Jem’s Samantha Newark Is Still Truly Outrageous
By Jase Peeples
Originally published: The Advocate 10/6/14
Samantha Newark realized Jem and the Holograms had become LGBT icons the day she heard her own voice when watching a video of the Toronto Pride Parade about a decade ago.
“I sat there watching thousands of people cheer as this float came down the street with these nine-foot-tall drag queens dressed as Jem and the Holograms and I could hear my voice being pumped out of the sound system to all of Toronto Gay Pride,” she says. “That’s when I knew, because the minute you see a drag queen performing as someone, they’ve arrived. I think it’s the highest form of flattery there is.”
She cocks her head to the side as her long pink locks — a nod to the animated pop princess she once voiced — fan out over her left shoulder and a sweet smile spreads across her face before she adds, “I remember thinking, Why am I not on that float speaking those lines for everyone? That would’ve been so much fun.”
Exactly 29 years ago today, Jem first rocked television sets across the country. The show followed the adventures of record company owner Jerrica Benton (voiced by Newark) who is secretly the glamorous rock star Jem thanks to a hologram-projecting supercomputer named Synergy.
Arriving at the dawn of the MTV generation in 1985, the animated series was like no other before, full of unforgettable music, fabulous fashion, and plenty of action. Jem and her band, the Holograms, juggled an outrageous music career, ran Starlight House — a foster home for girls — and still managed to foil every mischievous plot of their rival band, the Misfits, by the end of each episode.
Jem was a ratings smash, quickly rising to become the top-rated syndicated cartoon series by the end of November 1986, according to Nielsen. A year later, it was still the third most-watched children’s program in syndication. However, despite the show’s high ratings, the declining sales of the doll line on which the cartoon was based caused toy company Hasbro to pull the plug on Jem, airing the final 12 episodes in 1988. Still, its empowering themes left a lasting impression on a generation of young people, including many LGBT youth, long after Jem was forced to exit stage left.
“I’ve heard from many gay fans over the years who have told me how much the show meant to them and still means to them,” says Newark. “I think it’s Jem’s message of kindness and acceptance that really resonated with them at time when not a lot of shows had that spirit. Jem was always about just being who you are and celebrating that. That character fostered the idea that it was OK to just bring your good self and hang out.”
However, Newark — who was only 19 years old when she landed the role — was unaware of the impact the animated series was having on those who were watching it. “I didn’t realize the gravity of it, not when I was doing the show,” she says. “I was so busy with working, moving into my own apartment, having my independence, and doing what I loved that it didn’t register that my voice was going out to millions of kids and this material by these amazing writers — and all the other voice actors and everyone who worked to create the magic of Jem, not just me — was making a difference in the lives of young people. It wasn’t until years later that I’d realized what an impact it had.”
Nevertheless, Newark never dreamed she’d be best known for her voice-over work nearly 30 years later. The London-born performer had begun her professional music career at the age of 7 when she signed with Nitty Gritty records, and she performed in numerous musicals shortly after she turned 10. She was a featured guest vocalist for the Los Angeles Pops orchestra by the age of 14 and won the Los Angeles vocal competition at 17. So when the opportunity to play a rock star in an animated musical series came her way, Newark jumped at the chance. It was only later that she learned the musical numbers in the show sung by her character would be performed by another singer, Britta Phillips.
“It’s surreal sometimes to be known for Jem and not be known for the singing, because that’s what I always did,” she says. “It just goes to show you never know where your life is going to end up and you never know where your good is going to come from.”
Her bright blue eyes widen and warm sincerity is evident in her voice as she continues, “I’ve never had anything but the highest respect for Britta, though. She’s an amazingly talented singer and I feel very lucky to have stepped into something that exploded into pop culture. It’s crazy but so wonderful.”
After the curtain closed on the Jem animated series, Newark continued to pursue a career in music. She cowrote and performed vocals on the dance track “Deeper” for the German EDM group Fragma, contributed vocals to numerous video game and movie soundtracks, including Some Girl starring Juliette Lewis, and released her self-titled debut album in 2008. Since then, several of the songs on that album have appeared in TV shows, including: Ellen, Gossip Girl, Smallville, and America’s Next Top Model.
“It’s always fun because some of the songs I’ve recorded went into a music library and I never know what shows they’re going to end up on,” she says. “It’s only after I get an email from a fan asking if that was one of my songs on a TV show they saw that I’ll know it was used.”
In recent years, Jem has enjoyed a new resurgence in popularity. Hasbro’s cable network, the Hub, began airing classic episodes, and the complete series was released on DVD for the first time in 2011, the same year Newark released her electro-influenced sophomore album, Somethin’ Good.
“Jem fans are one of the biggest reasons I get to keep doing what I love. They buy my music, they come to shows and support me when I perform, and they’re always encouraging me to do more,” Newark says, noting she cherishes the moments when she gets to interact with fans face-to-face at pop culture conventions like Jemcon.
When news broke earlier this year that a live action reimagining of Jem helmed by G.I. Joe Retaliation director Jon M. Chu was headed to the big screen, no one was less surprised than Newark. “I knew it was only a matter of time before someone got wise and figured out how to make a Jem movie happen, because I’ve been in the mix, meeting the fans for several years at conventions now, and I know how much that show has meant to so many people,” she says.
But what happened next left Newark in a sweet state of shock.
“One day I opened up my Twitter inbox and there was this private message from Jon Chu telling me what a big fan of Jem he is, how they’d like to write a part for me, and asking if I’d like to be in the movie,” she says, giggling with excitement. “So of course I said, ‘Yes, I’d be honored.’”
Soon Newark found herself on the set of Jem with Juliette Lewis — who had been tapped to play the film’s villain Erica Raymond — and experiencing a full-circle moment. “I don’t think it really hit me until I arrived to shoot my scene and I saw the actors’ trailers in the parking lot with the names of the characters on them: Jem, Aja, Shana, Kimber. I just stopped and thought, Oh, my God, this is really happening,” she says, placing a hand in the center of her chest. “It was an incredible experience.”
Though fans will have to wait until 2016 to see the new Jem and the Holograms hit the screen, Newark says she hopes to have her third album completed before the film is released.
“I’ve got a bunch of new material for a new album that’s pop-, rock-, and electronic-influenced and I’m working with the wonderful producer Dave Polich,” she says. “The album isn’t complete yet, but it’s coming together and I hope to have it done by sometime early next year.”
As for watching a new actor (Nashville’s Aubrey Peeples) step into the role she helped make a pop culture icon, Newark says she isn’t bothered one bit. “Aubrey is so talented, sweet, and a wonderful choice to play Jem for a new generation,” she says. “I’m thrilled we’re getting the opportunity to pass the torch like this, and I’m thankful to still be working on music of my own.”
Clearly, Newark won’t be saying “show’s over, Synergy” anytime soon.