No celebrity is safe from the lash of Stuttering John's sharp tongue

April 29, 1994|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun Staff Writer

John Melendez's fifth-grade teacher noted on the boy's report card, "Johnny asks some unusual and sometimes penetrating questions." And Johnny, who schoolmates called "stutter-face" because of his speech, spent high school moments wondering whether an average kid from Long Island like himself would ever, ever meet a celebrity.

He met Howard Stern first. And the rest is weird history -- a twisted success story so American that it somehow makes perfect sense. Yes, anyone can be a celebrity -- even people who make a name for themselves by hitting celebrities where it hurts: their egos.

John Melendez, 28, is known to millions of radio listeners as Stuttering John, who for the last six years has been running kamikaze celebrity interviews for his boss, radio DJ Howard Stern. Based on his speech impediment alone, Mr. Melendez was hired as an intern on Mr. Stern's show, and was then drafted to ambush celebrities at press conferences and functions such as the Grammys.

the beginning, journalists hated my guts. Now, they all can't wait till I get there, because press conferences are so boring," says Mr. Melendez, who was in Towson yesterday to plug his rock band's first record and to discuss this show business lark he stumbled onto.

Sometimes in disguise, usually stuttering and always ready with low-road questions, Stuttering John is a hit man. While on assignment for Mr. Stern, Mr. Melendez has asked model Cindy Crawford whether she painted her mole on, he asked Gennifer Flowers whether President Clinton used a condom, and he asked Marlo Thomas whether any of Phil Donahue's sons hit on her. And he made the most of this brush with greatness:

Stuttering John: What did you do with the money?

Ringo Starr: What money?

Stuttering John: The money your mom gave you for singing lessons.

Mr. Melendez's fans call him a "Hero of the Working Class" -- the guy, they say, who asks the questions they would ask themselves.

"I think he's great. He picks on everyone," says Paul Bucco. The 25-year-old fan, who works at the Baltimore Brewing Co., was on hand yesterday to meet Mr. Melendez at his Towson appearance. "I figure he must have some talent. Listen, he's just an average guy looking for a break, and it looks like he got it."

Celebrities either laugh Mr. Melendez off (Tom Hanks), have their bodyguards get in his face (Spike Lee) or talk back to him (Joan Rivers). Stuttering John once asked Ms. Rivers whether parents should be allowed to give birth to ugly kids. "No, I told your parents that," she shot back.

In his best-selling book "Private Parts," Mr. Stern has a chapter called "Stuttering John. Hero of the Stupid." On the air, Mr. Stern sometimes puts the man to shame, calling him stupid and making him publicly take an IQ test (Mr. Melendez says he scored 136; Mr. Stern says he cheated). Mr. Melendez is one of Mr. Stern's side shows.

Mr. Melendez, raised a Catholic on Long Island, is also a rocker. His band, Stuttering John, just released its first album, which includes the single "I'll Talk My Way Out of It." On his nationally syndicated talk show, Mr. Stern keeps plugging Mr. Melendez's music. And, no, Mr. Melendez doesn't stutter when he sings.

Mr. Melendez spent two hours in Towson yesterday, signing posters and CDs at Towson Record & Tape Traders. His limo was due at noon but was running late or couldn't find the place behind the Super Fresh food market. Twenty men -- all standing in a line -- waited to shake the hand of their working-class hero.

Mike Gibson, a 32-year-old salesman from Randallstown, loves Stuttering John's work -- especially the time he asked Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda: How much do you want to bet that Pete Rose is gambling again? In line, Mike is cracking up again over this one. He's also worried about whether John's bothered by all this fuss. So, Mike, why not ask him a gutsy question?

"No, this is new to him. Why mess with him?" Mr. Gibson says.

A 19-year-old wearing a Jeffrey Dahmer T-shirt waits to have his picture taken with Stuttering John. "He's funny. He's not mainstream," says Matt Pearce, who has pierced his lower lip with a silver hoop.

Doesn't that hurt? (Our own lame Stuttering John-like question.)

"Only when I have to put it in," Mr. Pearce says.

At 12:30, Stuttering John Melendez comes into the record store, wearing jeans and unlaced black boots. He looks like a mess. "I have a real bad fever, so bear with the look," he says. He jokes about cutting off his long shaggy hair and frosting it blue. Sucking down Minute Maid orange juice, he takes a seat and starts signing his posters and CDs. "To Mike, P-P Party!" "All the ++ B-B Best, Stuttering John."

Oh, my stuttering mentor! says 24-year-old Sheri Mansberger, who had no idea a celebrity stutterer was going to be in the record store. Ms. Mansberger, who stutters, thinks he's a role model for stutterers. And she loves the way he gets in people's faces when he "interviews" them, she says.

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