Self portrait by Michael Alig. [via Twitter]
Imagine being at the center of the nightlife universe: you're Manhattan's biggest party promoter, the subject of conversation, cover stories and TV talk shows, the leader of a band of misfits carrying lunch boxes and looking like the love children of Minnie Pearl and Krusty the Clown. You're the very essence of what has become defined as "New York nightlife." OK. Now you've imagined the infamous Michael Alig.
And then imagine that you become addicted to a range of substances and your thin grasp of reality becomes even thinner and you cross the line and you kill a friend who's also a drug dealer, cut him up and throw him in the river but go on as if nothing happened, dropping hints here and there, wanting everyone to know about your latest bad boy extravagance but also being scared of actually getting caught. And then one day body parts come floating up on Staten Island -- the remains of your friend and dealer, Angel Melendez -- and your evil deed is discovered.
And then you go to jail, thinking that you're going to kill yourself rather than succumb to the confinement, all the crazy stories you've been told and movies you've seen about life in prison flashing through your head. But you don't kill yourself. You accommodate to circumstances, learning to survive -- even thrive -- in the harshest of environments, painting and writing, welcoming old friends who don't want to abandon you as well as a cadre of acolytes who find you fascinating. You have a boyfriend, keep doing drugs, your bad boy antics preventing you from getting parole. Until you wise up and get with the program, win parole and emerge a free man. Nightlife has moved to Brooklyn and in the 17 years you've been away the "kids" are gray and losing their hair and the energy and creativity with which you transformed New York nightlife is lost in the haze of "Party Monster" headlines.
Michael Musto helped make and break Michael Alig. A self-described "elder statesman" of the scene and columnist for the Village Voice when the murder occurred, Musto contextualized Alig's outlaw antics and nightlife excesses. When the club kids went on talk shows, Musto was often there with them, defending nightlife against the puritans who wanted nothing more than to see this scene disappear into obscurity.
Musto broke the Alig story when he began receiving calls from club kids about Alig's involvement in the disappearance of Angel Melendez.
"Alig effectively destroyed nightlife for many years," says Musto. "The killing happened during the Rudolph Giuliani era when nightlife was portrayed [by the Mayor] as evil. It became uncool for many years to go out in costume in any way."
There are many who continue to hate Alig, calling him the devil incarnate like Anett Cro who has turned to Facebook posting to rally in protest of his release: "Don't let Michael Alig climb up the system again, don't give him any possible power in any ways! No talk shows, no glorification!" She includes a link to the parole board for people to contact to declare their disfavor with his release.
But Musto and others who knew him back then are more forgiving. "He served his time. He has the right to live an honest life," Musto says, before adding a word of advice. "He should avoid the nightclub world. Given the opportunity, he will do very well as long as he stays off the sauce and doesn't have enablers like he did back then enabling his every move. People fetishize him and his grizzly allure that appeals to the dark side. He has a certain genius that could adapt very well to social media, but he should not be part of the nightlife scene."
"Well, I'm glad he's getting out," says Frank Owen, who knew Alig back in the day and wrote the book Clubland: The Fabulous Rise and Murderous Fall of Club Culture. "He should have been out sooner and he would have been if he'd behaved himself inside. But that's always been Michael's true addiction. Not drugs but bad behavior."
Fenton Bailey won't be here to greet him when he arrives. He lives in LA where he and Randy Barbato run World of Wonder, a media production company responsible for the movies Party Monster and the Alig documentary Party Monster: The Shockumentary. Another documentary is still in production by Ramon Fernandez Glory Daze: The Life and Times of Michael Alig. Before going on to Hollywood success, Bailey and Barbato were part of the New York club scene, performing as the Pop Tarts.
I ask Bailey why he took the trouble of going all the way to Elmira, NY to visit Michael in jail. "He was a friend," Bailey explains. "I suppose people make their judgments about whether to abandon someone who has done horrible things. I decided not to abandon him."
There's been talk of Alig going to work for WOW and creating his own reality show, but that's not happening says Bailey. "Michael's ideas are too out there for TV, which is about 10 years behind the times. Not cutting edge at all."
Like others, Bailey was seduced by Alig's charms. "I found him to be a creative, clever and funny individual [despite] all his other issues like being an addict and was sort of surprised that he survived so well in prison with his creative spirit in tact. If we demonize Michael Alig, it's our way of washing our hands of responsibility. No, I don't condone what he did. It's appalling, he should pay for it the rest of his life -- and he will -- but not by being in prison."
Alig, he believes, was "addicted to fame," not very differently from today's youth enamored with their own life and the social media tools they use to celebrate themselves. "In Michael's days club kids were seen as unwelcome and pointless. When I went around trying to get a movie made about them, people couldn't understand why. But as a culture and a society -- with selfies, Facebook, Instagram et al. -- the 'self as product' that the club kids were so shameless about has become mainstream."
