Johnpaul McLean: “All About Ridiculous”

Johnpaul “JP” McLean, Lakeside’s assistant director of admissions and outreach, has lived in 41 different houses in 42 years. After hearing that staggering fact, a host of assumptions about negative consequences jumped to my mind, but Mr. McLean dispelled them by quickly adding, “You’re forced to meet people all over again, all the time… There’s something kind of romantic about that.” 

Mr. McLean and I spoke on a frigid Tuesday morning in his office, surrounded by shelves overflowing with collected tchotchkes — including at least 10 lion statues to represent his Lakeside pride. It quickly became clear that optimism and joy for life are central to Mr. McLean’s personality, as he describes himself as “all about ridiculous.” By my count, he used the word “ridiculous” at least six times throughout our interview to describe the choices he made that brought him to Los Angeles, New York City, Louisville, the sets of reality TV shows, the stage of one of MTV’s most popular shows, and ultimately to Lakeside’s admissions office.

Mr. McLean was born in a small town with a grandiose name: Batcave, North Carolina. His mother was a dance choreographer, and his father worked as a minister. He grew up across Georgia, Florida, and Kentucky, traveling with his father to new church jobs and moving between his parents’ houses after their divorce. He spent all four years of high school in Florida on the soccer team and student government, then attended Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fla.

One of many shelves overflowing with tchotchkes, including a lion to represent Mr. Mclean’s Lakeside pride. (Rishi L. ’24)

During college, Mr. McLean remembered, he and some friends traveled to New York City and decided to get in the live audience of Total Request Live (TRL), a music video countdown show on MTV. They acted as goofy as possible and were a hit; the audience coordinator told them to come back anytime.

The next year, they got back on the show as audience members, but this time, the coordinator needed someone to be a participant in the live dance competition. Mr. McLean was quick to state that, though his mother is a dance choreographer, he was “not a good dancer.” At the same time, he had enough confidence to convince the audience coordinator when he demonstrated his dancing skills on the sidewalk in Times Square.

“Great, come with me,” said the audience coordinator, and Mr. McLean was immediately whisked away by the coordinator and soon found himself backstage next to two professional dancers who were practicing their moves. The three of them danced in front of the live TV audience, adapting their moves each time the music changed.

A viewer called in, deciding the winner: “the first guy; the one that looks like Justin Timberlake.” Based on the order in which the dancers appeared on screen, Mr. McLean would have considered himself the third person, and the other male competitor the first. At the same time, though he conceded that he doesn’t look like Timberlake, the other dancer looked even less like him, so it seemed reasonable to assume that he was the Timberlake lookalike the caller referred to. However, the host gave the victory to the other guy because he was the first person on screen; this competitor, interestingly, went on to choreograph music videos for Kanye West, Jay-Z, and Beyoncé.

In August 2023, it will be 20 years since the Timberlake travesty. A few weeks ago, one of Mr. McLean’s friends, a filmmaker, had the idea to make a documentary about the event and find the person who called into the show. He promises that he isn’t working on the project out of bitterness, just because it’s a fascinating question; the documentary is “something that I’m fully self-aware about and am laughing at.”

Mr. McLean started college with the intention of following his father’s footsteps and working in the church, but his interests pivoted to television and film. After graduating, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in entertainment. He worked as a production assistant in sitcoms like “Living with Fran,” starring Fran Drescher, an Emmy-winning actress from the ’90s, and acted as an extra in several movies and TV shows. “I just wanted to be in film and television; it was just a fun environment,” he said. 

After three years in LA, Mr. McLean received bad news. “Our apartment was being torn down, and they had to pay us to basically move out. We got this lump sum of money and I was like, ‘Well, I’ll leave for a little bit and then come back.’” He never moved back to California, instead working side jobs for a few years until he raised enough money to move to New York City. When he made it to the Big Apple, he found a job in casting for reality TV shows. 

