Interview: 'Party Monster' Michael Alig
In 1984, 17 year old Michael Alig packed his bags and left his home town of South Bend, Indiana. He was fleeing a childhood marred by homophobic bullying and the divorce of his parents, his eyes set firmly on the blinding lights of New York City. By 1990, as former Club Kid and socialite James St. James tells it, “Alig had stormed through the city like a baby Godzilla”, assembling a small empire that would change the way people partied forever. But in the sparkling miasma of drugs and glitter, things would take an ugly turn.
For the longest time, a wad of cash and a respected surname had been the prerequisite for entry into any of the major nightclubs in New York City, but in the late 80’s, Michael Alig and his motley crew of Club Kids introduced a new social order – one that rewarded the creativity and imagination of the countless small-town outcasts who poured into the city to join the party. As the Kids took control of Peter Gaiten’s entire club portfolio, the promotions became more outrageous and inventive. Spontaneous ‘Outlaw Parties’ erupted to life at Burger King and in the subway, breathing life back into the city’s struggling club scene.
Through it all, the Club Kids remained entrepreneurial – driving their message of self-love and acceptance forward (and outraging middle-America in the process) with appearances on the Geraldo and Joan Rivers shows. When they weren’t manning the clubs or appearing on stage, they were producing Project X Magazine – a DIY Xerox-style affair which quickly gained traction and developed into a profitable venture. In just a few short years, The Club Kids had built themselves an alternate universe in which the rules that had left them marginalised and abandoned no longer applied. They had appointed themselves Superstars. The euphoric sense of optimism, however, would not last.
In March of 1996, Alig and his roommate Robert ‘Freeze’ Riggs killed drug dealer and fellow Club Kid, Andre ‘Angel’ Melendez. The details of what exactly occurred in those horrific hours remain hazy, but all parties agree that an argument broke out between Alig and Melendez. In the struggle, Angel was killed. His body sat in a bathtub for the week following his death until it was dismembered by Alig in exchange for 10 bags of heroin, and thrown into the Hudson River. His remains washed up on Staten Island a few weeks later.
Almost 19 years on and Michael Alig is living in the Bronx with friend and former Club Kid, Ernie Glam, having completed a 17 year sentence for his crime. In the months since his release the media have argued consistently amongst themselves about the ethics of providing a platform from which Alig may speak. Collide’s position is as follows:
In killing Angel, Michael Alig committed a truly heinous act that has undoubtedly caused irreparable damage to the Melendez family. Justifiably, in the minds of many, he is irrevocably condemned. However, those of us who believe that a person should have the opportunity to atone for their mistakes, no matter how grave, should ask ourselves: what do we require of Alig, morally, before we can forgive him? He has met the instrumental, utilitarian stipulations of his punishment in serving his sentence but beyond that, what steps can he take to redress the harm he has inflicted upon society?
Many have argued that Alig should show contrition by remaining out of the spotlight altogether and allowing himself to fade quietly into obscurity. Others believe that there needs to be a more meaningful nexus between Alig’s offence and the method by which he repairs it. Having spoken with him earlier this week, it is my opinion that if we want to see Alig re-engage with society in a meaningful way, we have to let go of our desire for revenge. At his best, Alig was an indispensible ally to the misfits and the losers of the world. If he is ever to be of service to the disenfranchised again - as he claims he would like to be - we have to afford him the opportunity. Poking him with a stick every few weeks to make sure he still squirms will achieve nothing.
How are you adjusting to life since your release?
For the last 5 years of my sentence I was in solitary confinement, so I literally went from solitary confinement to being on Twitter. I don’t think you can really explain what that’s like to somebody who hasn’t been through it. Solitary is an insane solitude. I actually think it should be illegal because it’s not beneficial or remedial in any way; if anything, it creates permanent psychological damage.
So, to answer your question: I guess I still haven’t fully processed what has happened. I mean, I accept full responsibility for what I did to Angel – that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about self-control. I don’t understand how everything got so far out of hand. It’s something I’m still working through.
I know you’ve publically expressed discomfort with how you were portrayed in Party Monster. What are your feelings about the film now?
When I was signing papers and setting everything up for the film, I was not thinking clearly. I was still an addict and as most people know, when you’re high nothing seems serious. For lack of a better description, I took the path of least resistance and just went along with everything. Even though I had read the script and was going “No, no, no!”, James St. James was very good at convincing me that unless they did it this way or that way, it wouldn’t do as well.
Looking back now, I feel a little bit ridiculous about not standing my ground. I didn’t really understand the wider-reaching consequences of doing a film that wasn’t entirely truthful. I should have put my foot down and said “No”, but I was in prison and they were out of prison and I knew they were basically going to do what they wanted to do anyway.
