After 17 years in prison, Michael Alig is finally back on the scene. But for the middle-aged King of the Club Kids, freedom is not as fun as it seemed
It’s hard to say if Michael Alig’s party is starting or ending. On a warm October Monday night, in a cozy Lower East Side club called The Rumpus Room, a few dozen people are milling about as house music and techno pound overhead, all one-note bass lines with no real melodies to speak of. It’s a dark, 3:00-in-the-morning sound pumping out of the speakers at 10:30 p.m. Among the denizens are rough-looking, jeans-and-T-shirt dudes who seem to have stopped by after attending a horror convention, some people in full furry animal costumes (there are a pig and a penguin), and members of Alig’s Club Kids entourage, whose loyalty has endured now for over 20 years—including the 17 that Alig spent in prison, from 1997 to 2014, for killing his drug dealer Andre “Angel” Melendez. There’s DJ Keoki, who’s celebrating his 50th birthday. There’s Astro, with visible tattoos and plastic surgery on his face, who was there to pick up Alig from the Mid-State Correctional Facility in Marcy, New York, on May 5, 2014. There are Tighe and Whillyem, the latter of whom DJ’d at Alig’s infamous Disco 2000 party at the Limelight.
“This place doesn’t get going till, like, 2:00,” says Alig before midnight regarding the weekly fete he’s dubbed Outrage and has been hosting for a few months. He introduces a young woman he met on Facebook. She was inspired to move to New York City and club like it’s 1995 after watching Party Monster, Alig explains. He then points out a handsome guy in his early 20s, one of the evening’s DJs, whom Alig talked to previously on Grindr. The DJ asked Alig if he was the infamous Michael Alig. Alig denied it, and the kid blocked him anyway. He just happens to be here tonight by chance.
By 1:30, the club’s population has dwindled even further, though what the clientele lacks in numbers it recoups in freakiness. Someone on stilts—wearing a giant board shaped like a second grader’s drawing of a Christmas tree with a giant hole cut in the middle for his, her, or their face—grazes the disco ball as he, she, or they walks by. Alig is in good spirits—he’s not exactly dancing like nobody’s watching, but he is partying like everybody on earth is attending. Earlier that day, he met with his parole officer for the final time.
“No conversation is more serious than the one you have at 3:00 a.m. on cocaine in a nightclub,” he says to me at one point, his eyes twinkling. We don’t make it far enough to test his thesis.
Despite Alig’s merriment, this is clearly a far cry from his heyday as New York’s premier party promoter. From the late ’80s through the mid-’90s, Alig was the ringleader of the Club Kids, an ever-expanding group of hard partiers who wore eccentricity on their sleeves (when their outfits had them). Alig eventually hooked up with Peter Gatien, owner of the legendary Chelsea club Limelight, among other establishments. There they entertained thousands of people nightly amid the kind of drug-fueled bacchanalia that just doesn’t exist anymore. In a 2007 profile of Alig in New York magazine, writer Jonathan Van Meter referred to Alig’s reign as the “golden years of Manhattan nightlife.” Alig’s antics were legendary: he’d pee into a crowd, place drugs on people’s tongues by way of greeting, and incorporated his love of gruesome horror movies into his parties’ ambiance.
“The Club Kids were a reaction, initially, to the AIDS crisis and to the death of Warhol,” recalls Alig. “All of a sudden, instead of going out and being sexy and taking off your clothes, we were going out not to have sex with each other, but to look at each other—a look-but-don’t-touch thing. We were the antithesis of sex. We weren’t trying to look sexy; we were trying to look freaky. We didn’t want to have to think about AIDS, so we just got all dressed up and partied like it was the end of the world.”
Under Alig’s influence, and whether dressed like babies or in neon and polka dots, the Club Kids pursued fame for fame’s sake, bridging the gap between the Factory and Facebook.
“In so many ways, the Club Kids were prescient in terms of the social media environment we’re in,” says Fenton Bailey, then a regular in the scene who’d go on to found the production company World of Wonder and make movies about Alig in 1998 and 2003: a documentary and a book, both of which are called Party Monster. “They wanted to be famous, and in that way they were carrying on the tradition of Warhol, who similarly anticipated the role fame and celebrity would play. They evolved that.”
