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PRIDE 2021 THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Queer ’21: For Every Ten Steps Forward, There Are Nine Back

Being queer in America nowadays is like having to crash a party that you helped organize. Every time a new Presidential administration comes in, you’re either handed a fab slew of rights or the ones you were just given are rudely snatched away. You develop whiplash looking back at either the equality or the oppression that just left you behind like a hit-and-run driver. Between 2009 and ’17, President Obama and Vice President Biden put in scores of LGBTQ protections, which were obsessively removed in the next four years by President Trump (who refused to acknowledge Pride month, unless you count the fact that he shamelessly sold Pride merch). With Biden back in the White House, he and Veep Harris have dutifully been restoring those protections, while ushering in renewed respect for (and by) the LGBTQ community. But we can never relax in our combat boots. By now, we know that the next time a Republican comes in, it’ll be back to square queero and we’ll have a hard time holding onto any acquired equality in housing, health care, adoption, and other realms where your dignity can be so readily stripped.

It’s amazing that, as taxpaying citizens, our right to simply exist is up for grabs on a constant basis — and that it’s a sketchy bunch of insurrectionists who retain so much power in trying to withhold those rights. The Supreme Court helps determine how we queers can live, even though the Court happens to include an accused sexual harasser and an accused rapist, among other morally dubious jurists. Perhaps these are not the people who should be the arbiters of which human rights can be attached to sexuality and which can’t. 

Trans people are special targets for the Republican agenda because they’re so vulnerable to begin with, and it’s so easy to get power-hungry MAGAs to gather ’round and kick sand in their face. Being a black trans person in the age of Trump was a double whammy that made you a walking punching bag. Those that survived may never feel at peace in this country, but at least the Biden/Harris team is putting out messages to uplift and celebrate them — at the same time that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis spent the first day of Pride Month in a Christian Academy that excludes LGBTQs, where he signed an anti-trans bill, with his little daughter — you know, “a real girl” — sitting by his side for the cameras.

Of course, the Republicans have their own trans mascot — Caitlyn Jenner — though I don’t think they’re much more enthusiastic about her than Democrats are. Hoping to unseat Gavin Newsom as Governor of California, Jenner is a rich, white woman who affects a pathetic “I didn’t realize” look every time she’s busted for being a Republican. Jenner is against trans people competing in the sports events of their gender, though she herself participated in a women’s golf tournament with no reservation. She’s a “Do as I say, not as I do” Republican, who has enough money to get out of icky situations (like fatal car crashes), so her trans self-loathing doesn’t cause much damage to her own life. Her reality show did open eyes and offer some education, but today, Jenner boils down to a bitter pill for other trans people to swallow, just like Milo and Richard Grenell are gays who harm gay rights and Candace Owens is an African American who’s bad for African Americans. 

When your Family Values brigade consists of them, plus bottom-dwelling Matt Gaetz (an accused sex trafficker), Jim Jordan (who covered up miles of abuse), and Lindsey Graham (whose closet runneth over), it becomes the equivalent of O.J. Simpson starting an organization called Be Nicer To Your Spouse. (Not to give him any ideas.)

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A Republican “hero” right now is Liz Cheney for standing up to Trump’s treacherous lies, which normally wouldn’t seem like all that brave a thing to do. In fact, Graham and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy both were going there, until flip-flopping back up Trump’s ass — though McCarthy flip-flopped back out by admitting the election wasn’t stolen. Then, how is Cheney saying so a problem? Oh, right — she says it too often. But in today’s swamp of a Republican party, telling the truth in order to defy the attempted overthrow of democracy makes Cheney a shining light, even though we must never forget that she has been a vile homophobe who wouldn’t even go to bat for her lesbian sister. And this year, her rep used a homophobic smear in a battle with Matt Gaetz, bizarrely crowing, “In Wyoming, the men don’t wear makeup.” This being the state where Matthew Shepard was tortured and left to die in 1998 makes that remark even more harrowing. But stop everything. Republican Anthony Bouchard, who plans to run against Cheney in Wyoming, turns out to have impregnated a 14-year-old girl when he was 18. They married (in Florida, of course), then split, then she killed herself, and now their son’s an accused sex offender himself. As Bouchard tried to pre-emptively spin this as a touching tale of teenagers in love, Liz Cheney started looking better and better. But stop everything again! Cheney then expressed support for some of the current wave of Republican voter suppression laws, clearly not drawing a connecting line between this shameful agenda and Trump’s antics, which she voted to impeach him for. She’s still Liz Cheney!

Mind you, I’m thrilled that we’ve come so far from a year ago, when we were in the grips of a new pandemic and when Trump was treating that as dismissively as he handled queer rights. But we’re tired of endlessly consoling ourselves with, “At least things are better than they were.” Yes, the queer plight has progressed light years from the 1960s, when I grew up learning that homosexuality was considered a mental illness and you could get arrested for holding hands in the street. Whoop-de-do! After the Stonewall rebellion in 1969, the community further mobilized and queers became more visible, propelling us into the ’70s, which were a relatively sexy time to be a gay man in NYC — post-Stonewall and pre-AIDS. 

But in the ’80s, the scourge decimated young gays as well as IV drug users, reigniting homophobic rhetoric aimed at “sinners” who’d brought this upon themselves and should basically be left to rot. President Reagan willfully ignored the plague as it mounted (a dry run for Trump and Covid), but the resulting horror back then politicized us and we protested in the streets while urging public figures to come out of the closet to let the youth out there know they were not alone.

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Jump ahead to now and everything’s changed, but nothing’s changed. We have same-sex marriage and lots of visibility on cable and streaming services, but our rights are still only available on a day-by-day basis. People still use selective readings from the Bible to claim we’re second-class citizens, and the anti “cancel culture” crowd will gladly refuse to make a same-sex wedding cake while also stopping a drag queen from reading to perfectly enchanted kids. Politicians now crave our votes, but in a pandering way, as witnessed by mayoral wannabe Andrew Yang’s cringe-worthy speech to the Stonewall Democrats of New York City in April. Yang robotically gushed that gays are “so beautiful and human” and “a secret weapon.” Yes, Andrew, we’re people — like Soylent Green. But guess what? We’re out of the closet and other people know about us! We haven’t been a secret since 1969! 

And that’s not the end of the queer queasiness. As beautiful and human as it is, the community is as divided as ever, with the upcoming Pride weekend a perfect example. The long-running Heritage of Pride organization will have a June 27th virtual parade based on corporate support. (Some of these companies routinely participate in the parade to look “with it” and appeal to the gay dollar, only to ignore the issue the rest of the year). But on the same day, the Reclaim Pride Coalition’s Queer Liberation March comes back in person for a third year, eschewing corporate sponsors, politicians, and police in favor of old-style righteous anger. 

In May, Heritage of Pride surprised people with a radical move, deciding on a similar exclusion of cops in uniform from now till 2025. (The membership reversed the exclusion of GOAL — Gay Officers Action League — from the parade, but then the board un-reversed it. The divisions keep on coming.) One can easily see where the distrust of cops comes from. The Stonewall rebellion was a result of brutes with badges harassing bar patrons for the millionth time, and after all these years, some blue lives still haven’t gotten the memo. Last year, when the Queer Liberation March ended up in Washington Square Park, cops used pepper spray and batons to abuse various protestors — all the more sickening considering that the march had been done in conjunction with Black Lives Matter, which was formed to protest police brutality. HoP taking a stand on this issue is refreshing, though their banning GOAL from marching in uniform makes us dangerously similar to the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which for many years would not allow gay Irish contingents to march. 

But Reclaim Pride has little sympathy for GOAL, saying the group never publicly condemned all the police attacks on queer-led protests for black lives in the past year. That doesn’t mean Reclaim Pride is backing HoP either. They say that HoP’s move is “too little, too late” and besides, the private security firms HoP wants to bring in generally consist of retired or off-duty cops! It’s all very complicated and very now, but I suspect that by the time there’s a live HoP parade, the re-reversal will have been reversed once again and the cops will be back in the mix, angrier than ever.

Thankfully, Biden and Harris have been a blast of empathy and enlightenment, some queer rights are back on the upswing, and so many celebs are out, out, out. So why am I not popping open the pink champagne? Because this queer knows better. Happy Pride, everyone. Be afraid.   ❖

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives News 2021 SPRING PRINT EDITION 2021 THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Nomadland! Judas! Minari! Who’s Getting The Oscar and Why It Still Matters

Despite the fact that the industry was devastated and many major releases were bumped ahead to this year, 2020 ended up serving a rich and diverse crop of Oscar nominees. The films’ prevailing topics—institutionalized racism, protesters’ rights, sexual abuse, and the tanking economy—seem ripped from today’s headlines, with even the period pieces feeling as current as the Capitol attack on January 6. As we watched these films through links and on streaming services, our isolation was reflected in the dark cinematic scenarios, most nominations going to works about the art of valiantly fighting authority and oppression while barely getting by. Not long ago, Oscar voters had a bias against streaming services because they were cutting into the movie theater biz, but now it’s accepted that that’s the way the business has shifted. And besides, last year these services stepped in and saved our asses. The winners will be announced on April 25 in a scaled-down, televised ceremony that will provide a return to semi-normalcy in the form of boosting the industry while giving us the cathartic chance to watch big stars alternately squirm and rejoice.

Or you can skip all that and just read my predictions below.

Your Oscar prophet, Michael Musto

BEST PICTURE
The nominees are:

Minari
A Korean-American family starts a farm in Arkansas amidst various challenges, including the arrival of a very unorthodox granny. Based on writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s childhood, this is a “movie-movie” about a family learning to communicate, and it’s enriching to watch.

Judas and the Black Messiah
A sort of reversal on The Black Klansman, Judas chronicles the time in the late 1960s when a Black man infiltrated the Black Panther Party with intent to harm one of its most influential leaders, Fred Hampton. The film is swirling and gritty, with a great sense of the period, though I didn’t find it consistently strong. It bears noting that between Judas, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, 2020 spotlighted a lot of Black-on-Black crime/harassment, all of it instigated by whites.

Mank
A visually stimulating take on the iconography of the Citizen Kane era, Mank has the most nominations of any film this year (10), but the liberties it takes with the truth and its failure to enthrall the public have removed some gleam from the sled. (The lack of a Best Original Screenplay nomination is telling.) Also, Citizen Kane didn’t win Best Picture, so Mank winning would be bizarre—though Judy Garland never nabbed a competitive Oscar but Renee Zellweger got one for playing Judy, so anything goes in Oscar land.

Promising Young Woman
The ultimate #MeToo movie, this revenge fantasy plays out in ways that rivet and provoke. I’ve urged everyone I know to see it, and without looking up the plot, because your mind will reel.

Sound of Metal
A heavy metal drummer loses his hearing and battles his own best intentions when it comes to seeking help. A terrific surprise about the difficulty of reigning in adversity, done with the proper indie spirit.

The Father
Similarly, this play adaptation has Anthony Hopkins as a mature man suffering from dementia and replaying various scenes in his head with different outcomes. The best of the three dementia movies I saw, The Father scores mainly because of Hopkins’ heartbreaking attempts to make sense of everything.

The Trial of the Chicago 7
Aaron Sorkin’s look at 1960s activism and racism provides a crisp ensemble piece full of tasty turns. (And another Black Panther leader, Bobby Seale, is shown being taunted and victimized.) It could easily win Best Picture just for showing that some good people can also be accused of inciting a riot. But without a Best Director nomination, it seems adrift (even if Driving Miss Daisy and Argo proved otherwise).

The winner will be…
Nomadland
Virtually everyone can relate to this story about forced reinvention in the face of personal and economic loss. It’s a haunting work about a woman who loses everything and goes to live in her van, traveling amongst the evanescent nomad community. Nomadland pulses with gorgeous landscapes, music, Frances McDormand, David Straithairn, and real-life nomads, and though I felt it might be a little too oblique to win, Oscar has been going pretty arty lately, and it’s picked up a bunch of other key awards. Nomadland will find its home at the Oscar podium.

McDormand: Always the anti-diva.

BEST ACTRESS
The nominees are:

Frances McDormand, Nomadland
Always the anti-diva, McDormand gives a subtle, lived-in performance as a wanderer living in a van and in the moment. Giving this genius a third Best Actress Oscar would be utterly justifiable.

