JoJo Baby
JoJo Baby Credit: Andrea Bauer

JoJo Baby had three heroes in this world. He’d met Boy George, but he’d missed the chance to talk to Muppets creator Jim Henson before he died. So when the last of the trio, Clive Barker, came to town in 2008, JoJo was going to do whatever it took.

He made three attempts to win an audience with the phantasmagoric writer, artist, and filmmaker. At a show of Barker paintings at the Packer Schopf Gallery, he says, “I spent some of my rent money and bought one of his pieces, so I could shake his hand and pour my heart out to him. But the friend I went with was sick and I had to leave.”

Then JoJo and his performing partner Sal-E dressed as demonic Cenobites from Barker’s Hellraiser for a 20th-anniversary screening at the Music Box, with Barker in attendance. But he still couldn’t score any face time.

Finally, JoJo made Barker something to wear. “I thought it was the closest I was going to get to his body,” he says. Onto a T-shirt JoJo sewed Indonesian patches with pictures of jaguars, similar to patches he’d seen on Barker’s pants. Why jaguars? “It’s said to be the only animal who can walk through hell and survive, and I thought that would be fitting for him.”

JoJo took the shirt to Packer Schopf for a Barker book signing and was finally able to make contact. Barker not only accepted the gift—he paid a visit to JoJo’s Closet, the gallery in Wicker Park’s Flat Iron Building that’s choked with JoJo’s plaster-cast erections, his hundreds of antique dolls, and dozens of his “children”—the fantastic but eerily verisimilar dolls he constructs from salvaged materials.

Barker was so taken with JoJo and his work that he commissioned a documentary on him. The movie, JoJo Baby, gets its world premiere Saturday as part of the 29th annual Reeling: Chicago Lesbian and Gay International Film Festival.

“JoJo struck me from the beginning as being an absolute one-of-a-kind creator,” says Barker. “I have been, from my childhood, a fanatic where puppetry was concerned—and still love puppets. To see this man who had held on to his passion for puppets, dolls, art, and the private sexual theater of his imagination was to me mind-blowingly wonderful. I had some friends who were equally as passionate about enlightening the world to JoJo and his art, and along with a meager budget which I provided, we set out to make this movie, which I am incredibly proud of.”

For 17 years JoJo Baby—born Joseph Arguellas 39 years ago—has been the unmistakable host of the Monday-night dance party Boom Boom Room, drawing double takes done up as a geisha, a French courtier, a fur-covered forest spirit, and in many other less categorizable guises. He grew up in Logan Square with three younger brothers, their Greek immigrant father, and their Lakota Indian mother, who was a Bunny at the Chicago Playboy Club in the 60s. JoJo remembers watching her “put on makeup and go from plain Jane to super vixen.”

Attracted to the priesthood as an adolescent, JoJo did one year at Quigley Preparatory Seminary but then dropped out, having been advised, he says, that he was “too theatrical” for the school. That was it for his academic education. Precocious and looking older than his years, by age 14 he was enrolled in beauty school and frequenting house-music clubs. When a bartender at Kaboom in the West Loop suggested he capitalize on his resemblance to Divine, he worked out an impersonation for Halloween. “I felt like through Divine, I got to become myself,” JoJo says.

Barry Paddor was impressed enough to offer JoJo $50 a night to perform at his legendary River West club, Shelter. “Some people consider me one of the original Chicago club kids,” JoJo says. “People would say we were like gods. We’d come into a room and bring everyone together.”

Discovering his sexuality, JoJo felt increasingly estranged from his father and two of his three brothers. Supporting himself as a hairstylist, he got an apartment in Lakeview with Jeff-Free, Cookie Dough, and Trixie Thunderpussy—fellow underage club kids he now performed with at Shelter, Berlin, and Foxy’s. “We bounced off one another,” JoJo says. Cookie Dough, whose mother cosigned their apartment lease, “would think it would be fun to look like a smacked-out cheerleader. Trixie would be dressed as Mother Nature. Jeff had a pair of underwear with a dick attached.”

JoJo began going out in three-foot platform shoes, elaborate face paint, and costumes notable for the homemade puppets attached to them. Operated by a puppeteer, the snakes on his Medusa headdress would sing backup for him. Around this time he also began performing with a stilt walker, Silky Jumbo, in a duo they called Super Luber Goo. The two would go on to host Boom Boom Room together at Red Dog, across North Avenue from the Flat Iron. (It’s now at Green Dolphin Street, and his cohost is Sal-E, Silky Jumbo having tired of the nightlife.)

