Michael Alig was paroled this May into the world he helped invent. Starting in the summer of 1987, Alig reigned as the most fabulous party promoter in New York, paid by club owners to orchestrate havoc in their venues with his retinue of camera-ready freaks. He, in turn, paid his acolytes to trick themselves out in new costumes—grotesque, jejune, softcore, hardcore—every night. For their pains, the “Club Kids” were booked on Geraldo and Donahue and covered daily by Page Six, the much-read gossip section of the New York Post.
In 1996 came the final outrage: Alig confessed to killing and dismembering his drug-dealing roommate. Applause was heard from admirers of his after-dark performance art—murder being the ultimate shock to bourgeois sensibilities. More-staid observers saw the murder as just the sort of sordid thing that happens among antisocial lowlifes who move to the big city. But whatever revulsion may have greeted this gruesome act, Alig’s style of freakish fabulousness has caught on since he went away, spreading far beyond the New York club scene. The misfit has gone mainstream.
Alig’s followers cultivated a “perverted sex-clown aesthetic,” in the words of Club Kid Ernie Glam—“very childish and silly, but at the same time kind of nasty and obscene.” For select Club Kids, Alig fashioned special nightlife personas. Celebutante James St. James costarred as the Drug Child, Glam as Clara the Carefree Chicken (“mainly a go-go chick”). There were theme parties, pool parties in flooded basements, parties on stolen city buses. At the Outlaw Parties, a mob of Club Kids would descend on a subway platform or other public space and riot until the police arrived. The idea was to be “famous, and if not famous, . . . notorious” (as Oscar Wilde once put it). New York’s nightlife columnists, who were ever present, cooperated. As the Club Kids became more visible, clubgoers flocked to see and join them. They paid the cover charges, and Alig earned his keep.
The classic Alig party was “Disco 2000,” occurring every Wednesday night at Peter Gatien’s Limelight, a club housed in a deconsecrated Gothic-style Episcopalian church on West 20th Street. Here Alig appointed various “acts” to entertain partygoers: The Filthy Mouth Contest, the Hot Body Contest, the Champagne Enema, the Pee-Drinker, Woody the Dancing Amputee—none, I trust, requiring annotation.
The art of outrage requires an endless upping of the ante. Club Kid St. James: “He had to top each new week, with MORE! MORE! MORE!” More drugs. The Club Kids had started out fairly clean but were hopeless junkies by the early 1990s. More gore. Running low on erotic larks, Alig tilted toward the violence inherent in Dionysiac carnival. His turn to the macabre was epitomized by the “Bloodfeast” parties at Limelight, where he paid his “party monsters” to make themselves up as murderers and murder victims. “Clara the Chicken was in a bloody apron,” recalls Alig, while St. James the Drug Child lounged in lingerie trimmed with pig’s entrails.
To hear them tell it, the Club Kids were not engaged in misspent youth; they were making art. Most had artistic temperaments—later becoming television producers or fashion designers or interior designers or memoirists—and they regarded their mascot and mastermind as a creative vanguardist. The name Warhol pops up frequently in their references to Alig, partly in recognition of the sub-Warholian portraits he painted while in prison—and, more important, because Alig’s life, like Warhol’s, was a performance.
After all the obscenities he had choreographed, what remained? In the spring of 1996, rumors circulated of an ultimate transgressive aesthetic gesture. Alig’s drug dealer, Angel Melendez, had gone missing. Was he dead? (Head in a freezer in Brooklyn! Legs in Staten Island? Necrophiliac acts!) Alig himself was spreading the rumors, of course—and was rewarded with appreciative whispers. Club Kid Gitsie: “That is crazy and sick, and I still love him.” St. James: “Who cares, darling? It makes marvelous press.”
Alig’s supposed masterpiece had arisen from an everyday dispute over money that unexpectedly escalated—whereupon Alig availed himself of a hammer (for blunt-force trauma), a pillow (for asphyxiation), and a bottle of Drano (for heaven knows what). He then left the corpse on ice in the bathtub for ten days. Odor forced the endgame. Alig sawed off the legs, boxed up the torso, and threw everything into the Hudson River.
Murder as performance art was done first and best by a Jazz Age teenager named Richard Loeb, who with Nathan Leopold abducted and killed a child from his affluent Chicago neighborhood in 1924. Loeb’s ambition—fired by the Nietzsche-reading Leopold’s fixation on übermenschlichen greatness—had been to commit “the perfect murder.” Switch out some words, and his agenda might be a paraphrase (“Murder for murder’s sake”) of the Aestheticist slogan associated with Oscar Wilde.
“One thing is needful.—To ‘give style’ to one’s character—a great and rare art! . . . It will be the strong and domineering natures that enjoy . . . perfection under a law of their own.” Thus spake Nietzsche in The Gay Science. He unwittingly set the program for the identity project of Clubland, as it was known. The Club Kids wanted to define who they were—lest the mainstream decide for them. Alig characterizes the kids who flocked from the provinces to downtown: “Not all gay, but all kind of weird in some way.” Teen outcasts converged on New York, heeding the call of St. James: “If you’ve got a hunchback, you know, throw a little glitter on it, honey, and go out and dance.” An effeminate kid who got his lunch money stolen? In Clubland, he could carry a kiddie lunchbox around Manhattan and go out nights in makeup that mashed up Estée Lauder with Barnum and Bailey.
