The Comeback Kid: Michael Alig’s Return to New York Nightlife
The city’s most notorious party promoter built a career on going too far—then ended up in jail for manslaughter. Now that he’s served his time, will a new generation of clubbers welcome him home?
All photos by Rebecca Smeyne unless otherwise indicated
Sex in the City. CBGB. Andy Warhol. Rent. Everyone who dreams of moving to New York City has that one rose-tinted fantasy of what they hope to find here. I had Michael Alig, the most infamous party boy in the world.
Well, not exactly. I had Macaulay Culkin in face paint, prancing below disco balls in Party Monster. The cult movie immortalized Alig's rise from suburban outcast to the city's most powerful party promoter—and his inevitable fall in 1996, after Alig and his roommate, Robert "Freez" Riggs, killed their friend and drug dealer, 25-year-old Andre "Angel" Melendez, while high on a cocktail of ketamine, heroin, Rohypnol, and crystal meth.
I discovered Party Monster as a lonely teenager halfway across the world, in Tokyo, around the time that I'd begun sneaking into local clubs. I wasn't sure exactly what I was looking for in those seedy spaces, but watching Alig and his friends dancing in a van steered by a drag queen on acid, I knew that they had found it. "It doesn't matter what you look like!" declares Alig's friend James St. James in the 2003 film's most famous quote. "If you have a hunchback, just throw a little glitter on it, honey, and go dancing!" Party Monster showed me how clubs could be radical spaces where freaks become glow-in-the-dark superstars. On solo bus rides to swim practice, I sunk into the movie's soundtrack, an anachronistic collection of electroclash tracks from the likes of Vitalic, Miss Kitten, and Ladytron. I started to understand how dance music sounded like freedom.
By the time I made it to New York in 2007, Alig had already been in prison for a decade, riding out a 10 to 20-year sentence for manslaughter. New Yorkers' opinions on his legacy seemed divided, with younger and older generations equally distributed on both sides. To some, his over-the-top parties represented the pinnacle of New York club culture. To others, the druggie excess and grisly murder symbolized the dying gasp of an era—the moment when things went too far, and the city started cracking down on clubs. I found that what people thought of Alig often revealed more about their own relationship to nightlife—he'd become a mirror for our own fantasies and fears.
Wandering from one dark club to another, I sometimes felt as if I was on the brink of touching his ghost, like I'd entered a room and the air was still chilly. When I went to the Limelight—a club in a deconsecrated church where Alig was a director and threw his legendary Wednesday night party Disco 2000—I came face to face with a nightmarish vision of gentrifying New York. The club was bloated with tourists and bad electro, and had even rebranded under a cheesy new name, Avalon.
Twice—in November 2006 and July 2008—Alig became eligible for parole, and returned to the media spotlight. Both times, he was denied after testing dirty for drugs. When Alig was finally released on parole in May 2014, I joined the scrum of journalists chasing after that coveted post-prison interview. I wanted to know what everyone else did. What happens when you put a wild club kid in an iron cage for nearly two decades? Now that he was out, would Alig attempt a grand re-entry into New York society, or remove himself from public life—like Riggs had, when he was released in 2010? And if he decided to go back into the nightlife business, would my generation of club kids, who now rule the scene, be willing to give him a second chance?
At the heart of these questions was a core dilemma: was Alig a dangerous sociopath—or just a troubled, attention-obsessed former junkie who had a very bad night?
The New York Times snagged the first interview, meeting him outside the prison gates on the day of his release, where a 15-person van piled with his friends—including, per the reporter, "three guys with dyed and spiky hair who had been sipping Red Bull and vodka all morning"—was awaiting his arrival. Also in the van: former Jane magazine deputy editor Esther Haynes, who is Alig's editor for his in-progress memoir, Aligula, and two separate video crews—one shooting footage for Party Monster 2, and the other a documentary on his life called Glory Daze.
On the ride back to the city, using a Twitter account his publicist helped him run while he was locked up, Alig blasted a beaming photo of himself in a blue button-down shirt and glasses, licking a Starbucks cup with a twinkle in his eye. He could've easily passed for a soccer dad, if it weren't for the tweet: "Who needs coke when u can get a caffeine jolt from a Starbucks double espresso? #drugfree."
Almost every major media outlet covered Alig's release. I even interviewed his mom, Elke Blair. "I'll tell him to call you back," she said in a heavy German accent. But he never did.
The first day I came home, I had an existential moment. Part of me wanted to hide in a cabin; the other part was telling me to do what I've always wanted to do.
Then in May 2015—almost exactly a year after he got out—a video of Alig popped up on my Facebook feed. Apparently, Alig's newest project was a homemade YouTube series called The Pee-Ew Show (now called Peeew!), which he'd started in September 2014 with Ernie Garcia, an ex-club kid friend who also goes by Ernie Glam. Described as "a stinky, sit-down comedy talk show satire" on the YouTube profile page, the daily broadcast involved the duo commenting on a grab-bag of trending topics—from new Hot Chip music to Russian prank masturbation videos—with their own party stories sprinkled in. Friends from their old nightlife circles, like James St James and DJ Keoki, would sometimes pop in as special guests.
