Party Monster James St. James Looks Back on Drugs, Murder, and Dance
We talked to the author of "Disco Bloodbath" and former member of the 90s Club Kid clique about Andy Warhol, Michael Alig, and how he's made his downtown fantasy last a lifetime.
Photos by Molly Malaton
I first met James St. James when I was 18, in the back row of a darkened movie theater. He was played by Seth Green in the 2003 film Party Monster. The movie chronicled the real-life antics of James and Michael Alig (portrayed by Macaulay Culkin), two queer anti-heroes at the center of the New York "Club Kids" scene in the late 80s and early 90s. The story was ultimately about the notorious murder that put a stop to the scene, but to me, Party Monster was about the glamorous rebellion of a family of freaks I longed to join—and James St. James was its narrator, promising a better future in a voice that was incisive, witty, and extreme.
Thirteen years later, I'm sitting across from my high school hero at a Mexican dive on Hollywood Boulevard. The man who once dressed as the corpse of Nicole Brown Simpson—five days after her murder—now sits before me in much simpler garb. James's look today is high-fashion Uncle Fester: His bald head and blanched complexion pop against a minimal black ensemble.
This is a man who reigned over the most notorious nightlife generation in New York City history and later went on to write Disco Bloodbath, the true crime memoir that recounted Michael Alig's brutal murder of Angel Melendez—a killing that would forever immortalize the Club Kids and provide a dark punchline to a scene that had been defined by its drug-addled flirtation with death.
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But that's all in the past. As I consider the man sitting across from me, I'm forced to wonder: What happens when a club kid grows up?
This I know for certain: Michael Alig was recently released from jail, and James lives a peaceful, party-free existence in Los Angeles, California. James is now happily employed at World Of Wonder (a.k.a. WOW), the company that produces the television show of another former club kid: RuPaul. James hosts an onlineaftershow for Drag Race, pens a column for WOW's website, and authored Freak Show—a young adult novel recently adapted into a forthcoming film starring Bette Midler, Laverne Cox, and Abigail Breslin. James has clearly moved on, so why can't I?
In our pre-interview email chain, James asks a similar question:
"I'm sort of boring these days... wonder what we'll have to talk about?"
It was the first thing James ever stole—a book, taken from the library, that contained the following sentence:
"In January '65 I met Edith Minturn Sedgwick. She'd just come to New York that summer. She'd been in a car accident and her right arm was in a cast."
This sentence refers to the woman who'd eventually become Edie Sedgwick, the heiress/socialite/actress/model best known for being one of Andy Warhol's superstars.
"I stole Andy Warhol's Popism from the library. I still have it; I should probably return it to them someday. But I used to just clutch it my chest, and I took it to school every day, and I would read it every night. I was going to move to New York and become a Warhol superstar, and that was my goal."
The transformation of Edith Minturn Sedgwick into Edie Sedgwick was one that concerned James greatly; he longed for a similar metamorphosis, sparked by Warhol's magic wand. Unfortunately, Warhol's sorcery hadn't reached the suburbs of the Midwest.
"Being gay in Michigan in 1979," James recalls, "I was pummeled every day of my life. It was hard. Nobody had ever seen a gay person before. They weren't in pop culture. For me, to become this genderqueer before there was a term for genderqueer, there was no way for my parents to understand what I was doing."
James moved to New York to study experimental theater at NYU but dropped out quickly; the clubs were the only experimental theaters he needed. Armed with a trust fund and impressive glitter budget, he quickly climbed the ranks during the last gasps of Warhol's downtown scene. Celebutante was a term that gained popularity in the 60s to describe the Warholian phenomenon of individuals who were "famous for being famous," but when it was used to describe James St. James in a 1985 Newsweek profile, he suddenly became the poster boy for the portmanteau. Soon other publications picked up on the trend, their attitudes ranging from curious to mocking: "St. James, whose true last name is Clark, said his mother doesn't understand his new life and name. His father, on the other hand, may be luckier: He doesn't know."