Vanessa Kirby, Pieces of a Woman
Kirby (The Crown) plays a married Boston lady who has a home birth and endures some hair-raising drama as a result. It’s edgy stuff, with Kirby pulling off a long and harrowing scene, leading to courtroom melodramatics that betray the theatrical roots of the material. (It was originally a play based on the filmmakers’ real-life experience). The movie’s prestige has only been damaged by the fact that the male lead is Shia La Beouf.

Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Davis transforms herself into the feisty blues singer, and the Oscars love that kind of effort, though some might think, “Octavia Spencer could have just slid into it.”

Andra Day, The United States vs. Billie Holiday
I’m a Diana Ross fanatic, so I’m Team Lady Sings The Blues, but Golden Globe winner Day does a good vocal interpretation of Billie Holiday and gets to effectively mope around as everybody betrays her. (She’s afforded even less joy time than Ma Rainey.)

And the winner will be….
Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman
Mulligan immerses herself in the role of a woman obsessively determined to find justice, going for full-throttle, seething realness every step of the way. Her performance screams Oscar. If she loses, Mulligan won’t seek revenge, but voters’ consciences might.

Mulligan goes full-throttle.

BEST ACTOR
The nominees are:

Anthony Hopkins, The Father
The Silence of the Lambs winner masterfully plays a man losing his grip, although I don’t feel he’ll be gripping another Oscar this time. It’s just not his year.

Gary Oldman, Mank
Oldman won for his Oscar-bait role of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, and he does well as Herman Mankiewicz, especially in his Oscar-bait scene of drunkenly haranguing all the biggies at a banquet table. He’s about 20 years older than Mankiewicz would have been at that moment, but again, Mank is not a documentary.

Steven Yeun, Minari
The heart and soul of the film, Yeun—the first Asian-American nominated for Best Actor—ably plays a man juggling family, risks, and even disaster, though his performance is more admirable than astounding.

Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal
In his breakthrough film role as a musician who takes a stab at getting his hearing back, Ahmed is broodingly effective and would be sort of the Rami Malek of 2020, except for the competition.

The winner will be….
Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
As an ambitious musician who’s about to get ripped off by white people, the late Boseman is radioactively good, and it’s not his fault that his big monologue is set up as His Big Monologue. This is a chance for Oscar to honor Boseman for the first and last time.

A chance for Oscar to honor Boseman for the first and last time.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
The nominees are:

Glenn Close, Hillbilly Elegy
Glenn will get stiff competition from Vicki Lawrence in Mama’s Family. Kidding—Vicki was ridiculously snubbed! But I’m still predicting that poor Glenn will have to sit there and lose for the eighth time, though by that point she might have at least picked up a Golden Razzie. (She is one of only three actors in history who’ve been nominated for both awards for the same performance. Talk about dividing people!)

Olivia Colman, The Father
Colman won Best Actress for 2018’s The Favourite, but her role here is mainly to look concerned a lot about daddy’s dementia.

Amanda Seyfried, Mank
As starlet Marian Davies, Seyfried brings a kind of benevolent glow to old Hollywood. Seyfried fits the pretty youngish thing with talent that this category often favors, though Mank never gave her a big Oscar scene.

Maria Bakalova, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Playing Sacha Baron Cohen’s endlessly naïve daughter in a film that hilariously uncovers the hate at the heart of the heartland, Bakalova is wildly game and deserves prizes simply for setting up Rudy Giuliani for one more humiliation. This is not your usual
Oscar-type performance a la Peggy Ashcroft in A Passage To India, but hey, times have changed.

But the winner will be:
Youn Yuh-Jung, Minari
“The Meryl Streep of South Korea,” Yuh-Jung is great as the offbeat granny who doesn’t mind her grandson’s mean stunts—and she also gets to indulge in some pathos, which always helps in the voting. Further aiding her chances, the Oscars feel guilty about not even nominating Zhao Shu-zhen, who played Awkwafina’s wacky but loving grandma in The Farewell. Or maybe I’m overthinking things.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
The nominees are:

Paul Raci, Sound of Metal
Raci plays a guy who runs a camp for the hearing impaired, where they don’t treat deafness as a disability, they simply work on how to mentally move forward. His kind but direct characterization is a revelation.

Sacha Baron Cohen, The Trial of the Chicago 7
In this great ensemble, the real standouts are Mark Rylance as lawyer William Kuntsler, Frank Langella as a crotchety judge, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale, and Eddie Redmayne as buttoned-down activist Tom Hayden, but Cohen is sweeping all the awards attention because it was stunt casting, he’s high profile, and there’s goodwill stirred up by the Borat sequel. Fortunately, his performance as unyielding Yippie Abbie Hoffman is fine.

Leslie Odom Jr., One Night In Miami
The Tony winner for Hamilton eases right into the role of singer Sam Cooke, who’s learned to work the system, though Malcolm X and others advise him to be way more radical about it. Odom’s flawless vocal recreations seal the deal.

Lakeith Stanfield, Judas and the Black Messiah
LaKeith is quite good as the FBI informant who infiltrates the Black Panthers while wrestling with his conscience.

The winner is going to be:
Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah
Having two nominees from the same movie wasn’t a problem just three years ago, when Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’s Sam Rockwell prevailed over the same film’s Woody Harrelson. In the case of Kaluuya, he was nominated for Best Actor for 2017’s thriller/comedy Get Out, and now, as Fred Hampton, he has a fiery, anti-police speech that is award-worthy in itself. He got the Golden Globe and looks set to nab the Oscar, too.

BEST DIRECTOR
The winner:
Chloe Zhao, Nomadland.  The movie exudes directorial vision in its calm, humane portrait of wanderers who’ve been betrayed by the American dream but don’t gripe about it much. Zhao will be the second female Best Director winner, the first being Kathryn Bigelow for 2008’s Hurt Locker. And if Emerald Fennell wins for Promising Young Woman, it’s the same deal!

BEST SONG
Who cares? See you on April 25th.  ❖

 

From the Village Voice 2021 Spring print edition

 

 

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FEATURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES

Wild in the Clubs: Sex Makes a Comeback

THREE YEARS AGO, the fabulous 5000 woke up to invites beckoning them to Palladium paja­ma parties (bring your own teddy bear), Area science fiction salutes, and Limelight “Down­town Divas” musical re­vues of cabaret singers and chanteuses singing songs like “Since I Fell for You” and “It’s Only Make Believe.” Today, they’re warmly in­vited to stripathons, fetish balls, “All-­Male Emporiums of Flesh and Fantasy” (with “realistic streetcorner action!”), and Lady Hennessy Brown squirting milk from her capacious ta-tas.

A slight change of mood? Tell me about it. Was it only two years ago that fools in little black dresses started lining up at Nell’s for the privilege of being snubbed by other fools in slightly more expensive little black dresses? Now the air is so charged with sexual shock that Karen Finley’s “Ooh, and I never touch her snatch ’cause she’s my granny”  — so em­barrassing to some in ’85 — is just a narra­tive slice-of-life, about as scandalous as a Shari Lewis and Lambchop routine.

All through the clubs, the air is tingling with a raunchiness that’s exciting as a subliminal force, but can turn creepy at the drop of a trou. The yearning masses who can’t have the sex they want because of AIDS come together at night and com­bust in a mood of horny suggestiveness, releasing all that frustrated energy in the ways that spring to mind through a vod­ka haze.

The club crowd — a young, creative mix of gays and straights with varying degrees of racial and cultural crossover — is start­ing to rebel against repression with little explosions of drunken, guilt-free pleasure. Compared to the wildness of past eras — ­like the revolutionary risk-taking of ’70s hedonism — the current stuff may seem tepid, since it’s usually trapped within late ’80s limitations of health and hygiene. But bubbling out from a funda­mentally traumatized club scene that as­sumed AIDS would end sex forever, it’s a rude reawakening.

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AIDS initially made all sex seem lethal, or at best joyless, and among many gays a kind of trench-warfare mentality set in­ — keep your head down till it’s over. Now that it’s been accepted that AIDS isn’t going to be over any time soon, some sort of sex is inevitably making a comeback. This comeback is fueled by the fact that a lot of straights are — not advisedly — convinced AIDS is staying within certain high-risk groups, so they can have any sex any way. With both safe and unsafe sex on the rise, ’89 promises to be the biggest year for libido in ages.

In this spirit, Rudolf’s new version of Danceteria, probably called Mars, opens this month to cater to unruly energy, and Frank Roccio’s Lift Up Your Skirt and Fly will soon surface as a nouveau plea­sure dome. “The AIDS epidemic really damaged people’s perception of not only sexuality, but sensuality,” Roccio, co­-owner of the World, told the Times re­cently, “and this will be a place where we can express that again, where you can come with your girlfriend or date or with whomever you feel safe.” The skirts are already lifted — it’s takeoff time.

Roccio talks as if AIDS were a thing of the past. But what he says reflects peo­ple’s sense — accurate or not — that the threat seems measurable now and not total. This point of view can be air-head­ed and grossly selfish (what, me worry?), but being “sex-positive” — pro-sex, as long as it’s safe — is something few AIDS activists would oppose (though they might argue with Roccio’s failure to put condom dispensers in the World’s bathrooms). As both straights and gays change their sexual attitudes, they’re fur­ther blurring the lines of gender and pref­erence: all kinds cheer for male and fe­male strippers with typical pansexuality. September’s ACT UP benefit at the World had porn star Robin Byrd present­ing semi-nudes of both sexes even though the audience was predominantly gay. Horniness is a great leveler.

It’s also a big draw. Susanne Bartsch’s Wednesday night club at Bentley’s is a tacky, ’70s disco version of a Berlin caba­ret, with acts like Lady Hennessy Brown; a troupe of obese sadomasochists; or Chi Chi, who blows smoke rings out of her vagina, titillating a crowd that’s always wearing either far too much or far too little. Larry Tee’s Celebrity Club, which took place every Wednesday at the Tun­nel and will probably resume at Mars, had a wet T-shirt contest that invariably resulted in some kind of lynch mob-style sexual assault, often provoked and en­joyed. Dean Johnson’s Rock’n’Roll Fag Bar at the World on Tuesdays not only has those BVD’d go-go boys strutting, posing, and playfully interacting onstage, there’s a new “Testosteroom” for J/O ac­tion if the boys get customers so hot and bothered they need a quick release.

Sometimes these scenes are hot and uninhibited and oh-so-playfully naïve. But there can be darker elements as well — undercurrents of rage and despair. And, whether charming or alarming, what we have here is inchoate rebellion. The return of wildness to the clubs is a reaction against repression.

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In America ’88, practically everyone to the left of Donald Trump feels a little helpless, with Bush’s election seeming to ratify the repression and malign neglect of the last eight years. Whether we drown in acid rain or shrivel under the newly cancerous rays shining through that gap­ing hole in the ozone layer, the boys at the top are too busy playing with $500 million fighter planes to pay much atten­tion to either problem. No one in charge is doing much about AIDS either, though a lot of homophobes are seizing on it as a chance to gay-bash. (Witness the rants of such disparate horse’s asses as radio “personality” Howard Stern, alleged po­litical columnist Patrick Buchanan, and supposed comedian Sam Kinison.)

Faced with the bleakness of the future, Americans seem willing to settle for tem­porary promises and inevitable long-­range dismay. Selling their tomorrows down the river translates into a subterra­nean anxiety that festers more and more scarily as each nightmare comes true. With everything going to hell, an “I’m gonna get mine while I can” mentality has come out in people — and the Repub­lican regime caters to this by promising to institutionalize selfishness, both do­mestically and internationally. In the process, they’ve institutionalized some­thing else — hypocrisy. We’ve had eight years of “Just say no” from people who don’t seem to have said no to anything in their lives (the possibility of putting Dan “Buy it for me, Daddy” Quayle in charge of the so-called war on drugs epitomized this).