In this particular episode, the pair joked about how Glam had scooped a red drug baggie off the ground at a Red Bull Music Academy event called Storm Rave, only to realize it was a gag invitation to an upcoming boat party hosted by Rinsed. Alig ribbed Glam for falling for the trick. "This is the club land version of the hundred dollar bill with the string that they drop on the sidewalk to see who'll pick it up," smirked Alig, sassy as ever. I realized with a thrilling shiver that Alig's world was closing in on mine. I had been at the same Red Bull event. The Rinsed crew were my friends. In fact, at that moment, the same red baggie was resting in my pocket.
Two weeks later, our worlds finally collided when an email from Glam landed in my inbox. He'd found me through a story I'd written about club kid collecting cards from the 90s were fetching up to $112 on eBay. Turns out Glam had been one of the sellers.
Glam was writing to ask if he could send me a review copy of his new book called The Darkest Tunnel, which was a tale of murder, drugs, and prostitution set in the gritty belly of New York nightlife. (Yes, it was supposed to be fiction.) I seized the opportunity to inquire if I could watch them film the next episode of Peeew!, which happened to be marking its 200th episode that weekend. And just like that, I landed an invitation to Glam's apartment in the Bronx, where I would finally meet Alig in the flesh. To quell the nervous excitement strobing through me, I reminded myself that celebrities are almost never as cool as their appear from afar. I also knew that Alig was a masterful manipulator of the media. Even former Village Voice writer Michael Musto, who has reported on Alig since the 90s, noted that Alig loved to "[make] himself the victim" when talking to the press.
On a bright hot Saturday on June 13, I showed up at Glam's apartment—a modest, whistle-clean two-bedroom awash with sun and colorful pop art. Alig bounded into the living room beaming, wearing a white T-shirt, loosely fit jeans, and bright red sneakers. Although his frame was stockier and his cheeks fleshier than I'd seen in pictures from the 90s, his face bore traces of the beautiful boy he'd once been—blue eyes like deep wells, pillowy lips, almost wrinkle-less skin. It was crazy to think that he was 49 years old.
Alig had been living in Glam's spare room since getting out about a year ago. In addition to Peeew!, he'd been using the time to work on AligMart, an online store that sells Alig-branded merchandise and prints of his paintings—a hobby he picked up in prison.
"I knew he'd have a hard time getting his own place without a job," Glam told me as the three of us circled the kitchen table. "It was a rocky start, because [my husband] craves order while Michael represents disorder," Glam said. But Glam, a Sacramento native, is a loyal friend of Alig's. When Alig was starting out as a promoter, he scouted Glam in the bathroom of a club called Copacabana in 1988; before long, Glam was helping Alig throw parties and getting paid $100 to go-go dance at Limelight. From 1990 to 1993, they even shared an apartment in Chelsea. "It is exactly how it was back then, except without all the drugs," Glam laughed, referring to their new life as roommates.
Peeew! sprung out of the time Alig and Glam spent shooting the shit at home. Though they'd been apart since 1993—the last time Glam visited Alig in prison—they still loved swanning around like retired drag queens, spitting crass jokes and barbed jabs at each other. "We would have these crazy conversations over breakfast and tears would be rolling down our faces because everything was so funny," Glam said. "So we decided to make a show out of it, at least to entertain each other."
The duo had been filming scenes for the show all afternoon. After our interview, they ushered me into Glam's bedroom for the next scene, a spoof of the week's biggest news: the escape of convicted murderers David Sweat and Richard Matt from Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York. Pretending to be Sweat and Matt by putting on hoodies and bad Italian accents, Alig and Glam discussed—what else?—seeing their pictures on TV.
But this bizarre scene was nothing compared to what happened later that day, when Alig was interviewed by Fox News' Megyn Kelly. Apparently, Alig's three-year stint at Clinton Correctional Facility—and his long history in the public eye—qualified him as a "celebrity expert" on inmate culture. He'd also appeared on CNN earlier that week, dressed in a bright red shirt emblazoned with the words "Call My Agent," to discuss the same topic. With each remark, Alig unfailingly drew attention to his own background as a party promoter. When Kelly asked how the convicts were able to hide the sounds of their escape, Alig pointed out that music was often blaring in the prison until 6AM. "It's louder than a nightclub!" he exclaimed.
Before he became a Fox News pundit and former king of New York's demi-monde, Alig was a misfit kid from South Bend, Indiana. His mother, Elke Blair, was a German immigrant who moved to the United States after marrying his father John, a computer programmer she met when he was serving in the military during World War II. When Alig was four, his parents divorced, and he stayed with his mother. In a 1997 interview with the New York Daily News, she described her son as a "sensitive, a straight-A student who didn't like sports," and preferred TV shows like I Love Lucy. As a teenager, she said, Alig worked at a men's clothing store after school, and was often the first to pick up on the latest trends, like wearing leather ties or listening to Devo.
But being on the cultural cutting-edge set Alig apart from the rest of the kids at the public Penn High School—as did his homosexuality. "Quite a few times Michael came home with a black eye, bloody nose, torn shirt," Blair told the Daily News. "'I got into a little scuffle,' he'd say. I know now he was ashamed."
In 1984, Alig graduated in the top 3% of his class, and got a scholarship to Fordham University in New York. He struggled to fit into the conservative Jesuit college, which was hardly the escape he'd hoped for. Like many other small-town boys trying to make it in the big city, he quickly found himself in over his head. Within the first semester, after a breakup with a boyfriend, Alig tried to kill himself by overdosing on antidepressants prescribed by his doctor back in Indiana. He survived—and came out to his mother over the phone when he woke up a few days later.
