Jessica Halem is a thirty-something Gemini with Sagittarius rising from Kent, Ohio. Being raised by hippie Jewish artists from the East Coast was anything but normal - or easy - in this small town. But it did help to foster this funny “on-your-face” queer feminist comic.
Her father is a glass artist and her mother is a playwright. Together they enriched Jessica with shamelessness, summer camp and countless laughs. “My parents were two crazy radical Jewish hippies who must have taken some bad acid, got in their VW van, and ended up past the Delaware Water Gap where they decided to raise a girl - me.”
Jessica has always been on a stage. There was high school theater (where her role as Helen Keller is still talked about today) and being voted Class Clown. But, it was her ability to think on her toes that most lends itself to her gift of comedy. Bullies, anti-semitism, Reagan, and sexism became the breeding ground for her ability to “find the funny” in even the toughest of times.
Jessica has also always been a committed social justice activist as well. Her career spans the international women’s movement, the LGBTQ health movement, and political campaigns. She discovered feminism at the age of nine. By 12, she was organizing the local Take Back the Night March and for abortion rights. “We always seemed to meet in the basement of the local Unitarian Church.” In high school, Jessica was the editor of the student newspaper and president of the French Club. Somehow she remained a stellar student while also cultivating a love of Led Zeppelin.
Summers were spent at Buck’s Rock Camp where Jessica went from camper to counselor in metalsmithing and most importantly got fully imbibed with her long lost tribe - the Jews of the East Coast.
Then it was off to Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York to take her feminism to another level. For four years, Jessica was immersed in the finest training of Foucault, Butler and butch dykes. It was there she got her most important lesson in feminism — lesbianism. While getting steeped in “knowledge”, Jessica remembers fondly winning the Gong Show contest on campus. An attempt to show the lighter side of this serious queer activist, Jessica presented a lip sync to “Age of Aquarius”. The performing bug really got a hold of her when she won free pizza for a year and the accolades of her peers.
Upon graduation, Jessica landed the dream job for a young feminist. She became the Executive Assistant to former Congresswoman and feminist icon, Bella Abzug. For two years, Jessica traveled the world in a front row seat to the international women’s movement. She rubbed elbows with everyone from Hillary Clinton to Gloria Steinem to Wangari Maathai.
While in Beijing, China for the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, Jessica was asked to emcee the young women’s talent show. Keeping thousands of feminists from all over the world entertained was no small task but Jessica not only kept the night moving, she kept the crowd laughing. It was there she really saw the importance of comedy as an act of political organizing.
In the Summer of 1996, Jessica moved from Brooklyn to Chicago to attend the Democratic National Convention, pursue improv training at famed Second City and Annoyance Theatre and to be with Red Vaughan Tremmel, who was pursuing a PhD from the University of Chicago in American History. Chicago proved to be a fruitful and glorious place to make a life for 12 years.
While living in Chicago, Jessica wore many hats. She worked in radio production, at an architectural firm, for an innovation strategy firm, as a public relations guru, and ran a failed Internet start-up. After all of that, she went back to activism full-time as the Executive Director of the Lesbian Community Cancer (now Care) Project from 2001-2006. Her greatest accomplishments included record level fundraising, expanding to a trans inclusive mission, steering the organization into a historic merger with Howard Brown Health Center, and perfecting her downward dog.
At the same time, Jessica was always working as a comic. Jessica produced The Hysterical Women, an all lesbian stand-up comedy troupe, for many years. She honed her craft on the road at Pride festivals and colleges all across the country. She has emceed every event or fundraiser where she could make a difference. And she is well known for her role as emcee for the regularly sold out Gurlesque Burlesque shows that raised money for the documentary-in-progress: “Exotic World and the Burlesque Revival.”
She has shared the stage with entertainers such as the Indigo Girls, Margaret Cho, Jill Scott, Justin Bond, Dirty Martini, Suzanne Westenhoefer, Karen Williams, Vicki Shaw, and Julie Atlas Muz.
Jessica’s comedy and activism have been written about in publications as diverse as Fast Company, the Chicago Tribune and The Advocate. She has won numerous awards including: “21 Leaders for the 21st Century” by Women eNews in 2002, “Unsung Heroine” by the Cook County Commission on Women’s Issues and “Friend for Life” by Howard Brown Health Center. In 2006, Jessica made her LOGO TV premier as the sidekick to Red in the Stoli “Be Real” documentary.
She was nominated as “Best Female Comedian” at the 2008 Chicago Comedy Awards and deemed one of the “Queers that Make Our City Great” by Time Out Chicago.
Before leaving Chicago, Jessica lived in the dorms at the University of Chicago as a Resident Heads for 100 undergrads. While there she worked as a career counselor where she had to tell the undergrads that no, they should not leave pictures of beer pong up on Facebook.
Jessica recently lived in the Pacific Northwest and now calls New Orleans home. She is looking forward to fulfilling her dream of eating oysters for three meals a day.