BY AARON STELLA Amidst the revelry of the Mr. Gay Philadelphia pageant, I was able to finagle a future interview out of Michael Musto, famed gay-celeb columnist for the Village Voice in NYC. So a couple of weeks later, I hopped on the Chinatown bus headed for Village Voice’s headquarters in NYC. Musto, dressed in a crisp black and white vertical-striped shirt and baggy black slacks, (and of course, wearing his trademark Sally Jesse Raphaels) explained to me that the Voice was moving. Most everything was packed in boxes and hardly anyone was in the newsroom. We found a quiet spot in the building that was for the most part bare save a desk, a few boxes and two desk chairs. I put my recorder on top of an empty cardboard box and said…
Phawker: OK: I guess we’ll just play 20 questions first and get that out of the way, shall we? So, tell me a bit about yourself: your Wiki page says a number of things, but there gaps, and plenty to elaborate on. Perhaps where you grew up is a good place to start.
Musto: I grew up in Brooklyn. I’m an only child, so, I really grew up internally; I didn’t even have any imaginary friends. And I was very shy. I was always the last one to raise my hand in class. I actually never spoke during my entire childhood—I just didn’t volunteer any information.
Phawker: Sort of like “children should be seen and not heard”? You embrace that?
Musto: (Laughter) No, no, ha! I don’t think it’s a good idea. But [taciturnity] did help me develop some internal life, and become an observer. I would go to the movies and write myself little reviews on little index cards that I would file in filing cabinets. I even wrote a full-length play when I was like nine-years-old. It’s in the garage somewhere—along with my boyfriend’s head, or something. (Laughter) I mean, I did very well in school: I was a great student and ended up going to Columbia University. I was 16 when I entered.
Musto: And they didn’t have journalism major then so I had to major in English. So I wrote for the school paper, and I sat in on graduate Journalism classes.
Phawker: So then, what was your focus as an English major? Or, I mean, what was your passion?
Musto: I had no passion for it. I wanted to study Journalism, but [English] was the closest thing. You know, Jane Austin is a close as you get (Laughter). But by my third year of school, I was way more interested in the activities then the curriculum. I was in the Gilbert and Sullivan shows and did musical theater.
Phawker: Wow, so I guess you’ve got some pipes on you.
Musto: I mean, yeah: I had a band, too. I can carry a tune.
Phawker: Well, what about doing karaoke?
Musto: I won’t get up [to do it]. I reminds me too much of being in a band, and all the things that can go wrong. Unlike Madonna, I want to control every aspect. You probably saw the “Behind the Music” on VH1; it was on for like 40 years. When I had a band, and before she was famous, we used to share a bill at a downtown club. Well, my band never got to sound check before she took over because she had to test the mike from every angle, taking absolutely forever. And also, after we went on, her manager, who was a woman, told us that she didn’t want us receiving guests after our performance because Madonna was getting ready. And we were all like, “Uh, you already denied us a sound check, so…”.
Phawker: Why would she deny you well-wishers?
Musto: Well, because Madonna was getting ready—and we all know Madonna doesn’t want anybody to see her naked, right? (Laughter) Ironic, no? Anyways—but I actually love karaoke because I love watching other people make of a fool of themselves. In fact, I feel a lot of my life consists of observing other people destroy themselves in entertaining ways. I wouldn’t drink; and [I’d] watch them guzzle the booze and fall down drunk; and I wouldn’t gamble, but I love going to casinos and watch people in awful luck, pulling the slots.
Phawker: What brought you to not drink at all? I mean, you drank in college, I presume.
Musto: No, not at all, but in the ’80s I would have two drinks a night: vodka cranberries. But it was never a problem because I would only drink two a night because I’m a control freak. Then I developed a seizure disorder once “The Lion King” opened — no correlation whatsoever. (Boisterous laughter) That’s how I remember it. And so, when I started taking the medication, I knew it was risky to drink while on it. I accidentally had sip of something last week — a vodka fresca, or something — and it tasted so vile; you know, when you hadn’t had it for 15 years.
Phawker: Yeah, same with cigarettes; they’re just vile altogether; although I continue to smoke them to this day. Forgive me for backtracking a bit, but, I find it so strange that you grew up an only child; and, while being so observant, with all that you took in, you never used what you saw to create an imaginary friend. I guess you weren’t lonely.
Musto: Well, I was lonely. Culture was my friend. I found that if I went to a film, I could just immerse myself into that and escape.
