Entertainment

02.28.14

The Party Monster Lives For the Applause: Michael Alig’s Second Act

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The Party Monster Lives For the Applause

Two hundred and forty miles west of Manhattan, in a stately red brick building perched atop a hill, the party monster waits. For 17 years, he’s been on a never-ending tour of New York state penitentiaries that’s taken him to the Elmira Correctional Facility where he waits, not so patiently, for that call from the parole board, the one that will give him his life back. The club kid fantasy was never meant to end this way: alone, in prison, a middle-aged murderer.

“I feel sort of like Rip Van Winkle,” Michael Alig tells me, likening himself to the fictional character who sleeps through the American Revolution. “I heard people don’t even go to parties to go to parties anymore. They go to parties to tweet. It’s kind of disgusting.”

Forty-seven-year-old Alig hasn’t actually been to a party in nearly two decades, but he isn’t that oblivious to what’s going on in the world. He watches Downton Abbey and reads New York Magazine, voraciously consuming whatever pop culture he can get his hands on, as if preparing for the moment he might be dropped back into society. He may have been locked up since the days of dial-up Internet and brick-sized cell phones, but thanks to the help of modern day acolytes and a few old friends still willing to do his bidding, Alig lives on blogs and Facebook. He tweets, too. But we’ll get to that.

Before he became inmate #97A-6595, Alig was the self-crowned prince of New York City nightlife. He led his anti-hip crowd of club kids—drag queens, punks, starving artists, and rich kids, lost loners from every little town in America—through the city in platform shoes like a depraved Peter Pan, throwing “outlaw parties” on subway platforms and at Burger Kings. He stormed legendary spots like Palladium and Tunnel, and turned them into strobe-lit dens of iniquity. He was an accidental pioneer in the gay rights movement, a cult hero with a merry band of self-proclaimed “freaks” with nicknames like Gitsie, Keoki, Walt Paper, Richie Rich, Freeze, and Angel. He was the Lady Gaga before Lady Gaga.

We sit at a card table in the center of a windowless, white-walled prison meeting room. Our chaperone, a guard who boasts that Mark Twain summered in Elmira—but knows nothing about this celebrity—sits uninterested in the corner. Alig's ensemble, a white polo tucked into green nylon pants, reveals a slight paunch that would never have fit into his favorite pair of assless hot pants. While the makeup and glitter may be gone and his dirty blonde hair is graying, Alig’s boyish face bears hardly any more wrinkles than it did when he was running around the Limelight—the cavernous church-turned-club where he once packed thousands of party goers with his notoriously debaucherous all-night affairs—intentionally stumbling into people and peeing into drinks. He speaks quickly and flamboyantly, with broad hand gestures. His hoarse, staccato laughter peppers our conversation. He has a dark sense of humor.

“I believe in Karma,” he says. “I am so afraid for my Karma right now because I’ve done such a terrible thing.”

The terrible thing he’s referring to was a byproduct of Alig’s descent into addiction. By the mid ‘90s, his reveries devolved from lively to lifeless as the club kids exchanged ecstasy for tranquilizers. Alig became hooked on heroin, ketamine, cocaine, and Rohypnol—a stupefying blend of substances for the once sober partier.

It was during one of these benders on March 17, 1996, that Alig and his fellow club kid, drug dealer, and sometime roommate Andre “Angel” Melendez got into a fight. The subject of the argument (was it money or Melendez’s hat?) was clearly insignificant, yet Alig’s friend Robert “Freeze” Riggs knocked Melendez unconscious with a hammer. Strung out and panicked, Freeze told police that he and Alig strangled Melendez, poured Drano down his mouth, duct taped it shut, and left the body in a bathtub for a week. Then Alig dismembered the corpse with kitchen knives from Macy’s in exchange for 10 bags of heroin from Freeze. The two dumped the remains in duffle bags and a box and into the Hudson River, and on April 12, 1996, Melendez’s legless torso washed ashore on Staten Island. More than a year later, and after Village Voice reporter Michael Musto connected some of the dots, Alig pled guilty to murder. He was sentenced to 10-20 years in prison. He’s been up for parole a number of times since 2006, each time sending out smoke signals announcing his return. (Since our interview, he’s been moved to a medium security facility 150 miles away in Marcy, New York.)

Angel Melendez’s death was more than just the murder of another young drug dealer. The club kids didn’t just exist in a downtown New York City bubble. Alig and his gang had been paraded on daytime television and marveled at by talk show hosts like Phil Donahue and Joan Rivers. Michael Alig was famous. Years later, it was perhaps Macaulay Culkin’s portrayal of him in the 2003 film Party Monster that truly immortalized Alig, reigniting his celebrity and turning his gruesome crime and victim into little more than an afterthought for those who worshipped him.