Though New York City was their playground, the Club Kids’ reach went nationwide, thanks to appearances on talk shows like Geraldo, The Phil Donahue Show, and The Richard Bey Show. At a time when gay people were represented through suffering (if they were represented at all in the media), the Club Kids radiated queerness. “Soon, every medium-size city in America boasted a club-kid scene based directly on these lifestyle propaganda spots that aired nationally on afternoon TV,” wrote Frank Owen in the 2003 book Clubland: The Fabulous Rise and Murderous Fall of Club Culture.
But just as Alig created what many consider to be the apotheosis of post-Studio 54 nightlife, he had the power to destroy it. In a 2014 open letter, nightlife chronicler Michael Musto declared that Alig “basically murdered nightlife because, as Mayor Giuliani kept looking for ways to crack down on clubs so they became safe for tourists and community boards, you gave him every reason to put further restraints and make going out an exercise in constantly looking back to see who’s watching your every move.”
Musto was referring to the March 17, 1996, murder of Andre “Angel” Melendez, a well-known drug dealer and Limelight fixture who was often seen wearing a pair of angel wings. Alig and fellow club kid Robert “Freez” Riggs killed Melendez in Alig’s apartment. The details are hazy, given that Alig was on a number of drugs at the time, including heroin, meth, cocaine, and Special K. According to an account of the killing that Alig wrote in 2014 for the New York Post, a scuffle broke out after Melendez attempted to collect a drug debt. Freez hit Melendez over the head with a hammer. Then, as Alig recalls, “We were on top of him. And everyone was kind of morphing into each other and melding into each other like goop.”
Today, Alig says he’s sure he acted in self-defense. Whatever his motivation, he and Freeze killed Melendez, who decomposed in Alig’s apartment for several days before Alig dismembered him and dumped his body into the Hudson River. His remains washed up in Staten Island and were identified months later.
“We were the antithesis of sex. We weren’t trying to look sexy; we were trying to look freaky. We didn’t want to have to think about AIDS, so we just got all dressed up and partied like it was the end of the world.”
In September 1997, Alig and Riggs pleaded guilty to manslaughter. Alig spent the next 17 years moving around the New York State prison system. Five of those years—“give or take a few months”—were spent in solitary confinement because Alig kept testing positive for drugs, thanks to a hookup from a Blood he knew from the outside, he says. In a 2007 jailhouse interview with New York magazine, he shared a litany of horrors, including prisoners throwing piss and shit on each other.
Still, Alig said the sort of charm he cultivated in clubland was useful in prison. “It was very much like nightlife, but that was a problem,” he explains. “A Blood named Dutch gave word that wherever I went, I was to get whatever drugs I wanted for free. That was good news and bad news. It helped me escape from the reality of where I was. It also provided enough room to hang myself with. But if there’s ever a place where it makes sense to do drugs, it’s prison.”
Alig was released on parole from the Mid-State Correctional Facility in Marcy, New York, in May 2014 to a flurry of press. He said he was working on a number of projects, including a book and reality-TV shows. More than two years later, he’s had time to execute his ideas and assimilate into a faster, more connected world than the one he left behind. But his reputation has complicated things. He’s no longer merely notorious but certifiably murderous. Michael Alig is technically a free man, yet he’s still serving a sentence.
“Anticlimactic” is how he describes the past two-and-a-half years when we meet again. It’s a few days after his Rumpus Room party, and Alig is shuffling around the Upper West Side apartment he recently moved into with his boyfriend, Jay, whom he met about seven months ago on the dating app Scruff. When I walk in, he’s speaking frantically on the phone about a plywood armoire that’s been delivered in a state of déshabillé: its doors are uneven, and one of the drawer fronts yawns open like a sad drawbridge.