But his miserable stint at Fordham also paved Alig's road to nightlife. One night, a fellow student who was dating the artist Keith Haring brought Alig to one of Haring's parties at Area—a short-lived, mythical nightclub with immersive installations that would change every six weeks, including a pool designed to look like a bowl of alphabet soup (for the "Food" theme) and a ramp whizzing with skaters on the dancefloor (for "Gnarly").
"I'd just come from Indiana, and it was like this magical world; the air just felt electric," Alig told the Huffington Post about this pivotal first night at Area. "I could just feel that everything in the world really was coming out of this place. And I had to be a part of it."
Alig decided to devote himself to breaking into this glamorous new world, and started working as a busboy at Danceteria, a three-floor club that was the era's most vibrant creative incubator—at various points, Madonna worked there as a waitress, Sade was a bartender, and LL Cool J an elevator attendant. In 1985, Alig transferred from Fordham to the Fashion Institute of Technology, but dropped out after a year. Meanwhile, he continued working his way up the nightlife social hierarchy, persuading Danceteria's owner Rudolf Piper to let him throw his own parties at the club.
Andy Warhol, then the reigning king of New York's glitterati, was everything Alig and his friends aspired to be. "We were all going to become Warhol Superstars and move into The Factory," Alig told Interview in 2010. "The funny thing was that everybody had the same idea: not to dress up but to make fun of people who dressed up. We changed our names like they did, and we dressed up in outrageously crazy outfits in order to be a satire of them—only we ended up becoming what we were satirizing."
Warhol's death in 1987 opened up the playing field for a new generation of nightlife stars, and Alig's parties spread from Danceteria, Limelight, Area, and The Palladium to Red Zone, The Palace, and World. To draw crowds into these venues, he would throw guerilla-style "outlaw parties," where Alig's costumed friends would hijack quotidian locations like Burger King, Dunkin' Doughnuts, McDonald's, ATM vestibules, and subway platforms, blasting music from a boombox and dancing until the cops showed up. Conveniently, Alig always made sure a club was nearby to continue the revelry, complete with another of his marketing tactics—an open bar. By March 1988, Alig was on the cover of New York Magazine, with writer Amy Virshup dubbing him and his gang the "Club Kids," a name she'd picked up from Piper.
But there was a darker side to Alig's entrepreneurial flair. Disco 2000, Alig's iconic party at the Limelight from 1990 to 1996, was known for subversive, extreme performances—like a woman who once had sex with a dancing amputee's stump, and a man who'd drink glasses of his own pee. "There was always this anarchic edge to Michael's plans that made them so tempting," wrote former club kid Fenton Bailey on the blog for his production companyWorld of Wonder, which was behindParty Monster and RuPaul's Drag Race. "Michael himself got into the habit of peeing into bottles of beer and handing them out as free drinks, and peeing off the balcony of Disco 2000 onto the people below."
As Alig's parties got more and more extreme, so did his drug use. In the beginning, Alig was "actually almost drug free," Limelight, Tunnel, and Palladium owner Peter Gatien told celebrity news site uInterview. By 1992—five years after his New York cover—Alig told me he was binging for days on a cocktail of heroin, Special K, Rohypnol, and cocaine. "The kid who had always laughed at junkies had become one," wrote Bailey in the same blog post. "The life of the party who threw himself down stairs just to stir up more drama was now so fucked up that falling down stairs was all he could do."
Alig told Interview he started relying on drugs to keep up with the empire he'd built. "The pressure had become intense, and we needed to be on something because you're up all the time." He also justified the binges as part of his performative critique of celebrity culture. "Strangely enough, I really saw it as taking this art project to its extreme. I was the kind of person who says, 'Let's see how far we can take this. Let's see what happens.'"
But Alig was trying to push the boundaries of New York nightlife just as the authorities were waging war on it. In October 1995, after an eight-week undercover investigation, Limelight became the first club to get shut down by court order, with city lawyers asserting that drugs were "rampant" and sold in an "open and notorious manner." (It was allowed to reopen a few weeks later.)
Mayor Giuliani's anti-nightlife campaign wasn't just a legal issue—it was cultural one, too. When Peter Gatien was arrested in 1996 for allegedly supervising a narcotics ring at his clubs Limelight and the Tunnel—which the US Attorney called "virtual Ecstasy supermarkets"—the New York Daily News noted that "the busts were aimed at bringing the Ecstasy-fueled Generation X dance parties called raves to a halt."
The struggle between these opposing forces came to a head on March 17, 1996, when a club kid named Angel Melendez showed up at Alig's apartment on West 43rd Street, where he would sometimes crash over the weekends with Alig and his roommate, Robert "Freez" Riggs. Melendez was paid $200 a night to work at Alig's parties as a host, and sold drugs on the side. What happened next was a "silly, pushy catfight" over money Melendez was owed, as Alig recently put it to the New York Post.
Alig told me that he and Riggs were high on a combination of ketamine, heroin, Rohypnol, ketamine, and crystal meth when Melendez started biting him. Freez then hit Melendez with the handle of a hammer, and Alig wrapped a sweatshirt around his hand and smashed it into Melendez's face. "Maybe it was the combination of me doing it for too long or having more strength than I realized, but Angel stopped writhing," Alig explained to the Post. "We laid him on the couch, thinking he was unconscious. It wasn't until a few hours later that we realized he was dead."