It’s in the face of such hypocrisy that frustration has evolved into overt anger. A couple of enthusiastic partiers recently paid tribute to El Morocco — which is courting a younger crowd now, but is still a symbol of old society — by swinging from the chandelier and hurling a heavy, standing ashtray down the stairs. They were tossed out the door just as rudely as they’d flung the ashtray, but they’ll make it back — one of them had a burn-victim mask on and was unrecognizable. Of course, a mild trashing of El Morocco has its metaphorical possibilities — a gesture against elitism, a refusal to be wooed by tradition. But occasionally, things get a lot uglier. Unshaped by any coherent pur­pose (or, sometimes, even the most basic info), rebellion can turn into the thing it’s rebelling against.

THE SCENE NOW is one of club kids who don’t even have a “fuck the rules” men­tality — they don’t know any rules to fuck. Bursting with ignorant energy, willing to try anything in the name of a good time, they traipse around in their BVDs (the girls) or bras (the boys), squirting each other with Silly String, pathologically in search of fun. They manage to combine a youthful, energetic wholesomeness with a jaded sense of decadence, as typified by their major domo, 22-year-old Michael Alig. Alig’s birthday party last April at Tunnel featured a Mickey Mouse “moon­walk” — a giant trampoline-like air mat­tress — on which scores of kids gleefully bounced as if in Disneyland. But one of his other prize events was a Child Por­nography Ring party. He’s a walking par­adox of glad-handing hostility — giving you a big hello as part of his networking agenda, then pulling you down a stairway into a pool that just happens to be there.

Like him, the club kids are defiant, but mostly against whatever stands in the way of a fun evening or some free publici­ty. They’re also largely unconcerned with sexual definition. If many of them are gay, that’s partly for lack of the gay-disco scene young people came out into 10 years ago; today they enter the mixed world of clubs, where eccentricity is king, regardless of gender or sexual leanings. Their mentors are pleasure-seeking, mid­dle-aged entrepreneurs juggling 17-year­-old glamour-babe girlfriends and, when the kids complain about having to pay $5 to get into an AIDS benefit, ultimately deciding it’s wise to “pamper” (i.e., comp) them, because they’re just so “fabulous,” moral flaws and all.

The kids come from everywhere, from Soviet Georgia to Atlanta, Georgia, many living with their parents — or “backers,” as they like to call them — others living in apartments they pay for themselves by throwing parties for other club kids (owners pay fees of $500 to $1200 a night for this). Asked what they want to be when they grow up, they all answer, “Famous,” and they consider clubs cabaret show­cases by which to get there.

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For all the charged-up atmosphere, the kids are more likely to be narcissistic voyeurs and exhibitionists than ’60s-style orgiasts. Wearing Plexiglas hats that an­nounce their names in shiny letters, they’ve been described as being too “fab­ulous” to have sex — even if it weren’t for AIDS, there’s the equally debilitating threat that it might mess their makeup. But voyeurism isn’t messy, and so sex has become a public spectacle, self-consciously devoured by masses who are afraid to join in and not just because of stage fright. A scarce commodity, it’s gone from something people go to clubs to find to something people go to clubs to see. There’s so little sex to go around now, that whenever anyone has the nerve to have it, it makes sense to share it with hundreds.

The club scene is one of girls who­ — when they’re not wearing retro undies, garter belts, and other archaic sexwear that’s a bondage-freak’s delight — lie top­less on tables for photographer Stephan Lupino, who three years ago had to promise his firstborn to get people to strip, but now merely holds up his camera and waits for the C-cups to fly. It’s one of a 40-year-old store clerk succumbing to the club-kid spell, suddenly flouncing around VIP rooms in a Frederick’s of Hollywood G-string with an elephant trunk sprouting from the crotch. It’s one of a boy who recently ran through the World wearing next-to-nothing and screaming, “Look at me.” When a pro­moter approached him with an offer to get paddled onstage for $50, the kid jumped at the chance — a big break!

Meanwhile, the new sobriety continues to be just a hype, at least in clubland. The drug of choice is Ecstasy (MDMA), a euphoric, mild hallucinogen related to the MDA of the ’60s. “Every single person is doing Ecstasy,” says Alig, only a bit hy­perbolically. “The little kids are scraping every penny to find $20 to get it. It’s really aggravating when a club like Blood­bath has to close because all those kids are so cheap, but I see them inside buying eight hits of Ecstasy off whoever.”

The kids don’t do much coke — it’s ex­pensive, and besides, says Alig, “It brings Ecstasy down, so you want to stay away from that evil scourge.” They don’t do crack, either, Alig explains with his typi­cal elegance of thought and expression, “because it’s dirty and gross and only gross Puerto Ricans do it. It’s not fabu­lous. Ecstasy — even the name sounds fabulous. People don’t go around saying, ‘Eew, you’re an Ecstasy addict.’ ” But they do Essence, a new form of Ecstasy that costs two dollars more and is there­fore two dollars more desirable. Someone not on drugs walking into Save the Ro­bots can’t help feeling a bit like the only person not in on the punchline of a gigan­tic, communal joke.

The clubs wisely not only tolerate this sex-and-substance-charged frenzy, they throw events that cater to it. Two clubs have had Ecstasy parties recently, at one of which the kids lined up and demanded the promised goods, screaming “Ex, ex, ex!” like deranged halftime cheerleaders.

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But mostly it’s the libido being catered to with innovative eagerness. Practically every night at the World seems designed to capitalize on unfulfilled sex drives. A dirty dancing contest had a cigarette girl cavorting onstage with three boys be­tween her legs and one shamelessly work­ing the rest of her body. She won. More was being suggested here than actually happened, but occasionally real, caution-­to-the-winds sex breaks out in the middle of the scene anyway, because people real­ly are starved for it.

The club’s Lust party — a Sunday night gay fete which was only supposed to fea­ture two paid strippers posing onstage — ­turned into a wet dream come true as one stripper spontaneously started sucking the other one’s cock during a photo ses­sion in the club office. Within millisec­onds, there was a drooling audience, not to mention a Playguy magazine photogra­pher already in place with full lighting equipment. This was not going to be just a two-character production, though. A feisty, male Anita Baker lookalike promptly got naked and joined in the festivities whether they wanted him to or not, acting like a suckerfish with any­thing he could get his mouth on. A hunched-over guy near the heat of the action, meanwhile, was anxiously scruti­nizing this scene and panting with voy­euristic delight. “Get in there,” someone said jokingly, and, amazingly, he stripped down without so much as a second’s thought and did just that. From then on, you merely had to say “next” to attract a new customer and “timber” to watch an old one tumble. Overwhelmed and over­worked, the Anita Baker guy fell over and passed out, but someone threw a lame blanket over him — he may have been dead for all they knew, but hell, the show must go on.

True, it almost didn’t; it was a panicky moment when all the spontaneous com­bustion was spent and the sofa/stage emptied out, devoid of a second act. But Barnum — or at least Al Goldstein­ — would have been proud as the promoter and company coaxed a couple of pretty boy lovers standing around to start in by promising them free drinks and club star­dom. Another opening, another show.

And such performers they were! Lover one blew lover two, who hid his face with his hand, before all coyness went out the window and he started doing other things with his hand. When he came — outside his partner’s mouth — it got another hand (the crowd applauded). Anita Baker, somehow, was up and (after having apparently peed all over the lamé) getting a blow job in another corner of the room, but few noticed. All eyes were on another climax — a gay activist who was jerking off as the entire room counted down his blast-off, cheering the big moment as if it were the popping of a champagne cork on the stroke of New Year’s. “That was al­ways my fantasy,” he said, on leaving. “I have no regrets.”

Stuff like this, of course, used to hap­pen nightly in discos and in backrooms — ­darkened, pre-health-crisis clubs, where gays forged a new sexuality with commu­nal abandon. At the Mine Shaft in the ’70s, dozens gathered around the infa­mous sling to watch people get fist­fucked. In the balcony of the Saint, they push, push, pushed on the beat into ev­erything the disco song instructed them to. But except for a few hidden bastions of anonymous sex, that scene now exists only in transmogrified form in the safe sex clubs, the gay community’s conscious effort to resolve the need for sex with the need to survive. The rules at such places are the same as in the ’70s, except one­ — keep it safe.

The orgy may have broken the rules­ — whether oral sex is high- or low-risk is the subject of, well, hot debate. No one came in anyone’s mouth, and the big no-­no, unprotected anal sex, didn’t even come close to happening. But someone could probably deliver a sermon on the perils of pre-cum and gingivitis. When the rules break, it’s for any number of reasons: people are uneducated; they don’t buy the rules; they feel invulnera­ble; they feel doomed; they feel the risk is worth it; or the world is going to end anyway (the place, not the club). Ratio­nality and the pleasure principle have little to do with one another. Pushed down, tucked away, sex is popping back in brightly lit public places where it’s not supposed to be happening, out of the sheer force of inevitability; it’s Freud’s return of the repressed.

The Lust party, thrown by promoter Chip Duckett, was the second of a series of Seven Deadly Sin events (Brecht and Weill, anyone?). The series also included Gluttony, at which madcap partiers nib­bled and toyed with hundreds of obscene­ly sweet Sno-Balls, and Greed, at which a thousand dollars in singles was thrown from the balcony to a frantic crowd of money-worshippers. “You want food, sex, and money?” these parties seem to say. “Well, we’ll give them to you — but you’ve got to crawl for them.” Downtowners will eagerly do this as a spoof on Gekko-era greed — plus they need the money.

The Susanne Bartsch approach is less participatory and more esoteric — her au­dience doesn’t squirt milk, her star at­traction does — but it’s still very much a group experience, a shared exercise in pushing the limits. Instead of the straightforward musical talent of a few years ago, Bartsch is proud to present Lady Hennessy Brown with her legs wrapped behind her ears, stroking her thighs and privates with fiery torches (don’t try this at home, kids), and shoot­ing milk out of her tits at the clubbies, as if they were so many hungry kittens. (“A lot of men are offended when I squirt them in the face,” says Hennessy, “but most people love it.”)

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A trained dancer, Brown changed ca­reer course several years ago because “the nightclub crowd wasn’t receptive to the modern dancing technique. I had to make the switch to exotic.” The Bentley’s crowd is very receptive to exotic. Bartsch sets the mood with her blinding array of temporary tattoos, her Bo-Peep-gone­-berserk plethora of extensions, her mad­deningly loud whistle, and her scantily clad young boyfriend Ty Bassett, who’s the ultimate attention-getting accessory. (“When I first met him in Coney Island, I thought, ‘He’s a girl,'” she says, admit­ting she later changed her mind.)

The 37-year-old Swiss miss made the consoling leap into nightlife when she fell out with the backers of her Soho bou­tique — a marble marvel in which she showcased the work of Leigh Bowery, Bodymap, and her other favorite up-and­-coming British designers. Bartsch went from throwing Tuesdays at Savage — a retro disco, mirrored balls and all — to throwing Wednesdays at Bentley’s — a ret­ro disco with mirrored balls and a Bentley — always making a point of excess and exuberance, the opposite of the pseudo­-Victorian constipation that was threaten­ing to stifle New York nightlife. Being cool at Nell’s and M.K. had an all too literal meaning — no sex, please, we’re skittish (even on M.K.’s canopied bed). In Bartsch’s clubs, people are encouraged to scream, dance, rub each other, and make utter idiots of themselves in the pursuit of laughs. (Nell, never one to miss a trend, has lately taken to wearing Bartsch-style bodices and Voguing on tables.)

Regular folk who just happen to have an affinity for form-fitting attire, Bartsch and Bassett, like the club kids, combine wholesome warmth with sleazebag razzle­dazzle. Their employees and customers suit them well. Sequined and boa’d drag queens, oiled bodybuilders, and other col­orful, poised-on-the-brink, painted side­show escapees are the core crowd (and made for a dazzling, but totally redun­dant, Bartsch Halloween party at another sprawling disco, Emerald City). A fun-­loving bunch of young, often foreign de­signers, DJs, fashion victims, and lip-sync artists, they attract a large crowd of colorless but open-minded yups and bridge-and-tunnelers who revel in their manic style. Many of the Bentley’s core crowd are filled with anxiety about their place in the body politic, but even more don’t seem aware that there’s anything to be anxious about. The unaware ones just want to party to the max, seeing that it’s the frantic, fashionable thing to do. The others party harder with the sense that in America ’88, they’re being pushed off the map, and every moment brings them closer to the edge. But as with Bartsch, their trashiness is a surface display; in­stead of doing It, the crowd watches It, cheers It, and wears It, making themselves as sexually extreme-looking as pos­sible, either to-die-for or drop-dead ab­surd.

