Trying to Fill a Ratings Gap, Hip British Veejay Julie Brown Gives Mtv a Spunky New Sideshow
If Julie Brown's résumé can be believed, her Work Experience includes: 1) Waitress, 1977, fired for serving eggs after dropping them on the floor; 2) Sony TV assembler, 1979, fired for taking time off to enter a dance contest; 3) Dancer, 1980-81, on Top of the Pops, the BBC's equivalent of Solid Gold, 4) Veejay, 1984-86, on Music Box, British cable's little seen version of MTV With qualifications like that, she probably didn't have producers knocking her door off the hinges. Yet this week Brown begins one of the most visible and sought-after jobs in American entertainment—veejay on that great progenitor of music video, MTV.
The first new veejay in MTV's five-year history, Brown arrives at a time when the company needs a fresh face. Partly because of an overcrowded market and tired format, MTV's Neilsen ratings have been dipping; the network has decided not to renew the contracts of the two oldest of its original crew: rock savant J.J. Jackson, 34, and frizzied post-hippie Nina Blackwood, 32. In their place comes the self-described "quite boppy" Brown, a 26-year-old with contagious enthusiasm, saucy British slang and a coy way of squinching her nose to express disapproval. "She has an energy level that matches rock," says MTV president and CEO Robert Pittman, 32, who selected Brown after more than 1,000 audition tapes were screened. "She epitomizes the image that we're trying to portray."
What that image consists of, in Brown's view, is an ability to create harmony. The veejay's function, she explains, "is to say good things, to cheer people up and unite them. You can be black, white, green, purple, bald, spotty, fat, and it doesn't matter to us."
Julie learned to value such tolerance as the child of an interracial couple. For years former flight sergeant Val Brown, a Jamaican, and his British wife, Doreen, moved their seven children to Royal Air Force bases in Singapore, India, Cyprus and Britain. Living in the "small circle" of often bigoted military families, says Julie, "you learn to deal with prejudice and jealousy. And when you come out—which is a bit like coming out of jail—nothing really bothers you."
By 1979 the family was stationed in Wales. After failing at conventional jobs, Julie entered a local dance contest on a lark. Six months later she'd beaten contestants from 32 countries to become the World Disco Dance Champion. The victory gave her entrée to Top of the Pops, which in turn led to a 13-week stint as the host of Cracker-jack, a children's quiz show.
Her TV career faltered between 1982 and 1984, during a failed marriage to an American electrician. "I was so unhappy then," says Brown, who is now getting a divorce. "I've put a mental block on those years."
Brown's mood improved when she landed on Music Box (where she was eventually spotted by MTV). Another bolstering force was Christopher Davidson, 25, a model she met a year ago. The couple became engaged last month, two weeks before they left London to go hunting for an apartment in New York.
With Brown's one-year contract and a renewal option for two years, the couple seems to have at least a foothold in New York. And if determination is a factor, Brown might be an MTV fixture for even longer. Her chirpy demeanor conceals a tough, temperamental streak that earned her the childhood nickname "I Want," and her ambition is particularly strong when it comes to her career. "I get very uptight about my work," she admits. "Chris calls me spoiled, but I like to do things right. If I do them wrong, I'm not happy, and I intend to be very happy."
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