LEGENDARY NIGHTLIFE FIXTURE, AND FAMED VILLAGE VOICE COLUMNIST, MICHAEL MUSTO SAT DOWN WITH DIRTY TO TALK ABOUT GROWING UP IN NEW YORK, STUDIO 54, ANDY WARHOL'S FUNERAL
AND, OF COURSE, TO DROP NAMES.
TEXT & PHOTOGRAPHY Paul Bruno
DIRTY: SO YOU ARE A TRUE NEW YORKER, BORN AND RAISED IN BROOKLYN, CORRECT?
MICHAEL MUSTO: I technically was born in Manhattan and when I was a little over a year we moved to Brooklyn.
D: WHERE IN BROOKLYN?
MM: Bensonhurst, where I grew up.
D: YOU ARE ITALIAN?
MM: Yes, although most people think that I'm Jewish. Same difference!
D: WHAT WAS THE MUSTO HOUSEHOLD LIKE GROWING UP?
MM: I came from the typical absentee father / overprotective mother home that leads to homosexuality. I just don't believe that it's genetic.
MM: Yeah, I think it's environmental. I distinctly remember the moment when I could have gone either way, when I was just about to hit puberty, and I really consciously felt I needed the affection of a man because I felt that my father was remote. He was loving in his own way, but I could never get any real intimacy from him. I think — and I know this is not the popular view — that was what made me gay.
D: HOW DID GROWING UP AN ONLY CHILD AFFECT YOUR SOCIAL SKILLS? WERE YOU INTROVERTED? THE CENTER OF ATTENTION?
MM: It made me very introverted because I had no one to communicate with. My parents weren't very verbal, and they didn't speak to each other through most of my upbringing, so I lived in a shell somewhat. I never really learned how to interrelate with people, how to deal with problems, or how to communicate your feelings. Making lemonade out of the situation, I learned how to do that through my writing. Even though I'm still painfully shy, and if you throw me into a room of strangers I just start nodding off in the corner because I'm terrified. I'm very comfortable in front of the computer. I can pour my feelings out without any sort of self consciousness.
D: HAVE YOU ALWAYS LIVED IN NY?
MM: Yes. I've been all around the world, but I've never lived anywhere but New York, and I really couldn't exist anywhere but here because I don't drive. When I go to LA (on rare occasions) I'm totally helpless and waiting for some friend to pick me up on some corner.
D: WERE YOU ALWAYS INTO WRITING?
MM: Yes! I'm an only child. I'm like the only Italian-American only child in the world, except for Frank DeCaro from Sirius radio. As a preadolescent, I used to go to the movies by myself as a catharsis, and come home and write reviews on little index cards just for myself, I mean I didn't have a readership at that point! Later on in school, I started writing for the paper and school literary magazine. I also wrote little playlets that were performed.
D: DO YOU HAVE ANY OF YOUR OLD WRITINGS SAVED SOMEPLACE?
MM: They're somewhere in my mother's garage in Brooklyn, along with the head of my ex-boyfriend.
D: SO WHEN DID YOU START WRITING FOR THE VILLAGE VOICE?
MM: Literally 26 years ago, in November of 1984.
D: WAS THAT YOUR FIRST PROFESSIONAL WRITING GIG?
MM: No, I had already been around. At that point I had been a freelance writer for several years, for the SoHo Weekly News, which was an alternative paper at the time, and different magazines. Once I got my column in the Voice, that became my home base. My writing appears in other places, but that's my home, my venue. It's enabled me to write whatever I want — I mean there are no inhibitions — and still publish books on the side or appear on TV. I'm like a multimedia personality now!
D: OVER THE YEARS, HAVE YOU HAD TROUBLE OVER THE BLUNTNESS OF YOUR WRITING? HAVE THERE BEEN MANY FURIOUS PUBLICISTS & CELEBRITIES?
MM: In the old days they used to get upset, but now I'm so proven as someone who's always telling the truth (I've never been sued), so they just have to cower in a corner and bow to my accuracy. It's impossible to get mad anymore. Since the internet came around, things are so much wilder and dirtier and outspoken, in far more irresponsible ways than I write, that you really can't be mad at me. I'm kind of adorable at this point.
