‘He Liked That I Was Innocent’

Jessica Radtke met Jeff Ross at a comedy club at 15. Soon after, she alleges, they began a sexual relationship.

Photo: Deun Ivory
Photo: Deun Ivory
Photo: Deun Ivory

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In September 2019, a woman named Jessica Radtke created a public Facebook page called “Iwas15hewas33.” She had a singular purpose: to lay out evidence of her sexual relationship with Jeff Ross, a veteran stand-up comedian and mainstay of Comedy Central’s televised roasts, when she was a teenager. In a video posted the next month, Radtke runs through her memories with Ross. “Please note where his hand is on my 15-year-old body,” she says while holding up a picture of herself and Ross at the Friars Club roast of Jerry Stiller in 1999, which shows his fingers snugly gripped around her waist just below her breast. “Please note the hat in the photo that Jeff is wearing,” she says while presenting another photo of Ross at her 16th-birthday party; he’s wearing a black fedora and throwing up peace signs, and Radtke stands behind him. In two other photos, allegedly taken in Ross’s Mercer Street apartment when he was away, Radtke wears a sleeveless red dress and Ross’s fedora. She took these photos, and many others, with his Polaroid camera during their alleged relationship.

The video went mostly unnoticed until this June, when sexual-misconduct allegations against comedian Chris D’Elia surfaced on Twitter and sparked a broader conversation. “Brace yourself for the 20+ other prominent men in comedy women have been messaging each other about behind closed doors,” comedian Pallavi Gunalan tweeted. When someone alerted Gunalan to Radtke’s video, she ripped it from Facebook and posted it to Twitter in a thread of clips. Within four days, the clips had more than half a million views combined. After watching Radtke’s video, comedian Griffin Newman wrote on Twitter that, allegedly, an unnamed friend of his told him “about going on dates with Jeff Ross when she was 15/16.” Newman said he was unaware of the specifics but claimed the meetups occurred after the events described in Radtke’s video, arguing, “This is clearly a pattern of behavior.” By June 22, Ross posted a statement to Twitter denying the allegations. “Let me be clear,” he wrote. “These disgusting allegations asserted against me are absolutely not true. I have never engaged in any sexual relationship with a minor.”

Ever since the 1990s, Ross has been a prominent fixture in the comedy scene; his friends include Jimmy Kimmel, Dave Chappelle, and Sarah Silverman. He’s a longtime member of the Friars Club, a prestigious private club in New York founded in 1904 and best known for hosting annual celebrity roasts since the ’50s. More recently, Ross has served as creator and/or host of a handful of television series and specials, including Comedy Central’s Jeff Ross Presents Roast Battle, and the Netflix shows Bumping Mics With Jeff Ross & Dave Attell and Historical Roasts. Over the years, some in the industry have been aware that Ross preferred to date younger women, albeit of seemingly legal age. During The Comedy Central Roast of Alec Baldwin in September 2019, two jokes were made about Ross having sex with underage girls. “Jeff gets really hot girls, and I just … How do you get tens? Teens — I’m sorry, I read that wrong … You have the sex appeal of a gymnastics doctor, I just don’t understand,” comedian Nikki Glaser joked, alluding to convicted sex offender Larry Nassar. Later, Caroline Rhea offered a shorter version: “Jeff Ross, you’re a staple on the roasting circuit and a predator at high-school dances.”

“Jeff is someone I consider a good friend, and I love him, but to be honest, he always has alarmingly young-looking girlfriends,” stand-up comedian and actress Amy Schumer told Vulture when asked about the allegations. “Never one I have known to be underage, but alarmingly young-looking just the same.” Another comedian, who asked to remain anonymous, echoed Schumer’s observation. “Jeff Ross was always with a young girl — that was his girlfriend ‘type,’” the comedian said. “Were his girlfriends 18 and over that I saw him with? Probably. But he was still considerably older. He has that reputation.”

In a series of interviews, Radtke told Vulture the complete story of her alleged relationship with Ross. She is now 36, married, and goes by her husband’s name. (For this article, she asked to use her maiden name, which she went by at the time she knew Ross.) It wasn’t until recently, she says, that she came to terms with what she says Ross did to her when she was 15 and what continued to happen until she was 18. (In the State of New York, the age of consent is 17.) When Vulture reached out to Ross to address the allegations, his attorney, Bryan Freedman, responded instead, offering a blanket denial and referring to his client’s Twitter statement. In it, Ross claimed that this story had been previously investigated and “never published. The witnesses and evidence do not support these despicable allegations,” he concluded.