“I think I’m wholesome,” says Bartsch. “I just love letting go, it’s an important form of relaxation. I loved at the Copa [where Bartsch throws last-Thursday-of-­every-month parties] when Anthony Haden-Guest was go-go dancing forever on the go-go box, and Richard Johnson was dancing all night — he told me he hadn’t danced for 20 years. They let their hair down, and I’m so happy that I’m the place where they can do that.” She’s brought stripping to her clubs, she says, because, “I go to the Gaiety sometimes, and it’s so sleazy — you have to watch some old wanker jerk off, and it’s such a shame. It’s good to take sex out of the sleazy surroundings and put it in a trendy place where it’s also about watching bod­ies, but not for you to have a wank. Of course watching has become more impor­tant because doing has to be much more thought-out now. But that’s not the rea­son I brought stripping. I did it because some of these strippers are just so genius. I admire their courage to take off their clothes and say, ‘Look at my gorgeous cock, or ass.’ It’s an art form.”

Hennessy herself is, for all her shock value, supremely wholesome, the very im­age of nourishment. She told me she couldn’t show her mother my column de­scribing her act because the word dick was in another paragraph. The woman­ — a six-foot-one black Amazon goddess — is an endless fount. “I’ve lactated for 19 years,” she claims. “My well never dries up. It diminishes sometimes — like I’m not going to have a full supply to squirt tonight because I’ve been doing doubles [playing two clubs a night]. But I’ve just continued to flow all these years.” The mini-interview comes to an end when Hennessy asks, “Is there pay in this?” “No,” I say, “but it’s a big story.” “It would be even bigger if there was pay in it,” she seethes.

While Bartsch is play-acting as a dress-­up-and-explode club kid, the other sex-­cabaret ringmaster, Alig, is the real deal. Bartsch, for all her surface wildness, is a diplomatic businesswoman who frets whenever she thinks she may have acci­dentally hurt someone’s feelings. But Alig and the kids would be mad if they didn’t offend someone. They bring to the sur­face everything Bartsch is too good-na­tured to acknowledge — anxiety, fear, and hostility. Self-conscious, alienated voy­eurs, their constant freaking-out state cancels out any possible innocence. Let’s face it: with an unsafe-sex guillotine hanging over your head at all times, truly instinctive or childlike behavior isn’t a possibility, no matter how young you are. Sexual repression has fast-forwarded the club kids into adulthood, and they’ve re­sponded by turning it into a three-ring circus of escapist sexual entertainment.

Alig, who got his club start stripping for dollars and went on to throw Dirty Mouth contests, where the filthiest talk­ers won cash prizes, looks fondly back on that Child Pornography Ring party at the old Danceteria (he plans to recreate it at the new one, where he’ll be assistant di­rector). “You’ve seen them around, now you can buy them real cheap,” read the invite, which featured Alig tied up with five kids. “Yes, folks, where else but New York City can you place a price-tag on human beings? These fine, healthy, YOUNG souls will be auctioned off to the highest bidder to do with as you please.” At the party, people were able to buy dates with 16-year-olds with play money, the kids getting $50 from Alig to go through with the dates. “There was noth­ing illegal about it,” he says. “I was pay­ing the kids to go out with somebody else — that’s not prostitution. Of course I got paid by the club for throwing the event.” Alig is a master exploiter, but no more so than Ronald Reagan, whose ad­ministration relentlessly whittled away at various forms of aid to dependent chil­dren (there haven’t been so many home­less kids since the Depression), while cranking up public hysteria over their sexual exploitation. Alig, in his own jaded way, is trying to make fun of hypocrisy rule while desperately trying just to make fun.

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He was also one of the people behind Celebrity Club, which almost always went out of control, to the delight of many. The feeling in the air was always of a bored restlessness that the crowd would take to any extreme for some kicks. One night, Eve Teitelbaum, a poet, asked if she could just step across the stage for a second. They were the sorriest words she’d ever said, as the heat of the mo­ment sparked a pointless cat fight with the emcee, which turned even nastier as Teitelbaum was thrown to her knees and people flung shoes and other sharp things at her while Alig doused her with water. “She deserved it” was the popular consensus as Teitelbaum ran, sobbing, out of the club. “I can’t believe something like this would happen in the civilized world,” she said later, still burned.

The ugliest Celebrity Club came one night during the proverbial wet T-shirt contest — the peak of the evening, during which practically everyone seems willing to show his or her privates at the drop of a fly, and all the energy combust into a big boom. This time, a girl went from being pleasantly exhibitionistic to almost mass-violated. On the sweltering stage, in the glare of disco lights and hundreds of eyes, she started dancing and shimmying to the repetitive throb of house music, encouraged by the salivating crowd. “She was some dumb Jersey girl,” says Alig, “in tapered jeans with feathered, gross, brown hair. She got up onstage and people got carried away — she got carried away, literally. A lot of guys were grabbing at her until it wasn’t fun for her anymore. She started to say, ‘No, no, no’ over and over again. Of course that’s when everybody got interested and joined in. A few guys tried to fuck her in front of everybody. That’s when her boyfriend grabbed her and took her up the stairs naked.” This scene — like something out of The Accused — happened without any supervisor to put up even a feeble “No.” What about Alig? “I watched in horror,” he says. “I ran to get the security guards.” He’s joking. “Actually, I probably helped — not rape her, but push people away so they could get to her.”

On another night, Alig presented a T-­shirt winner with a bottle of cham­pagne — actually someone’s piss (he says it came from the drag duo Fashion Patrol; they say it was his) mixed with soda water for fizz. On yet another dazzling evening, one of the Fashion Patrol laid out a cat food buffet spread that everyone there assumed was paté, because, “There are a lot of illiterate people who will take for granted that they know what they’re eating.” This is the same pair that sang “Teenage Enema Nurse” and enacted the birthing process for their pre-Labor Day party. They’re also known for regularly mock-penetrating themselves with blunt objects, and recently caused quite a scene when they stole a bassinet with a type­writer in it from a street vendor, who ran after them with a chain screaming, “I’m going to get you fuckers.” In an upcoming movie called Strung City, one of them­ — Brandywine — gets chased by an old man wielding a huge wax dildo. “You have to create your own excitement,” explains Brenda A-Go-Go, the other one. “Club-­goers are coming there for a show anyway. I wouldn’t want to go somewhere and not see some sort of decadence — it helps the night go by.”

AMAZINGLY, and not a moment too soon, the clubbies are developing some sense of outrage, if not exactly what you could call a social conscience. What it is, in a historical sense, is nihilism. An edi­torial in the new issue of Project X, a club handout, reflects a kind of hyperreal paranoia that’s both mocking and grimly sincere. Politically, if not grammatically, correct, it laments that “Everything will move backwards very fast from now on, and you, wether you think it’s cool or not, you are going to be envolved.” The edito­rial notes that in the future, “Secret po­licemen, Undercover Agents, CIA min­ions and Neo-Guardian Angels may forcefully O-D undesirable people to in­crease drug-hysteria in the american press.”

Another editorial, by Alig, urges the kids to fight for their right to party and be different. To him, the fight is another act of spitting in the face of authority, done because it’ll help keep the party going. Alig was in the mass of people trying to break down the Christodora Building entrance during the Tompkins Square Park fracas last summer. But though he admits “it was a fun scene,” that’s not the only reason he got in­volved. “I’m all for the freaks,” he ex­plains. “I didn’t like the idea that the rich people were moving in and making the freaks leave. Those are the people who go to my clubs.”

Alig smirks that he wants to throw events at the new Danceteria where he’ll show partiers films of the police harass­ing gays and other minorities, “and then set them free in the streets to do vio­lence.” Though he once threw a party to which only HIV-negative people were in­vited (just his little joke, ha-ha), Alig has recently made noises in the direction of gay activism. It seems he was verbally abused by homophobic cops at a Tunnel raid, an event that startled him into an apotheosis he related to two daily papers.

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“People are so blasé and lazy,” he whines. “They don’t want to go out and pillage and burn police cars anymore.” Nostalgia for a more political time — or just for bigger and better thrills? Can the club kids tell the difference? Only know­ing the new craziness, they imagine that it was even wilder in the past. “That went on at Studio 54, didn’t it?” says Alig, meaning constant stripping and groping. No, dear, it didn’t. The ’70s sensuality was much more affluent and ap­proved, more of an anything-goes-be­cause-it-can than because-it-can’t. People didn’t wear underwear at all then; it just got in the way of the fun. Parts of the decor dropped hydraulically around them; they didn’t have to throw them down stairs. The only milk squirted was into a glass of Kahlua. The champagne was actually champagne.

In the last years of the Weimar Repub­lic, as the Nazis rose to power and a sense of panic and doom spread through the ranks of the socially marginal, a frenzied, anxious hedonism took over as well. To­day, society has its disposables, too, the multiracial, multisexual nonrich, who have no choice but to alternately fight for their lives and to go wild, to party out of control in a pressure cooker of fear and hostility. This mood is being nicely helped along by hate-mongers like Kini­son, who’s not all that different from Joel Grey dancing with the girl in the gorilla suit (yes, I studied at the Liza Minnelli school of German history).

The late-Weimar comparison may be stretching it — among other things, our economic mess is quite different from theirs — but closet alarmists like me are finding it hard to resist some parallels: a deceptive prosperity based on foreign funds; the rise of repression and censor­ship; the proliferation of teen suicides; the ostentatious flaunting of wealth by a handful of people as large numbers spiral toward poverty; the persecution of cer­tain minorities, who take the blame for all sorts of social woes. According to Pe­ter Gay’s Weimar Culture: The Outsider As Insider, the republic was also charac­terized by

excitement, in part from exuberant cre­ativity and experimentation, but much of it was anxiety, fear, a rising sense of doom … It was a precarious glory, a dance on the edge of a volcano. Weimar culture was the creation of outsiders, pro­pelled by history into the inside for a short, dizzying, fragile moment. 

Categories
CRIME ARCHIVES From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

The Devil and Michael Alig

Busting the King of Club Kids
By William Bastone and Jennifer Gonnerman

In the final deluded days before his arrest, Michad Alig had convinced himself that he could trade Peter Gatien’s scalp for Angel Melendez’s torso. For the 31-year-old club kid, this surely seemed like a fair barter: in the debauched demimonde he once ruled, the only thing worse than being dead is being dull. 

Holed up with his 22-year-old boyfriend in a Toms River, New Jersey, motel, Alig had become the pawn of Drug Enforcement Administration agents Man Germanowski and Bob Gagne, who were using him as an informant to fortify their drug-trafficking case against Gatien, New York’s night­club king. Simultaneously, Alig was the prey of another pair of investigators. 

Working from a secret Soho office — upstairs from an art gallery and just south of Commes des Garçons on Wooster Street — Miguel Rodriguez and Walter Alexander, investigators with the Manhattan district attorney’s office, were preparing to nab Alig for the March murder of Melendez, a nightclub habitué and low-level drug dealer.

Played out against the backdrop of these two competing criminal probes, Alig’s frantic last weeks took on an added urgency, with him mistakenly believing that his DEA cooperation would somehow provide immunity from a homicide charge. This misguided notion probably reflects less on Alig’s grasp of the criminal justice system than it does in the accused killer’s value system.

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As he passed on damaging information about Gatien to the DEA, Alig became more certain that he would never be charged with Melendez’s murder. At one point in October — before Melendez’s body had been ID’d by the city medical examiner — Alig telephoned his friend Rachel Cain and poked fun at the homicide probe. Pretending he was Rodriguez, Alig demanded that Cain immediately come to the D.A.’s office for an interview, she told the Voice Sunday. 

Known as “Screaming Rachel,” Cain is a tireless self-promoter (she kicked off a conversation about Melendez’s murder by plugging a Geraldo appearance and her fledgling record label) who was the first Alig friend to publicly confirm that the club kid had spoken of murdering Melendez. As it turned out, Cain’s version — provided to the Voice in June — dovetailed with details of the bludgeoning and dismemberment that investigators believe occurred in Apartment 3K at the Riverbank West skyscraper on West 43rd Street.