The furniture actually looks right at home. The living-room floor is covered in clutter: files, plastic storage containers, clumps of art, a three-foot pile of clothing. There’s a mattress in the kitchen. A tabby cat walks by and rubs herself on my leg. When Alig is off the phone, I tell him that his cat is nice. “She’s in heat,” he chirps back.
It’s as though his home décor has been inspired by the day after the day after. It is a “disaster” by Alig’s admission, and he explains that though he moved in with Jay two months ago, his furnishings had arrived only that week. The mattress is in the kitchen “’cause we got a new bedroom set and everything.”
This small apartment is Alig’s third permanent residence since leaving prison. He stayed in the Bronx apartment of his fellow former Club Kid Ernie “Glam” Garcia and Garcia’s husband for 14 months immediately after his release. After friction with the husband, Alig moved to Coney Island with mutual friend Patrick Fioriglio, a chiropractor who once was the business partner of Anand Jon, the fashion designer who’s now serving a 59-year sentence for rape and various other sexual crimes.
“It was an experience,” says Fioriglio, about the year he spent living with Alig. He has no shortage of compliments for Alig (“great guy,” “intellectually stimulating,” “extremely honest”). If getting along with him was easy for Fioriglio, cohabitation was another matter: Fioriglio recalls several broken glasses and a shattered iPad, another iPad stolen by a guest of Alig’s, and several more guests whom Alig had invited over despite Fioriglio’s objections.
“I was restricting a man who can’t be restricted,” he says of his former guest, with whom he remains close.
Alig and I talk on his couch. Just as the sparsely populated and subdued Outrage is a stark contrast to the multifloor bacchanals at Limelight, where Alig once entertained thousands, so is his current appearance in contrast to the polka-dotted, Day-Glo glossy twink that he once was. He wears jeans, monochrome earth-toned shirts, and Nikes. His thinning hair looks unwashed, though his skin is supple and elastic, resisting at least ten of his 50 years. (He credits his youthful glow to the lack of direct sunlight he received in prison.) He is, by his own admission, a “schlub.”
“I’ve tried getting dressed up at home with friends over,” he says. “ It always ends up in tears. I know it sounds [like]the most superficial thing in the world to say, ‘I can’t get dressed up,’ but that was a very large part of our lives.”
Besides that, “The crime is always in the back of my head,” he says. “I can’t imagine Angel’s family seeing a picture of me all dressed up, having fun—you know, not a care in the world—and their son is dead. I would be constantly afraid that they’d see a picture.”
Alig also tends to couch anything that could be interpreted as a complaint with a self-deprecating caveat. Regarding associates gossiping about his reputation as a killer: “It’s one of those things I just have to live with, and it’s kind of a small price to pay.” About the prospect of accepting offers to host parties outside of New York City (which he can, now that his parole is over): “Kind of depressing…traveling road show.” And yet he says, “I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining. In a lot of ways, I’m very fortunate, and I need to be thankful for it.” On getting recognized on the street and subway less in 2016 than he did when he was released from prison in 2014: “It’s, like, ‘Aren’t I fabulous anymore?’ But there are bigger things to worry about in the world.”
Perhaps this is his attempt at communicating more effectively—when speaking, at least. In 2014, the New York Times reported that sample chapters of Alig’s proposed memoir, Aligula, had been sent to agents who didn’t bite, “concerned that the chapters didn’t express enough remorse,” according to his cowriter, journalist Esther Haynes. That book has yet to materialize. Alig did eventually secure an agent, but said agent has since stopped calling. He thinks he needs to leave the city, social media, and nightlife to finish it.
Alig, who often communicates in an arrhythmic torrent of run-on sentences and fragments, explains his inability to finish his book: “I think of any reason to procrastinate. I wonder if that tree over there—if there’s a leaf on the ground, if I have to go pick it up. And I will do that all day long, and when you’re in that kind of environment, there’s a million things that need to be done right now before writing. But I never get anything done, so I told Esther, ‘I have to go away,’ because I have an agent. My literary agent is just…I think he’s given up on me!”
