In 2010, Brandon Stanton started a photoblog of portraits and interviews from people he ran into on the streets in New York City. A decade later, Humans of New York (HONY) has exploded into a collection of stories from people in nearly 20 different countries — including former presidents — and even spawned two bestselling books.
As any avid HONY follower would know, Stanton started a unique 32-post project chronicling a fan-favorite interview subject, Tanqueray — née Stephanie Johnson.
Tanqueray came into the picture in November 2019 when she was first interviewed by Stanton. She was dubbed by publications as “the ultimate human from New York” for her rollercoaster, partly NSFW life story — starting from when she got kicked out of her home at 17 to later becoming a regular in New York’s drag scene and learning Italian from the mobsters who would frequent the clubs she performed in.
“My mom threw me out of the house at seventeen for getting pregnant, then had me arrested when I tried to get my clothes. Then she fucked the head of parole to try to keep me in jail. She was some prime pussy back then. But the warden did some tests on me and found out I was smart, so I got a scholarship to go anywhere in New York. I chose the Fashion Institute of Technology, which I hated. But by that time I was already getting work making costumes for the strippers and porn stars in Times Square. All my friends were gay people, because they never judged me. All I did was gay bars: drag queen contests, Crisco Disco, I loved the whole scene. And I couldn’t get enough of the costumes. My friend Paris used to sit at the bar and sell stolen clothes from Bergdorf and Lord and Taylors, back before they had sensor tags. So I had the best wardrobe: mink coats, 5 inch heels, stockings with seams up the back. I looked like a drag queen, honey. One night a Hasidic rabbi tried to pick me up because he thought I was a tranny. I had to tell him: ‘Baby, this is real fish!”
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Almost a full year later, Stanton had a lengthy transcription of the 20 times he sat with Tanqueray to get her life story that he wanted to turn into a podcast. But Tanqueray’s health was worsening and she didn’t have proper care and insurance, so Stanton knew he had to publish the “Tattletales From Tanqueray” on Instagram to get attention and hopefully raise money for her.
“Her story is priceless,” Stanton wrote in the first post introducing the series. “If the series adds any value to your life over the next seven days, please consider making a contribution to our fundraiser.”
The average person has an attention span of around eight seconds. Stanton was nervous that his audience wouldn’t be able to keep up the momentum to read 32 posts.
“Since social media is geared toward short bursts of communication, I was initially anxious about the ability of a 12,000-word story to engage an audience over such a long period of time,” Stanton told In The Know.
The GoFundMe campaign attached to the project had a goal of $300,000.
(1/32) “Tanqueray, Tanqueray, Tanqueray. When this photo was taken, ten thousand men in New York City knew that name. My signature meant something to them. They’d line up around the block whenever I was dancing in Times Square, just so I could sign the cover of their nudie magazine. I’d always write: ‘You were the best I ever had.’ Or some stupid shit like that. Something to make them smile for a second. Something to make them feel like they’d gotten to know me. Then they’d pay their twenty bucks, and go sit in the dark, and wait for the show to start. They’d roll that magazine up tight and think about their wives, or their work, or some of their other problems. And they’d wait for the lights to come up. Wait for Tanqueray to step out on stage and take it all away for eighteen minutes. Eighteen minutes. That’s how long you’ve got to hold ‘em. For eighteen minutes you’ve got to make them forget that they’re getting older. And that they aren’t where they want to be in life. And that it’s probably too late to do much about it. It’s only eighteen minutes. Not long at all. But there’s a way to make it seem like forever. I always danced to the blues. Cause it’s funky and you don’t have to move fast. You can really zero in on a guy. So that it seems like you’re dancing just for him. You look him right in the eyes. Smile at him. Wink. Put a finger in your mouth and lick it a little bit. Make sure you wear plenty of lip gloss so your lips are very, very shiny. If you’re doing it right, you can make him think: ‘Wow, she’s dancing just for me.’ You can make him think he’s doing something to your insides. You can make him fall in love. Then when the music stops, you step off the stage, and beat it back to the dressing room.”
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“My expectations were blown away by how many people came along on the entire journey,” Stanton revealed. “There was very little attrition as the week went on. It’s really opened the possibility of more long-form storytelling on the blog.”
Two weeks later, the campaign has raised over $2.5 million for Tanqueray’s care and her story has been covered by several publications — including the New York Times — marveling over her life and the success of the GoFundMe.
“I think she’s processing it slowly. It’s really hard to wrap your head around the fact that millions of people read your story, and $2.65 million was raised on your behalf,” Stanton explained.
According to the GoFundMe page, “the trust will cover her living expenses and health care needs moving forward” and then some.
While not on Instagram, Stanton said that Tanqueray is very much aware of her viral story and the new trust. But fame hasn’t changed her a bit.
“When I talk to her on the phone, she’d rather talk about her natural cure regiment and the teddy bear that she is ordering for my daughter, which lights up when you squeeze it,” Stanton said.
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