Cain told the Voice that, during two lengthy interviews with Rodriguez, she recounted Alig’s statements about the Melendez killing. Cain’s recitation apparently was used by prosecutors last week to buttress murder charges filed against Alig and Robert Riggs, a 28-year-old club denizen known as “Freeze.”

The felony complaints open by referring to statements made by Alig days after the mid­-March slaying. The account is attributed in the complaints to a D.A.’s informant; Cain conced­ed it was a “possibility” she was the unnamed source. Cain also admitted that, like Alig, she has been cooperating with DEA agents and federal prosecutors in a continuing grand jury probe of drug activity at Gatien’s nightspots. For her help, Cain has received witness fees, per diem allowances, and a small lump-sum payment

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Alig had originally been a target of the DEA’s probe, which began about a year ago and resulted in the May indictment of Gatien and a score of other defendants on drug-trafficking and conspiracy charges. Wiretap affidavits ob­tained by the Voice show that Alig, who has not been charged in the federal case, was suspected of involvement in “various schemes to distribute large amounts” of the hallucinogen Ecstasy. 

Cain apparently was not the only Alig asso­ciate to whom the club kid provided details of Melendez’s death. One Voice source recalled that a “very agitated, very upset” Alig approached him in March and asked, “Do you have a car?” The acquaintance was immediately suspicious, recalling in an interview Saturday that “I knew he didn’t want to take a ride. I know Mike. Mike’s crazy.”

The source said Alig then proceeded to describe how he and Riggs killed Melendez and how “he had a dead body in his apartment” and needed to move it. Days later, in an encounter at the Limelight nightclub, the source said Alig commented, “We got rid of the body.” Despite the charges against Alig, the source added that he was “not a bad person.” Like Cain, a reluctant witness who was doggedly pursued by Rodriguez, the Voice source never thought to contact police about Alig’s confession.

One law enforcement source said that Melendez’s body sat in Alig’s bathtub for several days before the club kid and Riggs dismembered it and stuffed it into a box. They then carried the large package downstairs, flagged down a taxicab, and headed to the Hudson River, where they dumped it. 

In the face of a murder investigation, the reluctance of Alig’s associates to assist probers vexed Rodriguez and others in the D.A.’s office, sources said. From the outset, investigators suspected that Alig’s confession was no hoax, but needed a body before they could contemplate a murder prosecution. Investigators believed they had found Melendez’s body in September when a mutilated corpse was fished out of the water off Manhattan’s northern shore.

But while that body turned out to be just another unidentified casualty, press reports at the time struck a chord with police assigned to Staten Island’s 122nd Precinct. On April 12, Detective Ralph Gengo had responded to a call at Oakwood Beach, a scruffy spit of sand just north of Great Kills Park, where locals fish for flounder and teenagers build fires on the weekend. There, a group of children had stumbled across a box containing a legless body. A subsequent autopsy by Dr. Jonathan Arden of the medical examiner’s office determined that victim had died of asphyxia after being struck three time on the head with a blunt object.

Using dental records, Staten Island police and D.A. investigators in late October identified the corpse as that of Melendez. Investigators broke the news to Melendez’s family, adding that they expected to make arrests in the case during the first week of December. The only suspects were Alig and Riggs.

Police arrested Alig in New Jersey at 3 a.m. last Thursday. They picked up Riggs later that morning and “invited him to come down and answer a few questions.” The 28-year-old could have refused, but instead rode with Rodriguez and Alexander to Wooster Street, where the D.A.’s official corruption unit is headquartered. The Soho office, which has unlisted phone numbers and is not included in a building directory, handles police corruption cases and other sensitive matters.

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As D.A. representatives pressed him for de­tails of Melendez’s disappearance, Riggs — who did not ask for a lawyer — surprised investigators by admitting his and Alig’s role in the murder. Along with a written confession, Riggs was videotaped describing the killing, the hacking off of Melendez’s legs, and the disposal of the body. In contrast, when Alig was arrested, probers were not allowed to question him about the killing since Alig had previously hired an attorney. That retainer was made in connec­tion with Alig’s cooperation with the DEA and Brooklyn federal prosecutors. 

When a Voice reporter visited Riggs Saturday at Rikers Island, he was dressed in a slate gray, short-sleeved jumpsuit with Velcro closures up the front. He wore slip-on sandals and white tube socks. Gone were the high-top Nikes, blue and green parachute pants, and shimmery parka he wore the prior day at his arraignment. Riggs refused to discuss his role in the Melendez murder, speaking only about his journey to New York from Florida 10 years ago to work as a milliner. Riggs added that he had recently been designing stage props and costumes for movies and Broadway productions. 

Alig declined Sunday to see a Voice reporter who tried to visit him at Rikers’s Anna M. Kross Center, where Riggs is also housed. While being arraigned Friday afternoon, Alig fidgeted nervously, bit his nails, and scanned the courtroom for familiar faces. As he stood in the dock, with his striped boxers peeking out from the back of his baggy, khaki-colored pants, Alig seemed to be reeling. 

He had spent the prior few months trying to salvage his career in the face of whispers that he was a murderer. At times, to escape the scrutiny and the rumors, he would head to the Garden State to be with 22-year-old Brian McCauley who sells Tommy Hilfiger clothing at the Toms River Macy’s. For Alig, the sleepy town surely must have been a comedown. It was inhabited by tunnel people, who, along with their bridge counterparts, filled up Gatien’s clubs on many of the nights Alig promoted parties. They were the ones who paid at the door and were never palmed a drink ticket. 

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Closeted in the Riverwatch Inn & Irish Pub, a few doors down from the Catholic Charities office, Alig left his room only for trips across the street to the 7-Eleven. With his canary yellow hair and effeminate manner, he quickly caught the eye of the locals. “Oh, it’s the fag!” clerk Robin Simone laughed Saturday when asked about Alig. “He was always patting his boyfriend’s butt. I thought they were gonna get it on right in here.” The Riverwatch owner also had a wisecrack ready, claiming that Alig and his young companion had stayed in “Room 69” at the 50-room motel. 

The slurs were ugly, but it was hard to feel sorry for Alig since he was the one quoted in October’s Details magazine calling Melendez a “scum-of-the-earth drug dealer,” virtually implying he got what was coming to him. But this slight was no surprise. Alig sat at the center of a firmament of cynical, low-rent “stars” whose lives usually revolved around drug use and other assorted excesses.

Until his arrest last week, Alig’s life had been filled with flashes from a camera strobe, disco balls, and spotlights. But as he was driven away from the Riverwatch early Thursday, he was illuminated by only the whirling cherry top on a Dover Township police cruiser. As the cop car headed down Water Street, the last glimpse of neon Michael Alig may see came from a Budweiser sign in the shape of a shamrock, hanging in the window of a musty Jersey dive. 

Additional reporting by J.A. Lobbia and Thomas Goetz

Inside Alig’s Brain: Drugs, Genius, Pedophilia
By Frank Owen

Add prostituting an underage runaway and having sex with minors to Michael Alig’s grow­ing list of alleged criminal activities. In the wake of the arrest of the former king of the club kids for the murder of drug dealer Angel Melendez, a disturbing portrait of Alig as a predatory pedophile and sometime pimp is beginning to emerge. 

According to close friends — both current and former — in 1991 Alig dressed a homeless 12-year-old boy in drag (to look like Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby) and took him to Edel­weiss, a notorious hustler joint then located on West 29th Street. Here the boy sold his backside to get food and drug money for him­self and Alig. “A menace to young boys” is how one former confidant describes Alig. Others, however, insist that any sexual activity was entirely consensual, albeit thoroughly illegal. “Michael was getting sex and money, these boys were getting the time of their young lives,” says one of Alig’s pals.

Previously, according to the same people, Alig had visited Germany following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, where he photographed and took phone numbers from a string of East German hustlers whom he attempted to sell as houseboys to rich New York patrons. “The scheme never really got off the ground,” says one insider. “Michaell was too disorganized.”

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Alig has made a habit of flaunting the law. Whether walking through the lobby of his posh apartment building holding a crack pipe, or doing drugs in public while helping the DEA build its drug conspiracy case against his former boss Peter Gatien, or boasting to friends about murdering Melendez, Alig has long felt the rules governing the rest of society don’t apply to him. He’s so brazen he even repeated the story of the 12-year-old and the East German houseboys to numerous friends on many occasions.

Alig has openly admitted that he’s a pedophile, and used to keep a stack of kiddie porn maga­zines in his apartment. Before his arrest, he was usually seen with a posse of young boys in tow. According to writer Stephen Saban, who lives down the hall from Alig’s former pad, “He [Alig] was giving young boys [the date rape drug] Rohypnol so he could have sex with them. I would see young kids coming to his apartment all the time.” 

Not that these young hustlers and run­aways were angels, insists Saban. If Alig was an exploiter — “a get-over queen,” in Saban’s phrase — he also allowed himself to be exploit­ed. “Inevitably Michael would be so fucked up he could hardly walk, so these kids would prop him up and walk him out into the street and get into a cab with him so that they could get into the clubs for free.” 

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How did the energetic upstart who single-handedly launched his own youth sub­culture in the ’80s turn into the messed­-up sociopath and accused murderer of today? How did the twisted creativity of the original club-kid scene tip over into outright evil? 

Alig’s nightclub career began in the early ’80s, when — fresh from South Bend, Indiana — the 18-year-old started working at Danceteria as a bus boy. People remember him from those days as a nerdy but cute gay boy conventionally attired in blue jeans and white T-shirt who didn’t look old enough to be in the club in the first place. The green hair and extravagant out­fits would come later. 

The club kids were widely ridiculed as brattish outsiders by older trendies when they first appeared. The original Details magazine dis­missed Alig and his crew as “little boys in bean­ies.” Yet Alig ended up revitalizing Downtown (first at Danceteria and the Tunnel, later at Club USA and Disco 2000) at a time when the rapidly aging scene was in desperate need of an injection of young blood. 

“Michael’s genius was in recognizing that the only thing separating the fabulous person from the non fabulous person was somebody’s saying so,” says writer-filmmaker Fenton Bailey, who caught the novice Alig how to throw par­ties. “He saw that he didn’t need to work his way into the established elite of Downtown nightlife. Instead, he gathered around him a whole bunch of friends, inspired them, and transformed them visually, and created his own scene of which he was the king. Like Andy Warhol, he realized that stardom was nothing more than a fantastic act of self-invention.” 

Michael not only reinvented himself, he also made over his friends. Before he met Alig, the self-styled “Superstar DJ” Keoki was a hum­ble flight attendant at TWA. The same thing happened to Robert Riggs, who has confessed to participating with Alig in the murder of Angel. Riggs, whose nom de disco is “Freeze,” was a high-­end hat designer who dressed conservatively before falling under Alig’s charismatic spell.

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Alig had shown perverse tendencies from an early age. While other kids were content with watching horror and slasher movies, the 15-year-old Alig ordered hardcore snuff movies through the mail. But in the early ’90s, his perversity started to slip over into outright depravity as the glitzy drag queens and fashion victims that provided him with his initial following were replaced by a younger, rougher, druggier crowd. His parties became less creative and increasingly sordid. Witness the “Emergency Room” and gore parties that were so characteristic of the last days of Disco 2000. His character changed completely under the influ­ence of so many drugs — especially heroin, which he started using in the early ’90s. Alig took on the traits of a manic depressive, euphoric one minute, suicidal the next. It was also at this time that he caught hepatitis and a large tumor appeared on his upper spine — the result of years of indiscriminate drug use. He got sicker and sicker in every way — physically, emotionally, and mentally. 

“His life, especially in the last two years, has been a suicide mission,” says Gatien publicist Ron Allen, a childhood friend of Alig’s. “Even before he was arrested, he talked about suicide constantly. Everybody I know thinks Michael will take his own life rather than serve out a long jail term. Up to now, he’s always had a way out — whether another pill to pop or another party to promote. He’s cornered; I fear death is his only way out.” 

Another friend isn’t so sure: “Michael is too much of a narcissist to take his own life.” 

