June 07 2017

The Second Life of '90s Club Kid Jenny Dembrow

New York
The Queen of the Club Kids is now part of a different club.
It's the 1995 King and Queen of Manhattan Pageant at Limelight, New York City’s most outré club, and everyone's on Special K. The MC announces, "the one, the only, Jennytalia!" A young woman in a giant blonde wig and a pink dress takes the stage. She proceeds to stomp down the runway, looking both physically and mentally out of this world, then rips off the blond wig to reveal her fully shaved head. She won the pageant.

This was all captured in Party Monster, the Shockumentary, the 1998 documentary about the rise and demise of the Club Kids. Her real world name is Jenny Dembrow, and today the former Calvin Klein model and Jeremy Scott muse is in a totally different club: The Lower Eastside Girls Club. She’s the club's associate executive director. "When people hear our name, they think we’re a rec center," she says. But the Girls Club is maybe the farthest thing from a dusty basketball gym. A recent tour lead by Dembrow took upwards of an hour due to the sheer size of its 35,000-square-foot facilities.

Stills from "Party Monster, the Shockumentary."
Stills from "Party Monster, the Shockumentary."
Stills from "Party Monster, the Shockumentary."
There’s a state-of-the-art science lab, complete with high-powered microscopes and lab equipment; a fashion studio where the girls learn the fundamentals of designing and making clothes; a culinary center; art, dance, and yoga studios; a full-on music production studio complete with an Airstream trailer for podcasting. Oh, did we mention the planetarium? There's one of those, too. And that's just to name some of the classrooms. The courtyard, where girls are snacking and sunning, features neighbor Kiki Smith’s sculptures. We even pass through a social justice center. During the tour, Dembrow mentions that photographers from its sister club in Chiapas, Mexico are in town and the girls are out on a photography excursion. In other words—it's like some kind of utopian world where traditionally underserved girls are given everything they could possibly imagine, and some things they probably couldn’t. 
 
Photo by Christopher Leaman

Photo by Christopher Leaman


The club is raising the next generation of environmental, ethical, and entrepreneurial leaders by offering middle and high school-aged girls 50-plus programs to choose from per week as well as year-round programming. And it's all free. As part of its mission, the Girls Club even provides job training and opportunities to the mothers of the girls.

"It all started from a shopping cart," Dembrow says when we finally settle down to chat. A gorgeous mosaic map in the lobby shows the many locations where the club existed until it found its current home, including community rooms in the projects, schools, a basement that flooded every time it rained, in a restaurant's back bar…you name it, they met there. It wasn't until they launched a 10-year capital campaign to raise 20 million dollars ("through blood, sweat, and tears" she jokes) that they were able to build the incredible facilities they have now.
 
Though New York City has changed radically over the past decade plus, the Lower East Side is still home to some of the highest rates of poverty in the city. Within the school district, there are two-thousand homeless students, and 69% of students fall below the poverty line. The projects across the street from the club are home to many of the club's girls. By providing opportunities they’d never have otherwise, the Girls Club works to break the cycle of poverty. Walking through its halls with Dembrow, there’s a palpable joy in the air. Several girls run up to her and give her big hugs. She knows everyone's names, everyone's lives, everyone's schedules. Dembrow says, "One of the greatest joys of my work is working alongside former members and seeing them want to give back and work with the next generation."
The Standard
Photos by Christopher Leaman
Photos by Christopher Leaman
Photos by Christopher Leaman
When you hear her life story, it makes so much sense that this club found success and that Dembrow is one of the forces behind it. This is the same woman that at 15 years old became the It-girl of the Club Kids. Helmed by Michael Alig in the late 1980s and headquartered primarily at Limelight, the Club Kids were iconic figures of the NYC nightlife scene—larger than life characters with an out-of-this-world lifestyle to match. It wasn't one freak in the crowd, they were the crowd, and they were cool. Drugs and sex were a big part of it, yes, but it was about fantasy and escapism. Dembrow recounts an “Outlaw Party,” saying, "We all took over a subway car and had a party. This cavalcade of freaks took over." Their costumes were also larger-than-life, very much intended to shock and scare. Dembrow was a figure of celebrity-type status on the scene, a style icon with her pierced cheeks, no eyebrows, a shaved head, and tattoos. “I was definitely going for an alien, genderless look. Also, when you have a shaved head, it makes it really easy to paint things on it, so it’s just more canvas.”

An iconic 1993 episode of The Phil Donahue Show sums up some people's perception of the Club Kids pretty well. It opens with Donahue sounding a grave alarm: "Do you know where your kids are?" Then, a group of kids in outrageous makeup and costumes sits on the stage as Donahue goes in on them. It's so clearly a different time, with Donahue and the audience displaying open disgust at these kids. A 16-year-old Dembrow, wearing a full-body latex suit with only her eyes visible, says she’s afraid of being seen by her "Park Avenue type" parents. "I went out one night because I heard something about it," she explains to Donahue. "When my parents go to their country house, they think I'm at a friend’s, but we go out." Donahue asks, "Jenny, are you drug free?" and another Club Kid chimes in, "Yes, all her drugs are free!" All the Club Kids erupt in laughter and applause, much to Donahue’s chagrin. 