The shelves of Mr. Mclean’s office in Fix are lined with collectibles. (Benton T. ’24)

One such show, “I’m Married to a…”, was about unconventional people in relationships with “normal” people. Mr. McLean found interviewing prospective contestants, like self-identified vampires and “adult babies,” to be a window into “all kinds of random worlds.” While the structure of the show pushed towards exploiting these people for their shock value, Mr. McLean learned not to pass judgment. “You start to become desensitized to it all and start appreciating just who they are as individuals.” Ultimately, he decided to leave the job because of the discrepancy between his sympathy for participants and the exploitative pressure coming from executives.

Though working in casting didn’t become a long-term career, Mr. McLean did find a long-term connection; his future wife Ashleigh, a fellow casting producer who sat next to him. After becoming friends and then dating, Mr. McLean’s colleagues in casting encouraged him and Ashleigh to apply to appear on the HGTV show Flea Market Flip, given Mr. McLean’s passion since high school for thrifting and refurbishing used furniture.

Mr. McLean entered the competition hoping to win the $5,000 prize and use it to buy Ashleigh an engagement ring. In the competition, each pair of contestants got $500 and had to buy, fix up, and sell items for maximum profit. Mr. McLean felt confident in his refurbishing abilities. 

Ultimately, the McLeans lost by $32, although Johnpaul firmly believes that the contest was rigged. Two minutes before the end of the competition, a couple bought an item from a competitor at an inflated price, putting the latter in first place. The show has a history of plotting buyers when competitors’ items aren’t selling, and “I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I think that those two people were plotted, just because it made good television.” 

After their time in New York, the McLeans moved to Louisville, Ky., and Johnpaul found a job as a marketing director at his former middle school. When he was promoted to director of admissions, he found his experience working in casting to be unexpectedly relevant. The end goals — finding a cast of compatible characters with diverse talents, backgrounds, and skills — were similar, and his interview skills also transferred over. His experiences interviewing prospective students also meant that he had experience dealing with kids when he and Ashleigh decided to start their own family.

Now, the McLeans have three daughters, one aged seven and two twins aged four. In 2019, the family moved to Edmonds, where Ashleigh grew up, and the two of them started their respective jobs at Lakeside, Johnpaul in the development office and Ashleigh in human resources. A year later, Mr. McLean moved to his current role in admissions and outreach.

Since high school and even through the Flea Market Flip fiasco, Mr. McLean’s passion for thrifting has continued to grow, and he now runs a furniture resale business called The Smith Henry during his free time. He visits the same three second-hand stores almost every day on the way home from work and also buys from estate sales and online actions. He remarked, “To me, it’s about the hunt.”

It’s also about the stories these objects hold. For example, he has a thrifted painting in his home that his kids call “Lady on the Wall.” Since his kids were wondering about its origins, he investigated and found out that the artist was a prolific painter who got his start drawing caricatures in a mall. He also has the first place trophy from the 1967 Atlanta Marathon and found the person who won it. He had such an interest in these hidden stories that he contemplated starting a podcast (called “Thrift Stories”), but felt it would be too time consuming to pull off on his own.

The organization in Mr.Mclean’s bookshelf is inspirational to many. (Benton T. ’24)

Hoping to turn his advisees on to thrifting, he and his co-advisor Mr. Smith used their advisory’s $50 annual budget to host a resale competition, where pairs of advisees get $10 to buy items and resell them for profit. They’ll see what they can turn the $50 into throughout the school year and then use the profit for an advisory field trip.

For this competition, advisees shopped at the Goodwill close to Lakeside on 145th Street. Mr. McLean doesn’t typically shop at “big chain thrift stores, but that one’s really good for furniture.” However, he thinks that the best store in Seattle is Deseret Industries on Aurora Avenue. “I don’t mind telling you my secrets,” he said, “but if I see you there, well, look out.”

Mr. McLean is careful not to let his thrifting obsession get out of hand. Luckily, he prices items to sell quickly so they don’t accumulate in his house. He said that he’ll only continue buying and selling as long as it’s interesting and fun; if it starts feeling like a chore or obligation, he’ll stop. 

Recently, the McLeans found a new house to move into, bringing Mr. McLean’s move count to 42. He said that he used to worry that moving constantly was a habit, ingrained by years of turbulence, but now, he’s excited to settle down in the new home with his family, stay put for a long time, and visit the same three thrift stores every day.