A friend introduced JoJo to Greer Lankton, the transgendered doll maker who feathered Big Bird for the 1985 Sesame Street movie, Follow That Bird. Lankton, a star of New York’s East Village scene who’d moved back to Chicago to clean up, invited JoJo to her apartment to learn how to make armature, or skeletal frameworks, for his dolls. “Ten years later, I was still there making dolls with her,” JoJo says.

By the time Lankton died of a cocaine overdose in 1996, JoJo’s dolls had developed their singular style: jointed skeletons, foam rubber muscles, multiple layers of cotton-Lycra-blend “skin,” crystal hearts doused with “voodoo love oil,” a “full chakra system,” often outsize genitalia, and teeth and hair from humans, coyote, sheep, and goats.

Ten years ago, JoJo opened JoJo’s Closet in the actual broom closet of No Hope No Fear Tattoo in the Flat Iron, paying $50 a month. Later he moved into a larger space on the building’s high-visibility corner, above what was then the Swank Frank hot dog stand. “My shower was dripping onto Swank Frank’s grill,” JoJo says. “I told them their burgers were being grilled in the essence of JoJo.” (The space now houses a Bank of America.)

In 2005, after a series of complications from a brown recluse bite—which he describes in anguished detail in the documentary—JoJo’s mother died. In her honor he legally changed his name to his stage name, JoJo Baby, which was her pet name for him when he was a child.

Later that year, one of JoJo’s testicles swelled to the size of a grapefruit. He got it checked out and was diagnosed with testicular cancer and HIV. “I really thought I was a goner,” he says. He underwent surgery and radiation therapy for the cancer, and then started a regimen of HIV drugs. In the film, his snakeskin-print spandex-clad hands shake as he mixes his cocktail of medications in a gold-rimmed teacup. The shaking is a side effect of the AZT in the cocktail, which he says “tastes like plastic.”

JoJo’s health is relatively stable now. But, he says, “a common cold could still knock me out, which is why I trap myself in my box with my dogs”—a pair of three-legged rescue Chihuahuas named Sir Leftalot and Venus de Milo. But he still hosts Boom Boom Room in full regalia. And to work through the trauma of his mother’s death and his own illness, in 2006 he started two years of classes at iO. “I felt the power of comedy would help me heal myself, and it did,” he says. “I didn’t let on to everybody else what I was going through.” JoJo’s cosmetology license expired while he was recovering from surgery. Now his primary income is a monthly disability check. He’s always working on dolls and commissioned costumes, but more often than not he winds up bartering them or giving them away as gifts.

On meeting JoJo in 2008 and deciding he deserved a documentary, Clive Barker invited Mark Danforth, an intern at his Los Angeles production company, Seraphim Films, to direct. Danforth asked his aunt, reality TV producer Dana Buning, to partner with him on the project.

Danforth and Buning spent two weeks with JoJo, and JoJo Baby follows him as he builds a seven-foot Marilyn Monroe doll, gets tattooed, and dresses up for Boom Boom Room.

“I’m more confident when I’m dressed up,” JoJo tells them. “Being filmed without makeup is driving me crazy. I think I could be better when I’m dressed up and people would like me more. I feel like I have more energy when I’m in full makeup, and I have more control.”

JoJo’s had brushes with celebrity over the years, and not just Boy George and Clive Barker. During the Bulls’ dynasty years, he did Dennis Rodman’s notorious leopard-spot and camouflage dye jobs. He appeared on multiple episodes of Jenny Jones. He had an uncredited bit part in Party Monster, the 2003 biopic starring Macaulay Culkin as homicidal New York club kid Michael Alig.

But none of it was enough to change a life lived on the margins. In October, JoJo’s rent at the Flat Iron rose from $850 to $1,500. He was already spending most of his disability check on rent, so he felt he had no choice but to move upstairs to a smaller, less prominent space for $950. “People think I’m gone from the building,” he laments. “I’d like to have a place that was mine, or that other artists could be in, and not raise everyone’s rent every six months.”

JoJo hopes the documentary will help. “I hope my community will think I’ve given them enough that they can give me a house, somewhere people can come and see my artwork growing in on itself, and when I’m gone it’s left to the public to enjoy.”

So he’s out to make as big a splash as he can for the movie. “The premiere is a lot to deal with,” he says. “I’ve never had one before.” He’s installed his ten-foot Silky Jumbo doll in a spider web on the ceiling of Berlin, which is hosting the afterparty.

So what to wear? “I want it to come to me in a dream,” he says. “In one dream the car door opens up and there are mannequins tied to me as I step on the red carpet. They’re about to close the door, and I turn to the driver and say, ‘It’s still coming.'”