Embarking on opening a new nightlife space is never not without its bumps, but doing it during a global pandemic is the definition of a “challenge”. That is exactly what Joe Cameron did though, when he decided to launch Headroom Lounge late last year, and his gamble has paid off. Whether you are heading in early to see a drag show, or popping in later to grab a cocktail, Cameron has built it and they have come. A longtime supporter of his Jersey City community, Cameron has managed to make Headroom a safe, entertaining and thriving space to discover some amazing talent and the continuously emerging Jersey City LGBTQ community.
I sat down with this Jersey boy to talk about what brought him to nightlife, why he feels Jersey City is ready for a space like Headroom now, and what he has planned for nightlife in a post pandemic world.
Michael Cook: What made you launch Headroom in Jersey City during a pandemic.
Joe Cameron: Isn’t a pandemic the best time to open a lounge (laughs)?! I literally had multiple people tell me that I shouldn’t do it and that I was crazy. Honestly, when the opportunity came about, I didn’t want to take it. I knew how much work it would be and there was no guarantee it would work. The LGBTQ+ community has so few spaces that are by and for our community, so I felt like I needed to step up to the plate. I wanted to give our community a place where we wouldn’t just be tolerated, we would be celebrated! I also knew that this would help a lot of LGBTQ+ people and allies pay their bills. I felt a calling to step up for our community, so I did. If we don’t help each other, then who will right?
MC: What have you found to be the most rewarding parts of the experience and the most challenging?
JC: I’ll be honest, this hasn’t always been the best experience for me or anyone working at Headroom. We all feel like we’re holding on to the side of a rocket that’s taking off. We’ve been forced to optimize many of our systems faster than a business would normally have to. I’ve experienced some extremely rewarding moments since we opened on 11/28/2020. I’ve had people tell me that I’m helping to make their dreams come true. One performer told me a story about a call they had with their mother the day before their performance. They told their mother that they didn’t have to worry about paying their rent that month and their mother was so happy. A new LGBTQ artist approached me about playing their music videos in the lounge and I immediately said yes, sight unseen. They were so grateful because they were having such a hard time finding anyone that would support them. The artist was Wuhryn Dumas and I later arranged for him to headline Jersey City Pride’s upcoming fundraiser gala. Being able to provide opportunities to our community and help lift everyone up has been by far the most rewarding experience of my life.
The most challenging part definitely had to be when I was assaulted by a guest a few days before this interview. I’m sure I come across fine, but I’m not. I don’t think anyone can be 100% fine right after something like that has happened to them. I can deal with the extremely long hours, being forced to grow at a rapid speed, having to learn new things every day, and constantly having to manage big personalities. I can’t deal with people jumping on me though. There is no excuse for acting that way-it’s unacceptable.
MC: How would you describe the vibe that Headroom has and the style of the space? What has been the reaction been so far from your patrons?
JC: It’s interesting that you say “vibe” because that was something that we specifically preplanned. We made sure that we added LGBTQ+ in our name and on the door so everyone entering knew that this was our space. We don’t have to be inhibited at Headroom. We can be exactly who we are, because we can’t always be that way in other places. We love and welcome our straight allies, but we will not bend to make anyone comfortable, no pun intended. If you want to experience an extreme level of LGBTQ+ culture, come to Headroom. The reaction from our patrons has been overwhelmingly positive. Our patrons are the best people in the world, they actively support our community every time they attend. The entertainment fee paid at the door for events goes to the entertainers and entertainment coordinator, not Headroom. Every patron who attends a show has helped a local entertainer pay their bills for that month. Everyone attending our events deserve to be recognized and applauded for their support.
MC: You have had shows hosted Anida Tension, Pissi Myles and Vanity Ray during the pandemic. What has been the reception on the shows from your crowd during this time? Are you yourself a fan of drag?
JC: We’ve had the pleasure of having Olivia Lux, Anida Tension, Kimmy Sumony, Lady Keyante, Vanity Ray, Twiggy Malone, Harmonica Sunbeam, Boudoir LeFleur, Kimmi Moore, Lady Celestina, Jasmine Rice LaBeija, Stella Luna, Pissi Myles, Tina Twirler, Octavia Anyae, and Kristy Blaze host events at Headroom. The reception from the crowd is always through the roof!
Honestly, I always enjoyed drag but I didn’t have the level of appreciation that I do now. These performers bust their butts to entertain everyone. They deserve every tip they receive and more! I can now say that I am a huge fan of drag. I’m in awe of the talent and creativity every time I watch a show.
MC: Safety right now is one of the biggest factors anyone involved in nightlife is thinking about. How are you keeping patrons safe?
