There are days when JD and Kate Dobson's house smells like Donald Trump — suntan oil and steak, with a note of synthetic hair. And then there are the Justin Trudeau days, when the cozy little house in Southampton fills with the intoxicating aroma of chai tea and maple. The Canadian prime minister lingers, to the point that someone will invariably compliment Kate's "perfume" later when she's at the grocery store. "Is that ..." they'll ask, maybe thinking Gucci or Hugo Boss. "That's Justin Trudeau," she says. When your job involves making candles infused with the essence of world leaders, these are the occupational hazards.
They are not the only occupational hazards for JD and Kate Dobson these days. In addition to the couple's thriving candle business (more on that in a minute), Henry Holt and Company just published their first book, Hottest Heads of State, a whimsical and largely affectionate look at the U.S. presidents in the vein of US Weekly. Each of the 45 men to hold the office gets a profile filled with goofy little tidbits, pop quizzes and vital stats. There is also "Match the Mistress to Her Potus" and "Special Investigation: Which Presidents Are Also Sexy Vampires?" (Nixon, as it turns out, is not: "We don't think Richard Nixon is a vampire. But it's not for lack of trying.") There are even twelve sexual fantasies involving Grover Cleveland. (No. 1: "Have sex with him two non-consecutive times.") It's hilarious, but also surprisingly informative. If you ever need a crash course in the gold standard written à la Buzzfeed, the Dobsons are at your service.
So what are the pitfalls of writing a humorous yet sex-drenched book about our commanders in chief? Thus far, no president has sued — Donald Trump, who gets the authors' harshest treatment, saved that publicity bonanza for their publisher's other big 2018 release. Most of the others are no threat; as Henry Holt's lawyer helpfully informed them, "You can't libel the dead."
But there are the gift shops that persist, to their consternation, in stocking Hottest Heads in the kids' section. There are one-star reviews on Goodreads — OK, there is one lone one-star review on Goodreads, but it still smarts. And there is, more than anything, the waiting-for-a-reaction part, the knowledge that the project you've spent months obsessing over is now in the hands of readers across the nation, and ... well, JD and Kate are holding their breath to see if America laughs as hard reading it as they did while writing it.
"It's weird," says JD, 41. "It's not like we've had a lot of feedback. I don't want to say it's anti-climactic, but, you think you'll wake up the day that it's out and it will change your life." Instead, you find yourself obsessing over that one-star review ("It didn't say anything!" JD laments) and wondering, no matter how many other, positive comments there have been, if the jokes are bombing.
Still, the Dobsons will be the first to tell you that they're having a blast. They're nearly sparkling with excitement over the research they did, the way they flipped it into funny. They are not angsty mopes who complain about the loneliness of the author's craft. "I loved writing it," Kate, 37, admits. "Having written something you're proud of, it's the best high in the world."
"Compared to having a real job..." says JD.
He would know. Two years ago, their house off Hampton Avenue thrummed with a different energy. JD was working long hours in downtown St. Louis for public relations powerhouse FleishmanHillard, while Kate was trying to find her mojo as a stay-at-home mom to their two kids.
They'd met in Washington, where JD had started out working for U.S. Senator Kit Bond (R-Missouri) and wound up as a lobbyist advocating for anti-malaria concerns. Kate, a Florida native, was the comics-page editor for the Washington Post. They fell in love, got married and moved back to JD's native St. Louis, as St. Louisans are wont to do.
For a Capitol Hill guy, JD had a remarkably good sense of humor, for which he credits a childhood love of Bloom County and Doonesbury. In Kate he'd found the spark to light his creativity — and a Democrat to his then-loyal Republican.
Kate wasn't originally a political animal, although as a kid she took her older brother's cue and was fixated on the presidents. "By second or third grade I could recite the presidents in order (which I can still do, but it is less impressive now)," she notes. "I also tried at one point to read a biography of every president in order, but only got as far as John Adams."
But in D.C., you can't help but inhale the talk about government. "I imagine it's sort of like how my parents moved to Jacksonville and suddenly became rabid college football fans," she says.
As an outgrowth of that obsession, just for fun, the two started a blog — the Hottest Heads of State, where they ranked world leaders for their, well, hotness. It was Kate's idea and more or less always Kate's baby. "Every good idea we've ever had was Kate's," says JD. "I just went with it."
It got a few clicks. "Literally just our friends," Kate explains. "Two hits a day."
Then, in 2009, not long after they moved to St. Louis, journalist John Dickerson somehow found the site. ("I think he was searching Google for 'hottest world leaders,'" Kate posits.) He tweeted a link, and there was a brief blast of Beltway coverage. Politico wrote a story, and everybody else in the D.C. pack followed.
At the time, they didn't know what to do with the attention. "We were getting a lot of mean comments, a lot of racist comments," Kate recalls. "Racist comments in other languages." Trolls from the countries that formerly comprised Yugoslavia proved just as nasty as American ones (who knew?), and they struggled to stay on top of the barrage. While Kate did an interview with a South Korean TV show, media interest waned without further developments.
