As part of our Ten Years of Nerve retrospective, we bring you a series of interviews with the people who made, and continue to make, the publication happen. Today, Nerve editor Gwynne Watkins talks to Emma Taylor and Lorelei Sharkey, the former Nerve editors, advice columnists and authors of The Big Bang and Nerve’s Guide to Sexual Etiquette.
How did you both end up at Nerve?
Lorelei Sharkey: I was working at a small literary arts magazine in Boston. It was hellish. A few months after Nerve launched, a college friend of mine wrote me and said he was working for the company that was serving the ads for Nerve. And he was like, you have to check it out, it’s totally cool, this job was made for you. So I looked at the site, loved it. That night I started putting my letter and resume together, and sent it down. Within a week they had called me.
Emma Taylor: I was working at Tripod.com. I’d been reading Nerve since the day it launched and wanted to work there. One day Gen and Rufus had made an appointment to meet with the CEO of Tripod. The CEO had totally forgotten them and was out of town. I was the head of the editorial department, so the receptionist called me and said can you come talk to these people, please? Which I was totally psyched about. So I had this meeting with Ruf and Genevieve and was telling them why a partnership with Tripod might work for them, but I was telling them about a community space, and how that would be good for Nerve, and kind of dropping into the conversation that I had experience in that. A few days later, Rufus emailed, and was trying to find out if it would be bad form for him to recruit me. Everyone at Tripod knew I was ready to leave and move down to the city, so I interviewed with Nerve with Tripod’s blessings.
How was the interview?
Lo: I definitely remember not knowing what to expect. I read everything that they had published up to that point which was possible back then, because it had only been a couple of months. I read that one story “How to Screw a Coot,” which has the characters Genevieve and Rufus, and it was unclear how much of it was fiction and how much was nonfiction, if any. I didn’t know if they were going to be dressed provocatively, if they were going to conduct the interview with Genevieve on his lap. Or if they were going to ask me questions about my own sexuality. So I came prepared for anything. I was so relieved when they were so charming and sophisticated and cool and laid back and not perverts.
Emma: Like Lorelei, I printed out every single article Nerve had ever published and read them all and got my little stock of anecdotes ready.
I was convinced they were going to ask me stuff, like, you know, “How did you lose your virginity?” or the craziest sex things you’ve ever done. And I was thinking, I don’t really have many stories; I guess I could tell them I just bought a vibrator. And then, of course, we just sat there and drank tea and talked business strategy and editorial content, and it was really sophisticated.
What was the daily vibe in the office?
Emma: My first day at Nerve, Rufus had said people usually show up at around ten or so. I showed up at ten to ten, because I was nervous and wanted to make a good impression. Rufus took a long time to come to the door, and I’m pretty sure he answered in his boxers. It was clear he had been asleep when I rang the doorbell. And he was like, “I’ll be right back,” and ran and put on some clothes. It was an hour and a half before anybody else showed up to work.
Lo: I came there in December of ’97 and Em came a year later. And Jack came soon after me, a month after me I think. When Emma came, it was still really small, just like five to seven people. And it really was the greatest job you could have as a twentysomething in New York City. We worked hard, but we were so psyched to do it. And we had access to all of those industry internet parties that had open bar. At twenty-five, that is a huge deal.
Do you think Nerve was typical of what was going on with the dotcoms at the time, or do you think it was a more unique sort of office?
Em: There were definitely ways that Nerve was similar, but there were so many other young people working for them who were like, “I can’t believe I’m in this job, it’s so great.” I think the difference was that a lot of these other companies seemed to have a lot more money, and that’s why I think Nerve parties were so good, because we would just have to be a little more creative to make it so that Nerve parties were the talk of the town.
What Nerve parties do you remember most vividly?
Em: The first one at 520 [Broadway, Nerve’s current office] was my first big Nerve party, which was really fun, I thought. That was their first one with the exhibitionist booth, right?
Lo: Yeah, people got totally into that. There was always a huge turnout. It’s really easy when you’re in New York to feel that you’re not in the cool group. No matter where you go, there’s always these ridiculously supermodel-beautiful people doing cool things. And it was really great to feel like an insider at those parties.
