Trompe le Demimonde

Photo: Matthias Clamer

Jason Sellards says that, growing up, “I was a weird kid; I was, like, in desperate need of attention.”

This isn’t a surprising admission. As Jake Shears, the relentlessly exhibitionistic singer and pinup boy for Scissor Sisters, he shakes his slim, often befeathered shoulders and prances across the stage, demanding that everybody join the party. Their music is seventies good times all over again: Think of Elton John (who plays on the new album) if he’d been able to wear David Bowie’s pants. Their first hit was a disco-y remake of, of all things, “Comfortably Numb,” by Pink Floyd—and they weren’t making fun of it. On September 10, their just-released, misleadingly titled single, “I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’,” immediately knocked Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack” off the top of the U.K. charts. The mayor of London let them launch their new album, Ta-Dah, by taking over Trafalgar Square for a concert. Their first record came out of nowhere two years ago and sold 2.4 million copies in Britain.

Ta-Dah isn’t nearly as breathlessly awaited back home. Sellards is still living in the fourth-floor walk-up off Avenue B he moved into back when he was a waiter at Leshko’s. “My life is so much similar to what it was two years ago,” he says. Timberlake, in a wet T-shirt, is on the cover of Rolling Stone, while Sellards must make do with vamping in a sheer blouse on the cover of next month’s Out. Scissor Sisters have been stuck in a camp antechamber to the big time here. Wal-Mart wouldn’t even stock their first album because of the lyrics. But glam-friendly U.K. fans saw them as one of their own.

Scissor Sisters are, however, a New York band, a product of the largely gay demimonde of sexed-up downtown ambition that somehow endures the de-bohemianization of the Lower East Side and Williamsburg (there’s an idealized version of this world in the upcoming movie Shortbus, by John Cameron Mitchell, who also directed a Scissor Sisters video). Sellards is the perfect case study for the cute, hyper country boy who came to the big city to make it. He grew up on an island in the Puget Sound, where, as his friend the advice columnist Dan Savage put it, “there wasn’t a lot of stimulation.” Savage first got to know him when he was 15 and called in to his radio show in Seattle to ask about coming out to his mom. “People have always kind of emerged at a moment in his life when he needed it,” Savage says. “He’s charming and charismatic. You want to protect him.”

“I discovered Stephen King at a really young age—probably when I was 10 and hiding behind couches,” Sellards says. We’re walking to the bodega near his apartment to buy Cheeseburger, his turtle, some lettuce. “And Cronenberg. When Naked Lunch came out in movie theaters, I was there. That was like one of those moments where—you know how when you’re really little and you see things that you shouldn’t see and it really scars you for life? I sought those things out.”

“Horror movies and Disney: He doesn’t see the difference,” says Savage. “If you look at the stuff in his apartment, you’d think, Portrait of a Serial Killer.”

And, in fact, walking in, you’re faced with a long hallway of oversize movie posters in French (The Last Unicorn, Poltergeist), before you pass a bedroom with just enough room for a bed and head into a tiny living room, where he sits down in half-lotus on the floor and rolls cigarettes while making us listen to a CD of terrible Polish dance music (“It’s a real catchy tune”). Over the flat-screen TV is a large neon Hollywood Babylon lip sculpture by Kenneth Anger. The side table has photos of his mother with Bono and him with Elizabeth Taylor.

Eventually, he moved to New York to study fiction writing. “Seattle’s a small town,” Sellards says. “ I either wanted to write books or make music or write movies or something—I just wanted to do something.” So he took up go-go dancing at a tiny, sleazy, now-defunct East Village gay bar called IC Guys (he told his mom he was a busboy). “My favorite Jason story is that I went to visit him in New York and he was about to do a porn shoot and he was like, ‘It’s so crazy!’ ” says Savage. “And I talked him out of it. Now he thanks me.” Still, he posed in a jockstrap and sailor’s cap for Butt magazine alongside glowing testimonials by five guys who’d dated him (“He kisses passionately like a girl in love, but moans like a whore”).

But worrying about what other people think never entirely seems to occur to Sellards. “He’s not some big grasping ball of fakery,” says Savage. “He wanted to be a filmmaker and made these gorefests, and he didn’t get how incredibly sexist they were—not that he’s a sexist. He just didn’t understand how people would question his motives.”

“Horror movies and Disney: He doesn’t see the difference,” says Sellards’s friend Dan Savage.

Go-go dancing glided pretty smoothly into what’s become his pop stardom. Larry Tee, the nightlife promoter whose early-2000’s “electroclash” music scene, which was more about lip-synching over electronic beats than musicianship, first noticed him atop a bar. Sellards was also writing for magazines, but there was a problem: “I think I always just wanted to be on the other side of the microphone.”

He and his friend Scott Hoffman, known as Babydaddy in the band, started making music. Scissor Sisters (a nickname for lesbians) started out as just another shoddy electroclash group, with Sellards onstage in a jockstrap. Then they added Ana Lynch, who took the name Ana Matronic, and pulled together a full band (Paddy Boom is the drummer and the only straight male; Del Marquis is the guitarist). “They didn’t want to just do a karaoke set,” Tee says. When nobody would sign them in the U.S., they got a deal with Polydor in the U.K. Scissor Sisters came out in 2004, and they toured for almost two years straight after that, playing with Duran Duran, Morrissey, and the Pet Shop Boys. At Babydaddy’s birthday party two weeks ago, Elton John was cozy on the sofa with Sellards’s mom. None of which really seems to surprise Sellards (“He’s a bit entitled,” says Savage). “Journalists ask us stuff like, what’s it like now that you get to meet all your heroes and go to these fabulous parties?” he says. “That’s why I moved to New York in the first place.”

But in many ways Scissor Sisters are not really a New York band at all. They’re not the Strokes; the Strokes are cool, aloof. Scissor Sisters are cartoonish, unabashed crowd-pleasers. They put out a DVD called We Are Scissor Sisters … and So Are You. Sellards needs us to have a good time. “People work hard,” he says. “And if they want to get off their tits for the weekend, I think that as humans we have an inherent right to do that. Look at, like, pot and mushrooms and stuff—those things were put on the planet for a reason.”

Earlier, he’d said, “I love New York, but I really feel like this is just my workspace now. I don’t draw tons of inspiration from it like I used to.” Instead, when he was stuck on this album, he took off to Disney World. He pops in a bootleg tape of Song of the South. The movie starts, “Yessir, honey, it happened on one of them zip-a-dee-doodah days. Now, that’s the kind of day when you can’t open your mouth without a song jumpin’ right out of it.”

Trompe le Demimonde