And so despite being locked up, and the club kids scene being long dead, Alig still has a cult following. He was the subject of the documentary Party Monster: The Shockumentary, which was based on the memoir Disco Bloodbath written by fellow club kid and friend James St. James, and the inspiration for the Culkin film. He's also been featured on episodes of TV crime shows like Investigation Discovery's Deadly Devotion. Coming up: another documentary, a book, and even a musical.

Alig’s digital devotees write to him, blog about him, praise him in the comments section of every article and YouTube clip, and retweet every one of his 140-character dispatches. If these people were alive (or aware of him) in the ‘90s, they might just have been the type to move to New York City and join his chaotic congregation. Instead, those able to take their fascination beyond the computer screen find themselves not in Manhattan but in a visiting room upstate. Sometimes they’re so enamored they can’t talk. Some propose marriage.

“My first thought is, what kind of person would want to be friends with the person they think I might be?” says Alig. “They come in thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s just this super confident person who doesn’t care what people think.’ That couldn’t be any farther from the truth. The reason me and my friends were all doing this was because we were so not self-confident and had such low self-esteem.”

***

The Cult of @Alig_Aligula

Google Michael Alig. You’ll find a number of blogs dedicated to trolling his life and a few Facebook pages about the club kids. Then there’s his Twitter page. A few years ago, Alig was receiving nearly 100 letters a week. Responding to all them—especially the ones from “downtrodden” teens in the middle of the country—made him feel good. But it cost almost $200 a month in stamps. Twitter was cheaper.

@Alig_Aligula has about 5,000 followers. The account is run by Esther Haynes, the digital edition director at Lucky Magazine and editor of Alig’s book, Aligula. (He writes his 140-character thoughts down and dictates them to her over the phone.) His tweets are insightful, often funny. Not bad for someone who’s never used the Internet.

“It’s so cold in Elmira…even the rapists have stopped exposing themselves.”

“I <3 CNN's priorities: A splashy segment on Sasheer Zamata’s SNL debut, above a tiny scroll: Israel aims missiles at Iran; 5-year-old kidnapped…”

“Feels like I’m the last man on Earth who hasn’t tasted a cronut. Am I the last man on Earth who hasn’t tasted a cronut??? #whatsacronut”

“I love it when @SarahPalinUSA says things like ‘some leaders in our White House,’ like we don’t know who she’s talking about. #ashadeshady”

“What I wanna know is: What kind of volumizer does @JustinBieber use to give his hair the height you see in his mug shot?! #gettinghigh”

His avatar is a candid shot of a baby-faced, twentysomething Alig; his page is decorated with pictures of “honey trap” jars and “Michael Alig’s Birthday Zoomies” cereal boxes, real promotional invitations and favors from parties past. Alig uses the medium to update followers on his status (“Great news!!! They lowered my classification from maximum to medium, which means I’m one step closer to release.”) and he delights his fans by chatting with fellow club kids, like ex-boyfriend DJ Keoki. He also chronicles his relationship with his prison boyfriend Mike, as if Twitter were a very low-budget camera on his imaginary reality show.

“I sort of feel like it’s a crack habit,” he says, giggling. “You have to keep feeding it.”

Before there was Twitter, though, there was MichaelAligBlog.com, a very-retro looking, text-only, purple-on-purple site. It’s run by a 49-year-old woman named Joanne (her username is LovePurple) who lives in Connecticut and is disabled and prone to weird hours.

Like many of Alig’s followers, Joanne became enthralled by him after watching Party Monster eight years ago. Believing that Alig “made it okay to be an outcast,” she drove to Elmira, only three hours from the Westchester County town of Peekskill where she lived at the time, to meet him in prison. She visited again. And then again, eventually making the drive twice a month before she moved to Connecticut to be closer to family. Though not all of Alig’s closest friends instantly accepted Joanne—nightclub designer and Alig’s former business partner Steve Lewis said she was a “demented invalid” who “came to this out of weirdness and curiosity”—Alig trusted her. She was his friend.

Tired of all the “drama on the ‘boards,” Joanne asked for permission to start the definitive Michael Alig blog. There she posts updates on his release status, schedules prison visits, and monitors comments. Joanne runs the blog sort of like a police state, banning trolls by only allowing flattering posts—and it still receives up to 1,400 visitors a week.