Phawker: So becoming of the world in a certain way.
Musto: Well, the world of culture — the flat world of the movie screen. It’s not real: but that’s what I liked about it: it took me away. I loved anything with fancy jewelry and fabulous settings. All the actors at the time were my friends. They saved me, in a way.
Phawker: Do you like “Rosemary’s Baby”?
Musto: It’s my favorite. I think it’s the perfect movie. The brilliance of it is that you see everything through the eyes of Rosemary: you’re learning as she’s learning.
Phawker: Yeah, I think it’s the perfect horror movie.
Musto: Yeah, that and “Psycho”. But in “Rosemary’s Baby”, on the bookshelf of this one scene is the book “Yes I Can” by Sammy Davis, which is now the Obama party motto. Weird.
Phawker: Yeah, a little strange.
Phawker: I mean it’s the same type of thing, like when Nixon carried Machiavelli’s “Prince” in his back pocket during the course of his presidency.
Musto: Yeah, could you be more obvious about your reading?
Musto: You know, I hear they’re making a remake [of Rosemary’s Baby], which is awful. What can’t they remake bad movies, right?
Phawker: (Laughter) Yeah, like why don’t they remake “Showgirls” or something? I mean I love “Showgirls”.
Musto: Yeah, but you can never make that—that good. Meryl Streep as Naomi Malone. Now she’s got her own musical (rolls eyes). (Laughter)
Phawker: Ok, so, I want to talk about how you came to work for the Village Voice. How did you eventually wind up working here?
Musto: Well, even in college I was sending my clippings around, and I had done a little free-lancing. By then, I had gotten a few feature stories in the Voice, and so when there was an opening for a columnist, I said, “Well, why don’t you guys consider me?” and they said, “Sure, why don’t you submit a sample. We’ll even pay you for [it],” which was very professional of them. And I just did what I do now: I turn in a [piece] which is madcap and about talent, swirled into gay politics and about celebrities, from a first-person, very subjective point of view. And they liked it, and they said, “Just do whatever you want”. And from then on I’ve gotten no direction. It’s been the most heavenly situation, where there’s no oppression, there’s no rewriting. I mean you have to go within the laws of libel, and good sense—usually.
Phawker: So for you, how has the Voice changed over the years, in terms of what it did compared to what it has been doing, and what is does now in NYC?
Musto: It’s gone through so much. But the main change in the landscape has been the Internet. It’s made everything easily available. Everyone has a blog. Everyone has an opinion. So, it becomes more and more difficult for an alternative weekly to figure out “what is it alternative to?” You know what I mean? Like, there used to be mainstream, and then a division mark, and then underground, but now everything’s together. There are gay trannies on TV, a gay channel. Nothing is shocking anymore. This is the world that I fought for, but [at the same time] it makes it harder for someone like me to stay special—like what’s my place?
Phawker: But, you’re not just some Myspace page; you’re a sophisticated point of view. People look to you as an authoritative source; to help supplement their opinions; to give substance to them. People have their opinions, but they also want them to be defensible. And I think that’s sort of the next step, for people to think about their opinions. Like that Simpson’s episode when everyone in Springfield publishes their own newspaper: at one point Lisa Simpson looks around and says, “Isn’t this wonderful?” and Homer responds, “Yeah, now every idiot in town has their own newspaper”. (Laughter) But, it’s different, I feel. I mean, do you think the function of the alt-weekly is changing?
Musto: Yeah, because it’s harder now to have breaking stories because anyone can post blog item and have it shown anywhere and all over the world. It’s harder to be surprising. Ah, but that makes us just work harder at doing our jobs. It’s actually a good thing. You know, competition helps light a fire under you’re ass and makes you strive even harder to be unique. That’s what [the Village Voice] does.
Phawker: Ok, now about the gay scene here. Yeah, so—what’s up with you, and that—the gay scene, I mean? You can start from wherever you want. You know, roam as you please.
Musto: (Laughter) I’m obviously an elder statesman for the gay scene, but I’ll never be like a Larry Kramer who’s screaming at the kids, calling them a bunch of morons. I don’t think [our young generation] is any stupider than the Larry Kramer’s generation when he was young. In fact, I think they’re less stupid because of the Internet. I think they’re savvier nowadays.
Phawker: Who is Larry Kramer, by the way?