Leaving Melendez's body in the apartment, Alig and Riggs fled without reporting the death. Instead, they continued partying; later, in September of 1997, Riggs would tell police that they returned to the apartment five to seven days later to "do something about this terrible mess." The corpse was starting to decompose, so Freez left the apartment to pick up a box, sharp knives—and heroin. Alig did ten bags and chopped up Melendez's body in the bathtub. Then, reported the Times, the two put the remains in a box, took a cab to the West Side Highway, and tossed them into the Hudson River.
I had all the symptoms of a sociopath, but the symptoms associated with a sociopath are almost identical to those of a drug addict.
After the crime, Alig continued to throw parties while casually telling his friends that he and Freeze had killed Melendez. According to the Guardian, he even showed up at the Limelight with the word "Guilty" written on his face. Many people assumed he was joking, or trying to pull off another attention-getting stunt. But Alig claimed that Gatien freaked out when he told him what happened several weeks after the murder, responding, "You've just jeopardized a thousand people's jobs. The clubs will be closed down." In April, Gatien's wife handed Alig a severance paycheck. "They thought I was involved in this crime and didn't want to be associated with me," Alig said.
When Michael Musto wrote about Alig and Gatien's falling out in his column for the Village Voice, he alluded to the fact that Melendez's disappearance was beginning to turn heads in the nightlife community. Melendez's brother Johnny had been desperately searching for him in clubs all over the city, offering a reward for any tips. In June, the mystery reached the cover of the Voice under the headline "A Murder in Club Land?"
Neither the public nor Alig knew it yet, but Melendez's torso had actually washed up in the waters off Staten Island in April. It was only identified by the coroner in November. Alig told me he was arrested on December 4, 1996 in a motel in New Jersey, where he would frequently spend the weekends with his heroin-dealer boyfriend, getting high and watching America's Funniest Home Videos. He and Riggs pled guilty to manslaughter in October 1997, with Alig serving 17 years. Riggs was released four years earlier in 2010 for good behavior.
The next time I saw Alig was on a sticky late-summer evening in August. In the two months we'd been apart, a new documentary by director Ramon Fernandez called Glory Daze: the Life and Times of Michael Alig had come out. On June 25th, Alig also had two solo art shows open, at Lower East Side galleries Castle Fitzjohns and LESpace. Both exhibitions displayed paintings he'd made in prison, with a portion of the proceeds from the LESpace show going to non-profit charity ATOC, which provides art therapy to victims of trauma.
Walking into a bar in Williamsburg, I found Alig scarfing down nachos and a soda next to a beefy, clean-cut friend. "This is Patrick," Alig said with a wink. "He doesn't want anyone to know that he's my boyfriend."
"I don't go that way," Patrick quickly clarified, smiling through a mock sigh.
At Alig's feet lay a messy pile of rolled-up paintings, a laptop, and other knick-knacks. When I asked what they were for, he dropped the news: he was moving into Patrick's spacious, beachside condo by Coney Island. Also leaving Glam's place was Peeew!, which Glam and Alig were going to start filming in front of a live audience on August 22 at Lovegun, a gay club in Williamsburg. With all of these developments, it seemed like Alig's life was getting better and better.
After the meeting, Patrick went home, and Alig and I took a stroll down Bedford Avenue, searching for some ice cream in lieu of dinner. Shortly after 9PM, he realized with a start that he was late for his nightly check-in with his parole officer—but he decided to delay the call.
I can't stop making art or thinking of these crazy projects.
After eating our ice cream, we parted ways. Leaning against the subway gates as strangers swarmed around us, I asked if he'd encountered any backlash for his plans to re-enter the nightlife game, or if he would reconsider that decision if he knew it would upset Melendez's family. Alig said he hadn't spoken to Melendez's relatives because of the plea deal, but if he knew they were upset by the fact that he was doing events, "it would impact my decisions."
Still, he wasn't sure what else he should be doing with his life. "I can't stop making art or thinking of these crazy projects," he explained.
"Everybody in this country can do whatever they want to do," Alig said with a determined jut of his chin. "I found this out because I had to, moving to New York and not knowing anyone—I had to make things work. It's the same for this show. I have this tenacious part of me that keeps doing it until it clicks." He gave me a raw look stripped of all flamboyant posturing, then disappeared into the subway. It was nearly midnight, and I realized he still hadn't called his parole officer.
A few days later, the backlash finally exploded, and it wasn't pretty. The rumblings began with a Facebook post written by a 26-year-old promoter and journalist named Dreem (formerly known as Mark Dommu). Dreem threw a monthly party called Boop! at Lovegun with a fellow promoter named Paul Leopold, under the name The Culture Whore. When they found out that live tapings of Peeew! would fall on Saturdays, the same night as Boop!, they decided to move their event away from the club.
In her post from August 14, Dreem explained her reasoning: "Michael Alig straight up MURDERED someone, and we should not be supporting him, especially in a nightlife/entertainment context." She continued: "If you want to build some kind of community space, don't let murderous clowns on parole use your bar." The comments on Dreem's post were divided, with some arguing that Alig had paid his legal debt to society and should be allowed to move forward. But one of Alig's most vocal opponents was Charlene, a 26-year-old transgender drag performer who is a member of the queer collective House of Bushwig. Over email, she reiterated Dreem's sentiments on Alig. "I speak for the overwhelming majority when I say that Michael Alig is not welcome in queer Brooklyn nightlife under any circumstances. Whatever Michael Alig did for nightlife died with the man he murdered."