D: AND IT SEEMS THAT NOW THE GENERAL POINT OF VIEW IS THAT IT'S GREAT TO BE WRITTEN ABOUT, REGARDLESS OF PERSPECTIVE.
MM: Which is cool, because that's what I always told people. No such thing as bad press. They didn't always buy it, but in the landscape we're living in now, people are going on reality shows and humiliating themselves to become famous. People are more into ANY kind of mention. That's my hope for the Palin family down the road, that people will be saying, "Weren't they on some reality show a couple years ago?"
D: WAS THERE A MOMENT IN YOUR CAREER WHEN YOU SORT OF TOOK STOCK OF THE PEOPLE YOU WERE MAKING FRIENDS WITH AND THOUGHT TO YOURSELF, "I'VE ARRIVED"?
MM: Absolutely. Whenever I'd walk into a party and Andy Warhol was there, I knew that was the right place to be. When he started treating me like a peer, talking to me, giving me blurbs for my books, and treating me with respect, I thought, "It really can't get much better than this." I mean, it's Andy Warhol! Like many other people, I knew he was going to be one of the iconic people of the century, so there was something surreal about speaking to him. Beyond that, every night I started meeting all of my icons, and it's like you don't even have time to stop and pinch yourself because you're too busy living it. Now that I look back at that transitional moment I realize that I really got swept up into an enchanted lifestyle. And I get paid for it!
D: WHO ARE SOME OF THOSE ICONS?
MM: People I grew up worshipping like Diana Ross, Carol Burnette, Mary Tyler Moore. Actresses like Glenda Jackson…
D: I READ THAT YOU WERE FRIENDS WITH QUENTIN CRISP?
MM: Yeah, He writes about me in a few of his books. He'd come to all of my parties. It was really cool to, let's say, be throwing a party at the Limelight and having Quentin Crisp walk in. He was always very bemused. He wrote that he thought I was a good host. We'd get into arguments at times, I didn't always agree with him because generationally, his politics were very antiquated. He actually said once in an interview that if a pregnant woman knew that her baby was going to be born gay, she should abort it, because he was still living in the mindset that it was so awful in society's eyes to be gay, it's not even worth being born. I mean he was picked on, beat up and bullied long before any of these current teen suicides, and he developed his armor of wit.
D: TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT THE MUCH TALKED ABOUT OUTFIT YOU WORE TO ANDY WARHOL'S FUNERAL.
MM: Well, I was so naive at the time, I thought people would treat Andy Warhol's funeral like another fabulous event, not that it was fabulous that he died, we were all traumatized by his death, but I thought people would have dressed the way Andy would have liked them to dress. I was so wrong! I literally show up in this McDonald's logo pantsuit, dressed like Ronald McDonald basically, and when I saw these normally crazy people like Grace Jones and Bianca Jagger and all these Warhol superstars dressed in black, I was like, "bad idea." I really miscalculated, but I soldiered on. Fortunately, there were other real lowlife types there, doing things like handing out party invitations at the funeral, in the church.
D: HOW DID YOU END UP IN CYNDI LAUPER'S GIRL'S JUST WANNA HAVE FUN VIDEO?
MM: This guy I knew, Chris Tanner, who was a downtown performer, became close with Cindy Lauper and she asked him to round up a bunch of downtown drag queens for the video — I wasn't a drag queen, but I was willing to do it to be in the video! So I went down to where they were filming in Flushing Meadows Park by the old World's Fair statue, again, completely miscalculating. I showed up an awful housedress with a pickaninny wig and they took one look at me and had to do me over!
D: YOU'VE REALLY SEEN AND BEEN A PART OF SO MANY INCREDIBLE ERAS AND LIVED TO TELL ABOUT IT!
MM: I've been through so many phases. There were the late '70s at Studio 54, which was an incredible scene, followed by the '80s which was the era of the big dance clubs. Then came the club kids into and through most of the '90s. Then there was just Paris Hilton.