I saw you recently met up with Marilyn Manson (aka Brian Warner) who had a cameo in Party Monster. How did that come about?
It’s kind of a weird story. His agent called my friend Sloan and said that Brian wanted me to go to the concert. At first I thought it was just his agent calling random friendly people to come down to the show. What I didn’t realise at the time was that Marilyn Manson was Brian who used to come to ‘Disco 2000’ - he was a Club Kid and I never put two and two together!
Back then he was very kind of... not quite square, but he didn’t seem cool at all. He seemed like a kid from New Jersey who didn’t know how to wear his make up (laughs). Like his eyeliner wasn’t quite right and he was just an endearing suburban kid - you could tell he wasn’t from the city. But those were the ones I paid the most attention to back then because they weren’t jaded and they appreciated a little more attention. I liked to ‘mother’ them and he remembered that.
He dedicated a song to me during his set and afterward we talked backstage. He thanked me for giving him drink tickets and putting him on the guest list and basically treating him like one of us even though he wasn’t the coolest guy back then. He said it gave him the confidence to go further with what he was doing.
Speaking of which, you were so young when you arrived in New York. Where did your confidence come from to take over the club scene and dispossess the 80’s socialites of their stomping grounds?
Well here’s the thing: my confidence came from having no confidence. I still have zero confidence. All of my friends are very extroverted and wild, but that isn’t me at all. I had to really force myself and pretend. When we went on Geraldo, for example, I was so nervous I wanted to throw up - but I just felt like I had to do it. I had no choice, you know. By that time I had people writing to me from all over the country saying “I wish I had your self confidence” or whatever, and I was like “If only you knew!”. It’s like they say: you teach what you yourself must yourself learn.
In a way what the Club Kids were doing was really prophetic of the current state of things – people are now creating their own personal brands on twitter, followers are an indicator of social value, one’s worth is determined by the existence projected rather than the life actually lived and so on...
Well it’s funny because we kind of unknowingly predicted it just by following the projector.
I used to watch the editor of Project X sitting at her computer, and it always looked like she was working so diligently. I was so impressed by her dedication and commitment. Then one day, I walked into her little corner only to find that there was a mirror set up where her computer should have been. She was actually just checking out her make-up and looking at herself the whole time!
I thought that was so funny, so I told Ernie Glam that he should write an article about how in the future everybody’s computer will have a button that will automatically show them a reflection of themselves. When I came home from prison I was like ‘Oh my god, it’s real - they have cameras built into their computers and phones so they can take photos of themselves all day long”.
Do you still see other echoes of what the Club Kids talked about or created in popular culture?
On our daily webcast The Pee-ew we actually just started a new segment where we pick something that’s happening right now and show the connection to what we were doing back then. The first one was a picture of a Target store that has a Rave Wear section (laughs). I remember when we went on the Geraldo show, we said we dreamt of a day when you could walk into any mall and see people with coloured hair and weird clothes. Now you can!
A lot of the behaviours we were satirising back then have become the norm now too. The first thing I was struck with when I got home was how self absorbed everybody has become. You see everyone walking down the street and on the subway not even raising their heads to look at other people – they’re on their phones and on the internet, taking pictures of themselves to add to their collections. If it wasn’t so normal and serious it would be funny.
So you’ve talked a lot about your past in the media since your release, but what goals do you have for the future? I heard that you wanted to work with young disenfranchised people. Is that still the case?
It is, but unfortunately I’m finding that a lot of organisations won’t work with me, or even accept donations from me or anyone associated with me. James tried to volunteer his time to the Hetrick-Martin Institute for example, and they said “Thank you, but no”. He was deemed guilty by association. Thankfully Road to Recovery recently contacted me because they heard I was struggling to find someone to work with – so I’m going to be doing a monthly brunch with them, and they’ll allow me to donate the proceeds to their organisation. How do you feel about how the media has reported on you since your release?
It has been up and down, but I handle it a lot better than I used to. Before I went to prison, I didn’t really know who I was. I wasn’t at all self aware - so when the media would say something about me I would think it was true. If they said I was a genius, I would feel special. When they would call me a sociopath, I would think ‘Oh no, I must be’. It took me about 12 years of intensive therapy to really get through all of that and be comfortable in knowing who I am. I’ve come to realise that the people who write these articles usually haven’t even met me, and aren’t in a position to give me a diagnosis. So I don’t believe the things I read about myself anymore. I know more about me than they do. They don’t have access to the memories or the facts that I do.