That weekend, Lovegun's manager Pez Epstein sent Alig a text saying the club's owners had decided to cancel the event. Alig emailed Page Six reporter Richard Johnson with the news, and on August 17, Johnson turned the brewing scandal into the talk of the nightlife community with a flashy headline: "Club Kid Killer's latest project is being boycotted."
Dreem felt like Page Six had gotten things wrong. "The whole story has been twisted," she said on the phone, referring to Johnson's decision to introduce her primarily as Next magazine's nightlife editor. "They make it sound like I used my position at Next to get them to cancel the party." Dreem said Alig had emailed her boss at Next accusing her of journalistic misconduct, but "this was a business, artistic, and moral decision that had nothing to do with my work. We felt strongly that we couldn't be doing an event in the same space as a murderer." She added that she never called for a boycott, and accused Alig of "always trying to create this narrative that he's the victim." "It's really delusional," she added.
(As of August 2015, Dreem no longer works for Next.)
Despite Alig's assertions that he's a changed man, New York nightlife might not be willing to accept him back into the fold. The posterity of their community, said Dreem, is ultimately what's at stake for today's generation of club kids—many of whom ascribe to queer ideals of community building and self-empowerment over debauchery and cynicism.
"Alig paved the way for what's happening today, but I also think we're set back by it," Dreem said. "Nightlife took a long time to recover from what he did to it. When I hear that word 'club kid' I kind of cringe, because it seems like it's all about excess with no substance. That energy coming back into nightlife scares me."
Calling me from a ferry to gay stronghold Fire Island, Dreem's partner Leopold questioned Alig's motives. "If he really wanted to make a difference, why not work with people who are struggling from substance abuse? It doesn't seem like he's moving on at all—it seems like he's trying to capitalize on the fame he garnered through murdering someone."
Lovegun manager Epstein, on the other hand, said that Dreem was overreacting. "Everyone deserves second chance," Epstein said. "Besides," he said, "Lovegun is a bar—not a church." Alig, for his part, seemed unfazed by the backlash and determined to make sure the show went on. "Failure is not an option," he told me with conviction. "After all of this, we really have to get it done right."
On August 28th, I received a text from Alig asking if I'd seen the new flyer for Boop!, which had moved to a bar near my apartment. I said I'd noticed that it had Party Monster star McCaulay Culkin's face on it. "It's weird, right?" Alig said gleefully, referring to Dreem. "It's like [s]he's obsessed or something!"
A few weeks later, Lovegun reversed its decision and reinstated the party. Shortly after sunset on October 10, I went to the Williamsburg club for the second edition of Peeew!'s live taping. Two towering drag queens struck my name off the list. Inside, it was a distinctly more grown-up scene than Alig's glory days at the Limelight, but was still probably the wildest thing happening in the neighborhood before dinnertime. There couldn't have been more than a few dozen people circling the bar, mostly groups of 30-something gay men in dark winter coats, with splashes of more colorful characters in the crowd—possibly hired by Alig himself. At one point, a svelte dancer stripped off his leather thong and thrusted his hips to Benny Benassi's "Satisfaction" while erecting a crucifix against his groin, his dick perfectly tucked between his legs.
Alig and Glam were seated on a small stage surrounded by cameras, dressed in sharp blazers and commanding the room's attention with a bawdy spin-off of "pin the tail on the donkey," calling on audience members to "pin Justin Bieber's dick on RuPaul's body."
At the bar, I met a conservatively dressed couple in their 40s named Nick and Marisa, who used to go to Alig's parties and now live with their kid in Westchester. They'd found out about tonight's event through Alig's DJ's Instagram. When I asked them how they felt about Alig's past, Nick glanced at his wife and replied, "A lot of us did fucked up things as kids. Should you still be punished for that?" Similarly, when I asked the hulking blonde MC of the evening why she wanted to work with Alig, she tossed her hair saying, "I'm not a judgemental person. And I love people who turn their lives into a work of art."
Alig was enjoying the attention, sure, but I suspected there was another reason why he pouring so much effort into his parties and painting—because he believed art could be the ticket to his redemption. Watching him flit between his admirers, his face brightening whenever a friend or fan screamed his name—Michael! Michael! Let's take a picture!—I was reminded of an Alig quote I'd read in an article that one of his prison friends had written about him for Deadspin.
"Art redeems morality, does it not?" Alig told his friend in the piece. "Our culture forgives Woody Allen and Roman Polanski for the accusations against them. Ezra Pound was basically forgiven treason for his brilliant poetry. You say you managed to get over what happened between us because you found me talented. I hope the world can do the same."
On a Friday afternoon in November, I rode the F train to the last stop, Coney Island, and walked to a gated residential neighborhood where Alig had been living with Patrick since August. The posh-looking apartment I'd seen in pictures turned out to be a two-floor duplex, parked so close to the beach that you could hear the roar of the ocean from the doorstep.
Alig opened the door mid-call, talking on speakerphone with an unidentified male friend about who should be on the guestlist and which promoters to work with for that weekend's Peeew! event—"He doesn't bring anyone in! He hasn't done anything for my website!" Even after asking if I wanted some lemonade and returning from the kitchen with a glass, he continued walking around the house speaking loudly on the phone. I took the chance to survey the living room, which looked out towards an umbrella-lined patio with a grill, and beyond that, the glistening waters into which Melendez's body had once disappeared.
You can't apologize for something like this. It would almost sound like an insult. It's not something I could say in words.