Seven sources have confirmed to Vulture that they were aware of Radtke’s relationship with Ross at the time of the allegations or had been told about it in the years before Radtke’s Facebook posting. One of those sources, her father, says he approved of the alleged relationship at the time.

“I don’t care about being called a liar or a whore, because I know I’m not,” Radtke says. “I know I’m a fucking lunatic for doing the stuff that I did, but I didn’t do anything wrong. Except to myself.”

Jessica Radtke grew up in rural Central Texas, an hour away from Austin, and had a difficult upbringing. Her parents divorced when she was 7, and both were absent throughout much of her youth. “If I would say something had happened to Jessica in her childhood, it would probably be being gaslighted that she was okay when she was not and that she was in a safe situation when she was not,” says Alexandra Walker, Radtke’s cousin.

Comedy was a lifeline. Jessica moved to New York with her father after he got a job offer in the spring of 1998, and the first thing she asked for upon landing was to go to a comedy club. (Her mother remained in Texas, and her brother joined them in the city shortly after they arrived.) Several clubs she and her father tried to enter that night turned them away. They eventually found one willing to let a 14-year-old attend performances: Barry Katz’s Boston Comedy Club on West 3rd Street, just down the street from the Comedy Cellar. “She got to know people pretty quick there, and they liked her,” Radtke’s father, Ross Radtke, says. (The club closed in 2005.)

The Radtkes temporarily left New York when Ross had to serve a short sentence in Texas state jail (according to Radtke, her father was arrested “for throwing an alligator in a pool”). They returned to the city in early summer 1999, when Jessica was 15. She began regularly attending shows at the Boston Comedy Club and caught the attention of the club’s booker, Gina Savage. “Gina noticed that my father was really drunk and I was a teenager coming to a comedy club all the time,” Radtke recalls. “So she approached me to the side and said, ‘Hey, listen. Would you like a job? Don’t tell anybody — I don’t even know if I can pay you.’ I quickly said ‘Yes.’ I didn’t even blink.”

Radtke’s father says that the initial plan upon moving to New York was for Jessica to attend high school or enroll in online classes, but it “just never happened” because she quickly secured work. At the club, Jessica did everything from answering phones to introducing comedians to the audience. Throughout her years there, she met many big-name comedians. “I met Louis C.K., I met Jon Stewart, I met Chris Rock, I met Jay Mohr. So it was fun for me,” she remembers. In July 1999, she met Jeff Ross.

Radtke describes the first night she saw the then-33-year-old Ross standing outside the Boston Comedy Club. “I was with [barker] Lewis Schaffer and Gina Savage, and this guy walks up. Very Fred Savage–The Wonder Years, and I’ll never forget what he was wearing. It was an orange long-sleeve shirt, green cargo shorts, and white Adidas shell toes with black stripes on them,” she says. “And he did this thing — he was looking at me, and he winked at me. Something in me was like, Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, because no one had ever winked at me like that.” Radtke says she confided to Savage that she was interested in Ross, “and she was like ‘Oh, you think he’s cute? He’s really funny. He’s one of the good ones.’ She goes, ‘I’ll give him your number.’ I literally thought she was joking.” (Through Ross’s attorney, Bryan Freedman, Savage said she was unaware of any sexual relationship between Ross and Radtke while Jessica was a minor. She did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.)

On the night of July 8, 1999, as she was walking up the stairs to her home in Queens, Ross called Jessica’s prepaid cell phone (she remembers the exact date, she says, because Ross had performed stand-up on The Late Show With David Letterman the night before). He asked her, she recalls, to meet him outside his apartment in Manhattan, on Mercer near 8th Street. “He goes, ‘Is it okay if I ask your dad if it’s okay if you come to the city tonight? It’d be really cool. Maybe we could go to the [Comedy] Cellar or we could go somewhere and have a coffee,’” Radtke says. “I said, ‘Yeah, I’d love that.’ He goes, ‘Do you want me to be your boyfriend?’ Like that — I’ll never forget the cadence. I just giggled. At that point, I [was] a girl that really thought I had something to prove, and the way I was going to prove it was trying to get a boyfriend that was a really good comic.”