Can you blame people for having these sort of sensationalised images of you though, given you signed off on Party Monster and The Shockumentary?
I can definitely see where people are coming from. I have allowed some seriously misleading information to be released because of my inability to say no to people. The irony is that World of Wonder who made both the movie and the documentary are now finding themselves in the position of having to backtrack and tell the truth about the films, because they’re having problems securing funding for Party Monster 2 due to all of the inaccuracies in the last one.
What’s the idea behind Party Monster 2?
They started filming last month. I guess the purpose is to say ‘The things we said last time are not actually true, and although we made all this money selling you this lie, now we’re going to make some more telling you the truth’. To be honest, I don’t know if the project will go ahead. They’re going to have to admit that they fabricated a lot of my story, which will not be a good look for them. I spoke to Fenton Bailey yesterday, and he said “You know we’re going to have to argue our side of the story when we talk about these things”, and I don’t know exactly what that means - but it’s a very thin argument he has.
I know you’ve done a lot of work with your therapist over the years, and I know it’s a very personal thing to talk about, but upon reflection what issues did you see at the core of the drug taking and eventually Angel’s murder?
It is personal on one hand, but on the other it isn’t. When you do something like what I did, you need to share and explain. It’s part of repaying the debt.
I’m actually embarrassed because my condition is so common. I wanted to have a very strange, unique thing wrong with me, but it’s just plain old boring self-esteem issues... you know, not feeling as though I could compete with others because I wasn’t as smart or creative, things lke that. So I did a lot of drugs to cover up those inadequacies and enhance my personality. Ultimately the drugs took over and I lost touch with reality. That’s the condensed version, anyway. So now that you have that level of insight into your behaviour, how do you feel about what happened with Angel?
I still haven’t processed it properly and I haven’t forgiven myself. I keep being told by my therapist that until I do those two things, I’m not going to be able to progress emotionally or psychologically and I won’t be of any help to anyone.
The only thing that has helped me over the past year is doing things for other people. That said, I think people always take away something for themselves, even when they’re giving altruistically – but the alternative is to do nothing, and then nobody benefits. So when I do small things and it’s just between me and someone else, it does help make that knot in my stomach a bit smaller.
I don’t think that I’ll be ever able to get to that point where I completely forgive myself, but all I know is that I have to keep going in that direction. It’s the only way I’ll ever like myself again. You’ve said before that you are, by nature, quite a subversive person. How are you expressing that subversion now that you’ve taken a step back from club land? You know what, everything I do has the same message; I’ve always been interested in the juxtaposition of innocence and decadence. The place where they meet is so interesting to me, so I’m expressing that through my art. I’ve been finalising plans for an exhibition this week, actually. I wanted to think of something that had never been done before, but it’s very hard to do these days. You can Google even the most obscure concepts and get 10,000 hits. If you really want to know, I think we have reached the end of Western dominance as far as culture, art, music and fashion are concerned. Because everything is so immediately accessible?
Yes! In order for a subculture to evolve it needs time to germinate and be kept secret. I think the club kids were the last subculture to enjoy being known by 5000 people in New York City, but still considered a cool secret. Now, the minute an idea is thought of, it’s shared online and assimilated by the masses. I think that explains why there haven’t been any real advances in music or fashion in the last 20 years.
Another thing that I think about often is that the people who used to create these movements were weirdos with social problems, but now they have medication for that. It’s the feeling of not belonging that inspires someone to create a world in which they do belong. If everyone feels happy and there’s no discontent, there’s no real reason to create art. It’s kind of scary because it means we’ve met an end game feel. In the 60’s it was shocking to see a woman in a mini skirt!
So what are your predictions for the future of Western civilisation?
It’s like the end of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. What’s the line? “Your mission was a failure; your lifestyle’s too extreme”. When everything gets too extreme, everything becomes desensitised and dated. Nothing shocks. We’re at the point where it’s Rome all over again, but people don’t see the decline coming because they’re so wrapped up in themselves.
I think the hippies were the first ones to really notice that this whole obsession we have with fame and consumerism is ridiculous. It’s meaningless and in a lot of ways, detrimental to our mental health because it’s teaching us that everything about us is wrong. If you’re not famous, you’re not worthy of celebration. If you’re not pretty, there’s a product you can buy to fix yourself. If your family doesn’t love you, there’s a brand of coffee you can drink to change that. It’s a form of brainwashing, which is what that Club Kids were satirising. They say that satire is often mistaken for the real thing. The people who didn’t know us back then walked away thinking we were celebrating the superficiality that we were mocking. I don’t think people want to hear the truth and when you try to express it to them, they hate you for it.