Just Jo Rosenthal
As we sat with Jo inside the coffee shop, we decided to pick her brain about everything—from love and Truman Capote, to masturbation with a pickle. Read our interview, below.
Tell me about yourself.
My name is Jo Rosenthal and I’m originally from Miami, Florida. I moved to New york six years ago, to study art, art history and writing at The New School. I just stayed after working on art and fashion—and I’m having fun.
What do you think is the most unsettling film?
All movies are unsettling! But the worst movie I’ve ever seen, which I feel like is also very unsettling, is Suicide Squad. I mean, I could say a movie like Eraserhead, which isn’t necessarily scary, but it is very disturbing. But a movie that just made me think like, ‘Oh my god, this makes me sick’ was Suicide Squad. Everything, from the plot to the actors, who had absolutely no chemistry with one another—it just didn’t sit well with me.
I read the comics, so I was super pumped for the movie, but it was such a letdown. They always do that—they take the most compelling storylines and turn them into shit films.
I know. There’s this genre of movies—I think it’s called Troma—and it’s just these really fucked up, niche ‘80s movies that are just super gory, and everybody’s naked, having sex and screaming. I remember watching it and thinking it was so fucked up. There’s this one part in one of the films where this girl is fingering herself with a pickle—it’s crazy.
No! Why would someone do that?
I know! I felt bad for the pickle. And she’s gonna get a bad yeast infection—she’s not going to be okay after that.
So, you don’t like gore?
I like scary movies when something is actually scary, but everybody lives in the end. I just don’t like when people are cutting each other’s arms off with all the blood spurting out. That’s not for me.
What do you think about the phrase ‘The pen is mightier than the sword.’ Is it true?
I think so. I mean, you could totally cut someone’s head off with a sword, but there have been times when I’ve written about people and it cuts way deeper. One of the bravest stories I’ve ever written was about the abusive relationship that I was in for two years. The person ended up getting cancer and blaming me for it. It’s a fucked up story, and I wrote about how it really scarred me, and how I had to rebuild myself from there. I was so emotional all the time—I couldn’t handle doing anything except for writing about it, and it was such a relief to be able to share my experience with the world. I didn’t realize how many people go through similar situations.
It got published and he saw it. Of course, he called me after and cursed me out, but it was my story, my perspective, and I really needed to say something about it. He treated me so poorly, and I needed to express it in a way I knew how, and I didn’t think that anything would come of it. But I ended up getting so much support, which was something I really didn’t have at the time. For me, writing it all down just felt really good. I think people should always write about things that take a toll on their emotions, or changed their life in some way—it’s so much better to let it all out. When you share your story, you realize that so many other people have gone through similar experiences. You build a community and you’re able to heal in a healthier way than if you were just to keep it all inside.
And you write poetry, as well?
Yeah, the most popular book that I’ve written is one where I painted portraits of everyone I’ve ever kissed—it’s an ongoing project until I kiss someone for the rest of my life or die. I painted everyone from memory and then I wrote a little poem about each of them. It was interesting for me to do because I felt like I was accessing places in my mind that I hadn’t touched in a long time. The portraits create such a bonding experience because they always manage to spark a conversation. At a book fair this past year, this girl came over to me and said, ‘Oh my god, I kissed that guy too!’ Someone else came up to me and was like, ‘How could you put me in there!’ But everybody goes in there—for me, it’s a good memory.
I did realize going through it that in the beginning, all of the people looked like the same person, but now, everyone is an individual and different. I also feel like my painting style has changed, and because I draw each face from memory, some of them are fuzzier than others. It’s interesting because some people I remember perfectly, and when I draw others, they don’t look like the person I remember kissing, but they still go in the book. There are also certain people who I have recently kissed who I am excited to put in there.
That’s cool—then the book becomes like a document of your evolving sexualilty and relationships.
I started it when I was nineteen and obviously I’m still working on it, but I try to reprint it every year. I haven’t gone a year without kissing somebody—maybe I should make 2019 that year. But that would be really difficult for me because I love to kiss everybody—it’s like the coolest thing you can do. To everyone reading this: let’s kiss!
What book describes your personal style?
I’m thinking 50 Shades of Grey—just kidding! Harry Potter? I don’t know, I could say my favorite book, but I don’t think that would describe how I dress. I do read a lot of Truman Capote short stories, and he does a really great job. My favorite ones were written in the ‘60s, but he also wrote Breakfast at Tiffany's, which a lot of people don’t know. I mean, from In Cold Blood to that? It’s crazy. But his stuff is all about portraiture, which I love—like how do you capture someone in writing in a way that makes you feel like you’re with them, but you don’t know exactly what they look like or who they are, or if they’re even real.