Musto: He is the father of gay politics. He has always been a really outspoken gay critic of the gay community. He’s just this legendary gay. I love Larry. But, he did give a speech a couple of years ago where he called the current young generation of gays “a bunch of morons”. You know, young people are supposed to be stupid—cause when you’re young, you learn as you do things. Usually, when I criticize the gay community its with humor: I’ll criticize myself before anyone else. You know, for a while, there was this whole body fascism thing where you couldn’t be gay unless you had big tits. Big tits (laughter)! But really, this stemmed as a result of AIDS. Gay people started working out thinking that that would make themselves invulnerable to AIDS. It didn’t work. But you still had to have a body to be gay or to be seen in a nightclub. So I was a critic of that. I was a critic of crystal meth. You see these people running around who have to have sex nonstop for 14 days, until they collapse in a pile of jizz (laughter). There must be more constructive ways to live your life. And now I’ve even criticized the hell out of Manhunt [an online gay hook up web site] because it’s taken all the fun out of bars. No one wants to get laid through a bar anymore because they’ve already had five tricks that day through Manhunt.
Phawker: (Laughter) I agree. I think there’s a certain savior faire that’s cultivated by meeting people at bars. I mean, the Internet just cuts that aspect out. And it’s so terrible for someone’s growth as a person. Everyone has a personality, but if you don’t use it, it will atrophy, just like everything else you don’t use. How you feel about that?
Musto: I agree. I mean now we’re looking back at one-night-stands—pickups at a bar—as the height of intimacy. But it’s true: it’s totally like click click click “come over”; drug drug drug; fuck fuck fuck; and then “goodbye”. You know, at least at a bar you have to display some powers of seduction: you can’t lie about what you look like (Laughter).
Phawker: It exposes you to more, too. If you’re someone who likes young, skinny twinks under 120 pounds; say you meet somebody, say the old guy at the corner of the bar, someone who you would never consider, and you find that you like him. Like, not judging a book by its cover is something one learns when they frequent bars.
Musto: Absolutely. What ever happened to spontaneity? You know, to like someone based on your own personal encounter. Of course, I did have somebody throw himself at me outside the Maritime Hotel. So there’s still plenty of nookie to be had (laughter).
Phawker: You just got that fire.
Musto: Yeah, my mojo was just on fire.
Phawker: Men just flock from miles around, huh?
Musto: It’s just bizarre because for the longest time I was invisible in gay clubs.
Phawker: Do you think the Manhunt hookups lack the electricity of bar hookups?
Musto: Well, I wouldn’t know because I’ve never done the Manhunt thing. And whenever I take somebody home they have to leave right away. I don’t want to have to be waking up every ten minutes to see if they’re stealing my jewelry or not. I mean I’ve let people stay over before—if he’s my boyfriend, obviously. As far as picking up tricks, I’ll bring them over, but once I’m done (laughter) then they have to leave.
Phawker: Huh. For a long time, I usually would try to get to know people after sex. I guess I thought that sex was this raw expression of the person’s interior. But now, I realize that it’s partly technique, and can be actually misleading as to what the person is really like. I mean, I don’t think my cock is some sensor for the soul or anything, but, well, I’m still young, so I’m inclined to think such.
Musto: I just went to this house party the other night and it was like 100 percent twenty-two-year-olds; and they all had a comb-forward; which is weird for twenty-two-year-olds.
Phawker: A comb-forward? Isn’t that a style used when you’re hair’s receding?
Musto: Yeah, I know. Maybe people are getting bald earlier. But I’m usually surprised when I enter a room full of gay people. It’s usually a conformist crowd: only one type of person. I thought I was going to enter a world full of snowflakes; and people would praise me for being individual. Totally not the case. Mostly, if you got to a club like Beige [a largely popular gay bar in NYC] you’ll find a crowd of thirty-two-year-olds, retail workers a.k.a store clerks at Abercrombie and Fitch who live in Jersey City. They got to the gym—and it’s just that type of mentality—very similar to the twenty-two-year-old twinks. But, at least, if you put many of these subgroups together, you have a patchwork of people who are relatively diverse. It’s just that the diversity is usually not all in one room. And gays don’t mix with lesbians. I remember the days of Action AIDS when we were all together: the gays, lesbians and transvestites banned together like they never did before. And I was really inspired by this, the whole gay community coming together like they never have before. But now, when you walk into a gay bar you don’t see lesbians. because gay men don’t like fish (laughter). And, you know, the dikes don’t want to be around the sissies (laughter).
