La Dolce Musto (ouch)

This week, the 'Village Voice' columnist and New York bitch about town Michael Musto starred at parties for 'Absolutely Fabulous', 'Batman Forever', Janet Leigh's autobiography and Lady Bunny's 'Wigstock' movie. Nick Walker spends an evening on the cutting edge with the doyenne of Downtown
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It's just after midnight at the door of the Limelight nightclub in Chelsea, downtown Manhattan. Kenny the doorman, a shaven-headed Irishman, shrink-wrapped in a pink faux-fur, clutches a guest list and blinks through an inch of black mascara. Suddenly, his eyes open wide.

"Michael!" Kiss. Kiss. "Honey!" Kiss. Kiss.

Michael is Michael Musto. Michael writes the biting downtown high life column, "La Dolce Musto", in the New York weekly newspaper the Village Voice. He has a sharp tongue, a sharper pen and a well documented penchant for outrageous dress. He rented papal fashions for the launch of Madonna's book, Sex, in 1992; a grass skirt and floral headdress for the Hawaiian party at the Palladium in 1986; a hat in the shape of a Martini olive for the launch of his novel, Downtown, in 1989. He does full drag too. Of course.

Kenny, just like all New York nightlifers, knows this: nothing is hip without Musto's benediction, no club cool without his consent. Musto's face is exactly the kind of face a doorman is paid to recognise.

In 1986, when Peter Stringfellow opened his eponymous Manhattan club, Musto was turned away from the door. Big mistake. Musto dubbed Stringfellow the tackiest man on two continents in the Village Voice. To be refused at the door at Stringfellow's became the epitome of chic.

Inside the Limelight, a converted Episcopalian church, Musto is preceded by the swish of red velvet rope. Kiss follows kiss and a hasty shower of compliments and drinks tickets into the inner sanctum - a former chapel - the VIP lounge. Drag queens in 12-inch high built-up trainers totter around baby-faced punks with pierced tongues, pierced nipples andwebs of silver chains.

This is the competition for this year's King and Queen of Manhattan, Musto explains. "But it's really an opportunity for the club promoter to award himself prizes," the gossip guru giggles. The prize for King was his two years ago, anyway.

For the past 10 years Musto has chronicled the night-time frolics of Manhattan's beautiful people. Two or three parties a night, seven nights a week: film previews, book launches, fashion shows, award presentations. A fashion bash at the chi-chiclothes store, Barney's ("a bit too up town for me - the blue daiquiris tasted like Windex"); a party for Lacroix: "the king of pouf dresses, sweetie".

If you want to write like Musto, you should: 1) use numbered lists; 2) don't mention names (at first), but start your readers licking their lips with a catalogue of unattributable anonymous gossip, then gently adding public figures, a dash of glamour and a fairly hefty pinch of skanky sexual going-ons; and 3) wait until the fourth or fifth paragraph, then name names. Twist the knife so that cartilage can be heard to crunch. He's in yer face.

Maybe it's his background. Musto was born in Brooklyn. His parents now visit him in his glam downtown apartment. His father does his taxes and his mother dusts the plastic palm trees. "When I have parties, they come and meet the club kids and the drag queens. My father is always hitting on some transsexual without realising it."

Musto was a self-confessed "nerd" at Columbia college. "But I was always attracted to glitter. I would stand outside Studio 54, which was the hot spot in the late Seventies. I would just watch people pull up in their limousines. To me that was a night of entertainment. I'm such a victim."

Over the past 10 years Downtown has, of course, died and been buried. It was officially buried as far back as 1987, and it was Musto who performed the last rites splashing the headline "Downtown is Dead" across the cover of the Voice. There have been rebirths since, but 1995 is not, so far, a good year. The Sound Factory is closed. Boybar, Studio 54, Club USA, all shut, shut, shut.

Party people in New York, according to Musto, are following the fashion set. He's disgusted: "The Bowery Bar is sucking up the fashion power crowd - wannabes and Warhol survivors sitting by the bar getting drunk."

Big venues are over, the club kid crowd too insular. Musto says: "Gyms are the new night clubs . That's where people go to meet people now. Coffee bars have got a lot to answer for too. Bookstores like Barnes & Noble have these cafes where people sit around pretending to read while they cruise for a husband." The only big gay party left (apart from the Limelight) is at the Roxy: the guilty party responsible for spawning drag queen RuPaul.

Musto is laid back about the demise of the nightclub scene. "It just is, I suppose ... but nightclubs are more exciting. They lend themselves to more extravagant behaviour. It's amazing the rules that can be broken, and you're celebrated for being different, for being daring, for being outrageous. You're not going to run around Barnes & Noble bookstore in a tutu screaming 'Hi! My name's Goldilocks!' "

According to Musto, New York nightlife reached its zenith in the mid- Eighties, with clubs such as Palladium, Limelight (then just opened) and Danceteria. But it wasn't just the size of these clubs that marked them out, it was the mix of Manhattanites they attracted: "That was the creative peak of the downtown scene. Everyone came together. It wasn't just club people; it was everyone from writers to art dealers to designers. It was very adult, cool and well, pretentious." He guffaws.

Tonight, Musto has eschewed drag. There's no Martini olive hat. No grass skirt. No Black Exploitation-Carnaby Street-DKNY-Gaultier-Romeo Gigli knock-off (with matching shoes).

The vamp who once sat on a bar stool dripping diamonds, sucking on a screwdriver, occasionally peering over Dr Strangelove sunglasses, sits sipping cranberry juice in beige slacks and a pink and blue striped shirt. With thick glasses and a brown corduroy jacket, he looks like a librarian.

Beige slacks? A shirt? Corduroy? Did Musto take it to heart last year when he turned up for an appearance in Cyndi Lauper's video of Girls Just Want To Have Fun, in a $5 dress only to be handed a sequinned replacement by the wardrobe consultant?

"Oh please. I can't compete any more," he groans. "I used to be the most outrageously dressed, but once the club kids come around, you just feel silly next to them. They go to such lengths because they have all day. I have a life - well, I have moreof a life than some. It's all relative. I think drag looks really foolish as you get older."

Older? Well, yes. At 37, Musto verges on geriatric for the club scene.

And with the advancing years Musto's column has partially abandoned glitz and become more serious, interspersing party poop with HIV issues and gay rights. Don't be fooled by all the catty columns. He is genialtoo. The one-liners are punctuated by a girlish giggle (that comes from goodness knows where within the six-foot Italian-American). Still, this shouldn't beguile the unwary. He still wants Guiliani, the city's Republican mayor, to "drink the black sperm of vengeance" following the recent spate of closures on the New York club scene.

Standing by the dancefloor, clutching his corduroy jacket to his chest, feet locked tightly at the heel, for a fleeting second, Musto resembles Linus from Peanuts. Then there's a swirl of taffeta, a shimmer of paste gems under neon as Musto recognises a face. Wrists flap excitedly around his ears, cries of "No!" and "Fabulous!" fog the air. Drag heaven. Suddenly a young Puerto Rican sidles up, and eases down his jeans to reveal a ghoulish tattoo of the female reproductive system etched just above the line of his public hair - fallopian tubes, ovaries and all. The boy blushes with pride.

"Cute," Musto giggles, rolling his eyes to heaven. "I love it."

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