We were always dancing on the cliff of a volcano, because people were dying all around you and it might be your turn next.
This quote, from a1986 Chicago Tribune article, missed the point entirely (as did many other reporters of the era) by focusing on "what his parents must think." The thoughts of his old family no longer mattered because James had finally found a new one.
Unfortunately, that family was dying. It was the early 80s, and AIDS was ravaging New York City, which only fueled James's desire to party: "We were always dancing on the cliff of a volcano, because people were dying all around you and it might be your turn next." Warhol too would die (though not from AIDS), and with him, the scene on which James had built his identity.
"Brace yourselves, kids, the party's over," Michael Musto wrote in his famous 1987 essay "The Death of Downtown." Key Warholian figures were fleeing uptown or to Hollywood, cashing in on club fame. Musto articulated a feeling that many had felt for a while: "The godfather of all refugees from the heartland who reinvented themselves as bohemian superstars, (Warhol) planted the seeds for today's scene twenty years ago when 'downtown' was just a sign on a subway platform. Without him, many downtowners feel like orphans looking for a spiritual Daddy Warbucks."
James was one such downtowner, and one of the last to linger at a party which was quickly fading. "I was the youngest one at the time, so when everyone else started leaving I was like, 'But I just got here. I don't wanna leave. I came for downtown.'"
Still, there were rumblings of hope, best expressed in the final quote from Musto's essay: "'Downtown is dead,' says Rudolf [a club promoter], in typically gnomic fashion, 'but fortunately, it's been mummified. Get ready for the return of the mummies.'"
James would soon rise from downtown orphan to mummy queen, leading nightlife's youthful undead back to glory. What he didn't know is that he'd be sharing the throne with an entirely new breed of monster: Michael Alig.
Michael Alig was a busboy at Danceteria when he first met James. Like James, Alig had moved to New York to become a Warhol superstar and after the "Death of Downtown," found himself without a scene to call home. Alig was driven to become a celebrity at any cost and decided to start a scene of his own. James was initially dismissive of Alig's goals—then frustrated by his sudden rise.
"[Alig] just drove me bananas. I had been the It Boy, and then he comes along and my time is over," James says. "I didn't really want anything to do with [the Club Kids]. They were just the only thing going on. To me, it was just a bunch of snot-nosed kids in Halloween costumes."
But soon, James had no choice but to join those flamboyant trick-or-treaters. Their developing fame was perhaps their greatest trick of all, creating celebrities out of thin air andoutrageous costumes. Alig soon became the undisputed king of New York nightlife, and even James had to admit, Alig was a star:
"Shortly after ['The Death of Downtown'] was when the New York magazine article came out with Michael on the cover. It was the first time they'd ever said the words 'Club Kids.' Suddenly the scene had a name, and once a scene gets a name in the press, that's when it starts to build."
James would soon rise from downtown orphan to mummy queen, leading nightlife's youthful undead back to glory.
The scene had a name, and so did its self-created stars: RuPaul, Amanda Lepore, Richie Rich, and Sophia Lamar were just a few of the outrageous personalities to become both New York and national celebrities. Alig's goals (as stated to Interview magazine in 2010) were Warholian in nature, at first directly and then derivatively: "We were all going to become Warhol Superstars and move into The Factory. 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."
Well, not quite. If the club kids had inherited Warhol's legacy, they were spending that inheritance in a dubious way. In the documentary Party Monster: A Shockumentary, Michael Alig summarizes the post-Warhol ethos of the Club Kids:
Club Kids were very current to the 80s, of the packaging, press, publicity, corporation, out for yourself, money, you know what I mean? For nothing. It was very American. You know, 'give me money, because I'm fabulous, because I say so.' I mean it was great for a scam for a while, and the 80s were all about scams.
Here, again, is a garbling of Warhol's message. Warhol too was interested in the scam of capitalist culture, but there was a depth to his one-dimensionality. His work was an ironic commentary on capitalism, fame, and image. Pop Art, as Warhol put it in Popism, "took the inside and put it outside, took the outside and put it inside." In Michael Alig's work there was no "inside," no greater meaning, no ironic remove. There was just an "outside," an artless scam.
