INDIE explores the dark side of New York’s club kid scene, as well as the pioneers fighting to bring light to the forefront.
The weird and wonderful usually finds a way to trickle into the mainstream at some point, but there’s one particularly glorious YouTube video which highlights just how shocking the results can be. In the 40-minute-long clip, a gaggle of New York’s finest club kids line the stage of chat show host Phil Donahue. Some have their hair slicked back and their faces heavily painted, whereas others forego the makeup entirely and opt for gimp masks and chokers instead. “These young people stay out all night and sleep all day!” gasps Donahue, clearly bemused by his guests’ complicated looks and hedonistic attitudes.
Viewed decades later, the 1993 video acts as a time capsule which depicts New York’s club kid scene at its peak. Icons including trans fashion muse Amanda Lepore, performance artist Leigh Bowery and electroclash pioneer Larry Tee were breaking out internationally. In the process, they managed to queer the foundations of art, fashion and nightlife as we know them; they were revered by designers, embraced by photographers (Lepore was famously a muse to David LaChapelle) and idolised by young outcasts worldwide. This fascination continues today. Just a few months ago, On Top, a documentary profile of club promoter Susanne Bartsch, was released to critical acclaim, whereas the club kids’ outlandish aesthetics — think DIY costumes, extravagant wigs and some extremely NSFW references — still frequently pop up on runways. The scene’s creative legacy is clearly alive and well.
But there’s a darker side to the story which attracts more macabre fascination. In 1997, Michael Alig — one of the scene’s most famous faces — was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 17 years in jail. A messy trial soon spawned reports that Alig and his friend Robert Riggs had teamed up to smother, murder and dismember fellow club kid Angel Melendez before dumping his body in the Hudson River. This story was soon immortalised in the 2003 film Party Monster, which depicted a community fraught with addiction, abuse and hedonism. It’s still the best-known portrayal of New York’s club kids.
This is arguably unfair. It’s no secret that club kids predominantly identified as queer, and statistics show that LGBTQ youth worldwide are more likely to suffer with addiction, abandonment and poor mental health. But statistics also show that we’re disproportionately likely to suffer this poor mental health because our identities are policed. We face the daily realities of discrimination and widespread societal pressure to shrink ourselves, to conform — in that sense, these sweaty, strobe-lit nightclubs can become temporary sanctuaries.
Party Monster touches on this, but the mainstream narrative has been largely dominated by controversy and the salacious details of Alig’s crime. It’s a conversation which needs to expand, because the New York’s club kid scene was never just about hedonism — it was about queer people congregating, forming new friendships and, crucially, being themselves without fear. “Style is about expressing yourself,” said Bartsch in 2015 when she was chosen as the subject of an exhibition at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology Museum. “You can be whatever you want to be: a silver-screen star, a Marie Antoinette baroque creature, a Victorian punk. I love that about fashion and make-up.” This ethos is written across the avant-garde looks which populate her dancefloors. These looks might be met with bemusement, harassment or even violence on the streets, but within these queer sanctuaries they’re fawned over, even idolised. At On Top — one of Bartsch’s most famous nights — there are no ropes, no VIP areas, no bottle service. Instead there’s a dancefloor filled with creativity and a high-octane soundtrack.
It’s no overstatement to say that this collective energy can be euphoric, even healing. One person who understands this restorative power more than most is Domonique Echeverria, a talented designer and spiritual healer who survived a suicide attempt in 2016. She jumped in front of a train after being reportedly misdiagnosed as bipolar and given high doses of medication which severely damaged her mental health. Echeverria escaped alive but with countless injuries, and she had an arm and a leg amputated as a result. “The queer community and artists built the club kid scene, and they are the ones that keep it alive,” she states emphatically when asked about its heyday. She credits “OGs” (original gangsters — early pioneers) such as James St James, Kenny Kenny and numerous vogue houses — some of which were profiled in the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning — with building New York’s reputation, but argues that their intentions were often misread.
“Everything the OGs did had purpose. They were giving birth to something new, so there was a sort of innocence and purity to it. Outsiders saw what was happening as wild, hedonistic debauchery, but that’s because society is programmed to keep [people] contained and detached from their spirit.” Echeverria highlights the importance of historical context, explaining: “Nightlife went through a very intense, dark transitional time during the AIDs crisis. This colourful, beautiful community of people who had given so much not only to New York, but also to the world, was being ignored and left to die. They were treated as ‘less than’, and society chose to cast a shadow on their muses. So there was a combination of people who wanted to detach in harmful ways and people who wanted to detach in colourful, inspiring ways.”
The brutal disease led to the deaths of scene pioneers like Leigh Bowery and Willi Ninja, but the 1990s were also hostile to nightlife thanks to the reign of Rudy Giuliani. Police raids were ordered frequently and venue owners could be fined for everything from dancing clients to excessive noise levels; for many, it seemed that Alig’s crimes were the final straw for a scene which had already been demonised by law enforcement and ravaged by the AIDs crisis.
It was around this time (2000, to be exact) that Echeverria moved to San Francisco and began working as a dominatrix, but she later saw New York’s most outspoken rebels — amongst them Susanne Bartsch and Ladyfag — fight back, partying through political chaos. A true return to form took time (Echeverria moved back to Brooklyn in 2010, at which point the scene was properly finding its feet again), and during this hiatus the city’s nightlife was ruled by the “new wave”. “It was all very poser and too cool for school,” she jokes. “There were a lot of ego-driven hipsters that disguised themselves as punks. Sure we all slept with them from time to time, but at the end of the day they didn’t add much value to humanity!”
Now New York’s club kid scene has more to offer than just drugs and debauchery. From Brooklyn’s notorious drag bars to Bartsch’s long-running nights at Le Bain, there’s space for everyone — including Echeverria, who describes finding liberation from her trauma on the dancefloor. “I was originally attracted to club culture because of its sense of freedom. For those who have to hide who they are, the dancefloor is a sanctuary and music is medicine. [When I moved to New York full-time] I had just gotten out of an abusive relationship. I had an abortion four days before I went, my younger sisters had just moved away with my step-mum, my mother was dealing with trauma. I needed to escape and I was ready for a rebirth in a way. I had so much pain in my heart, but when I danced it felt elevated.”
It’s precisely this side of New York’s club kid scene — the warm, tolerant, community-driven side — which can often feel lost amongst the darkness. It’s no secret that queer scenes worldwide have had to deal with their demons; from the AIDs crisis and political hostility to individual crimes and media stigmatisation, the last few decades haven’t been an easy ride.
But there’s light at the end of the tunnel. For Echeverria, it became clear when she was recovering in hospital and constantly witnessing examples of “collective healing” — the strength of a community suffering in solidarity and rallying against the pain to make positive change. “My suicide attempt burst a bubble we were all feeling, but I chose to take what happened and use it as fuel towards my evolution not just for me, but for my family, my community and the world. I see the light in the muses of New York nightlife, which is why I continue to put my energy there. Nightclubs really are full of healers just waiting to step into themselves.”
Header image © Susanne Bartsch
Taken from INDIE NO 61, THE DARK ISSUE – get your copy here.