Walk a Mile With Joe Camel

Hours after R.J. Reynolds announced they were pulling the plug on Joe Camel, paparazzi spotted the controversial pitchman coming out of Spagos with a redhead in a rubber dress. Instantly, the pack of pseudo-journalists were on him, flashes popping, microphones thrust toward that famous smirking snout, questions shouted: "How do you feel, Joe?" "What'll you do now, Joe?", "Who's the girl, Joe?" In the melee there was shoving between a CNN cameraman and a tabloid freelancer and somehow, accounts vary on what happened, the redhead ended up on her well-toned keester. The scene could have turned ugly, but instead of going all Sean Penn on the reporters, Joe Camel whipped out a pack of nicotine gum and offered it around. It was a classic gag, like something Jerry Lewis might have pulled on Merv in the mid-70's and it broke everybody up, redhead included, and dissolved the tension. Joe Camel is nothing if not cool. It's that quality of casual unflappability that made Joe Camel such an effective pitchman. When he first signed on with R.J. Reynolds in 1988, Camel's share of the under 18 smokers was 0.5 percent. Three years later it was 32.8 percent, representing an annual sales jump of $476 million. That's a lot of kids hoarding lunch money to buy a pack of Camels. Hip, suave and playful, J.C. was the ultimate scenester for the 90's. Whether blowing a nutty sax with a jazz band, shooting pool with his amigos or tooling around town in a convertible with a little hotty who didn't mind the wind mussing her 'do, Joe was providing young people with valuable lessons. Savor the moment. Don't take things too seriously. Life, like it says on the warning label, is short. But the gravy train got derailed. With the government snapping at their heels, tobacco companies needed to offer up a fast sacrifice. Joe Camel got his walking papers. Starting in August the familiar shades, smirk and phallus-shaped head will be pulled from all billboards and magazine ads in this country. Yet for a guy just out on his hump, Joe seems typically unconcerned. In the days following his dismissal, he was seen at the opening of Planet Hollywood in Amarillo, making out with Winona Ryder. The same weekend, he was ringside at a Butterbean fight, signing autographs and posing for photos with a gaggle of Girl Scouts. Keeping a low profile isn't in his nature. Needless to say he doesn't duck a request for an interview. A time is set, a location picked. When Joe Camel saunters into the room, heads turn like they're on a swivel. That could be due to the smell. Even though he slathers on Calvin Klein's Eternity, a stale funk rolls off him in waves, reminiscent of Keith Richards'. He's bigger than expected in person, his shoulders scraping the door frame, and shaggier. Like a giant Muppet gone to seed. The fact that he frequently hocks up and spits out what appears to be a gooey legless hamster only enhances his bad boy image. He moves slowly through the crowd, stopping at every table, schmoozing but in an ironic way. He slaps skin with the guys, shares a bit of retro jive banter. Takes a Bogart drag on any offered butts. Air kisses the women, punctuating it with a quick tongue lick to the side of their face. Goofy but kinky. The Joe Camel tongue is a renowned appendage. Fat, wet and purple like a creature waiting alive in his mouth. Hard Rock Cafe legend has it that Kiss bassist Gene Simmons once challenged Joe to compare tongues. When Joe unfurled his mucousy anaconda and wrapped it round a bottle of Rumplemintz - once, twice, three times - Simmons ran to the men's room, locked himself in a stall and wept like a colicky infant. Finally, after a good natured flip of the bird to the healthniks in Non-smoking, Joe slides into the booth, orders a Dewars neat and the interview commences. He never takes off his shades.Q: How are you holding up, Joe? JC: Everything's jake, daddy-o. This has been no big thing. It was a sweet gig while it lasted. I made some coin, got a little name recognition, now it's time to move on. Q: So you're not bitter about your treatment from R.J. Reynolds? JC: They had to do what they had to do. I got no beef. The real victims in all this are the kids. Q: How so? JC: Growing up is a rough bag. That whole puberty jazz is one crazy ride. It's easier if you're buddied up. But what about the social outcasts that are all alone, the geeks, dweebs, spazzes and virgins? Smoking is their key to peer acceptance. It's a proven fact that kids who smoke are more popular, better adjusted and have a more righteous perspective on things. They're not so hung up on attendance and grades and personal hygiene like those snotty non-smoking eight year olds. Q: And now with you gone...? JC: They got no one to turn to. I was a counselor as much as a salesman. Q: What's next for you? Will you stay in advertising? JC: For the time being. But it's got to be a product I believe in. I couldn't swing the Michael Jordan action, someone who slaps his name on anything. What's he shilling now, panty liners? Cut me some slack, Jack! Q: Any offers you're currently considering? JC: A liquor company wants to market squeezy bottles of whiskey, small enough to fit in a school lunchbox. How cool is that? We're negotiating. Same with a firearms division. They're producing a childsize line of handguns. Lightweight, narrow grip and easy pull trigger. If kids got their own rod, they won't always be breaking into Daddy's gun cabinet. Q: Any plans to branch out, a Saturday morning cartoon show maybe? JC: Next month I start filming a buddy-cop movie with Martin Lawrence. It's gonna be a gas. Q: So things are looking rosy for Joe Camel? JC: Right on. And I owe it all to those crazy coffin nails. Speaking of which, could I bum one off of you? I left mine in the machine.

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