“He’s one of those polarizing characters, like Napoleon, he’s got the cult of personality,” says filmmaker Ramon Fernandez, who’s documentary Glory Daze: The Life and Times of Michael Alig comes out this year. The killing of Angel Melendez, he says, is to the ‘90s club scene what the Manson family murders or the deadly free concert at California’s Altamont Speedway were to the ‘60s hippie culture: a bloody end to a peaceful movement.

Meanwhile, Victor Corona, a professor of social sciences at the Fashion Institute of Technology, has spent two years writing a book tracing the lineage of self-made celebrity from Andy Warhol to Alig and, finally, Lady Gaga. The common thread between the three generations of superstars is the message that anyone, no matter how marginalized or bullied or outcast, can reinvent themselves and attain celebrity. “The only other moment aside from the club kid scene to so thoroughly define New York as an object of cultural consumption was Sex and the City,” says Corona. “But that was an HBO show. This was real.”

Not only was it real and a celebration of theatricality, but Alig’s story is a cautionary tale, says Emerson College student and actor Andrew Barrett Cox. He produced and stars as Michael Alig in Clubland, a stage musical adaptation of Disco Bloodbath. “I watched Party Monster and I was fascinated,” he says. “I thought it was the weirdest fucking movie I’d seen in my life.” While he has never met Alig, they’ve exchanged letters. Cox, like many of those I’ve spoken to, talks about Alig with equal parts trepidation and awe. He is like a wild animal they want desperately to understand, even tame.

“It’s the same reason the media fascinates over Amanda Bynes going fucking nuts, or Lindsay Lohan,” he says. “We love to see the rise and fall of somebody. That’s exactly what Michael Alig is, the rise and fall of a personal empire.”

He pauses.

“I think he loves it. Of course he loves it. I mean, what else does he have to live for?”

***

The Party Is Over

When the enthusiastic kid from South Bend, Indiana, approached the elusive, eye-patched proprietor of Palladium, Tunnel, the Limelight, and other New York nightclubs, he had an offer: for a small fee, he would bring the party—and paying customers—to the club. So Peter Gatien hired Alig, then a freshman at Fordham, to let his twisted imagination run wild and throw Wednesday night parties at the Limelight. He called it “Disco 2000.” Alig worked closely with club director Steve Lewis who—before designing some of the renowned fixtures of Manhattan nightlife like Webster Hall, Butter, and Marquee—was responsible for bringing Alig’s outrageous fantasies to life.

Lewis is one of the few friends to have stayed loyal since the murder. He visits Alig regularly and chronicles their meetings on his Blackbook.com blog, Good Night Mr. Lewis. (“I’m never going to sit here and feel sorry for Michael’s fate,” he writes. “I don’t sugarcoat it when I am with him either. He killed Angel and chopped him up and discarded him in a river, and he won’t get sympathy here for that devilish act…that cowardly act. It’s been a decade and a half in hellish places and Michael is a man now, not a Club Kid.”)

“Nobody on earth is more in need of love than Michael Alig,” Lewis shouts in a thick Queens accent over the phone as he drives back from Elmira to New York. “He’s like a comedian, he pauses to hear the applause and the laughter and when he doesn’t get it, it’s the end of the world. Everything he ever did was for that applause.” Lewis says Alig is the “heir apparent to Andy Warhol,” a social manipulator, who surrounds himself with creative people and allows them to express themselves. He is also a chameleon, he says, able to adapt his personality to appease any audience.

After two and a half years in solitary confinement for heroin use, Alig completed prison rehab and has been clean since 2009. His social addiction, however, persists. Lewis says his friend has hardly aged mentally from the 31-year-old who went to prison: Alig is constantly keeping track of old club kids and trying to relive the wildest moments from his best bashes. Meanwhile, everyone else, for the most part, has moved on. James St. James wrote the book that served as the basis for Party Monster and now works for World of Wonder, the production company behind the The Shockumentary as well as popular TV shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and Million Dollar Listing. Alig’s former boyfriend “Super Star DJ” Keoki is still a DJ, though the “Super Star” label may be a bit of a stretch. Kabuki is a renowned celebrity makeup artist and Amanda Lepore, muse to photographer David LaChapelle, is one of the nation’s most recognizable transgender celebrities. Gitsie, who was played by Chloe Sevigny in Party Monster, died of a drug overdose. Gatien was deported to his native Canada for tax evasion in 2003. And the Limelight, which shuttered permanently in 2007 after a series of police crackdowns, has since been transformed into a mall.