I think about that a lot with my own artwork. I go out and create or write something, and I constantly think about his writing and how I wished I was him, or that we lived in the same time period—or that maybe I’m him reincarnated, which sounds really narcissistic. But his writing style is how I want to live my life: very intimate and personal, that you can share with everybody because you’re not closed off, and you immediately care about every person on the street and what’s best for them.
What’s the most interesting piece of advice that you’ve ever received or that has resonated with you the most?
I heard this great piece of—well, I don’t know if you could call it advice—but I was at a dinner party last night and I’m not sure if she was talking to me or about me to me, but this woman said that her therapist told her this crazy thing about the three types of people that you meet in your life. Basically, it’s that you can categorize people by three types of chairs: the baby chair, which is a person who is childish and can’t do things on their own and have to have people help them; the adolescent chair, which is a person who can do some things for themselves but they still need help from others; and the adult chair, which is a person who’s self-sufficient and doesn’t need the help from anyone. I’ve been thinking about that a lot—like, which stage of my life am I in? I feel like I’m in between adolescent and adult, but I’m trying to lean more towards adulthood—I’m at a stage of my life where I’m just trying to grow up.
What character, dead or alive, do you think you are most like?
My brother likes to tell people that I’m Tony Soprano reincarnated, because he’s really, really tough on the outside, but on the inside, he has a heart of gold.
How close are you and your brother in age?
Really close—we’re almost three years apart. He’s older, but we’re super close. He’s one of the best people I know, and he lives in New York, too, so we have a lot of the same friends. He’s one of the reasons why I feel like I have good taste in music even though, now, his music taste has changed a lot. He really paved the way for why I’m ‘cool’ now.
What’s your go-to karaoke song?
Last time I sang karaoke I had just gone through a break-up so I sang Fiona Apple, and everybody was like, ‘Boo! Get off the stage! You are to depressed!’ But whenever I go to karaoke with my close friend Will, we always sings ABBA—we always like to sing duets. I like “Dancing Queen”—that’s really fun. But, you know, every time you do karaoke you end up really drunk, so you don’t necessarily remember your favorite one.
What about your own sexual identity do you find the most confusing?
Everything. I’ve always struggled with my identity, especially my sexual identity. I have a hard time enjoying sex and a hard time understanding my sexuality because I feel like that’s something that people don’t respect in each other. People can so easily treat each other really badly, especially when it comes to sex, because of the fact that people can so easily have sex but not care for each other whatsoever. So, that always makes me very confused, as if I’m doing something wrong with my body, or if it’s the people I choose to surround myself with. I never know how to interpret a situation like that—it always makes me wonder if there’s something wrong with me, or if I’m just confused about who I am, or if there is something wrong with the way somebody else treated me because they are confused about who they are. I really think that if people cared more about the identities of other people, and cared more about caring about other people’s bodies, then people would have a lot easier time figuring out who they are as people and identifying who they are.
The lack of care our society has for each other makes people feel confused and put into a box, but they don’t really have a place, and I wish there was something I could do to change that. We have to try to understand each other better. Now, especially in New York where we are surrounded by young people, we do not give a shit about one another, which is really, really hard to process—it makes it really difficult to pursue things. Being an emotional person is a profoundly special quality, not something that makes you weak. Since so many people are not in tune with their emotions, possessing that quality actually makes you really strong. We have the luxury of feeling every single thing that we do—a luxury that most people aren’t afforded—so, why would we want to live a life where we could feel everything and not express it? This is the only life we have—we should live it to the fullest.
I write a lot about this idea and talk a lot about it in my work, because it’s something that needs to change. If we start caring more about each other, or at least become more introspective with how we’re feeling and how others feel, then we can really be more empathetic of other people’s experiences. What makes people so confused about their sexuality is not feeling validated in their sexual identities. As much as you can feel confident in yourself, if somebody makes you feel bad, or makes you feel that there is something ‘wrong’ with you, you’re just going to feel confused, and so disturbed.
Or you bottle it up and it eats at you, just waiting for you to explode. I’ve just recently started to understand that it’s okay to feel upset about something and to let it out, as long as you confront what the source of that feeling is—there are healthy ways to express your emotions.
That’s a reason why dating and making friends is so hard—because people don’t want other people knowing that they feel certain things, when in reality feeling those emotions is the most beautiful thing we have in life. Every time I‘ve been really hurt, or every time I’ve been really upset or mad at the world, I realize that it’s just somebody else’s hurt, and I don’t have to feel the same pain as they do. I can feel what I’m feeling and move on from it, and become a bigger person instead of harboring resentment for someone or something else. It’s their problem that they can’t express their emotions—not mine. Everyone should do that.