Note the irony, however. In Clubland, fabulousness (enhanced freakishness) was a mode of fitting in. Alig’s Clubland was—or sought to be—a utopian space of social belonging for those who did not belong. By enhancing their freakishness, the Club Kids went from being ostracized to being fabulous to being in. This transformation relied on a version of the conundrum promoted by Mister Rogers, for whom everyone was special: If everyone is freakish, no one is.
St. James: “There’s a place for you if you feel like you’re a freak.” And Alig: “I was the one freak in school. When I came to New York, I realized there are so many of us and we need to band together in terms of identity awareness. For the first time ever, I felt a sense of belonging to a group.” In Clubland, Alig declared, I am “fabulous ’cause I say so”—and yet, consolingly, nothing special.
Recently there have been calls for a revival of Clubland. But is there a need anymore? The utopian will to fabulousness has gone viral since Alig reigned. Of late, in popular culture and in certain uses of social media, there has emerged a social impulse of radical differentiation, a proposal that the way to be in is by claiming out status. Social privilege is awarded to the marginal, above all to the out gay or lesbian.
Witness the rise of Lady Gaga, who became iconic by embodying a heightened freakishness and throwing a little glitter on misfits—paradigmatically (though not exclusively) gay teenagers. Gaga’s wardrobe and art direction are haute grotesque, Alig as seen by Alexander McQueen. She has name-checked the Club Kids. Her lyrics console misfits: “We are all born superstars. / . . . No matter gay, straight, or bi, / Lesbian, transgendered life.” She omits the hunchbacks, but Gaga’s affirmative superstardom is basically Alig’s freakish fabulousness.
Other recent cultural artifacts, such as Fox’s Glee, are evidence of a broader movement to “rethink,” as St. James has said, “just who the ‘cool ones’ really are.” Being a freak—and especially a freak involved in show choir or musical theater, that is, performance art—seems more universally in style now than it was when the style was localized around New York’s clubs.
Social media abets this freakish style. In Clubland, Alig pursued celebrity through the self-publicity that has become a pervasive feature of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. St. James archly observes, “If ANYONE was made for the ‘Selfie Generation,’ it’s Michael. He INVENTED TMI culture.” Like Alig’s Clubland, the Internet in its current form promises that, through self-display, anyone and everyone can become a celebrity—or at least a microcelebrity.
In microcelebrity—being famous to fifteen people—hanging out becomes a mode of performance. We relate to each other by presenting personas—self-conscious versions of ourselves. Instagram declares: “I ate two servings of granola for breakfast.” And with that, breakfast ceases to be a private event; it is a performance, for public consumption. We are paparazzi to ourselves, documenting our lives for an imagined audience of friends.
We fear that the unwatched life is not worth living. Lakshmi Chaudhry writes that “the fantasy of fame is not new, but what is unprecedented is the primacy of the desire, especially among young people.” Microcelebrity is the new paradigm for social inclusion, for what it means to be in. We must be famous in order to exist as social beings.
The burnout rate for Club Kids was six months, after which they departed utopia. In truth, no one who has tried out Alig’s sub-Nietzschean identity project has been any good at it—including him. The freaks have often lost control of their performances and ended up in prison (Alig) or dead (Angel) or played out (Gaga, increasingly). The most common fate, though, has been the return to the provinces—that is, to normalcy. Thoroughgoing fabulousness is difficult to maintain. The (destructive) creativity of the Übermensch liberates him from norms and hierarchies; it also places on him the never-ending burden of innovating the new plans and performances that will define his “style.” He will have to sacrifice, profoundly, for his art—personhood for persona.
Nietzsche criticized American-style individualism for failing to accord sacrifice and discipline their proper role. Without these stern qualities, those who renounce social acceptance will become poseurs—people who are out but always for the sake of the new in. These poseurs employ conventional codes of exceptionality—which, ironically, tend to be exclusionary codes. Gaga’s high-fashion style of freakishness implements the classic mechanism of cliquish belonging: the designer label. Our fabulous freaks only play at living in defiance of social norms.
Perhaps this freakish, self-congratulatory, outsider mode of social belonging will usher in the utopia Alig dreamed about. Through constant performance of themselves, the Selfie Generation may come to regard identity as fluid and negotiable—scrambling norms and abolishing the category of freakishness by ensuring its ubiquity. This would seem a triumph for the freaks, for anyone who has been bullied and excluded, for the kids who do not belong.
But in truth, Alig’s social order was Darwinian. Unlike conformity, fame is a zero-sum game. One must always one-up in freakish fabulousness (“MORE! MORE! MORE!”). What becomes of the less fit? For most of us, there once was the decent option of invisibility—the option, that is, of being normal. Now, with the demand of visibility come the risks of vulnerability. In seeking attention, we open ourselves to the mocking gaze of others, to prying, gossiping, taunting, stalking, and general life-ruining. Like any utopia, this one will have a body count.
Julia Yost is a Ph.D candidate in English at Yale University and a student in the MFA program at Washington University in St. Louis.