aaron Gettinger is a journalist based in Chicago.