How did you become Em and Lo?
Em: It started from day one. We were working together launching NerveCenter, sharing a desk, sharing a phone line, kind of on top of each other. Fortunately we got along straightaway.
Lo: I was so nervous when she came: “Oh, please, don’t let her be a bitch!”
Em: NerveCenter was such a bonding thing, because it was so many crazy late nights. We would work nights, and then we’d go out to all the internet parties together. NerveCenter’s voice was different from Nerve’s voice: a little less highbrow, a little more welcoming, fun, relaxed. We started developing this voice. Then, once the Nerve Personals were up, somebody suggested, “Hey, it would be fun to have an advice column to go along with the personals.” Before anyone could suggest hiring somebody who had some experience, we offered ourselves up.
Em: We came up with the Em and Lo Down.
Lo: We wanted it to be from women but not sound like your typical uptight women’s magazine sex advice. We wanted to be fun and funny and female positive, but all-inclusive, for gays and lesbians and straight people. And have a conscience. Somebody once told us that they liked our advice because we had morals but weren’t moralistic.
What were the challenges of being a Nerve editor?
Em: As new editors and interns came into the office, they had to figure out where they crossed the line. Obviously, when you’re discussing a new story idea or you’re discussing a new trend, you might share a little bit of personal experience, like, “Oh, I know a ton of friends who are into this thing, we should totally write about this.” But you could definitely see new editors not realizing that just because we’re discussing a story idea on anal sex doesn’t mean we want to hear about the anal sex you had with your partner the previous night.
Especially as the years went on and the interns started to be people who had their own blogs about their sex lives or starred in their own porn—the generation below us who were just so much more comfortable with putting themselves out there on the internet and just had completely different notions of public and private material. Some of the interns definitely made me feel like a prude sometimes.
Lo: When I’d meet people outside of Nerve, they would misinterpret how comfortable you were talking about sex. Everything from guys just being really crass to people assuming you’re really sexual and had no inhibitions. There was a lot of pressure to perform when you started dating someone.
Em: The craziest job-related thing happened when I was at a bar in the East Village. This guy was chatting away next to me, and kind of hitting on me. He found out I worked at Nerve and was really into that. At one point I went to stand in line for the bathroom. He comes up to me and he said, “I always felt like I was smaller than average. I was wondering if you could give me an evaluation.” And he started to unzip his fly right there! I just started to run away, and he was chasing after me, saying, “But you’re a professional! You said you do this for a living!” I don’t know if that was his pickup line, or if he really did think he was smaller than average, but he thought it was totally acceptable to ask me to check out the size of his dick.
Any interesting interactions with authors?
Lo: I edited J.T. Leroy for awhile, and it was fascinating. I would talk to him on the phone—I don’t know what to call it, him, her—and we would go over the stories. We even did a chat where I was on the phone with him and I transcribed for him, because he said he couldn’t type. It was funny to watch the phenomenon around him. That was amazing currency in the literary world, to say that J.T. knew you and liked you, even though most people knew something was off and weird.
Em: We talked in an editorial meeting about doing a story on whether J.T. was real or not. We dug around a little bit. This was years before that piece in New York magazine came out. All of us at the office suspected that J.T. wasn’t real. I don’t know why we didn’t follow it through. It never went anywhere.
Lo: A couple years later, after I had stopped working at Nerve, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things came out. There was an art-gallery opening for it. This is when [Laura Albert] finally realized she had to get someone to be the face of J.T., so the cousin or whatever, the relative, started making public appearances. This was the first time I had an opportunity to see him in person, so I went. There was a long line, and I decided to wait and introduce myself. I was in the acknowledgments of one of his books. So I was like, “Okay, so let’s finally meet.”
So I got up there and introduced myself: “Hi, it’s Lorelei. Remember me? From Nerve?” And she had the big sunglasses on, the cousin or whatever, and there was this moment of no recognition. In an instant, I knew: this is not the person I talked to on the phone. I hate to say it, but part of me was really impressed.