When Alig finally hung up, he took a seat at the kitchen table across from me and explained that he'd convinced Patrick to let him stay there for free, in addition to investing in his upcoming clothing line. "I've found people to take care of me since I moved to New York, and it's got to be a father figure thing—Rudolf [Piper, owner of Danceteria] was the first one, then Frank Roccio at the World, then Maurice Brahms at Red Zone and the [Ice] Palace, then Peter Gatien, and now Patrick." His voice dropped to a whisper as he admitted to a Freudian slip: "I call Patrick 'Peter' sometimes."
As if anticipating my puzzlement over what Patrick was getting out of this, Alig continued, "It isn't a manipulative relationship. He likes to live vicariously through me, and I keep this house very clean—I'm on my knees cleaning this floor every single morning." He paused and added a little spin: "It doesn't cost him anything for me to live here. He's getting a clothing line for [feeding me] food, basically. That's a good deal!"
Our conversation turned to nightlife, as it usually did. Three days earlier, the 17th edition of a gay nightlife tradition called the Glammy Awards had taken place, and I asked Alig if he'd heard about it. The second the words came out of my mouth, he shot me a withering look, exploded off his chair, and trundled up the stairs to the second floor. Through the ceiling, I could hear him throwing things around and hissing to himself: She asks me if I've heard of the Glammys? Unbelievable!
For a few minutes, sitting in lengthening shadows as orange sun set below the Verrazano bridge, I suddenly became aware of how alone we were. A silent fear shot through my spine. Up to this point, I'd brushed aside warnings to be careful about my safety around Alig, trusting a gut instinct that he was no longer dangerous—at least, not in a violent way. What if I'd misjudged?
When Alig returned with a scowl on his face, he haughtily thrust a folded piece of paper towards me. "I started the Glammies," Alig sniffed, and I realized that I was holding the program for an awards ceremony held at the Limelight on September 2, 1992. In gold cursive script, it read: "Michael Alig & Kelly Cole present—The Glammies—The Club Academy Awards."
Opening the page, I scanned the list of categories—"Best Party," "Best DJ," "Platinum Ho Award (Biggest Slut)"—recognizing nominees who'd later become nightlife elite, like DJ Junior Vasquez, scene queen Susanne Bartsch, and photographer Patrick McMullan. Later, when researching the Glammys, I found multiple articles crediting the newer version to founder Cherry Jubilee, and neither her interview answers nor the Glammys website mention Alig's version. Perhaps in the worst slight of all, they hadn't even invited him this year.
On a level, Alig's frustration is justified. This erasure of his legacy—intentional or not—seemed to speak to the fickle nature of the nightlife industry, where old concepts are often recycled, making it difficult to distinguish between appropriation, homage, and sheer coincidence.
Alig himself wasn't immune to borrowing ideas from previous generations; for one Disco 2000 party, he sent invitations on pieces of paper contained in vials of pee-colored liquid, a gimmick that recalls the invitations for Area's opening party: slips of paper buried in pills you had to dissolve in water. In turn, many of today's best parties echo Alig's famous stunts. When fashion designer Telfar threw his NYFW afterparty at a White Castle back in September, or the NYC music label UNO took over a fried chicken deli for their holiday celebrations, it was impossible not to think of club kids dancing in a Times Square McDonalds at one of Alig's outlaw parties.
My time with Alig was running out, so I suggested we walk by the water, hoping a change in scenery might make it easier to do what I knew I had to next: break the friendly camaraderie we'd been building over the past seven months, and start asking uncomfortable questions about the murder and his time in jail. We put on our jackets and stepped into the sand, the salty ocean air whipping against our bowed heads. But my interrogation plans were dashed when Alig whipped out his phone and started broadcasting through Periscope, keeping the camera trained on his face as he told his viewers that he was taking a stroll on the beach with a VICE journalist. After a few minutes, he stopped the stream, looking crestfallen. "Look, the retention rate is bad." He flashed his phone at me. "That means people stopped paying attention."
Back at Patrick's house, Alig took me to his room, which I discovered was a small attic you had to climb a ladder to get up to, overlooking the living room without the privacy of a dividing wall. One side of the room had been turned into a tiny studio, with his pop-art paintings stacked against the wall. On the other, a black couch served as his makeshift bed. We sat down, and knowing that it was time for our talk, Alig stretched some blankets over us, pulling a teddy bear out from behind a pillow. He reached into a plastic bag bulging with boxes of Cry Baby Tears and tore one open. Popping the sweets into his mouth with the bear cradled sweetly in his arms, Alig looked like he was 5 years old—instead of nearly 50.
"I want to ask you about the murder," I said slowly. He barely flinched, looking at me without even blinking. "It bothers me when people call it murder because it wasn't—it was manslaughter," he insisted. "It was not premeditated. We didn't wake up and say, 'Let's kill Angel tonight.' To me, there's a huge difference."
"The difference is between something that could be forgivable, and something that isn't." We were silent, and the sounds of Patrick watching TV in the living room drifted upstairs.
"You don't want people to think that you're a bad person," I said.
"I'm not, Michelle, I'm really not," he said, his voice rising into a plea. I was surprised to see tears pooling in the corners of his eyes. The club kid's ultimate mission, he reminded me, was to help outcasts blossom into who they really are. "That's what I like to do," he said. "A bad person doesn't like to do that."
Alig seemed determined to convince me that he was an ethical person. "I cared about the people who worked for me," he said. "If a club didn't pay somebody, I paid them myself." He continued: "It's funny, because that's what spurred the argument. Angel came to get his money. He had accumulated something like $1200 or something," he said, referring to the wages Melendez was owed for being a host at Alig's parties.
