Dial-Up Dreams

In 1996, the internet was a brave new world, and I was a budding artist with a passion for cartooning and a deep admiration for Janet Jackson. I’d created a basic AOL website to showcase my cartoons dedicated to the music icon, little knowing that my corner of the internet would be discovered by its very inspiration.

Back then, Janet and her then-husband Rene Elizondo embraced the online community, engaging with fans in the early days of the internet, well before the era of social media. It was a unique opportunity for fans like me to connect directly with our favs.

Then, unexpectedly, Rene reached out to me. He offered to FedEx me a never-seen-before photo and presented me with a challenge that any artist would dream of—submit a concept for Janet’s upcoming album cover, ‘The Velvet Rope.’

Side-by-side view of an image of Janet Jackson and a cartoon pencil sketch of the same image.

“Damn, Disconnected.”

Excitement and nerves collided as I set out to translate the vision in my head into reality. Soon, the gap between my ambitious vision and my skill set became clear, particularly as I experimented with digital techniques I had never attempted before. 

What could possibly go wrong? (See the video below.)

Although it was intended to spark some initial feedback, the piece fell far short of the high standards I know Janet holds for her work. However, both Rene and Janet, the epitome of grace and kindness, responded with lovely, encouraging notes that could make even a potato feel like Picasso.

Even still, the reality was palpable—no one mentioned the album cover again. There would be no chance for refinement.  The opportunity, it seemed, had slipped through my fingers. I felt like I’d failed these people I deeply admired.

For the record, when you look at that iconic album cover today you know that Janet and her creative team absolutely made the right decision. No question.

Stumbling, Not Falling

Holy sh*t, I had just blown this incredible opportunity that, for a Midwest teen like me, was practically unheard of. I’ll be real, it stung at first. But then I realized I had a long road ahead of me. Drowning in my embarrassment now would only leave me at a heavy disadvantage. This stumble would be a chance to learn and improve, not a reason to feel down. It was an incredible honor just to be asked.

See, I wasn’t on the college track. Despite keeping my grades up in high school, the path to financial aid was blocked. Suddenly, I was on my own at 19, no parents in the picture, no safety net and juggling three jobs to build a life and make ends meet. Adulting hit hard, and this opportunity meant the world to me.

Janet’s initial trust in me and her graciousness in the face of my failure became a source of inspiration. I dedicated myself to learning and improving my skills so that I’d be more than ready for that next opportunity. The failed attempt at that album cover became a pivotal moment, pushing me to develop not just as an artist but as someone who can spot the nuggets of knowledge behind every challenge.

(This would come in handy again later in life, as I faced focal dystonia.)

MTV’s On Air Redemption

Despite this mortifying setback, a chance at redemption soon came knocking. MTV, in the process of creating a musical biography show featuring Janet, reached out for a series of cartoon animations. To this day, I still don’t know how they found me – mind you, Google barely existed at this point.

Feeling a deep sense of responsibility, I was determined to get this one right. I wanted the project to be great even though my part would only be on screen for a few seconds. 

Those were a few demanding weeks. After wrapping up my second-shift job, I’d come home and plunge into hours of drawing to ensure I could get the updates on a zip drive and shipped back to the producer in California first thing the following morning. Back then, email was pretty limited.

The “MTV BIOrhythm” program turned out to be a wonderful success. At the time of its debut, the program was the highest rated first season episode of any MTV show in history. It was also included in an exhibit at The Museum of Television and Radio in New York and L.A. The exhibit was co-sponsored by Entertainment Tonight as part of a salute to “Excellence on Television.” The program is now included in the permanent media archive at The Paley Center for Media.

Inspiration Nation

So, why would I share one of my most heartbreaking failures with you? Well, it’s not just about a failed attempt at a now iconic album cover; it’s also about the unexpected lessons life throws our way. These were mine:

  • Lesson one: Authenticity can be magnetic. Being true to your passions and creating from the heart can attract unexpected opportunities. 
  • Lesson two: Life’s full of curveballs. Embrace them. They’re chances to level up.
  • Lesson three: Humility. Admitting your vision needs polish? That’s a growth move.
  • Lesson four: When life swipes your tools, adapt. Creativity doesn’t wait for perfect conditions.

In the years that followed, I went on to work with renowned brands like The Beatles, Mariah Carey, Usher, Coca-Cola, and EA SPORTS. I remain hopeful to leverage all that experience to reciprocate Janet’s kindness in the future.

Life is unpredictable, creativity is messy, and growth often happens in the cracks. From the humble shadows of the internet to the national stage of MTV, every glitch and every triumph offers invaluable lessons.

Not many people have the opportunity to get an unexpected masterclass from music royalty like Janet Jackson. So I offer this story as your invitation to welcome the mess and let every setback help shape your own extraordinary tale.

#JanetJacksonAppreciationDay is every day in my home.

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