Jessica and Ross at the Friars Club roast of Jerry Stiller in 1999. Radtke says this is the first public photo they ever took together. Photo: Courtesy of Jessica Radtke

According to Radtke, she and Ross never went to the Cellar or for coffee that night. She met Ross outside his apartment and went into the building with him after he told her he had forgotten his credit card. “In the elevator, I just attacked him. I started trying to kiss him, and he goes ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa! There’s cameras!’ Not ‘You’re 15,’ and he points,” Radtke recalls. “So I just kind of went ‘Oh, okay, I’m sorry.’” Once they entered Ross’s apartment — which Radtke describes as “filthy with South Park stuff and The Man Show shit all over the place” — she alleges they instantly started making out. Then she performed oral sex on Ross and they had unprotected sex, after which Ross told Jessica she had to leave. “I’d felt like I won. I felt very Okay, cool — if I never saw him again, cool,” she recalls. “He just kept saying, ‘I can’t believe you’re only 15. I can’t believe it.’ It was like he was trying to make it a compliment — like I’m so mature.” On her way out, she says, he gave her a Cartman hat as a parting gift.

More visits to Ross’s place followed, says Radtke, and the comedian always called for cars to send her home after they had sex. But the relationship progressed quickly, and he soon allowed her to spend the night and keep some things at his apartment, she recalls. (Radtke’s father confirmed the location of Ross’s apartment, saying he’d been there “once or twice” while his daughter was there and noted that she was away from home a lot.) She remembers Ross buying her Betsey Johnson dresses and lingerie, always in white, and taking explicit Polaroids of her. “He would have a preference that I shave my vagina completely off,” she says. “He was very mad whenever I wore red lipstick or really dark makeup. He didn’t like it if I looked too grown-up or too ‘whore-y.’ He liked that I was innocent.” Radtke says they had “a lot” of unprotected sex during their relationship.

Radtke’s father confirmed he was aware that Ross and his daughter had a sexual relationship. “At that point, she was basically living the life of an adult,” he says. “I didn’t really monitor what she was doing because she was savvy enough to take the subway and go around, and she was hanging out with adults,” he recalls. “I trusted her judgment.” When asked whether he ever expressed concern about the age difference between Jessica and Ross, he indicated that he approved of her dating an older man. “If you go out with a 17-year-old guy, he may want to drive fast and impress you and you get killed, you know?” he says. “I really didn’t think much of it.” One person who knew Radtke while she was allegedly in the relationship with Ross, and asked to remain anonymous, described the comedian as “more like a parent figure” to Radtke who “took advantage of a situation.”

Between 1999 and 2001, Radtke says Ross took various measures to keep their relationship under wraps, which her father confirmed. “When we were together, he’d say ‘You’ll destroy me if you say anything.’ He made sure to drill it into my head that I would destroy his life,” she alleges. “He asked me to walk on the other side of the street if we ever left home together. I didn’t want him to ever get into trouble.” She notes that he was “obsessed” with the story of Shoshanna Lonstein and Jerry Seinfeld. She familiarized herself with Seinfeld’s much-publicized four-year relationship with Lonstein in the ‘90s — which began when the comedian was 38 and Lonstein was a 17-year-old high-school student — as well as the book Lolita. Radtke says she occasionally visited Ross while he was working in Los Angeles and would “hide in his apartment” during her stays.

One comedian who performed at the Boston Comedy Club during this time, and asked to remain anonymous, notes that even if Ross and Jessica had been openly together, it’s unlikely anyone in the comedy scene would’ve intervened. “At that time, I think people would be like, ‘Oh, yeah, whatever,’” the comedian says. “It’s only in the last year or two that people were like, ‘Wait, that’s against the law.’” Comedian Karen Bergreen, who also performed at the club at the time and remembers seeing Radtke and her father there, describes the culture of the New York stand-up scene in the late ’90s as a “boys’ club in the worst way.” Sexist remarks against women were rampant, rape jokes by male comics were considered edgy and “brave” material, and it wasn’t uncommon to see male comics with much younger women.

In the fall of 1999, thanks to recommendations from Savage and Ross, Radtke says she landed another gig working for Katz’s management company, Barry Katz Entertainment. (Katz was one of Ross’s managers at the time.) In a phone interview, Katz acknowledged that Jessica and her father often attended shows at the Boston Comedy Club but claimed he couldn’t recall in what capacity, or how regularly she worked there or for his management company. When Radtke’s name was initially brought up, Katz said, “Is the purpose of the article to bring people down? Because if it’s an article about trying to bring people down, I’m a very positive person.” (Katz did not return multiple phone calls to respond to the allegations but said in a text message that he didn’t “see anything productive about the people and things you may want me to comment on.”)

Radtke’s father and three other people confirmed her employment at both the club and the office. David Batista, who worked as a college intern at Barry Katz Entertainment at the same time as Jessica did, says that she was at the office “all the time” working as the receptionist. Batista also says he was aware of her relationship with Ross at the time and that she had to keep it secret. She would mention it when they’d hang out after work, he says, but not when other friends were around. Jessica had the keys to Ross’s apartment and took Batista there on one occasion.