But there is another facet of the Club Kid legacy that is equally, if not more, important. The Club Kids brought queerness, gender fluidity, and groundbreaking fashion to the national dialogue in a subversive way. This was not a scam; it was genuinely important work. And James St. James was at the heart of this effort.
In 1993, Phil Donahue attacks a 16-year-old girl on his long-running talk show, The Phil Donahue Show. The girl sits onstage wearing a black rubber mask with small slits for her eyes and mouth. She is surrounded by a group of strangely attired freaks, but Donahue has chosen to focus on her. To the girl, the rubber mask feels like home, a manifestation of her desire for fantasy, celebrity, freedom. To the majority of America, the mask is terrifying. The anonymity that it supplies allows American parents to envision their own daughters under that mask, joining this horrific parade. Now, Donahue is demanding answers on behalf of America. Where are her parents? How could they not know? How could she behave so outrageously? A fellow freak comes to her rescue:
"I think what's important to remember is that this is a fantasy, and we're all just living our fantasies. And this girl here, this is how she feels she should be... We are creating personalities, creating characters... If you feel it, you should live it."
That fellow freak is James St. James, defending his family.
I watchedthis scene on YouTube, astounded. There are many videos like it online, all from the early 90s when the Club Kids toured the talk show circuit to simultaneously defend their lifestyle and promote their celebrity. They appeared in large groups, often including Alig and James. Where Alig's statements were glib and sensational, James brought heart. Though the two differed in their approach, the effect was the same: The Club Kids pushed queerness into countless homes across America. RuPaul's iconic proclamation on another talk show, Geraldo, perhaps best summarizes the underlying ethos of those appearances: "You're born naked and the rest is drag, you know?"
In 2016, this statement almost seems trite. But in 1994, in front of Geraldo's studio audience, it was met with derisive laughter. Listen closely, however, and you can also hear applause. There, on the trash-talk circuit, is the unlikely sound of America changing its mind.
Unfortunately, this positive narrative was about to be altered by a dark twist.
James was chained to a gurney, guts sliced open, spilling his entrails onto the dance floor.
This was just another night at Blood Feast, Alig's new death-themed celebration. The parties were spinning out of control, and Alig pushed the fantasy to grotesque extremes: glass coffins stuffed with "dead" partiers, buckets of blood, everyone in dead drag. The stunts were equally horrific: the man who drank piss, the woman who fucked an amputee's stump, the drag queen who sprayed her champagne enema onto the crowd. Piss, shit, blood, and death: Alig had traded Warhol for the Marquis De Sade.
The drugs also got harder. Ketamine had been the favorite among James and Alig's inner circle; now it was heroin. Not that they wouldn't take ketamine too (and cocaine and Rohypnol and ecstasy and crack). Alig overdosed twice. The joy, the fantasy, the celebration: They were all gone. James could sense it—his family was falling apart. "Things were coming to an end, and I knew it," James recalls. "People were dropping dead all the time, overdoses; everyone in our circle was on heroin. It was a sad time."
The story needed an ending, and on March 17, 1996, Alig provided one: the murder of drug dealer Angel Melendez. We've heard details before: Alig, his roommate Freeze, and Angel fight over drugs and money, and Angel gets hit in the head with a hammer. Alig then binds Angel with tape, injects him with Draino, dismembers his body, and dumps the remains in the Hudson River. Though shocking, these oft-reported facts have lost their potency through repetition. Decades of articles, books, TV interviews, and films have reduced a human tragedy to a single grisly sentence, trotted out in profiles much like I have trotted it out here. Over time, Angel's death became abstract, a symbol of the end of a movement—much in the way Warhol's expiration signified "The Death of Downtown" in 1987.
In our conversation, James expresses the significance of this symbol. "The scene was petering out to a sad pathetic whimper. What happened was [Alig] capped it, rather brilliantly. I don't think we would still be talking about the Club Kids if it hadn't ended the way that it did."