“I don’t know if he has clinical ADHD, but he always had some kind of attention-deficit problem, even when we were younger,” says Garcia, who also lived with Alig for three years in the early ’90s. “He was a very entrepreneurial person prior to his drug addiction, and I think that prison and, possibly, addiction ruined that aspect of his personality. He’s become extremely disorganized.”
Aligula is only one of the projects that has yet to see the light of day. The reality shows have not been picked up. Today, Alig talks about more books he has planned—a coffee-table collection of club invites, a book chronicling the history of the Club Kids—as well as a Broadway musical based on his life. He’s also attempted to launch a talk show, The Peeew!, which is to feature a panel of gay men discussing the same “hot topics” featured on the same day’s episode of The View.
“I always say to Michael, ‘Don’t tell us what you’re going to do; tell us what you’ve done. That’s all that matters.’ He puts the cart before the horse all the time, and it drives me bananas,” says James St. James, Alig’s former partner in—well—not “the crime,” but probably several misdemeanors during their clubbing days. Additionally, St. James wrote Disco Bloodbath, on which the 2003 movie Party Monster was based. Since Alig’s release, St. James has been in touch with him frequently. They talk almost weekly and have shot footage for a proposed documentary about their friendship, by World of Wonder honchos / Party Monster directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato.
“When I met Michael, I had his number, and I knew exactly who he was and what he was capable of,” says St. James on his enduring association with Alig. “I accepted him as a monster, and then a monster did something monstrous, and I can’t be shocked. I stood by Michael, and when he went to prison, we wrote letters and talked on the phone a lot and I really got a sense that he was changing. I want to believe that people can change, and people can be better and grow up. I don’t know if I was an idiot or not to believe that.”
Fenton Bailey agrees . “I think he always was, and deep down still is, an incredibly creative person with some really brilliant ideas,” he says. “He’s a disruptor. That’s not a word that existed when the Club Kids were around, but they were a social experiment, a socially disruptive experience.”
We leave Alig’s apartment and head to a nearby Starbucks. Once seated with our coffees and snacks, he tries for at least half an hour to find an e-mail from a trans fan that moves him to tears, as he paraphrases it, but to no avail. He says he learned how to forward emails only recently (“No one bothered to tell me because it was so obvious”).
Bailey tells a story about Alig’s breaking down while they were filming him after prison because he couldn’t keep up with his tweets and thought he was expected to respond to each one. “When you think about it, life accelerated dramatically in those seventeen years,” Bailey points out. “It wasn’t just the sensory deprivation [of solitary confinement]. Going back into the world is this maelstrom of stuff coming at you…he found it very overwhelming.”
Besides cartoon-like paintings that he sells sporadically, Alig has rejoined New York nightlife, a world based on social cachet and contingent on reputation. His main source of income comes from the Rumpus Room, where, he says, he serves as the club’s creative director. Given Alig’s status, this seems almost like a masochistic act. He still has friends—his phone steadily vibrates throughout our two-hour conversation, and there is no shortage of people in his life who will analyze and discuss him endlessly—but drawing strangers into his world seems, well, challenging.
“When I met Michael, I had his number, and I knew exactly who he was and what he was capable of,” says St. James. “I accepted him as a monster, and then a monster did something monstrous, and I can’t be shocked.”
Alig calls the response to Outrage “depressing” but quickly pivots to bemoan the state of New York City nightlife circa 2016 in general. “It would be more depressing if there were clubs with 5,000 people in them every night, “ he says. “People can’t afford it in Manhattan anymore. Opening a club like Palladium or Limelight in New York would be so expensive that it would be cost prohibitive.” To be fair, there are promoters who can command more than a handful of patrons. Days before our interview, I attended Battle Hymn, the Sunday-night party thrown by Ladyfag at Flash Factory in Chelsea. Hundreds of people packed the place. Alig protests that Ladyfag is of a dying breed, that nightlife’s population is shrinking, and jobs are drying up. Maybe, but I wonder why she is where she is, and Alig is where he is, status-wise.
“Because I killed somebody,” he says, concise as a scarlet letter.