In December 2001, Ross took Radtke to the Rainbow Room for her 18th birthday. She was thrilled at the thought of not having to hide anymore. “It was this magical New York evening, and finally we’re at a point where the whole world can know that Jeff and I are together, and we’re in love, and they don’t need to know we’ve been together since I was 15,” she remembers thinking. But something happened soon after that changed her perspective. Later that month, after attending an MTV New Years special, Radtke alleges they went back to Ross’s apartment to begin packing up boxes. He was in the process of moving out of his Mercer Street rental into a new place he had bought. “I was packing his books, and I pull out a book. Polaroids fall out. I go, ‘Oh, these are my Polaroids,’” Radtke recalls thinking. But she says when she turned the photos over, they weren’t photos of her. “They were not women. They didn’t have any pubic hair,” Radtke says.

Horrified by the photos, Radtke says she confronted Ross. “I just said, ‘Okay, these can’t be in our hands. Who the fuck are these?’” Radtke alleges that Ross told her he was holding onto them for a friend. “‘I know my house is safe ’cause I have yours,’” she recalls Ross saying, referring to the Polaroid photos he had taken of her. Radtke says she left Ross’s apartment after discovering the photos and told him to never talk to her again. Her husband, Robert, as well as her former neighbor, Bobbi (who asked to be referred to by her first name only), both confirmed she had later told them about discovering the photos.

Ross and Radtke celebrating her 18th birthday at Rockefeller Center in December 2001. Photo: Courtesy of Jessica Radtke

After that night, Radtke says, Ross “begged” her to come back. “Somehow he explained it to me, and I felt like a hypocrite, so I went back,” she says. “I wanted to normalize this in my fucking head.” She and Ross continued to occasionally see each other up until she was around 22 years old, Radtke says. In 2005, she wrote about the relationship in an essay for a creative nonfiction class, which she posted on Facebook this past fall. Radtke says she’s since been diagnosed with PTSD, and it took years to process that what she experienced during her teenage years wasn’t a romantic relationship but an inappropriate and exploitative one. “I thought I had stuffed it down deep enough and taken enough Klonopin, seen enough therapists, and smoked just enough medical marijuana to be okay. I thought, Okay, I’m okay,” she says. “I didn’t really know that it was that word — rape — until recently.”

In February, Radtke posted an update to the “iwas15hewas33” Facebook page asking for a lawyer to represent her. (She found one: Alex Little, who represented Kesha in her dispute with Dr. Luke.) She referenced New York State’s Child Victims Act, which went into effect in 2019 and temporarily lifted the statute of limitations of child sex-abuse cases for a year. As of June, at least 2,000 cases have been filed, including ones against the estate of Jeffrey Epstein and the Catholic Church. This May, in part owing to COVID-19-related case backlogs, New York extended the act through August 2021, which means Radtke would have a full year to develop and bring a case before a civil court.

In his June Twitter statement, Ross wrote that he, too, intends to take legal action. (Radtke says she has not received any indication of action against her by Ross.) He alleged that Radtke has “mental health issues” and accused her and her husband of “harassing” him for years. “I’m proud of my reputation,” he continued. “Not just as a comedian but as a human being and an ally to women. The dangerous environment currently being exposed at the comedy clubs is real. I wholeheartedly support change, and vow to do more to make my community safer for everyone.” Beyond broad denials, Ross’s attorney, Bryan Freedman, would not answer specific questions regarding Radtke’s allegations. Instead, he countered with attacks on Radtke’s character, based on assertions from her mother and brother, with whom she no longer has a relationship. Her family has a deeply dysfunctional past, which Freedman detailed in his efforts to undermine Radtke’s credibility.

Looking back, Radtke says she feels “very failed by a lot of people” in her life, but she’s still coming to terms with the breadth of that failure, including those who didn’t think twice about a kid spending many late nights at the Boston Comedy Club. “Literally everybody joked about it,” she says, reflecting on her near-constant presence at the club as a teenager. At one of the club’s roast events, Radtke remembers a rare occasion where she performed herself. She made a joke about being of legal age soon; the punch line was, “There’s a signup sheet in the back, and Jeff Ross’s name is the first one on it.” After she delivered the joke, she looked into the crowd and saw Ross watching her from the front row. He was laughing.

Jeff Ross Accused of Sexual Relationship With Underage Girl