James had to get out of New York; his life depended on it. Heroin had killed the party, overdoses were endemic, and Alig was on the verge of going to jail for manslaughter. James moved to Los Angeles, as his family back east falling apart in his wake.
Two former Club Kids came to his rescue: Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey. Barbato and Bailey had made the pilgrimage to Los Angeles a few years earlier, working closely with RuPaul during her rise to fame in the early 90s. If they could help Ru, maybe they could help James.
James wanted to be a writer, and brought the duo his novel-in-progress about a club kid drag queen. Barbato and Bailey liked it, but thought that in this case that the truth was stranger (and more compelling) than fiction: They wanted James to write about his relationship with Alig. Barbato and Bailey were working on something similar themselves: For months they'd been shooting a documentary about the Club Kids, which turned into an entirely different film when Alig provided the filmmakers with a salacious hook. James agreed to write a true-crime memoir, and Disco Bloodbath was published in 1999, the same year that Barbato and Bailey's Party Monster: A Shockumentary premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. These two projects then became the basis for Party Monster, the aforementioned 2003 feature film. No longer just a "celebutante," James was now famous for his talents as a writer. His second act began, thanks to Alig's dark first.
I ask James if his career has, in a way, always been a dialogue with Alig. He bristles. "I don't want everything about me to be about Michael," he says. "I do my own thing, and I've always done my own thing. But he is always going to be a big part of my life, no matter what else I do—I could get a Nobel Peace Prize tomorrow, and people would still want to talk about Michael. When I'm 80 years old, people will still be asking about the goddamn Club Kids."
Yes they will, and this is in large part thanks to Michael Alig's greatest achievement: murder. But James was the one to interpret Michael's horrific act—not only making sense of it, but also art. Disco Bloodbath (later republished as Party Monster) would become the book to define the era, written with James's considerable wit, intelligence, and empathy.
I could get a Nobel Peace Prize tomorrow, and people would still want to talk about Michael. When I'm 80 years old, people will still be asking about the goddamn Club Kids.
Alig has made his own attempts to translate the Club Kid legacy into art since his release from jail in 2014. But a perusal of Michael's new website reveals paintings that openly appropriate Warhol's aesthetic (Amanda Lepore done in the of Warhol's Marilyn) and in some cases blatantly steal Warhol's most famous subjects (this portrait ofEdie Sedgwick). Alig's paintings are empty ventriloquy of Warhol's style, with none of the substance. They are, in short, a scam. But then again, if we are to take Alig at his word, the scam is the point.
When I ask if the two sustained a connection while Michael was in jail, James responds passionately. "We have stayed in touch the entire time," he says. "Michael is my brother. Michael is family. Anyone who knows me for more than ten years is family. You don't have to like your family, but you stand by them and you are there for them. I hadn't seen him in 17 years, and I was tickled pink to go to New York and see him when he got out [of jail]."
For James, it comes back to the makeshift family he created in the vacuum of his parents' disapproval.Money, success, fame, and glamour all come and go. But family is forever.
In another scene from the 90s Donahue appearance, a skeptical audience member interrogates James. "You said...that [the Club Kids are] a fantasy and they like living it. How long does the fantasy last?"
James responds confidently. "As long as you're living your life, being happy, not doing any harm to anybody else, and making money—why should it ever have to end?"
But is it possible to keep imagination alive within us, no matter how old we are? Or is "fantasy" a youthful delusion, to be replaced with pragmatism as we age?
A week after our interview, I visit James at a photo shoot in the basement of the WOW offices. James is in full makeup, outrageous skull-shaped costume jewelry, and a stark black cape. This basement, he informs our crew, was once home to The Masque—a seminal 70s nightclub, crucial to LA's underground punk scene. James sashays his way through the graffitied rubble of the former music venue, a queen among ruins. He's giving it his all—every ounce of his heart, history, and imagination.
Without saying a word, this man has answered my question about the endurance of our youthful dreams.