She had one of the fiercest and most distinct voices in rock music. On stage, she was larger than life. An unrivaled white blues singer whose wild and eccentric body movements and raspy voice made her a cultural icon and synonymous with the counterculture of the 1960s.
How then, did Janis Joplin get nominated as “the ugliest man on campus” by her fellow students at the University of Austin in Texas in 1962?
According to The Washington Post, it all started when the Alpha Phi Omega sponsored its “Ugliest Man on Campus” contest as part of an effort to raise money for charity.
Every fraternity threw in a five dollar donation to nominate one of their members and dress them up in ratty clothes, douse them with fake blood and parade them in front of fellow students who would vote on the winner.
Janis Joplin was one of those nominated. In spite of pop culture rumors circulating online, she did not win the contest. That prize went to a gentleman named Lonnie “the Hunch” Farrell. Nevertheless, the word is that the event was horribly humiliating for Joplin.
In an interview conducted by Myra Friedman, author of the Janis Joplin biography Buried Alive, Joplin’s mother, Dorothy Joplin, admitted that her daughter wrote an “anguished letter laying out all the gory details of how the contest had affected her.”
Still, the event may have proven a catalyst for the incredible adventure that followed, because a week later, Janis Joplin quit school, packed her bags and headed for San Francisco. She was about to get her revenge on those who had mocked her.
During this time, she had written the song “It’s Sad to Be Alone,” which sang: “The dusty road calls you, Come again. / The dusty road calls you, Come again. / The dusty road calls you. You walk to the end. / It’s sad, so sad to be alone.”
Joplin hitchhiked to San Francisco with her autoharp and a romantic man named Chet Helms. She started drinking heavily and abusing amphetamines, but she kept singing and recording.
After a brief trip back to Texas, she returned to San Francisco in 1966 to sing for the band Big Brother and the Holding Company.
After the band had its first number one hit “Piece of My Heart,” Joplin left and formed her own group, Kozmic Blues Band, who ended up performing at the legendary Woodstock music festival in 1969. Little did Janis Joplin know that this would be the pinnacle of her stardom.
Abandoned Aerosmith tour van
After leaving the band, she started using heroin. According to her biography, she traveled back to Port Arthur, her hometown, that year to attend her ten-year high school reunion.
She was said to be looking for “revenge” from those who had called her a pig and a whore. She was rich and famous, an icon of the counterculture of the 1960s, and preparing to take the ’70s by storm.
Joplin showed up to her class reunion decked out to the nines. Some of her ex-classmates asked for her autograph, others insisted that they had always liked her.
But Janis would later tell a reporter that she was only there to “see all those kids who are still working in gas stations and driving dry cleaning trucks while I’m making $50,000 a night.”
But when she returned to California, she called her publicist, Myra Friedman, and expressed disappointment for how her ex-classmates had received her saying:“Well, I guess you can’t go home again, right?”
She had been recording an album with her new band Full Tilt Boogie, but she wouldn’t live to see its hit single “Me and Bobby McGee” dominate the music charts. Joplin had come into the world on January 19, 1943, in Port Arthur, Texas and died of an overdose 27 years later, on October 4, 1970, in Los Angeles, California.
She suffered an unhappy childhood but wanted a better life for herself, so she went to college. Being voted the ugliest man on campus is bad enough for a man. For a woman, it must have been humiliating. But it sent her life in a completely different direction.
She found her voice and dominated the stage with a style that mesmerized audiences, and which probably drew lustful gazes from those who had once mocked her.
She might have died young. But she lived long enough to prove that the words of the great singer Frank Sinatra were just as true for her as they had once been for him: “The best revenge is a massive success.”