JoJo Baby, Chicago drag queen, club kid and doll maker who ‘broke the mold,’ dead at 51

JoJo Baby was a walking art installation.

Perched atop a Gay Pride Parade float in 2013, the iconic drag queen wore a parachute canopy as a dress that flowed a little too well in the breeze. Friends worried that the entire getup, including its occupant, might blow away.

JoJo Baby wore a parachute as a dress at a Gay Pride Parade celebration in Chicago.

JoJo Baby wore a parachute as a dress at a Gay Pride Parade celebration in Chicago.

Screenshot from JoJo Baby’s Facebook page

For decades, JoJo Baby worked Chicago’s nightclub scene as a host who greeted people at the front door and partied on dance floors dressed in elaborate homemade costumes ranging from Marie Antoinette to a mermaid to Star Wars Wookiee — creating an atmosphere of fun and acceptance from the moment a guest arrived.

Armed with a sewing needle and the bounty of daily thrift store hunts, JoJo Baby made their costumes and was limited only by their imagination — which didn’t seem to have any bounds.

JoJo Baby was gender-fluid and was comfortable with multiple pronouns. Their fiancé, Jason Ecay, thought they/them/their would be appropriate for this obituary.

In addition to their work in nightclubs, JoJo Baby was a doll maker whose work has been featured in museums and a hairstylist who created some of former Bulls star Dennis Rodman’s beamed-around-the-world coifs.

Dennis Rodman

JoJo Baby, who grew up in Logan Square, was one of the city’s first “club kids” — a scene of young people with over-the-top personalities who were staples of nightclubs in the 90s.

JoJo Baby died on March 14 from cancer at age 51. 

A mouth with red lips and teeth encases the door to JoJo Baby’s apartment near Western and Chicago. It was a Christmas present from several of their artist friends and the site of an all-night vigil last week that saw people from all walks of life drop off flowers and other mementos.

As a teen, they hung around outside the entrance to the now-closed nightclub Shelter, which was down a long alleyway off Fulton Street just west of the Loop.

Byrd Bardot worked the door to the club, often dressed in club kid garb that ranged from geisha to bruised-and-battered football player. He picked out people from the line who’d add to the atmosphere and allowed them inside.

A memorial for Jojo Baby, an artist, doll maker, hairdresser and drag queen, was created outside Jojo Baby’s former apartment at 2546 W. Chicago Ave. in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood, Friday, March 17, 2023.

A memorial for Jojo Baby, an artist, doll maker, hairdresser and drag queen, was created outside Jojo Baby’s former apartment.

“The club opened at 10 p.m. but no one arrived until midnight, so I’d be out there with one bouncer and nobody else, except for JoJo,” Bardot recalled.

“JoJo wasn’t of age to get in and would just come and sit outside and keep me company and watch people come in and out. It was almost like a class in life study, just studying people and the different looks they had. The whole club kid was just starting.”

Before long, they started dressing like a club kid, doing impersonations of famous drag queens and making friends in the city’s art scene. 

Corey Ecay and JoJo Baby

“People would come out for air and a smoke and JoJo would just be sitting there and people thought JoJo worked at the club and they’d just start talking,” said Bardot.

Shelter soon hired JoJo to dance on stage and liven up the party.

“The club kids who were always trying to one-up each other in different looks,” Bardot said.

Friends said JoJo would recall with a smile celebrating their 21st birthday and the astonishment on the faces of colleagues who said “Wait, how old are you? Just turning 21? But you’ve been working here for years!”

Their mother was a hairdresser and medical technician. She called her oldest son JoJo, as in “JoJo, baby, it’s time to go to bed.’

Their father was a chef. 

JoJo Baby briefly was on track to become a Catholic priest until he dropped out of the now-closed Quigley Prep Seminary after realizing it wasn’t a good fit. They left home at 14 after clashing with their father and moved into an apartment with several club kids roommates.

“JoJo had our mother’s grace,” Jason Arguellas said. They “always treated people with such kindness.”

JoJo Baby — who legally changed their name to JoJo Baby — befriended and was mentored by renowned doll maker Greer Lankton. 

Some of the dolls JoJo Baby made and collected.

Some of the dolls JoJo Baby made and collected.

JoJo Baby’s Facebook page

Ecay hopes their extensive collection of dolls will end up in a museum exhibit.

“He got such childish elation at seeing a new doll,” Ecay said.

During the pandemic, the couple traveled to Babyland General Hospital in Cleveland, Georgia, where JoJo Baby adopted several Cabbage Patch Kids dolls.

“It was a really sweet experience,” Ecay said.

JoJo Baby

JoJo Baby

Screenshot from JoJo Baby’s Facebook page

JoJo Baby, who was widely recognized in and out of costume and known to some as the mayor of Wicker Park, had a series of disparaging words that had been hurled at them throughout this life tattooed on their body. 

Jason Arguella, JoJo’s brother, said JoJo wore them “like armor.” 

Joe Shanahan, founder of Smart Bar and Metro who’s known JoJo Baby for more than 30 years, said they “brought the joy” all places and was a “unique performance artist of the highest caliber.”

JoJo baby was the subject of a documentary produced by filmmaker Clive Barker, who, along with puppeteerJim Henson and singer Boy George, was one of their heroes.

They also had a brief appearance in the movie “Party Monster” in which Macaulay Culkin and delved into club kid culture.

In addition to their brother and fiancé, JoJo Baby is survived by another brother, Justin Arguellas.

Services are being planned.

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