It seems that Alig has traded one lockup for another—socially and technologically, he’s trapped. But who knows how it all would have panned out for him had he not killed Melendez? While Susanne Bartsch, Amanda Lepore, and Kenny Kenny remain the club fixtures they were decades ago, many of the other Club Kids have moved on.
“When it was all going down, I realized if I didn’t pull myself up and get out, I’d either be dead, or it’d be 30 years later, and I’d still be lying in a puddle of vomit in the corner of Limelight,” says St. James, an employee of World of Wonder who now writes and hosts his own show.
Alig has yet to extricate himself. When I ask him why, he almost sounds defeated: “It’s the only thing I know how to do.”
Maybe not the only thing. Though Alig has discussed his sobriety in several interviews, he admitted to me that he’s done a bump “on occasion” since being released from jail. A bump of what?
“I don’t…I don’t…I’m not…I don’t do heroin and…I don’t do things like that,” he stammers. “On New Year’s Eve or at a friend’s birthday party, I may have done a bump. And I’ll do a Xanax with some champagne. But its nothing like…you can imagine.”
I wonder aloud if he was high when I visited Outrage.
“I took a Xanax,” he says quickly, brushing away the subject. “And I drank.”
Alig, it would seem, is candid to a fault, or at least at his own peril. As convoluted as he can be, he also can be stunningly straightforward. When I ask if he misses anything about prison, he says, “I miss not worrying about having a place to live or eat.” Though he told the Times that he considered himself not a murderer but a drug addict, he admits to me that his inflated sense of self contributed to the killing of Melendez. “It was a sense of entitlement,” he says. “People told me that for a very long time. I wasn’t buying it, but looking back with some time to reflect and see the world, the further I get from it, in a way, the clearer the picture gets. In some ways the murkier it gets.”
He also admits that his accounts of that night have varied because “sometimes I feel like I have to tell people something specific, because that’s the only thing that they want to hear. Sometimes even I’m confused about it. There are so many accounts, and the drugs and the time…there are so many variables.”
Alig’s self-defense narrative is how many of his friends—especially those present at Outrage—justify their continued association with him. He says he knows he’s not a bad person, and I wonder how he can be sure.
“I know that I’m not a bad person because…,” he starts. And then after several beats, “Because I care too much. I care too much about that girl in Scotland or whoever,” he says, referring to the fan who wrote him the e-mail that makes him cry (or whatever). Suddenly, he begins to wax nostalgic: “The Club Kids were started because we wanted to create a family. People come to New York because they don’t fit in anywhere. You’re looking for the family you never had. That made me feel good—that I was providing jobs. We would get places to live—Richie Rich and Sophia and Astro. We got the ball rolling for everybody.”
The paradox of Alig’s legacy is that it’s both tainted and upheld by the death of Melendez. By the time 1996 rolled around, heroin had infected the scene, and the Club Kids were past their prime, according to St. James. They may have become a footnote entirely were it not for Alig’s defining act. Bailey says that he and Barbato had been attempting to make a Club Kids movie for years, but it wasn’t until Angel’s death that they were able to secure funds to make the Party Monster documentary.
Amid an ever-growing legion of freaks waving their flags at the click of a button, would Alig be occupying any cultural space if he hadn’t gone to prison? Would he have changed careers and faded into the ether, like so many club veterans eventually do?
A product of his own prediction, Alig seems relatively hopeful for his future. He says he never imagined he’d live to 50. Anything that happens to him from now on is gravy. He does fear, however, for the future of our species.
“I’m not so sure about the human race, because I think we’re living in an idiocracy,” he says. “I’m glad I don’t have children. I joke around about being jealous of youth, but in a lot of ways, I feel grateful that I got to experience the tail end of what things used to be. I worry about them because their future is less certain than ours was.”
But in the meantime, he has to lead a legion, or whatever he can scrap together. There is, of course, a plan. He shows me some pages on his SkroddleSquad site, which is a sort of cross between a social network and the now-defunct party mailing list Flyer. At a certain point, he halts, trying to show me a page he had just moments ago shown me but now cannot find.
And then, sounding genuinely confused, he asks, “How do I get back to where I was?”