He’s Still Here: Michael Musto on His Roast, Madonna and Why Nightlife Ain’t Dead Yet
Good times and bum times,
I’ve seen them all and, my dear,
I’m still here.
Plush velvet sometimes,
Sometimes just pretzels and beer,
But I’m here.
—”I’m Still Here,” Follies
Elaine Stritch belted Stephen Sondheim’s emotional lyrics in her one-woman show At Liberty. Unlike her, Michael Musto is still here. Over coffee in Chelsea, Musto tells me, “I’m amazed at how many chapters you get in life.”
A few weeks before that cup of coffee, I bump into the famed New York columnist at a mixer with a bunch of stiff gays in suits raising money and awareness for some cause that raises money and awareness about another cause that raises more money and awareness for something. Earlier that same day, Musto joined me to record a podcast demo, and we giggled with Marti Gould Cummings, reading drag queens behind their backs (cough, Lady Bunny) and dishing about Broadway’s new season.
At the event, people gawk at Musto from afar. He stays in the corner, ordering a seltzer water with lime from the waitress. A few brave souls gather their courage to approach us, and when I introduce him — because that’s what you do — they respond, “I know Michael…”
Stand-offish, he rolls his eyes. This isn’t his tribe. His people are kids in the club and workers on the corner. Not only is he over the crowd, he’s also over the fact that his seltzer water with lime still hasn’t made its way over. Like Miranda Priestly, Musto whispers something to the effect of “Has she died or something?”
This is Musto’s armor, something he’s well aware he wears in public.
While Musto is always at the party, he isn’t there to be the party. He knows his role, and his role is to observe. His power as an observer and humorist is what has fueled his career, still making him a master in his field 33 years after penning his first column, “La Dolce Musto,” in the Village Voice.
David Hershkovits, co-founder of Paper magazine, says, “Michael’s idiosyncratic observations coupled with his first-rate reporting and quick wit make him a singular talent who is able to bridge the worlds of New York nightlife — gay, straight and whatever — and make it meaningful to both insiders and outsiders.”
It’s mastery, really. An interviewer who doesn’t talk much will get much more out of their subject. The awkward silence needs to be filled by someone, right? Today’s generation of bloggers and “journalists” (myself included) fill the space to make up for it, sometimes even interrupting the celebrity who may be expounding on something profound. Musto, however, lets them reveal the goods.
But Musto didn’t merely report on queer culture; he also created it. In the words of radio host Michaelangelo Signorile, “My good friend Michael Musto has been an enormous influence on gay culture in New York, often bringing forth queer voices on the edges. He’s also never refrained from jumping into serious political issues facing the community nationally. He’s been out of the closet forever. He was speaking up at a time when many were cowering, pointing to government negligence on AIDS early on and exposing hypocrisy and homophobia — always with his razor-sharp wit.”
Paving the way for gossipmongers like Perez Hilton, Musto is still here.
To celebrate, he’s about to be centerstage and the life of the party at his roast on May 22. Lots of fab celebrities are promised to gather to “rip him a new one.” Appearing live are Rosie O’Donnell, Randy Rainbow, Bruce Vilanch, Bianca Del Rio, Michael Urie, Judy Gold, Jinkx Monsoon and more. Proceeds go to charity, benefiting the vital Callen-Lorde Community Health Center.
In anticipation, I chatted with Musto on the back patio at Grumpy’s Coffee in Chelsea. During our conversation, I was reminded again of what’s underneath that armor of his: a brassy, bold and brilliant raconteur who is here to stay.
Whether in the corner at a party or over coffee in a courtyard, life is a whole lot sweeter when you’re with Michael Musto.
Tell us about your roast.
The roast you won’t stop talking about on Facebook!
I’m so sick of hearing it myself!
Tell me about it.
Well, Daniel Demello is a publicist who last year offered to produce a roast of me. At the time, I thought, “Who would really want to see me roasted?” And then I realized everybody! I have stirred up so much shit in my time with my write-ups, as you know. And sometimes my personality comes off attitudey, but it is actually just shy and awkward. So people have been lining up to rip me a new one. And I need a new one, because the current one is full of penises. … That’s not even true. I’m a top.
Top? Like a blouse? A feminine top?
I’m a blouse, yeah. No, I’m a necklace. I am even more of a top than a blouse.
Everyone I asked virtually said yes. Some people have done hilarious videos. The whole thing should just shape up to be a riotously funny evening. And they asked me today if I want to hear the jokes in advance, but I said no. I want to be surprised.
How have you been able to balance journalism with humor?
I find that I am a humorist first and foremost more than I am a journalist. I never went to journalism school. I sat in on a few graduate classes, but I basically just learned by doing when I was at Columbia University. And my take on things is always funny because I grew up in a household where they didn’t talk that much. But when my parents did talk, it was usually ribbing each other or very Comedy Central-like roasting before that even existed. So I learned to approach things from a wry point of view, and that’s why I say I don’t always have the greatest gossip. It’s more about the way I present it.
But I also go out every night. Even at my advanced age I am still in the mix. I am in the middle of all the scenes. I see all the Broadway shows and go to every nightclub so I don’t have to coast on second-hand reports or press releases. I am writing from a first-person point of view.
I have always been strictly factual, but I have always interjected my own personal point of view in it. However, I did that more when I got my job at the Village Voice starting in 1984, because the column was called “La Dolce Musto.” It was named after me. It was my diary. It was my romp of the week in New York. It made sense to put my own personal point of view in it. When I look back at some of my old work in college, it was much drier. It wasn’t any more or less factual, but the tone was much more straightforward. Because that is what you had to do back then.