JC: The most common piece of feedback we receive is that patrons can feel safe and have fun at the same time. I’ve had a handful of people come up to me after shows and tell me that this was the first time they’ve done anything outside of their house in over six months. We take every precaution possible, optional ones included, to ensure the safety of our guests and I’m glad they feel that. Contact tracing, temperature checks, masks, social distancing, touch-less ordering, increased ventilation, our entertainers are Covid tested before shows, and more. The interior of Headroom will also soon be treated with Virabond, a amazing new Covid-prevention product. It continuously kills Coronavirus and other germs for weeks, while also being safe for employees and guests. This all may seem extreme, but we’re talking about the safety of our community; we all need to do everything possible.
MC: For those that have never been to Jersey City N.J., how would you describe the Jersey City drag scene and aesthetic?
JC: The drag scene can be pretty competitive. I think in Jersey City we’re all really trying to work and grow together. I tell every entertainer the same thing, “Whatever you want to do, the answer is yes. We’ll figure out the details.” There is no need to compete here; all ships can rise. The aesthetic is extreme in every way. We’ve had the pleasure of not only welcoming Jersey City performers to our stage, but performers from around the tri-state area and beyond. This has brought us a level of diversity that isn’t normally seen at a venue. According to the national diversity survey, Jersey City is the most diverse city in America. We’re striving to make our stage the most diverse stage in America.
MC: What is next for Headroom post-pandemic? Is there anything on your “dream list” that you want to bring to Headroom?
JC: I’ll let you in on a secret, we still haven’t officially had a grand opening! We’re waiting until we can fully open because that will really be when everyone sees the true vision of what Headroom will be. I’ll let everyone use their imaginations, it’s already this good and we’re just warming up. The first thing on my dream list is having a famous music artist come in for a surprise performance. Our space is rare for the tri-state area. We have a full stage, large dressing room, plenty of room for social distancing, and we were built for concerts. Everyone would lose their minds, including me!
MC: Personally, when did opening a nightclub become a passion of yours? What is your own background in the community and what led you to opening your own space?
JC: Nightlife has been a passion for me since I was a DJ in the mid-2000’s. I played at iconic places such as Coliseum, Abyss, Paradise, and Diva Lounge. I learned a lot more about the nightlife industry when I worked with E-Rock Entertainment, the #1 nightlife entertainment company in the tri-state area, from 2013-2014. I was a social marketing manager there and helped them open and advertise a lot of popular nightclubs and parties. There is no way you can be around that much talent without a little of it rubbing off. (A personal thank you and shoutout to Erol, Tommy, Kareem, and Dan)!
My background in the Jersey City community is an interesting one. I moved to Jersey City from Hackensack less than three years ago. Since that time I’ve been a partner at the Jersey City Tech Meetup (2,000+ members), member of BNI Powerhouse Jersey City’s professional networking group, worked on events with Hudson Pride Center, become a co-producer of Jersey City Pride (the second largest event in Jersey City and one of the largest Pride events in America), have done large scale social marketing trainings for non-profits with the Hudson County Chamber of Commerce, became a member of the LGBT Chamber of Commerce, and more.
MC: So I hear there was a viral moment that was a bit of a pivot that truly prepared you to open your own space?
JC: I was the marketing company behind the “What’s The Tea” Drag Brunch at Talde in 2019. I worked with the manager, Zac, to create something really special. This party was best known for the viral moment when Marti Gould Cummings sang “Baby Shark” to a toddler. The video gained more than 500,000 views in two days. Two of the other queens working that brunch, Lemon and Jan Sport, went on to do RuPaul’s Drag Race. This brunch was the first time I felt confident that I could open my own space and be successful.
The opportunity to reopen “Headroom Bar & Grill” as “Headroom LGBTQ+ Lounge” stemmed from Jersey City Pride 2020. Starting in 2021, I’m a co-producer of Jersey City Pride but in 2020 I was just assisting the producer, Eddie Baez. I pushed to have live events instead of just virtual ones and the main live event was where I was introduced to the space. I met my current business partner, who likes to stay behind the scenes, and we started discussing the concept for the space soon after. What happened after that is a much longer and crazier story.
MC: How have you stayed inspired during the past year, so much so to open a brand new business?
JC: Severe depression runs in my family so I’ve had to learn to find silver linings to keep my mind in a good place. I knew that this pandemic would bring about a lot of opportunities. I didn’t know what they would be, but I knew I had to be prepared to take advantage of one if it appeared in front of me. That’s how I was able to stay motivated. 2020 kicked my butt until the very last month-but it didn’t win!
For more on Headroom Lounge, check out their website
Follow Headroom Lounge on Instagram
Follow Joe Cameron on Instagram