He may get some help, though: on Monday he was reportedly severely beaten in jail by four other inmates. ❖ 

The View From Clubland
By Michael Musto

The Michael Alig arrest hasn’t had much impact on nightlife, as it turns out, because nothing can stop a party in motion, because a lot of clubbies don’t read, and mainly because the effects of Alig’s plight had set in way before the handcuffs snapped shut.

Most club crawlers I talked to in the wake of the arrest either had no idea of recent events or were so plugged in to the situation that they barely flinched, but either way it wasn’t intruding on whatever nightly rituals are left to be scraped up in the Giuliani era. Last Friday at Twilo, where club kids use to mix liberally with the civilian crowd, the long line of revelers waiting to get in was inordinately low on vinyl, fake fur, and war paint. “The Alig situation has already had its effect for a while, and that’s why we’re seeing the crowd we’re seeing,” said doorperson Kate Harwood. “It’s a lot less colorful. Not that I was a fan of the club kid scene, because it was getting nasty already. We knew there were too many drug combinations going on.” Her co-doorperson, Lincoln Palsgrove III, agreed: Alig’s kids haven’t been a potent night force for some time. “Michael was trying to achieve Sodom and Gomorrah,” he said, “but it became too decadent and there was no glamour to it anymore. There was no sense of responsibility like at studio 54.”

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Over at Peter Gatien’s Tunnel, where Alig once ruled, the medium-sparkly crowd seemed oblivious to current events, though in the bathroom, a leggy, blond drag queen named Eva Love did appear mildly alarmed. “Its going to be a wake-up call on the  scene,” she said, defiantly downing a swig of Poland Spring water — a far cry from the Ecstasy-Special K combos of the Alig era. Outside, a door guard was emitting even more sobering tones. “The papers keep running that picture of Michael with Peter Gatien,” he lamented, and I understood the concern. Gatien — who’s being investigated for alleged drug trafficking at his nightspots — doesn’t want any lingering connection with the troubled club kid, even though they were bound at the hip-cool-trendoid for years. In fact, Gatien’s publicist took pains to remind me last week that the murder happened after Peter dumped Alig — though my calendar seems to note that the firing and the ru­mors all surfaced in the same few weeks.

As the breaking blind item I ran in April becomes an eye-opening reality, everyone’s putting in his two cents (except the folks at Mi­rage, where Michael threw his most recent par­ties; when I called for comment, they simply laughed hysterically). Cornered at a restaurant, club staple JoJo Americo choked on  his sand­wich, then declared, “Give him the chair!” But drag performer Lady Bunny said, “Michael al­ways gave me the feeling that he was looking out for me,” though she then claimed he did once slip her a beverage she later learned was tinged with his urine — “when he had hepatitis.”

The most typical debate had the aforementioned flack telling club observer Stephen Sa­ban, “It’s horrible what drugs did to Michael,” and Saban replying, “But it’s not the drugs. I’ve known millions of drug users who’ve never killed anyone.” Let alone cut off their legs. Alas, the Giulianis of the world would probably love us to think that nightlife is exclusively populated with druggies and killers, and that the two are inexorably intertwined. He doesn’t go out as much as I do. As longtime promoter Susanne Bartsch told me, “This has nothing to do with nightlife. [Michael’s condition] was a pattern of not liking yourself. Going to a club is not a drug addiction.” And a drug addiction can’t create barbaric impulses that aren’t there. This is an isolated incident, like the hideous eradication of Eigil Vesti after he was picked up at a club in the ’80s. The Angel saga doesn’t convince me that all club impresarios are treacherous any more than O.J. makes me run from athletes faster than I already do.

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My take on Alig was always that he was brilliant, but a potential wreck waiting to happen, that his sense of fun too often hinged on pro­voking people in ways that made them uncom­fortable and angry. At a club, he’d grab you and pull you down a stairway and into a pool. He’d stand there with a friend and openly make fun of you. But you’d forgive him because he threw wickedly amusing, exuberantly envelope­-pushing parties — because the tinge of danger could take on a liberating edge — and he could be warm and effusive too. “Michael’s a human being like everybody else,” says Kenny Kenny, Michael’s old drag doorman. “Nobody’s all good or all bad.”

The way Alig shook up bourgeois notions was a welcome kick in the butt, until he’d go too far and I’d have to start apologizing for knowing him. In an ’88 Voice cover story, I described some of his bigger outrages, like the party he threw to which only HIV-negatives were invit­ed — his idea of a joke — or his Child Pornography Ring soiree, at which people used play money to buy dates with 16-year-olds, Alig pay­ing the kids real cash to go through with it. Alig couldn’t praise the mood-altering drug Ecstasy enough, but typically told me about crack, “It’s dirty and gross and only gross Puerto Ricans do it.” And when he started getting in touch with late-’80s activism, Alig’s ideology was, “People arc so blasé and lazy. They don’t want to go out and pillage and bum police cars anymore.” I bet he’d like to burn some police cars now.

You can chart the progression from ’86 Area to ’96 Mirage, but it was still the same Alig — except that every time he developed more presence on the scene, he’d lose touch with a few more behavioral boundaries. One of his ex-sidekicks, James St. James, recently moved to L.A. as a result of all the goings-on. “I love Michael dearly, but I can’t be around any of this,” St. James told me last week. “It’s totally destroyed my entire view of what we were doing. I thought the club kid movement was about breaking the rules and seeing how far you could push things. Now I realize that isn’t a good thing because absolute power corrupts absolutely. He had too much and thought he could get away with anything, which is not to say that he’s guilty or innocent. But it’s to say that he could get away with murder if he wanted to.”

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On the scene, club kids can’t get away with much of anything anymore. Ex-Gatien em­ployee Steve Lewis is opening a club called Life that Kenny Kenny, who’ll do the door, said will play host to an older, more modely crowd. And over at B Bar (formerly Bowery Bar), which al­ready has that crowd, the disgraced Alig is obvi­ously no longer swinging in with friends for lav­ish dinners. Did he used to pay? “Probably not too frequently — maybe in little pieces,” co-owner Eric Goode said, then philosophically added, “Life is certainly stranger than fiction.”

It’s especially bizarre if you believe the new hearsay filtering in: that Alig skipped town at one point because he was afraid Gatien would get him; that an ex of Alig’s was privy to the crime; that a girl who drove Alig cross-country after the murder could be in trouble for aiding and abetting; that Alig’s been going through withdrawal at Rikers and will be moved to a nicer joint because he’s the star witness in the case against Gatien; and that a prominent TV personality is paying Alig’s bail and legal fees. Also, though confessed cohort Robert “Freeze” Riggs (who’s suddenly a noted hat designer in the press) told the cops that Angel owed Alig rent, I hear the dealer didn’t officially live with Alig at all, he just frequently stayed over.

Amid the daisy chain of finger-pointing — Riggs ratting on Alig ratting on Gatien — speculation is so frenzied that some feel Michael may even be enjoying his public-enemy status be­cause it’s his most famous achievement yet (there are people on the scene who’d apparently kill for publicity). That’s doubtful, but in any case, the intrigue to come promises to be the sickest, most elaborate Alig party ever. Gushes St. James, “The trial will be absolutely beauti­ful, with [club regular] Amanda LaPore in a big hat and all the drag queens parading. It’ll be a fabulous image.” ❖

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Farewell to the Revolutionary, Influential, and Dazzling ‘Queen of Soul’ Aretha Franklin

Was there a better singer than Aretha Franklin? Not one I ever heard. Not only did the “Queen of Soul” possess the pipes, but she had the improvisational skills to put them to great use on a wide variety of material while also imbuing her performances with heavy doses of passion and sass.

The daughter of the influential Detroit minister and civil rights activist Reverend C.L. Franklin, Aretha sang in church prior to recording a God-fearing album called Songs of Faith when she was a mere fourteen years old. But she wanted to go “secular,” like her idol, Sam Cooke, did, and in 1967 she scored as an Atlantic Records artist who fused her gospel and bluesy roots with pop and r&b sounds, a fusion that resulted in an astounding string of hits. In that one year alone, Franklin released classics like “Respect,” “A Natural Woman (You Make Me Feel Like),” and “Chain of Fools.”

The next year, she trotted out the explosive story song “The House That Jack Built,” the dynamic “See Saw,” and her idiosyncratic version of Dionne Warwick’s hit “I Say a Little Prayer,” which is practically a duet between Aretha and her backups, the Sweet Inspirations (who also sang on the Warwick version). The Inspirations were founded by Cissy Houston, whose daughter, Whitney, in the 1980s, took Aretha’s gospel-based pyrotechnic style and brought it even closer to the mainstream.

Aretha was no stick-thin, smiling Diana Ross (whom I happen to love as well). She was a little pudgy and always flashy, often dressed in fabulous clothes and sporting similarly fabulous hairstyles without ever seeming self-conscious about it; she had the pure talent to change the world’s aesthetics, as all eyes — and ears — were glued to her deeply felt magic. Elvis Presley had borrowed songs from black artists and turned them into hits, but now an African American artist was in the spotlight, using her gifts and influences to scale the charts — and with a revolutionary style, too.

In 1976, she sang a luscious version of “Something He Can Feel” on the soundtrack to Sparkle, a girl-group musical that was later remade with Jordin Sparks and, yes, Whitney Houston. In the Eighties, she got up to date with some Luther Vandross–produced hits like “Jump to It” and “Get It Right,” rollicking numbers in which she seemed to be having a really good time. More of the same followed with the breezy, Narada Michael Walden–produced “Freeway of Love” and “Who’s Zoomin’ Who.”

That decade also featured two irresistible duets — the feminist anthem “Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves” with the fiery Annie Lennox, and “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” a Motown-esque duo with an adoring George Michael.

As brilliant as her originals were — like 1970’s bitterly infectious “Don’t Play That Song” — it was on her covers that Aretha got to really dig deep, reinvent, and send chills. Check out her patiently soulful versions of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Son of a Preacher Man,” “What a Fool Believes,” and “It’s My Turn.” She’s the only singer who would make it hard to remember the original songs after you heard her versions.

After her heyday had passed, I saw Aretha in concert and was distressed to notice that she was avoiding certain high notes — they weren’t quite as available to her as they had been previously. She was likely also conserving her energy, which is only natural. By 2014, when she covered Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” her vibrato had become way too tremulous, but there was still power and charisma in her delivery, so you had to give the woman her propers.

Favorite Aretha moments? At the 1998 Grammy Awards, after Luciano Pavarotti had fallen ill, she stepped in and sang “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot — a song Pavarotti was known for lavishing his vocal cords on. The result was exceedingly bizarre, I must say, but ultimately thrilling, and you really had to admire her chutzpah. At Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, she wore an eyeball-grabbing, big-bowed hat and sang “America” (“My country, ’tis of thee”) with a whole lot of feeling, making the president — and all of us — helplessly weep as history was being made.

Yes, the woman could be a diva, and her distaste for air-conditioning — because it would affect her voice — caused many concertgoers to lose weight by shvitzing. But it was worth it to see Lady Soul turn it up. Virtually every note out of her mouth was so influential that even today a lot of pop stars wish they could approximate her sound. There are scores of American Idol–style singers who think they’re being like Aretha by simply belting and trilling and loudly going up and down scales. They need to take another listen and bow down to the lady.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

‘It Was Fun to Be Wanted by Someone Like Elvis Presley’: An Interview With Darlene Love

The swaggering real-life Jeff Koons statue named Elvis Presley is hot again. Eugene Jarecki’s June-released documentary The King involves a road trip taken in Elvis’s old Rolls to survey his impact on the culture and determine that the American dream the singer represented is officially dead. (But oh, when it lasted!) Even darker is the film’s exploration of Presley’s appropriation of African-American culture, covering songs like “Hound Dog” — originally a non-hit for the brilliant Big Mama Thornton — and making them rock and sell. For singers like Thornton, the American dream never existed.

Enter powerhouse singer Darlene Love, who is represented on another new project, Where No One Stands Alone, a fourteen-track compilation of Elvis’s gospel work due out August 10 on RCA/Legacy. The L.A.-born minister’s daughter started singing in the church choir at ten, on the road to being scooped up by producer Phil Spector to belt hits like “He’s a Rebel,” “Today I Met The Boy I’m Gonna Marry,” and “Christmas (Baby,Please Come Home).” The lead voice of such groups as the Blossoms and Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans, Love ended up working as a maid in the Eighties, but when she heard one of her old hits on the radio while she was scrubbing, it inspired her to get back into performing full-time. Her appearance in the Oscar-winning 2013 documentary 20 Feet From Stardom was memorable, especially when it addressed the way Spector promised her a solo career, but gave other singers credit for her work.

