Over the 15 years that I've known Jodi Renee Thomas, I've watched her evolve from the boundary-pushing founder of AntiBabe – the influential fashion/performance-art troupe that predated Orlando's current burlesque renaissance by a decade – into a prolific writer and outspoken activist for women's issues. But it turns out that this iconoclastic party girl has a confession that might shock her hard-core fans: She's got a secret sideline scribing heartwarming stories for your mom's favorite inspirational books.
In a surprising case of "girls gone mild," the woman who once sported electrical-tape pasties is now an eight-time contributor to the best-selling Chicken Soup for the Soul series. But that doesn't mean she's running away from her colorful past; on the contrary, she's premiering her one-woman show Confessions of a Party Girl at Winter Park's Breakthrough Theatre on Sept. 13 and 14, an "hour of no-holds-barred honesty" inspired by salacious stories she posted on her former blog.
"I love people who can entertain with just words. No big stage show, no insane antics. Just one person's thoughts and feelings," Thomas tells me ahead of her opening night, citing Maggie Estep and Lydia Lunch as models for her monologue. She says the stories are drawn from her true life and her "general 'it seemed like a good idea at the time' attitude."
While I first met Thomas as a choreographer – she reinvented the Time Warp for my 2004 production of Rocky Horror at Theatre Downtown (RIP) – she's been an award-winning writer since the sixth grade. "Back in the day, I used to write extensive posts on my Livejournal about my life and thoughts. At the time, I was working until about 4 a.m., having to get my elementary school-aged daughter up for school in just a few hours. So I would just sit and write out all the thoughts going on in my scattered brain." Her blogging led to a two-year stint at DStripped magazine, where she worked her way up to managing editor, learning on the job: "I had NO idea what I was doing. Hell, after 12 years of being attached to a laptop, half the time I still don't. I just fake it like I mean it."
Shifting from sexually charged runway productions to the solitary art of writing still gives Thomas the same rush of artistic accomplishment, she says. "Writing, speaking for human rights, directing ... give my creative mind something to work on and I will devour it like a sandwich at a picnic.
"Having a creative mind is a blessing and a curse, because your brain never really stops. You are always working on the next project, while only half-done with the one before. But I would not have it any other way."
So what's the major difference between being a professional author and a fetish impresaria? "I get to write in my PJs and not have to get all dolled up. So different from the party girl of my past."
While Chicken Soup for the Soul might appear entirely opposite to Thomas' edgy aesthetic, the book has been a part of her life since the beginning. "My mom sent one to me after I had moved out (at 15) with the inscription 'Just remember when things get hard that everything will work out,'" she says. "I skimmed through it, not really having the life experience to appreciate the stories in there. For years, I moved it with me but never really looking at it. After 20 years of keeping this book ... I still look for it for comfort."
Jodi's submitted her first story to CSS for an edition about "The Power of Gratitude," and eight articles later she calls herself a very thankful regular member of their huge family. "The first time I got an email accepting my story into Chicken Soup, I lost my mind. I cried, I screamed," she says. "I went to call my mom, even though she had long since passed. ... The feeling still makes me jump with joy. And I know my mom would be super proud."
The stories she tells in Chicken Soup and Confessions vary widely in mood and mindset, but Thomas says they do all share one thing in common: "All of the stories are 100 percent true in both. CSS gets the good, Confessions gets the bad and the ugly. In Confessions, I get to swear, or tell dirty stories about the times that I was uncommonly angry and beat up an ATM. CSS is all about my good side, the nice things I have done in my life. I think that the two make quite a proper mix of the woman that I am. And I am lucky to have places to showcase all of my sides."
Thomas closed our conversation with an exclusive confession for Orlando Weekly: She won the "Best Local Author" award in our 2013 readers poll, but bailed on the event. "My (now) husband and I had just started dating, so he excitedly took off for the party. As usual, it was packed and I got overwhelmed so we left early. We then went to a dive bar and celebrated MY way."
– This story is from the Sept. 11, 2019, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.