James St. James was Alig's running buddy back in the days before it all went to hell. He wrote Disco Bloodbath, the book that was turned into the movie Party Monster starring Macaulay Culkin as Alig, and now works at World of Wonder. "I know that Michael is worried about the whole technological leap the world has made since he's gone in, but I have a feeling he'll take to it like a duck to water," says James. "If ANYONE was made for the 'Selfie Generation,' it's Michael. He INVENTED TMI culture. And while I think he's going to be shocked by the amount of hate he gets on the Internet, I predict in real life the kids are going to treat him like a conquering hero. Instead of being a cautionary tale, Party Monster turned him into a twisted sort of folk hero, which is weird, but it is what it is. Of course, it will be interesting to see if he can rehabilitate his image -- if he builds homes for orphans or just goes back to his old ways. I have no idea. But we'll all be watching with bated breath."
Tobell Von Cartier, a former club kid and now head designer and owner of the clothing company Von, agrees with St. James' assessment that lots of people will be watching Alig's next moves very intently. "Lots of Michael's fans are waiting with bated breath for him to pick up where he left off, but I'm not one of them. A lot of people hated Michael Alig before he went to prison. A lot of people hated cub kids, considered us nuisances and trouble. Alig took something fun and took it too far."
And even if Alig could go back into the club scene what would he find? "I don't think he'll be able to pick up where he left off. The city is too corporate. The city had an underground scene and we got away with a lot of things that we cannot do now with sex and drugs. There will be zero tolerance for any shenanigans by Michael Alig." But, Tobell concedes, "Everyone is fascinated by celebrity. It's a celebrity world we live in. Who knows, there might be a club kid revival."
Known as someone who craves attention, will Alig be able to adjust to a normal life without a flock of club kids at his beck and call? "That's a concern. I'm afraid adulation would overcome good counsel," says Steve Lewis, who worked with Alig at Limelight and other clubs and served time in prison when the Peter Gatien nightlife empire came tumbling down amid charges of drug dealing. Now a successful consultant and designer of bars and clubs, Lewis is also one of Alig's staunchest defenders, traveling frequently to visit him in prison and including stories about Alig in his Goodnight Mr. Lewis nightlife column for BlackBook. Looking back on when he first met Alig, Lewis recalls, "Before he became infamous we were friends. He had great talent and vision but as time went on, he began taking drugs and he changed from Luke Skywalker to Darth Vader. He went over to the dark side -- maniacal, self-centered.
"Now the person I talk to when I visit prison is sweet, funny and creative, turned back into the person I first met. He wants to do charity work, prove to the world that he's worth having around. He deserves a second chance. We should accept the fact that Michael the murderer is not the same person. No amount of crying is going to bring Angel back. If he fucks up, I'll be the first person out the door."
Like others interviewed, Lewis is taking a wait and see attitude about Alig's future. "I don't know the effect of what happens when that pill hits the water," he says, referring to the time when Alig is exposed to the real world and has to make good decisions. "He has to channel his talent into creativity. He has a place in the media universe. He has job offers from creative outlets that see his potential." But, Lewis cautions, "I've never seen a bigger hole that needed to be filled with applause. We're all going to rubberneck at him for awhile. The light is on him: Charlie Manson or Andy Warhol."
A common thread among Club Kid survivors is successfully quitting drugs. Larry Tee was one of the people who started the infamous Disco 2000 at Limelight with Alig. After continuing to work the music/club scene and helping launch the Electro-clash moment, he now lives in London, "rebranding" from the horrible years stuck at Party Monster (Disco 2000), rehabilitating from the drug taking years, and working on his clothing line TZUJI. "I just did a collection," he says, "loosely built around Party Monster eye-burning techno-colors."
"I'm of two minds," he says of Alig's return. "Being an addict myself and having done many things that I wouldn't have done if I hadn't been high, I have more sympathy. Michael was running multiple addictions at the same time. Heroin, downers, crystal meth and crack. I can give him a break now. If he were to come around I wouldn't be a big bitch about it. I'm not here to judge. I'm doing too many fun things. I have a different kind of life."
A sober, contrite, humble Alig could be a wonderful thing, he says. "Whether Alig can bring his creativity to the New York scene depends on how committed he'll be to being good. Never rule Michael Alig out. He has a life force. A force of nature. Champion of misfits and unwanted high school kids who put a feather in their hats and became famous. Cool people -- the fashion people -- thought he was the devil incarnate. Eventually, he ruled the city. This is really a different time. New York was still growing in the '90s, renovating, with room for nonsense. Don't know if New York has room for nonsense now."
According to several sources, this is the plan: Alig will move into an apartment in the Bronx with a friend. While in prison, he's taken up painting and is expected to have a show of his work at some point. He will finish his memoirs. There are rumors that he will work on a few nightlife projects behind the scenes on the creative side. He will do charity work, connect with troubled youth and abstain from clubbing, drinking or drugs.
An informal Michael Alig support committee has formed that includes Lewis; Esther Haynes, an editor at Lucky Magazine digital who runs Alig's Twitter feed and is editing a book he's been writing called Aligula; and Victor Corona, an FIT professor who is working on a book called New York Superstars: Inside Three Generations of Downtown Fame, which examines social and aesthetic lineages among Andy Warhol's Factory Superstars, Michael Alig's Club Kids, Lady Gaga's downtown collaborators, and New York culture today.
"He's coming back to a changed world," says long-time nightlife habituÃ©, culture critic, and Paper editor Carlo McCormick. "Wonder if he'll know anyone. I hope he's sorry. I hope he doesn't get stuck being Michael Alig. I hope he can reinvent himself."