According to Alig, around the time of Melendez's murder, Limelight's management received a tip from an insider that agents were planning to raid the club and arrest a list of people they believed sold drugs there, in order to shake out information about owner Peter Gatien, who they were investigating for tax evasion (Gatien was convicted in 1999 and deported to his native Canada, where he lives today with his family.)
Alig said that list included Melendez, who first showed up to the club at 2AM demanding his wages. The bouncers turned him away on Alig's instructions—but Melendez showed up at Alig's apartment anyway, around six hours later. "He felt slighted and wanted us to go out of our way to feel fabulous again," Alig posited.
Then, Alig turned to me conspiratorially and asked, "Have you done ketamine?" I told him I had. "Thank god, because it's so hard to explain what it's like to other interviewers who haven't," he said. All the ketamine he'd done—combined with the other drugs—made him feel like he was living inside the movie he was watching at the time: Fassbinder's 1972 film about a tortured romance, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Describing the incident using the language of a dream, Alig recalled, "I just remember this massive blob, all of us crashing into glass with blood spilling everywhere—that was how I imagined it. Freeze hit him when the handle of the hammer, but he didn't hit him hard enough to break the skin."
Alig said they left Melendez on the couch thinking he'd wake up. In the morning, they realized he wasn't breathing. "From that moment on, it felt like we were in a movie," he said, repeating the same metaphor as before. "It just felt so unreal."
"Maybe the murder was an accident," I said, referring to his suggestion that the whole thing had happened in a drug-fueled blur. "I think what repulses so many people is what you did afterwards—leaving Melendez to rot in your apartment while you partied for a week, returning to get high and chop his body up, and bragging about it to your friends."
"In some versions of the story I've read online," I added, "you even injected Drano into Melendez's veins. Stuff like that makes you seem like a monster."
"We didn't inject Drano!" Alig protested. "We put ice, Drano, baking soda, and probably other things on the body. We thought it would mask the smell. We didn't know what to do—we were thinking two minutes ahead." Then, Alig told me, he and Riggs stole the drugs Melendez had in his backpack, and a rarely-mentioned fourth person who was present at the scene of the crime, Daniel Auster—son of famed novelist Paul Auster—stole his money, $3000 in total. (On January 21, 1998, Auster pled guilty to possession of stolen property in exchange for five years probation.)
Going through withdrawals in solitary was crazy. It was the first time in my life that I experienced pure hopelessness—and it gave me more reason to use drugs.
Running away from the apartment to keep doing drugs was classic junkie behavior, Alig explained: they just wanted to keep getting high and not face reality. And telling his friends about the murder wasn't bragging. "It was unloading," he said. "Everyone I told became part of the conspiracy, so that took some of the guilt away."
In what seemed yet another attempt to provide an ethical justification for his behavior, Alig said that he and Riggs finally decided to get rid of the body not just to save their own skins, but to preserve the jobs of everyone working for the Club Kid empire.
"Peter [Gatien] said when I moved in, 'No drug dealers, no suicides and no overdoses.' He said that if any problems [happened], 800 to 1000 people would be out of work. Now I'd just destroyed a family's life, and I was going to destroy 800 more. My thought was, 'Let's stop this. Let's not make it any worse.'"
"I wanted to die that night," Alig continued, talking about the night he chopped up the body. "We just did bag after bag after bag [of heroin] until we got to a point where we just didn't care. And I just said, 'Either one of us is going to die, or we're going to do this.'"
"I can't imagine being high enough to chop off a body," I said.
"If you had interviewed me the day before that happened, I would have said the same thing," he replied. "When you're in that situation and so much is riding on this, it's really like being on the third floor of a burning house—do you jump or not? You have to or you'll die. It was about the survival of myself and the people in the club."
"I wasn't the first promoter to be found with a dead body in my apartment," he continued. "It was only a big deal when it happened to me because I was the director of a club, and the DEA was investigating us. It was impossible for it not to be a huge story."
The problem, Alig said, is that people couldn't distinguish between him and the satirical character he'd created: "When you combine that persona with the crime, it's an ugly-as-fuck combination." His drug addiction, he posited, compounded this image problem even further. "I had all the symptoms of a sociopath, but the symptoms associated with a sociopath are almost identical to those of a drug addict," Alig said, matter-of-factly.
Why should anyone believe that drugs were to blame, I asked, and not a convenient excuse? "I hate using drugs as an excuse," he replied, even though that's exactly what he seemed to be doing. "But there's no way around it—I took drugs to not feel. I was craving love. Heroin replaced it."
When he landed in jail, Alig said he kept himself numb by continued doing drugs like heroin and Percocet, procured from inmates in the Bloods gang—which he claimed hooked him up because they ran ecstasy to the clubs he threw parties in.
"I couldn't look at myself in the mirror, and I wasn't shaving," Alig said, his gaze drifting out the window towards the black sky. "I knew what I really needed was to experience the pain of what I'd done so I could pay for it in a way—even though nothing I could do could pay for it. You can't apologize for something like this. It would almost sound like an insult. It's not something I could say in words."
Alig wound up spending extended stretches in solitary confinement because he kept failing his drug tests. "Going through withdrawals in solitary was crazy," he said. "It broke me a couple of times." To try and get out, he'd hurt himself in front of the officers: "My arms were all cut up," he recalled. "I swallowed toilet paper, I banged my head against the wall, I swallowed a battery, and took 120 tablets of Tylenol. It was the first time in my life that I experienced pure hopelessness—and it gave me more reason to use drugs."