Also on Darlene’s calendar: a concert at Graceland on August 13, hosted by Priscilla and Lisa Marie Presley, to kick off Elvis Week; and then a headlining spot at the annual European Elvis Festival in Germany. I recently talked to Darlene about her backup singing for Elvis, and how she feels about the King’s relationship to the music he both co-opted and celebrated.

Hi, Darlene. What is some of the gospel work you did with Elvis?

There is “Let Us Pray,” the one from the movie we did with Elvis, Change of Habit. That was his last film.

It was in 1969, with Elvis as a doctor and Mary Tyler Moore as a nun.

We, the Blossoms, are in the first scene. And we were in his 1968 comeback special [Singer Presents … ELVIS].

His new gospel compilation album should be quite interesting.

They [recently] had me do some fill-ins, what we call ad libs, throughout the album to make it sound more gospel. I haven’t heard it yet. Hopefully it’s a wonderful thing.

Elvis went to church and listened to gospel singers to soak up what they did, right? 

Even today, it’s more mixed than it was in the Fifties and Sixties. Whites and blacks didn’t go to church together back then. What Elvis told me he would do — we had night service on Sunday night when we did what we called “praise songs.” A lot of them were songs he loved, what we called “hymn songs.”

We didn’t have air conditioners. We had pushup windows, with a little rope. Elvis said he would stand outside the church rather than going in, because they didn’t think black and white should be in the same churches together. He said he would listen through the windows. It gave him such a thrill. It’s a big difference between the way blacks sang gospel and the way whites sang gospel.

Do you feel he was dedicated to the music or he was just taking it for himself? 

I found out years later, when we were doing the comeback special, that his mother’s favorite music was gospel. He would always sing gospel around her. I think if he could have had a big career in gospel music, that’s where he would have been. But you can always make more money off secular hits. Elvis had 10 or 15,000 people come to his shows to see him. Today, they have mega churches that hold 25,000, but back then, you were doing great if you had 500 people.

I bet they have air conditioning now.

Oh, lord, yes. [Laughs] I lived in Texas for five years as a young kid with my father, and it was so hot we couldn’t even breathe. There was no air conditioning in church or the house. What a difference it makes to have a cool ensemble. You still sweat because of the energy, but back then, we were soaking wet, when we sang in church.

I love gospel music. If I had a calling — meaning from the Lord — just to sing gospel, I would have, but the secular music got to more people. I bet a lot of secular singers like Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin felt the same way. They never paid us no money. “Do it unto the Lord.” “OK.” [Laughs] We would drive to the gigs and they’d give you an offering — gas money. They were hardly giving us a whole lot of money. But it was worth it, every penny of it. It was a wonderful experience singing gospel.

But was Elvis appropriating the music, or that’s just the way it was?

That’s just the way it was. A lot of people think a white person is copying the black person. He just loved the music and he was singing it the way he felt. He sang “Hound Dog” completely different than Mama Thornton. [Elvis’s version was rock, whereas Thornton’s was blues.] Even today, they take secular music and put it in gospel, and vice versa. You know, Elvis won three Grammys, and they were all for gospel records. 

What were your experiences like with Elvis?

One time, Elvis decided we’d all go to the movies. He bought this theater out that night.

What did you watch — Change of Habit?

Don’t even ask me. I don’t remember. [Laughs] We had a lot of free time when we were recording and when we were making the movie. That’s when the Blossoms and myself got a chance to know the gospel side of Elvis. He’d want to know the songs we knew. He’d get his guitar and say, “You know this song?” “Yes, we grew up on it.” He’d say, “Let’s do it.”

Was he funny or serious?

He was funny and he was serious sometimes. If he didn’t think he was doing great, he’d say, “Hey, girls, how’m I doing?” He was very, very funny. I call it that “country funny.” He would do his moves in the studio the way he was gonna do them onstage. It made it easy to be around him, but sometimes it was not easy because his bodyguards were keeping people from him. He wanted to be with the Blossoms, where he could pull out his guitar. We’d say, “We think you’d better go. You’re gonna get us in trouble.” We’d never forget, because he’d be giving us his personal time.

You’d just be hanging out and singing?

Yes! Whatever song he knew — “Amazing Grace” or “River of Jordan” or “Heaven Is a Wonderful Place” or “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” We called them hymns of the church. There was another one called “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior.” The Blossoms were known for their harmony. We’d harmonize with him. There’s something we had with Elvis that others didn’t have. It was fun to be wanted by someone like Elvis Presley.

He had tremendous respect for you.

Yes, he did. That was great. I always say he left us way too soon. He is where I plan to go one day, so I’ll see him again.

You were all rather young and great-looking. Was there any sexual tension in the air? 

There was. It could have been. But I was too scared to do anything.

You fool! [Laughs] Kidding. You wanted to keep it professional.

And I definitely did. Something about dating someone you’re working for, it takes away from that. “I know he’s never gonna look at me the same after this.” [Laughs] He’d start playing with me. He’d tap you on the shoulder or do a hip shake, and me and Elvis knew what that meant.

Flirting?

Yeah, I think so, and I think it showed his human side. I wasn’t bad-looking — and I was thin, too. [Laughs] He wanted to take out time and be around us. The reason we sang on his ’68 comeback special is he was the one that insisted that the Blossoms sing in the music section of the show.

So Elvis treated you better than Phil Spector did?

Oh my God, I’d say so.

That’s an easy one.

That’s a real easy one. Phil took advantage of me and my talent. With Elvis, he wanted us to work, and we got paid well. It wasn’t like Phil Spector cracking the whip and us running around!

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES

My Life as a Cult Film Star: Michael Musto Details His Delicious Role in “Vamp Bikers”

Watch out, The Godfather. Move over, Lord of the Rings. The hot new trilogy in town is Vamp Bikers, an offbeat little cult thingie that I happen to co-star in, launching my next career chapter with some unexpected weirdness. And I may be the only one in it without a criminal record. (As of last week, all three Vamp Bikers entries are available to rent or purchase on Amazon Video.)

A couple of years ago, club kid–turned–killer Michael Alig told me writer-director Eric Rivas wanted me to play the part of a mad doctor named Hedda Hopper in the third part of the trilogy, which Alig was in as a zombie named God. (The first two had already been shot.) I had covered Alig for years, celebrating what was good about his bratty nightlife scene, but also chastising him when he went awry (and breaking details of the murder buzz). I had avoided him since his prison release because, when I ran into him on another movie set, he didn’t seem to have changed much (he was messy and talking about his fame). But this was finally a chance to mentor him, as I’d offered to do in print, while also getting to be part of a wacky project that could be creatively gratifying.

Zombies, vampires, slashers, and many more B-movie denizens factor into the “Vamp Bikers” universe.

Also in the cast were Lillo Brancato Jr., the star of the 1993 movie A Bronx Tale who had been imprisoned for his role in an attempted burglary that ended up with a cop killed in a shootout; Lucian Wintrich, an angelic-looking young man who started the Twinks4Trump campaign and went on to give speeches titled “It’s OK to Be White”; porn star Ron Jeremy (who’s denied accusations of sexual assault); and Chicago house music diva Rachael Cain. Rivas wasn’t a criminal, as far as I knew, but he turned out to be a madcap obsessive who’d send you thirty scripts, forty trailers, eighty still photo collages, and a hundred explanations of the plot a day. I still couldn’t make much sense of it, though it was clearly a B-movie-ish mélange of zombies, vampires, bikers, slashers, club kids, witches, and medical help. All the dense scenes of screeching confrontations among these characters remained just the kind of opaque lunacy I like in a cult trilogy.

We shot a lot of it in Coney Island — in public areas and in a gated apartment complex there — and I found myself camping it up à la Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, just to amuse myself. We also secretly did some weekend scenes in the Latin department offices of my alma mater, Columbia University, because one of the film’s other stars, Geraldine Visco, happened to work there. Visco is a high-strung but entertaining party animal who one day screamed her displeasure that my lines were being shot before hers. It was explained to her — by me — that I had more lines than her, and besides, mine came before hers, so we were doing them first. This movie-star thing was starting to appeal to me.

When I worked with Alig, sure enough, our old bantering chemistry came right back, and Rivas said I did indeed calm down the ex-con with my presence. Yes, there was one time when Alig showed off a pile of murderous DVDs (like The Toolbox Murders) that he happened to have on him, but, just like in the old days, he’d do anything to get a rise out of me. In our big scene, he and I hold court and verbally rip into each other (“Calm the fuck down,” I snarl. “I can ruin you”), in between battling it out with a coven of witches (“I’m God,” Alig tells their leader, “and I can just wait till Judgment Day to fuck your muffinhead ass up”).

I later did a hospital scene with Brancato, who seemed nice, so I offered to take him to see the Broadway musical version of A Bronx Tale — but he smartly declined, not wanting to cause any stir that could be a detriment to the show. Goth rocker/promoter Kayvon Zand also pops up in the movie, and I got club doorman–insult comic Markus Kelle a part in it, so I can’t say I was ever bored during filming. It was like hanging out in a club by day and getting to be as hammy and silly as I wanted to be. And it actually led to a major release!

The writer pictured with a copy of the August 24, 2016, issue of the “Village Voice,” for which he wrote a cover story on Madonna.

Midway through a 2017 Vamp Bikers Tres showing at Anthology Film Archives, my friend bolted for the exit, holding his stomach. I took this as a sign that this could be a magical cult happening and not just another generic indie. Rivas later invited me to a more private screening in Brooklyn that would be attended by a woman who was a liaison to Sony, so I went, not thinking anything could come of it. Over the closing credits, I dutifully gushed that the film looked like a million bucks but was so loonily auteurist it could bring back the era of the midnight movie if it ever reached an audience. And it worked! When I got the message that the Sony-owned distribution company the Orchard was picking up the film, I nearly plotzed and became undead.

My work wasn’t over yet, though. Rivas was still shooting me — in a church and in his wife’s eyeglass store — to insert me into parts one and two, for which he’s sent me about ten thousand posters, trailers, and montages. And I’ll gladly vamp for part four.

Categories
Living NYC ARCHIVES

A Handy Guide to Maximizing Your Trader Joe’s Experience

As retail goes down, Trader Joe’s goes up. Selling cheap, innovative, relatively unpolluted foods, the store attracts lengthy lines — and they’ve been a mainstay of mine ever since they opened a TJ’s near me, on 32nd Street between Second and Third avenues. Having been there way more than therapy, let me relate the best ways to behave on the premises, and why:

• Go at 9 a.m. There aren’t as many cashiers, but still, it’s a sane time when you can get in and out pretty quickly. If you do have to go at a peak hour, rest easily knowing that they have thirty cashiers working and things can move pretty fast (if not as fast as at D’Agostino, where there’s no one).

• I can’t tell you what to get since it’s a matter of taste and need, but what the hell: Get toastable blueberry waffles ($1.99); marinated artichokes ($2.69); chicken shu mai ($2.99); farfalle (99 cents); skipjack tuna ($1.49); and whole kernel corn (89 cents). That last item is “naturally sweet and crisp. No sugar added, no preservatives.” But avoid the soups. They’re less than stellar, though they at least provide some contrast with the other merch: A store where every single thing is buyable would be a Twilight Zone nightmare come true and not worth visiting, let alone pretty much living in.

• Look around the produce, where there are delicious and fresh Fuji and Gala apples (49 cents each) and bananas (19 cents each). And on the side you’ll find offbeat desserts you wouldn’t ordinary see unless you scouted the area. I got a $6.99 chocolate cake that’s a wow.

• Make sure to visit the free sample corner and take whatever chorizo or cookie delight they’re offering that day. Don’t be ashamed. This is part of the fun, making it more theme park than supermarket.