Dembrow admits that much of the story was a lie. The hiding from her parents thing was very real, but not the Park Avenue-type parents or the country house. She grew up on the Upper West Side with "two wonderful, wacky parents who had a lot of amazing artists as friends." Her mother was a part of the scene herself, living in the East Village in the late '60s. "I come from a long line of wild women, so this is not new," Dembrow laughs. Growing up, her mother lead photography courses and social work programs, in addition to working with teenage mothers in the public school system. Her father was, and continues to be, involved in avant-garde theater and the arts. Dembrow remembers walking through Tompkins Square Park’s Tent City with her mother when she was young. She remembers going to Patricia Field and seeing drag queens and the colorful downtown characters and dying to be a part of it. She says she was always a little different, wearing weird clothes, shaving her head when she was 12, and always looking for her people. She found them when she slept over at her friend's house, snuck out, and got into the VIP section of
Building. There she met Michael Alig, Pebbles, Christopher Comp, and the assorted batch of misfits. "My mind was blown," she says. "The music, the fashion, the people being uninhibited and wild and free. Everything spoke to me." 

From there she was taken under Alig’s wing, and became the scene's It-girl, hanging with her best friend Jeremy Scott, and getting paid just to breathe in a room. "That was the magical mystery of that time. You just dressed up and showed up. It wasn’t like I was a promoter. I just put a toaster on my head and walked in the door. Space kitchenette!" Throughout all this, she was a good student, graduating from high school a year early ("I just wanted to get out. I wanted total freedom."), and soon after, she moved out of her parent’s house. Eventually she did tell her parents the truth about her double life, but she didn’t get in trouble at all. In fact, they went out with her a few times and her mom jokingly called herself Mama Gina.
The Standard
The Standard
The Standard
The Standard
As the Club Kids were crowning each other the King and Queen of Manhattan, they were becoming kings and queens of New York’s underground club scene and style icons in the eyes of the mainstream. Dembrow was flown to Paris to open a Jean Paul Gaultier show. Madonna closed it. That lead to her starring solo in a Calvin Klein ad, the biggest campaign you could book that decade, which appeared in a full-page of Vogue and on the side of city buses. "My mother once joked she would like to get run over by a bus with my face on it," she laughs. After that ad, she stopped modeling, saying, "I realized my modeling career was only downhill from there."

Eventually though, as the drugs started to take over, things really did start to go downhill—not just for her, but for everyone around her. Dembrow explains, "I went on a downward spiral, but something kind of kept me from completely going into the abyss." That something is her parents, who she says are her best friends. "I did not want to devastate them, you don't want to die, although it could have happened. I made a million mistakes." The it's-not-fun-anymore feeling started sinking in for her even before the horrific murder of fellow Club Kid Andre "Angel" Melendez by Michael Alig. "I was very self-absorbed for so many years, and I just needed something else to focus on." She enrolled in NYU, and it was there that she met Lyn Pentecost, PhD, the Girls Club's founder and executive director, who was her professor in a course called "Urban Schools in Crisis." Pentecost became Dembrow's mentor, and asked if she wanted to be a part of a club she was starting for girls in the Lower East Side. There were already three full-service boy’s clubs in the neighborhood, and they wanted the same opportunity for girls. Dembrow said, "Yes, please." 
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"I went from one club to another," she says with a smile, fully aware of the odd full circle her journey has taken. Now, she pours her heart and soul into the girls’ lives, and it makes perfect sense because the Girls Club combines the passion for social justice, community outreach, culture, and lust for life that were engrained in her from an early age. The same mother that dubbed herself Mama Gina is now the Lower Eastside Girls Club's photography teacher. When asked what that's like, Dembrow says with a laugh, "Well, I'm her boss, so it works for me." She’s married with two young children, and amazingly in this age of information, the girls don't know about Jennytalia. "They just think I'm the wacky lady of the Girls Club," she laughs. Quick to crack jokes at her own expense, she adds, "Soon I'm going to have pearls in my cheek piercings like an old fancy lady." 

It’s only now, with the perspective of time and change, that she has begun to realize that the Club Kids were something extraordinary. “Now that I’m 41, I don’t think it was just youthful exuberance. I think [the Club Kid scene] was actually pretty spectacular.” She’s still in touch with many of the Club Kids who made it out of the abyss, like Walt Paper, aka Walt Cassidy, her best friend to this day and a successful artist. When looking back on those days, she says, “I look at the people from that era, and there are the ones that didn’t make it or just made some really unfortunate decisions causing them to crash and burn, and then there were those that rose above it. Whatever didn’t kill them made them wiser and more driven and they are doing some really phenomenal things.” She’s a member of that club, too. 

Photographer
Christopher Leaman
Writer
Elena Feldman