Years passed. JD felt done with the Hottest Heads project, but Kate found herself circling back to it. She had too much creative energy and no outlet. "I'd always wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, but it was hard," she says. "I wasn't happy." She took to painting, and then repainting, various rooms of the house. She also constructed an elaborate Mexican terrace in their basement, complete with a fake tree and stars overhead, like a south city version of Epcot Center.
Hottest Heads wouldn't let her go. She'd always had the idea in the back of her head that at some point, for President's Day, she should rank the U.S. presidents in order of their hotness, but she never remembered in time to make it happen. "Every year on February 26 — 'Oh shit, did I miss President's Day?'" she laughs.
In 2015, she didn't forget. From No. 44 John Adams to No. 1 Franklin Pierce, each man got a photo and one perfectly executed quip. "Here he is — the hottest American president!" she wrote of Pierce. "You're probably thinking 'Wow! Where has Franklin Pierce been all my life?' The answer is that he died in 1869." For No. 3 JFK, who followed Pierce and James K. Polk, she wrote, "Finally, someone you've heard of!" The list was goofy and pithy in equal measures, tailor-made for viral status in 2015.
And viral it went. Despite no attempt at promotion, the post drew several hundred thousand pageviews in its first week alone and further skyrocketed from there. It was only later that the Dobsons realized they ought to make the project a Facebook page. Nearly ten years after they'd first started to play with the idea, it was an overnight success.
When a literary agent reached out, the Dobsons were at first skeptical, but they agreed to work on some sample chapters. When she gave them feedback that was actually helpful, they started wondering if maybe Hottest Heads really was destined for print.
They finally got their book deal in August 2016, and within days, JD put in his notice at FleishmanHillard. He dreamed of catching his breath after all those years of toiling on Capitol Hill and then at the office. He thought maybe he'd go to his beloved Cahokia Mounds and take a minute to unwind.
That was eighteen months ago. "I haven't gone yet," he says.
That's because, out of nowhere, they suddenly found themselves with a political candle business.
The candles, too, were Kate's idea. She was writing tongue-in-cheek fan faction about Vladimir Putin (as one does) when she included a throwaway line about the room being lit by "hundreds and hundreds of Putin-scented candles." She loved the idea so much she decided to make one.
This, naturally, required learning how to make candles. And, once she'd done that, releasing a Putin-scented candle on Etsy that smelled of pine, earth and "smoke billowing from the cities of your enemies," she thought, "Why not make a Trump one?" In the summer of 2016, Trump still felt like a joke.
After she created the candle, topped with its own little swath of bright faux fur on the lid, she took it to just one store: Phoenix Rising in the Delmar Loop. Owner Carrie Drda said yes right away.
That one store led to a story in the RFT. And that led to national attention — Buzzfeed, naturally, along with a host of other outlets. Suddenly, JD and Kate were swamped with candle orders.
They filled them, even as they were deep in the weeds on their book. In November, they fully intended to whip up a chapter on Hillary Clinton and put the Trump candles behind them forever. But then the impossible happened, and not only were they writing a chapter about Trump, but suddenly everyone wanted a Trump-scented candle all over again.
They now have fourteen candles in their line, ranging from Rutherford B. Hayes to Theodore Roosevelt to, yes, Justin Trudeau, each displayed in its own homemade diorama in their dining room. (Joe Biden's candle, naturally, is riding the Amtrak Acela.) On any given day, they sell more than 100 candles.
Having the business take off just as their book project heated up proved a blessing in disguise. Hand-pouring candles turns out to be the perfect mindless, physical activity to give yourself a break after a few hours of intense writing. JD, who makes the candles, will plow through a batch in the basement while binge-watching TV. Kate, who packs them, tags into their workspace as he heads off elsewhere to write. They're a team, but each gives the other enough space to work on their own before they come back together. Whether they're editing each other's jokes or handling orders for "impeachment-scented candles" (which offer "a flicker of hope for when you need it" and a spinner top with actual ideas for making America great again), they seem almost perfectly in sync.
But while life is good in south city, there remain, yes, occupational hazards beyond wondering how their prose will be received by D.C.'s literati (or even just some poor kid who stumbles onto their joke about Grover Cleveland and the Cleveland steamer — thanks, booksellers!).
That Donald Trump candle-topper, as it turns out, is a menace. The fur follicles seem particularly attracted to their shower curtain and their offspring's clothing. "I'll be literally brushing it off my kids on the way to school," says Kate.
"My belly-button lint is part Trump hair," JD sighs.
It's still nice work if you can get it. And if you're JD and Kate Dobson, you can get it ... you just have to be hilarious, and smart, and willing to wait ten years. Oh, and willing to spend the best years of your life cutting synthetic wigs into little candle-toppers and packing the olfactory essence of Justin Trudeau into boxes to be shipped out across America while your kids sleep. This is the price you pay, and if you are lucky, you end up with a brisk business, a partnership that most people can only dream of, and a really, really funny book.
Hottest Heads of State, Volume One: The American Presidents is now for sale at a bookstore near you. For candle information, see www.etsy.com/shop/JDandKateIndustries.