Phawker: Yeah, I don’t know why that is either—the segregation, I mean. And in a similar manner, I find a lot of gay people trying to redefine the lines of homosexuality, especially with the way one acts. What you think: is homosexuality a trait that is as insignificant as eye color, skin color, or what not? Or is it something more?
Musto: I definitely think it’s something more. I think all those other things are superficial, while the gay thing runs deeper—much deeper. I do, however, hate the fact that people think that when you’re acting macho, you’re acting straight, or masculine. I hate that. I think it’s completely absurd.
Phawker: But do you not think that what gives rise to [gay and straight] stereotypes is because people think that orientation is so deeply part of one’s identity that it pervades one, deep into one’s soul? Many people argue that heterosexuality is the origin of humanity; or, that because the world was, and continues to be populated by heterosexuals, that heterosexuality is the one true orientation. And, that advocates for homosexuality will venture back into history—commissioning anthropologists to prove that homosexuality was a natural part of the social order since humanity’s nascence—seems so pointless. It doesn’t matter where homosexuality came from. Genetics or psychology—[homosexuality] is just there. It’s not detrimental to society.
Musto: And how did people know how humanity began? Were they there? (Laughter) Who knows if it was just two Chelsea guys who adopted a kid? (Laughter) Jesus was born without any actual fucking, if you really want to believe the fairytale. So, you really don’t need to be heterosexual to procreate: just imagine it, and a baby pops out. I just love how many Republicans (and even some democrats) are against gay rights and gay marriage, and so much so recently we are seeing the sham of their own lives. Even John Edwards was against gay marriage.
Phawker: I didn’t realize even John Edwards was against it at one point.
Musto: Oh yeah. They’re so intent on preserving the sanctity of marriage, and then they crap all over it on a daily basis. They’re just you’re regular hypocritical politicians.
Phawker: No kidding, right? Now, how do your parents feel about he whole thing—I mean, you being gay and all? I’m sorry if that’s too personal of a question.
Musto: My parents, while they embrace everyone, they don’t want to talk about it too much (laughter). You know, I’ve brought them to parties in New York, and my father actually flirted with a transvestite: he didn’t realize she was a man (Laughter). So they’ve dabbled in the gay life.
Phawker: (Laughter) Ok. Oh my god. (Laughter) I have to ask. Well, my editor asked me to ask you this. Until yesterday, I didn’t know who Sally Jesse Raphael was—your glasses look very similar to hers (Laughter).
Musto: (Laughter) I once went on her show.
Musto: Yeah. It was probably the first time everybody realized that we were two different people because we were in the same room. I used to have really big and thick owl-shaped glasses; and for the longest time, people would say, “Oh my god. What’s up with those?” So I switched to [the Raphael’s] and now I get even more criticism (laughter). From now on, I figure I should just stick to my guns.
Phawker: So I mean, how do the glasses affect your success/failure ratio with picking up guys. Do they compliment you on your glasses or do they run away in terror?
Musto (Laughter) Well, I wrote this one column on how I was all the sudden on fire. Since I never want to be the aggressor because I don’t like rejection, I’ll never go up to someone and put the moves on him. But, I really can’t complain about my life—my love life and all, being able to talk to people. For a long time I didn’t know how to respond to people. People would talk to me and I would kind of run away. But now, if someone comes at me sticking their tongue out I’ll kiss them back. It’s only polite (laughter). I mean I kind of dropped my walls down once I reached a mid-life crisis and realized I need to reach out to people.
Phawker: I assume you’ve had boyfriends before.
Musto: Never anything that long term.
Phawker: Would you be open to long-term relationships in the future?
Musto: I don’t know. I always get scared once it gets intimate. I just get really nervous and then I fuck it up.
Phawker: You think you fuck it up?
Musto: Yeah, I know that I do; or, someone wants to rev the relationship up a notch and make us life partners or something; I definitely run away. I just can’t take it. Most of it I feel is from growing up alone. Yeah, I’m afraid of intimacy. As I grew up, I thought I was in this protective shell. So I’m most comfortable by myself. My parents really had a lot of ups and downs in their relationship as I was growing up. They were barely speaking to each other. That complicated things, and [their relationship] wasn’t the best role model for learning how to deal with relationships. So intimacy was never something I aspired to. And I mean my lifestyle is so on the go; party here party there; day and night. My boyfriend would have to be the plus one to everything, or he’d just never see me. So that makes it difficult.