“The murder, in Michael’s mind, was just another boundary that he pushed, and he bragged about it almost immediately after,” says Lewis. “He’d say, ‘You may be cool, you may be this, you may be that, but I fucking killed someone.’ He didn’t do it on purpose, but once he did it, he didn’t keep it a secret. He told the world he chopped him up. He wanted everyone to know he crossed a boundary that you wouldn’t think about crossing. If you understand that, you understand Michael.”

***

Michael Alig Lives For the Applause

Prison should be hell for someone who feasted on partying. But Alig is far from the unshaven and downtrodden man profiled in New York Magazine in 2007. Then, he confessed he feared his incontinence, caused by an untreated pinched nerve in his back, would keep him from finding love. He now talks giddily about his boyfriend Mike who, despite also moving through the prison system, has always wound up Alig’s neighbor. Gay god is looking out for him, he says. (While Alig has left Elmira since our interview, Mike is still there.)

Throughout our conversation, Alig drops first names as if I should know who all of his friends are. He questions Kim Kardashian’s intelligence and Kanye West’s sexuality, and confesses that he’s not the biggest Beyoncé fan. When he’s released, he wants to volunteer at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis—though he isn’t sure they’d want him. He wants to have some fun, too.

“Do you think it would even be possible now to throw a party on the Williamsburg Bridge? I wonder if now you have to sneakily get a permit and not tell anybody, just make everybody think it’s illegal. Because I cannot get arrested.”

It might be in his best interest to avoid parties, I say, illegal or otherwise, for a while.

“Have you ever been in the abandoned subway tunnels? I really want to go exploring those. I would love to do an art gallery down there.”

I begin to say I’d never walk through a subway tunnel to get to an abandoned station, but he cuts me off.

“Oh, I would.”

Then again, traversing train tracks may be nothing compared to the social risks of moving to Brooklyn.

“I'm afraid I wouldn’t feel like I'm in the middle of everything. Doesn’t commuting make you feel like a bridge and tunnel person?”

(He whispers the last part as if the guard, who’s long since tuned us out, might take offense.)

He tells me he wants to blog about re-entering society, to chronicle who he’s dining with and who’s snubbing him. For now, he’s working on a book about jailhouse conversations.

“I write them down because they’re so hysterical. Just the other day I heard these two people arguing over the definition of a gentleman. This guy said, ‘A gentleman is a crazy slick dude what can get away with mad shit ‘cuz nobody can't prove nothin’.” “That’s a gentleman!”

He keeps his “really, really, really” good movie, documentary, and reality show ideas in a box under his bed.

“I’m big on the gimmicky kind of hammer films where you have to sign a release form saying that if you die of fright you won’t sue the movie theater.” He thinks a friend’s idea that his entourage should screen fans who want to meet him sounds like a television show concept. “Get to Know Michael Alig! Or something like that,” he says.

Alig knows that in some twisted way, killing Angel Melendez saved his own life. By the time he went to prison, he had already overdosed three times. If he hadn’t been incarcerated, he’d probably be dead. He says prison has been humbling. “Prison has taught me that the world does not revolve around me,” he says. “I mean, it sort of does, but other people don’t realize that the world revolves around me. Everyone should think that the world revolves around them, but they should also realize that other people think the world revolves around them. I used to think everyone should realize that the world revolved around me.”

If all goes as planned, Alig soon will face his fans, those who blog about him, follow his tweets, and obsess over Party Monster. He tells me that it does weird him out when he meets those who—and he hates to use these words—idolize or worship him.

"Like, wow, what am I going to say or do?” he says. “Because I don’t feel like talking about how cool what I did was.”

I walk with Alig back to his 10-foot-by-10-foot cell which, he jokes, is the size of one of those micro-apartments he’s read about. The guard instructs me to walk closer to the cells, in case a prisoner above throws feces. Alig prances ahead and points out landmarks like the wing where the rowdier inmates are housed. If his friends and admirers are right about one thing, it’s that Michael Alig is a personality. He has a way of convincing you that this middle-aged ex-party boy could throw a fabulous rager on the Williamsburg Bridge and, at the same time, that he could be the poster boy for prison rehabilitation. It’s easy to be enamored by his childlike charm, to forget, even briefly, that he chopped up and threw away his roommate. It’s how he was able to make a career out of partying and why, to his devotees, he’s still an icon.

“It’s so weird to hear that because I’m sort of starting now to understand it,” he says. “Before when I would hear something like that I would think, ‘I fooled them all!’ But then I started thinking, it’s sort of genius to fool people into thinking you’re a genius.”

***