Now, I think in the landscape of blogs and Facebook everything, it is even more encouraged to put your personal take on things, because that’s the only way you will stand out. Everybody hates Trump, but it’s what I say about how I hate Trump that makes me rise above the rest.
I have gotten nicer when it comes to celebrities, mostly because of necessity. Now there is so much media that if you are as vicious as I used to be, you won’t be given access to anything.
Before you were vicious in print. Only the people picking it up saw it. Now, with the internet, it has the opportunity to get spread and go viral and sting more. So I do think people are more hesitant.
But also I was competing in the ’80s with maybe eight columnists in New York. So I could write really outrageous shit and get away with it and not be taken off lists. Now you can’t do that. In addition to that, I’m not just whoring or being a chameleon. I do feel more sympathetic to celebrities. I am nicer, and once you achieve a certain level of success, some of the rage dissipates. I even asked John Waters once, “Why are your movies not as angry as they used to be?” And he said, “Well, you can’t carry on that level of rage for your whole life.” And it’s true. I live in a co-op. What are my problems, really? I have to pay maintenance. I have white people problems. I have uptown problems.
At least you admit it.
Yeah, so I don’t have that anger.
I have it now!
[Laughs] I don’t have that anger that you have because you are are trying to make a name for yourself. But when I started I was desperate to put myself on the map, and part of that is screaming and raging in public and wanting to get noticed. It’s all sincere. My take then and my take is now has all been sincere and organic from how I feel. But you evolve as a person, and if your take doesn’t evolve through the years then you’re stagnant and you’re obsolete.
The thing I like about you is that you’re nostalgic while still living in the moment.
I try not to be Norma Desmond. I don’t even look at my old clippings. I keep my old clippings in case I want to look at them. And I am always there as a historian to remind people of the “glory days.” Because I was sober and I was there. I remember everything. I was the only one at so many of those nightclubs reporting on them.
When did you stop drinking?
In the ’90s. But even when I drank, it was two watered-down drinks a night. It just gave me a mild buzz.
You were there as the eyes, seeing and documenting.
Totally. And not just at nightclubs, but also at Act Up, Broadway, movie premieres, everything that makes New York tick. But I think it’s important to not always remind people how fabulous Studio 54 was or different clubs or restaurants in the past. I went to Lady Fag’s party Battle Hymn at Flash Factory, and it was just as good as the parties of the past. It was packed, and it was full of incredible people. Great music and high energy. And somebody who is 20 going to a club doesn’t give a shit about Studio 54. Just as I didn’t give a shit about Stonewall or clubs of the past. I was living in the moment and having a great time. Nightlife is for the young.
The people who say nightlife is dead are the people who aren’t going out.
And sometimes nightlife moves.
And it is has moved to Brooklyn. Especially queer nightlife.
But it’s so true that so many people who say it’s over don’t leave the house. Because they leave the house and they believe it’s not worth going. Or they are not part of it, so when they go, they don’t know anybody. So they feel like it’s dead. Also, I find a lot of people who have left Manhattan and claim it doesn’t have an edge have moved to places like Upstate or California, where there definitely is no edge. So I think they are hypocrites. I think they mainly moved because they couldn’t afford Manhattan anymore.
I am terrible at predicting. I am the one who originally said Madonna was going nowhere. I still say I was right. I said it on a VH1 special, too, and people actually still open car doors and scream at me, “Madonna made it!”
As popular as drag is, I think there will be some morphing of that. It can’t go forever where there are drag queens everywhere. Every single gay bar has a drag show. There has to be some room for some other kind of entertainment. Whether it be gay comics, lesbian jugglers —I don’t care, something. Let’s mix it up.
I am definitely interested in the idea that our community will show up to hear a gay man dressed as a woman tell jokes, but they won’t show up for a gay man dressed as a gay man telling those same jokes.
And you know what, Bianca Del Rio realized that. That she could get away with her outrageous and hilarious schtick in a dress. Because she is playing a character.
So why? Why do gay men have so much internalized homophobia that we eyeroll a gay comedian’s blow job joke but laugh at a drag queen’s?
Well, people are getting on Colbert for the blow job joke, too. It’s just ridiculous. Humor should be un-politically correct. Joan Rivers taught us there are no boundaries. We don’t have to be polite with humor. I think in Bianca’s case, it’s because she is playing a hilarious character named Bianca. And she realized that works for her act. She is brilliant. But I think we all need to lighten up. The PC people are so quick to judge and shoot down any attempt at humor, even if it’s pointed in the right direction.
Well, that is Milo’s fight against political correctness, yet he is on the wrong side of things. I hate when Bill Maher compared him to Joan Rivers.
Well, newsflash: There is a huge difference, Milo, between political incorrectness and hate speech. You indulge in hate speech. You are not making jokes. You’re not serious. You are spreading venom and bigotry around the country.
Joan Rivers was embracing stereotypes while deflating them at the same time. And that is a difficult concept for someone as dumb as Milo to embrace. But the audiences of Sarah Silverman, Kathy Griffin, Chelsea Handler, Joan Rivers always understood what they were doing. They are pretending to be stereotypical and cliché while deflating and puncturing all that bullshit.
What’s an easy dig you expect to hear at your roast?
Michael Musto is so old his social security number is 3.
Head here for tickets to Michael Musto’s roast.
Featured image by WilsonModels