Phawker: I don’t like this idea of a life partner either. I think the best type of relationship is when you’re best friends; like you’re companions before the fact of sex and all that.
Musto: Yeah. I like the sound of that. I think sex complicates everything. And frankly, I don’t want to have sex with the same person for the rest of my life. (laughter)
Phawker: I know. You’ve seen him naked, now they’re old news.
Musto: (Laughter) Yeah. I’ve always had trouble combining love with sex. How does “I love you,” mean, “I want to stick my dick up your asshole”? I’m very cracked in that way. I think a healthy person does want to combine those two things.
Phawker: Well, I mean, yeah—[there are plenty of people] who embrace the romantic ideal that [their lover] is the end all be all of their universal happiness. To me, that idea is absolutely ludicrous. It’s a culmination of things that make you happy. I think that if you slept around with somebody every now and then it wouldn’t mean that you didn’t love your “lover” per se. Men in Greece did it all the time. Their wives knew about it, but they accepted it because they knew that their husbands still loved them regardless.
Musto: I think the gay relationships that last are the ones that allow for each party to sleep around, as long that you don’t fall in love.
Phawker: Exactly! Because that’s why people get so hurt over the fact that their lover has cheated on them. It’s not merely the thought of their lover in the arms of another, it’s the fact that they’ve chanced themselves to fall in love with another. And I mean, even in an “open relationship”, you don’t go out every night and neglect your boyfriend.
Musto: And you don’t come home from a tryst recounting all the details of your sexual rendezvous.
Phawker: “Oh my god! I had the best sex last night!”
Musto: “Yeah. He was way better than you.” (Laughter)
Phawker: “Oh you would love him: he’s such a card. Such a card, he is.” (Laughter)
Musto: I just think [open relationships] are realistic because most people cheat anyway. So I feel that as long as you go into and say, “If you cheat, fine, but this is our home base; and that we care about each other more than anybody.”
Phawker: It’s a sexual revolution in a way. I feel that sort of came with the gay uprising. You know, challenging people to rethink not just the family unit but how they have relationships. I just think that it’s so beautiful these days that you can go to your lover, and both of you can acknowledge the fact that the traditional bond hitherto modern relationships is a little unhealthy. In addition, relationships have been heavily influence by Puritanism, Romanticism, and just plain human insecurity—all the aspects of which have been thrown into a giant cocktail humans have been sipping on for ages.
Musto: Yeah, I think straight people should use that as a model. When straight people cheat, it becomes this massive tornado that decimates each of the party’s lives—and for what? And seriously, so many straight have people on the side that it’s ridiculous (laughter).
Phawker: (Laughter). Oh man. Ok, so, any future plans for you? Is this your nest? Are you sticking around?
Musto: I should say so. I’ve been [at the Village Voice] for what, over 20 years?
Phawker: Oh that’s right! I was going to say, I think you should host the next Mr. Gay Philadelphia.
Musto: That’d be fun.
Phawker: Yeah, I mean, you have stage experience.
Musto: Sure, but you know, I very much enjoy being a guest host than having my own thing. I’ve been on plenty of talk shows, and everyone always says, “Oh you should have your own talk show”; but I’ve really found my niche. It’s always low pressure being the guest host. And, strangely enough, that’s sort of how I run my life as well. I don’t have a best friend, or many people who I’m particularly committed to. I guess I’m my own best friend. I’m my own Roxy Heart.
Phawker: (Laughter) Oh my. Ok, quick tangent. Sorry, but, what would be your drag queen name if you were one?
Musto: (Long silence) Um…Rachael Tolerance. (Laughter)
Phawker: (Belly-laughing) Rachael Tolerance, huh?
Musto: I actually spend a lot of time thinking of drag names. It’s one of my favorite things to do.
Phawker: My friend Javius says he would be Mozilla Firefox.
Musto: That’s cute.
Phawker: I want to be Marmalade Panties.
Musto: (Laughter) and then there’s your porn name. It’s the street you grew up on and the name of your first pet.
Phawker: What’s yours?
Musto: Um… Angle Burt. I grew up on a number street, 77th. So, you know.
Phawker: Well, were expecting big things (Laughter)
Phawker: I don’t think mine’s that flattering: Otto Threadneedle. (Laughter)