I always enjoyed being sort of the ringleader of nightlife because I'm kind of normal, believe it or not, and very passive. I just sort of float through with all these stars and artists and freaks circling around me. To me it's very invigorating, because everyone's created this sort of wonderful family where everything is accepted.
D: ON THE SUBJECT OF THE CLUB KIDS, IT'S BEEN SAID THAT YOUR WRITINGS AT THE TIME ABOUT THE NOW INFAMOUS MICHAEL ALIG MURDER OF ANGEL MELENDEZ, BROUGHT A RELATIVELY UNDERGROUND CRIME TO THE MAINSTREAM PUBLIC'S ATTENTION, AND WERE PARTIALLY RESPONSIBLE FOR HIS TRIAL AND PROSECUTION. HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THAT?
MM: I can't take sole responsibility because other people were writing about it as well. I wouldn't stop writing about it because the cops were just dragging their heels about the whole thing, partly because the cops had no evidence. Without a body, there's no evidence of a crime to investigate. In my opinion, it was also because it was a gay, Puerto Rican drug dealer that had been killed. That's not the top priority for the cops. But the more I heard about it, the more I started believing it had actually happened. I mean Michael Alig was telling people that he did it! It was almost like he wanted to get caught, and a lot of the club kids were protecting him, telling me, "Oh he did it, but don't tell him I told you!" And I was horrified not only by what he did, but by the power that he held over these people. Eventually the body showed up in the Hudson and that was his unraveling. And he's still in jail.
D: DO YOU STILL GO OUT AS MUCH AS YOU USED TO?
MM: Yeah, but not necessarily night clubs every night. I go to something every night, like tonight is the Black Swan screening, followed by the party for Richard Johnson, who's leaving Page Six. But it's not so much a nightclub every night because New York is not so much about clubbing anymore, because of the neighborhoods, the zoning, the crackdowns. And also just the mood. The internet sort of stole the urgency away because now people can just get laid online, you don't have to go out to meet somebody.
D: WHAT ANNOYS YOU ABOUT NEW YORK NOW?
MM: Times Square I try to avoid at all costs. I hate how everyone has to give you their two cents. And I also hate how people are always complaining that there's no edge. The edge is coming back, there are homeless, crack addicts, crime, it's almost like, "Are you happy that you got it back?" These people complaining about no edge live in condos and have three country homes, and it's like how would they know? I also hate how when people talk about "the city" they discount the other boroughs. There are still plenty of artists and musicians and interesting people in New York, they just moved to the outer boroughs because they can't afford Manhattan.
D: WHO CURRENTLY GETS UNDER YOUR SKIN?
MM: I guess anyone who's on a reality show. I mean, I meet them every night, they're fun, but why would you want to humiliate yourself to that level just to get on TV and then act surprised like, "Oh I didn't know the show was going to make me do that!" Haven't they seen other reality shows and get the idea?
D: WHO DO YOU LIKE?
MM: I like Lady Gaga, and I'm not tired of her yet. In a way I feel like she's our real leader. (Laughs) She almost single handedly defeated Don't Ask, Don't Tell! She's got political moxie and more balls than Obama in certain instances. And if you notice now, every singing diva has to have some sort of Lady Gaga type getup. Success begets imitation, and I guess it's flattering for the original person, but tiresome to the public.
D: DO YOU STILL PARTY?
MM: No. I have a seizure disorder that I take medication for, which alcohol can complicate, so I haven't had a drink in 10 years, except for once when someone said they were giving me a soda and it had vodka in it. I don't really miss it except for the fact that it kind of loosened me up socially, so I was better equipped to deal with a room full of strangers. But it's actually good for my job, because people respond to my passivity and target me and start blabbing away at their darkest secrets, and I'm sober to remember it all! Being the only one not on drugs or not drinking is sort of symbolic of my life. I'm always sort of the outsider floating through, and I need that perspective, because when I wake up the next morning I have to write about it with a clear eye of what happened. You know, you can't just ask around.
I remember when Holly Woodlawn (one of Warhol's superstar's) was writing her memoirs, she sent out an email to everyone asking if anyone remembered anything about her life because she didn't remember it! She ended up with a good book, so I guess they pieced it together for her.
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