What role did you have in the start of Nerve Personals?
Lo: We came up with the questionnaire.
Em: We started by researching what else was out there, including going on some really early, really bad personals dates. We went out on a couple of Swoon dates to see how the whole system works. We really put ourselves out there for Nerve.
Lo: Wasn’t there a point where you had a date on one end of the bar, and I had one on the other end?
Em: Yeah. And I remember being out on the fire escape, writing the questions during our smoke breaks.
Was it your idea to do online personals? At the time, that was not a thing people were really doing.
Em: No, that was Rufus’ idea. At the time, I definitely remember thinking, “Oh my God, personals are so cheesy.” Rufus said—and it was an amazing vision—“No, Nerve can make personals cool.” The concept of personals being cool was so far in the future at that point.
Lo. But it worked. And I think we took the voice of the Nerve office—not necessarily the Nerve literary magazine, but the Nerve office—and applied it to the personals. I think that’s why people took to it.
What about the print magazine?
Lo: I feel totally disconnected from the print magazine. NerveCenter was the bastard child that no one took seriously. At that point, the focus was on the print magazine because that was just so much more —
Lo:—noble and honorable. And it was funny because NerveCenter and Personals did so well, and the magazine didn’t really work out, but so much money went into the print magazine. New people came in, experienced people. The print magazine was the golden child that got special treatment. Like the little princess in Welcome to the Dollhouse. We were the Weiner Dog for a while. And then that, you know, changed.
Em: But there were definitely aspects of NerveCenter that were a bad idea. It wasn’t all lucrative from the start.
Em: We would do a weekly chat where we would give out sex advice. We were definitely the wrong people to be doing that. It’s like people in a bar thinking that they can talk to you a certain way because you work at a sex magazine, and multiply that by 100,000 because of what people feel comfortable saying in an anonymous online chat. But we did some fun chats. We did one with Justine Frischmann from Elastica. She came to the office, and we were just completely starstruck.
Lo: But then some porn star came in, who sadly confirmed all of our stereotypes about porn stars. We had to do the typing for her, and she just didn’t understand all the questions.
What other stories do you remember?
Em: Remember that story with the amazing photographs of that underground strip club in the Bronx?
Lo: We did a chat with the promoter and one of the dancers. It was like two different worlds coming together: these computer-nerd chat organizers and these guys who live in this completely crazy world of male stripping. African-American/Latino male stripping, which is completely different from the more sanitized white-boy gay guys who are pretending to give this, you know, fantasy. So we did the chat, and they invited us to be their special VIP guests at that week’s Friday night show up in the Bronx.
Lo: We all got dolled up.
Em: Ridiculously dolled up.
Lo: And we go up there, we get out of the car, and there’s this huge line. There’s not a single white person in it, and it’s all women. And they are hungry for some male stripping. It starts to rain. Because we were special guests we went straight to the head of the line and cut all these people.
Lo: There was a catwalk in the middle of the room, and fold-out chairs all around. We’re sitting there waiting for the doors to open, and all the women come in, and everyone makes a mad dash for the front row. So the place fills up, and the manager we did the chat with comes by, he’s the emcee for the night, and he said, “We’ve got some special guests in the house from Nerve magazine,” and he points to us and holds up the issue. You could hear crickets in the room. [Laughs]
We just felt terrible. They were hardcore fans, and who are we? We’re not paying, we’re getting special treatment. It was just bad. So the show starts. We’re drinking heavily just to cope. The stuff that we saw that night—I didn’t know it was possible for women to act in such a sexually aggressive way. These women were hungry.
Em: It wasn’t legal, what we were watching. Full-on sex acts. They put fruit inside this one woman. Didn’t he eat the fruit out of her? And it wasn’t like a bachelorette party, where there’s a fun atmosphere and everyone’s laughing. It was totally serious.
Lo: Yeah. And at one point, they start pulling up our Nerve colleague, Jessica, whose judgment was not that great that night, because she was wearing a long skirt with no underwear. She had one foot up on the riser and one foot on the floor and he was pulling with both arms, and she was shaking her head, “No, no!” The emcee finally had to get right in front of him and say, “No, Chocolate, no!”