• The workers are a kooky and varied bunch, and they radiate a glow that makes it seem like they’re well-treated. Be friendly and they’ll be friendly back. But bear in mind that the eccentric workers are way nicer than the customers. These are largely supermodel-looking CEOs who can’t be bothered with small talk. Don’t waste your time engaging unless you really want to know why the frozen burritos they’re stacking up on are so very special. (Out of sheer narcissism, they might just answer.)

• When you see these entitled customers loading up for the apocalypse — a familiar sight there, where people think a mild drizzle two days from now requires a month’s worth of food — sneak ahead on line. Look away as if you’ve done nothing wrong, and just carry on.

• Grab the impulse items on the way to the counter — they’re really good, not just guilty treats you’re taking out of panic. There are all kinds of inexpensive and interesting chips, chocolates, salsas, sodas, and other yummy things. Perfect for your next movie club.

• Also make a point of looking through the beauty products, an area you might not normally notice. The Vitamin E oil is a mere $3.99, which makes me feel wrinkle-free and beautiful just hearing about it.

• The $2.99 “multi-purpose cleaner” is a green dream come true, which has made the many purposes of my apartment absolutely sparkle.

• Try to avoid looking at the copious wall murals. They are generally of zombie-like people doing bizarre things, like one man holding a child upside down in a disturbingly gleeful manner. But I do love the exit pronouncement: “We Miss You Already!”

• When you’re checking out, keep the banter to a minimum. Just say “Plastic,” gather your shit, pay up, and get out. Time to enjoy the quirky glory and splendor of that great food. On the way home, stop briefly while passing D’Agostino and stick your tongue out.

• Maybe ride in in a wheelchair, but only if you mean it. When I had a bike incident last year, I glamorously wheeled to the front of the line every day, and I have to admit I sort of miss that royal treatment now. I should have kept that damned wheelchair!

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES

Predicting the Oscars in an Unpredictable Year

As a predictor for Goldderby.com, I venture educated guesses as to who will win motion-picture awards like the Oscars (which this year will be held on March 4). My predictions are based on a mix of elements: buzz, likability, career factors (is the person or the film overdue? Overrated?), and other stuff like actual quality. This year is more difficult to suss out than most because the slate of films is so good that any number of them could win without jaws dropping. But here’s what I’ve come up with as of this moment. (The Oscars are so volatile and time-based that these early guesses are more hopeful than helpful.)

Best Picture

I thought Dunkirk was going to go all the way, until enough industry observers assured me that it’s not enough people’s favorite, and besides, it’s basically an old-school type of Best Picture Winner. These days, Oscar goes for quirkier, less Oscar-y stuff, this being the era of Birdman, Spotlight, and Moonlight taking home the big prize. By that logic, this year’s race narrows down to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, about a woman seeking justice for her raped and murdered daughter (a very timely theme, though the film isn’t as straightforward as all that), and The Shape of Water, about three misfits bonding in the Cold War era (it’s splashy, but in an offbeat and personal way, and with its Sally Hawkins protagonist battling the bad guys head-on with the help of friends, it’s definitely female-empowering). Either seems capable of winning, but I’ll go with the former — an original, dark character study, full of complicated people. It’s sort of Fargo meets No Country for Old Men meets…nothing that simply described. Runners-up will include Get Out (which defies genres), Lady Bird (another women-centered film, though the females here don’t always treat one another that well), The Post (could another real-life newsroom drama win so soon after Spotlight?), and Call Me by Your Name (the Oscars generally prefer more anguished same-sex fare). But wait, The Shape of Water won with the Producers Guild of America. Oh, never mind: Three Billboards practically swept the Screen Actors Guild Awards.

Best Actor

Gary Oldman’s done a lot of brave work over the years, but he’s never won; in fact, he’s only been nominated once before (for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), so this is his year. His Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour threatens to be a little too cute, coming off a tad like Clarence the angel from It’s a Wonderful Life, but then he kicks ass, and besides, even newfangled Oscar likes biopics. Fresh-faced nominee Timothée Chalamet (Call Me by Your Name) doesn’t get to emote in the way that helps one win, so for him, the nomination is the victory. There’s no one else who is enough of a contender to even consider.

Best Actress

Historically, the schmooze-phobic Frances McDormand has been extremely unloved by the Golden Globes (unless you count a “special” 1994 ensemble award for Short Cuts), but even they relented and crowned her for Three Billboards. As the woman on a mission, she’s tough and feisty, telling people off in a way that makes it hard to imagine anyone else in the role. Conversely, Oscar likes mutes, so Sally Hawkins is a contender for The Shape of Water — and besides, she makes a lot out of the emotive lady who bonds with a scaly creature, a co-worker, and a gay guy. Saoirse Ronan is also superb in Lady Bird, giving her angsty character rage and frustration and warmth, but her character’s explosive moments aren’t quite as fiery as McDormand’s. Frances has won before (for Fargo), but so what? She’ll win again.

Best Supporting Actor

Willem Dafoe was raking up awards for playing the motel manager in The Florida Project, and for a while I assumed he’d get the Oscar, especially since it would be a kind of lifetime-achievement validation. But Oldman will be the surer bet to benefit from his decades-strong Imdb page, while for supporting, Sam Rockwell should sneak in and win for his utterly despicable cop in Three Billboards, a character to which he brings a bumbling magnetism. Rockwell has a downtown-y cred and is well-liked by his fellow actors — though the same, of course, could be said for Dafoe. Wow, this is difficult.

Best Supporting Actress

All my predictions so far have been the same as the Golden Globes winners — a scary feeling for any awards prognosticator — so let me differ from them here. They went with Allison Janney, who is fabulous as Tonya Harding’s cigarette-smoking, wholly rotten ma in I, Tonya, but I think Laurie Metcalf will win for Lady Bird, for playing a mother who is more complex. (She also says awful things, but she wants her daughter to be the best version of herself. You decide.) Like Janney, Metcalf is not primarily known as a screen actress; they’ve both gotten kudos for TV and theater. It’s a close race, but I’ve got Metcalf winning mom of the year.

Best Director

The Oscars often (and especially as of late) like to split the Picture and Director award so that the voters, after having watched their screeners, can boast about knowing that one film was generally better, while another one was better-directed. This time, Guillermo del Toro should cop it for The Shape of Water, since it actually happens to be a very directed film. Martin McDonagh will probably get Best Original Screenplay for Three Billboards, and that — along with the film getting Best Picture — should be enough for them to put on billboards. But hold on: Three Billboards didn’t even get a Best Director nomination! I’m changing my prediction back to The Shape of Water. No, hold it: Argo won Best Picture without a Director nomination. Sticking with Three Billboards. For now!

 

 

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Year in Review 2017

2017’s Best NYC-Area Drag Performances Rocked the House — and Tackled the Political Moment

In a year where our new president sought to implement a series of anti-LGBTQ views and policies, it became more urgent than ever to throw on some feathers and be a visible queen. But not just any old feathers. This was the year where RuPaul’s Drag Race moved to VH1 and gained a larger audience, thereby upping the bar for local queens trying to get noticed. No longer can you just put on heels and mouth along to Ariana — you’ve gotta get a gimmick. As someone who sees drag performances way more than I go to church, I’m qualified to declare these the standout drag moments of 2017. Some of the winners are Drag Race contestants, while others want to be. Pretty much all of them are against Trump.

Bootsie Lefaris and Tina Burner

At the Miss Comedy Queen prelims at Industry Bar in May (which I judged), a tight race broke out between two local faves who were definitely not texting it in. The zany Bootsie Lefaris won with blackened teeth and a spectacular hillbilly number she called “Redneck Christmas,” while the witty Tina Burner came in a close second, scoring in the 60 Second Spokesperson category, where she was given an empty orb and had to describe it in a minute. (Tina decided it represented the Trump administration and its utter emptiness when it came to rights, honor, and promises.) Both gals were sent to the finals in Orlando and made the top five, though they couldn’t prevent the esteemed Amanda Punchfuck from winning.

Pattaya Hart

The annual Miss’d America Pageant is always an eyeful at the Borgata in the otherwise rapidly fading Atlantic City. This September, NYC gals scored high, Tina Burner coming in third (though her Trump bashing in the Q&A section surely got a stellar amount of points). The winner was Pattaya Hart, a petite regular at Boots & Saddle drag lounge in the Village. For her talent, Pattaya performed a slithery “All That Jazz,” backed by steamy male dancers, and though that choice wasn’t wildly original, it was certainly pulled off with an electric professionalism that rocked the place.

Dina Martina

In the summer, the NYC gays go to Fire Island or Provincetown as often as they can; either way, they’re guaranteed a good drag show. At the Crown & Anchor Inn in the latter resort, I caught up with the surreally wacky Dina Martina, who dresses in appliquéd blouses and misshapen hair and lipstick and tells tales of her meat cleanse, her love of distressed pork, and how she couldn’t bring her adopted daughter along because she was only allowed one carry-on. Dina also sings — pop standards like “Girls on Film” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” — with gargling sounds and hard and soft g’s interchanged. Inspired and a bit scary.

Honey Davenport

Trinkets was a musical play at the Gene Frankel Theatre by Paul Alexander, who was deeply involved in the meatpacking club Mother, in addition to having been a member of the technopop trio the Ones. With this show, he told a story of West Side drag and trans characters having to do sex work in the Nineties because no one else would hire them. In the process, they forged a family full of warmth, humor, and tragedy-surviving. Honey Davenport — a regular at the Monster in the Village — was terrific as the lead hooker, Diva, performing in a way that suggested she could go beyond lip sync and club gigs.

Bianca Del Rio

A RuPaul’s Drag Race winner, Bianca Del Rio is a foulmouthed, incorrect, and hilarious insult comic, like Lisa Lampanelli with more of a penis. And she appeals to the young straights. At the Space in Westbury, Long Island, in April, Bianca’s “Not Today Satan” show had her indulging in a withering monologue of rat-tat-tat sarcasm. That was followed by an audience Q&A segment, where Bianca was asked which Golden Girl she is. “Sophia,” she replied, “because I’m usually not part of the story. I come in, be a cunt, and walk out.” She was also sardonically asked if she’d ever let Trump grab her pussy. “I would,” Bianca responded, “and I’d say, ‘You know what, motherfucker? This is the primest piece of real estate you’ve ever had your hands on.’ ”

Marti Gould Cummings

In January, at the weekly Stage Fright night at Therapy, Marti Gould Cummings hosted Tony winner Michael Cerveris in a talk show setting that was funny and informative. It’s nice to hear a drag queen actually talk! She sings, too. Before the interview, Cummings belted a doo-wop version of “My Heart Will Go On,” which almost made sense because Cerveris had been in the Broadway version of Titanic.

Sweetie

The plus-sized drag queen — a long-running scene queen for her flawless lip sync, spirit, and saucy humor — was feted at the Highline Ballroom in January, a birthday event organized by promoter pal Daniel Nardicio. Sweetie’s cancer had come back, and everyone sensed it was time to loudly sing her praises. After an all-star tribute concert, Sweetie gave a long, beautiful speech full of love and gratitude. As the crowd’s eyes welled up, she lip-synched one of her standards, “I Shall Be Released,” as if it were the first time. She died in March.

Charlie Hides

The oldest Drag Race contestant ever, Charlie Hides — a London-based talent who has a popular YouTube channel — made constant references to his age when he brought his TransAtlantic Dame to the Triad in March. “I’m so old that my ears are still ringing from the big bang,” Hides cracked at the outset. But his act — a mix of singing, shtick, and even sentiment — showed no sign of wear and tear. Best of all, Hides impersonated Cher and talked to himself dressed as Madonna on video. When Madge suggested the two divas have a lot in common, Hides (as Cher) said, “Did your daughter become a man? Do you have an Oscar? We have nothing in common.”

Sasha Velour

While the Manhattan queens tend to be polished and manic, the Brooklyn ones are relaxed and more avant-garde. Sasha Velour stars in Nightgowns, a revue at Williamsburg’s National Sawdust space, which I saw in May and which had an otherworldly calm to it. “You are now in the space of relaxation,” Sasha told the audience right off the bat. “Take a deep breath, but not too deep because I haven’t washed this dress.” She went on to lip-synch “A House Is Not a Home” while flipping picture cards that told the song’s story, ending by revealing a little cardboard house atop her head. Not long afterward, she won Drag Race.