Today, he said he's a staunch believer that the punishment should be abolished for non-violent inmates. In fact, he told me that two weeks before, he'd gone to the Department of Corrections to give a speech on the subject, and received a standing ovation.
In 2009, at 43 years old, Alig had a mid-life crisis. "I thought I would never get a boyfriend or a job [when I got out]," he said. "I was afraid of all these young, creative people that I can't compete with. I thought my life was over, basically." His therapist told him he had to get sober, and Alig basically decided to try it as a dare, not believing that anything would change. "When I stopped using drugs, I realized that I was delusional," he said. Alig turned to art, which gave him hope again. "I put paintings on my cell wall, and everybody would stop by my cell and look at the colors, and it was the first thing I delved into that excited me other than drugs."
A year out of jail, Alig seemed to think of himself as an inspirational figure. "I get emails and letters from people who were on the verge of suicide," he said. "They felt that they could make it because I did." Helping others, he explained, is why he decided to stay in the public eye. "The first day I came home, I had an existential moment," he said. "Part of me wanted to hide in a cabin; the other part was telling me to do what I've always wanted to do."
"I won't lie and say I don't like attention," he admitted. "I'm not going to apologize for that. But I found a powerful message. People who are sitting in their 40s or 50s thinking, 'Why bother?' Bother because it's worth it."
Even though he ended our conversation on a high note, I spent the subway ride home in a gloomy daze, lost in a fog of ambiguity. I thought the tough questions I'd saved for last would help straighten things out, but instead, my thoughts criss-crossed and doubled back like an unsolvable maze.
I weighed everything Alig told me against everything I've figured out on my own. Yes, I believe wholeheartedly that what he wants most is to be loved. Although he kept his composure while talking about the horrors he endured in solitary, he came close to tears—twice—when I suggested that people thought he was a bad person. Even while I was inching towards the door, all he wanted to do is show me the cute guys he was talking to on dating apps. I also believe that his drug addiction contributed to both to the end of Melendez's life and the destruction of his own.
But the inspirational message he hawks also feels more self-promotional than altruistic, coated with the grease of a used car dealership. I find it difficult to buy that Alig's goal for throwing parties is to be a good role model, just like I find his claim that he chopped up Melendez's body for the sake of saving his employees' jobs pretty ludicrous. I also saw how Alig turned into a bully when threatened by Dreem, accusing him of blackmail and journalistic malpractice instead of trying to understand why some people might not want him around.
From what I've seen, everything Alig does, from his interview with Megyn Kelly to his relationship with Patrick, always circles back to himself. Even if he does help others, Alig's biggest drive always seems to be his own self interest. And while I don't think this makes him a dangerous sociopath, I do think it qualifies him as a shrewd opportunist for whom power can be a dangerous weapon.
This solipsism perhaps explains Alig's tendency to exaggerate the truth to the point of lies. He told me that his therapist in prison diagnosed him with histrionic personality disorder, which is characterized by the American Psychiatric Association as "a pattern of excessive attention-seeking emotions, including inappropriately seductive behavior and an excessive need for approval." "My therapist said I was the most extreme case he'd ever seen," he said, which almost seems like a set-up for a joke—because, well, of course someone with a histrionic personality disorder would claim to be the most extreme case.
If Alig really wants to redeem himself in the eyes of his detractors, and pay the moral debt that some people feel he still owes to society, doing charity or activist work seems like the obvious route. Yet aside from giving the speech on solitary confinement, or donating some of the proceeds from his art show, Alig was unable to provide examples of work he is doing to further the anti-drug redemption narrative that he is selling.
More than a reformed drug addict, motivational hero, or any of the other new personas that he's created for himself, Alig strikes me as a bonafide hustler—someone who moved to New York from a backwards town in Indiana and become the king of nightlife in the time it would've taken him to graduate from college. Similarly, he left prison with a felony on his record and no money or job prospects; a year and a half later, he has launched a YouTube show, a Brooklyn party series, a merchandise line, and a fledgling painting career—all while developing a dedicated online fan base and living rent-free.
When I first started spending time with Alig, the backlash against his parties captivated me because it brought up complex questions about crime and punishment, and how the nightlife community polices itself. But the more I dug into his psyche, the more I realized that the deepest dilemma at the heart of his tale is also my own.
Everyone who regularly sacrifices sleep to the rave gods understands that there's a darker side to all the endless fun. Nightlife attracts people who like extremes, and hedonism can erupt into moments of transcendence just as easily as it can spiral into drug abuse, mental illness, and physical harm. I know this darkness exists because I've touched it, in cramped bathrooms at grimy afterparties where bumps are offered from wandering hands. So, more than anything, I pursued this story to know if what happened to Alig could also happen to me. Maybe this is the source of his enduring grip over our collective imagination—maybe everyone is fascinated with the danger of going too far, of crossing beyond the point of no return. But the particular sadness of Michael Alig—what some would say is his real punishment—is that only he knows what it feels like on the other side, alone, wrestling with the question of what comes next.
Lovegun closed permanently in the fall of 2015, leaving Peew! without a home. Alig is starring in several upcoming movies, including club kid zombie film ZomBikers.
Michelle Lhooq is the Features Editor at THUMP. Follow her on Twitter.