And he let go, but then two different guys went after Em’s sister Hannah and pulled her up on stage. At one point, one of the guys took his dick out and put it in her drink, like a stirrer. The whole entire audience—all of them—were like, “Drink it! Drink it! Drink it!”
Em: Hannah looked at me in utter panic. I looked around at the crowd and said, “I think the alcohol clears everything, you better just drink it!” The first time she went up, people were kind of cheering her on, like, “Go white girl! Go white girl!” The second time, they were definitely not happy that this white girl got pulled up twice. That just wasn’t fair.
Lo: It was considered dick hogging.
Em: Later in the evening, Hannah went to the bathroom. She was talking to these girls in the bathroom. They turned to her and said, “Having a good time out there?” Hannah said, “Yeah!” And one of them said, “Dick hogger!” and punched her in the face. I went up there, and I got booed off the stage because I wasn’t doing anything interesting.
Lo: That was one of the craziest Nerve experiences for me. Another one was the 60 Minutes shoot. We were doing a funny promotional thing for them to film. We rented a van and got a disco ball and a light. NerveCenter was launching, and we were going to hand out promotional postcards on a populated New York City street corner. Open the van, play the music, hit the light on the disco ball, and run out of the van in our underwear, handing out flyers for NerveCenter.
Em: We hired models to do it. I think we were passing around a flask of whiskey. About halfway through the ride, Rufus decided that he wanted to get in on the action.
Lo: No, I went first.
Em: No, Rufus got naked first.
Lo: I think I went first. I was definitely the first girl on staff.
Em: I thought it was Genevieve. I definitely remember sitting on this bench seat in the van, thinking, “That’s Rufus’ butt cheek I can feel against my side!” It was definitely a weird night out with the office.
Lo: Fortunately, I came prepared. I wore boxers and a long scarf so I could hide my boobies.
Em: I remember we stopped outside Katz’s Deli. I was standing there in my shoes and underwear and no bra. All those guys who work at Katz’s were banging on the window, shouting, “Turn around! Turn around!” I don’t think I’ve been to Katz’s since.
Did you have any interesting reactions from your families about working at Nerve?
Em: I didn’t really, totally fill my parents in on exactly what Nerve did. I think I told them, “It’s kind of like Cosmopolitan, but for men and women.” That’s as far as I went until The Big Bang came out. Once The Big Bang got a rave review in Time magazine, it was a little easier for them to accept it: “Well, if Time is writing about it, it can’t be that bad.”
Lo: My parents were always very supportive. I didn’t hide anything from them. But I didn’t give them all the details.
What did you take away from your time at Nerve?
Lo: The love of my life [her husband, former Nerve creative director Joey Cavella]. And my best friend and business partner.
Em: And I met my husband through Nerve, too, on Nerve Personals, which seems really fair after the many, many, many horrible blind dates I went on with Nerve Personals, to prove I wasn’t just the creator, I was also a user. I probably went on fifty horrible, horrible blind dates before I met him.
Lo: And Emma was going to give up on them. She wasn’t going to tell anyone publicly because that would be bad for the company, but you were about to give up on them. You’d just write all of our advice to the contrary.
Em: There’s no way we would be doing what we’re doing now, if it weren’t for Nerve. It would never have occurred to me to write about sex; we never would have been able to build an audience. I think it just taught both of us to expect a little more out of your professional life, and that it’s possible to make a living with something you totally love.
Em: Oh yeah, one more story. One of the signs for me that Nerve was growing and becoming more mature, like a proper company, was that we used to have a spanking thing. If it was somebody’s birthday, everybody in the office had to stand facing in one direction with their legs spread, and the person whose birthday it was had to crawl through their legs and get spanked. Everyone hated it and loved it at the same time, but it was really funny. I remember one female intern, it was her birthday, and I remember her confiding in us, like, “I really don’t feel comfortable going through with the spanking thing,” and we all thought, “Uh, yeah, I guess we should probably stop doing this thing now.”