Michael Musto has been writing for The Village Voice for twenty-five years, best known for his weekly gossip, pop culture and nightlife column, La Dolce Musto. The column still runs weekly in the paper, now along with regular updates on his blog, La Daily Musto. He's been a recognizable face on TV for years, as one of the regulars on E!'s Gossip Show in the '90s and as a VH1 commentator earlier this decade. Nowadays he can be seen regularly on Headline News and bantering with Keith Olbermann on Countdown.
Musto wasn't completely sure why we wanted to talk to him, since the next thing he'll have to plug is his book not due out until next February. But then he admitted that he misses the old days of Johnny Carson guests who were just brought on regularly because they were good party guests. Musto certainly is that, chatting with us on everything from fighting for gay rights he never thought he wanted, why the sagging economy could bring some life back into nightlife and how New York has become a town full of lawn chair gangs.
What have people been asking you about since the news of Michael Jackson's death broke? Well, just as a pop culture commentator, I followed Michael's career from the beginning. I grew up listening to the Motown sounds—I even had a band in the early '80s where I sang Jackson 5 and Diana Ross songs, not as well as they did. But they have me commenting not only on his musical legacy, but also on his personal odyssey, with an emphasis on "odd."
Do you have a favorite memory of him? Well, the most exciting thing was when he exploded as a solo artist on the Motown 25th Anniversary Special and it became clear that this was an electrifying personality. But after that, it all became eclipsed by his personal weirdnesses. Which, since I celebrate freaks, I often found myself defending him in the press, saying, "Don't make fun of him because he's different." But if and when he went above the law, it gave freaks a bad name.
I'm amazed at how shocked people are at the news, having watched him physically over the last twenty years. Yeah, he seemed to be eradicating himself, both physically and emotionally. His whole intent was to erase his identity. He had no nose left. So it seemed inevitable that there'd be nothing left at all.
Before your Motown band, someone told me you used to sing in the glee club. I joined the Columbia Glee Club because I heard that there was a free trip to Mexico. I didn't realize that were going to stay in a prison cell in Mexico City, literally. Anne Frank had a better apartment.
Are you involved in Pride Weekend at all? I watch the parade. I once rode on a float and it's horrifying because it's so hot and uncomfortable. You get tired of waving. Nobody waves back.
And you're also participating in a gay Match Game show at Bowery Poetry Club. That's not like the one at UCB where people take on characters, is it? No, just myself. I guess I'd be Brett Sommers and everyone would wanna be Charles Nelson Reilly.
I'd take Dawson. It's weird because I turned down a chance to be on the new gay version of I've Got a Secret because I didn't wanna go to LA. But here it's like, "Wanna do a free, local version of the Match Game?" Sure! That's how I run my career...into the ground.
Do you think this will be the hallmark era for gay rights? Do you think that gay marriage will define this decade? I do; it already is. The two things I never wanted for myself were to go into the military or to get married. So it's bizarre that these are the two things we're fighting for so vehemently. But I understand the importance of them and it definitely will go down as a transitional time. A time when people look back in disbelief and say, "You mean gays couldn't marry at one point?" Especially when they realize how much money can get pumped into the economy by letting gays get married. Of course, that means I'm going to have to buy a lot of gifts...or re-gifts.
When you run blind items, do friends try to coax who it is you're writing about? Well it is the one week I don't answer the phone because people you haven't heard from start coming out of the woodwork, calling and demanding answers. Which is poetic justice because whenever Page Six has blind items, people start calling and bothering me. And I'm like, "Leave me alone. Call Page Six." So when they're calling me for my own, it's more flattering. But I still avoid communication all week.
How has working at the Voice changed with the transformation of the paper in the last few years? Obviously there's a crunch not just on the economy, but on print journalism as a whole. We've beefed up the website like crazy and it get tons of traffic. So in addition to my column, I'm blogging all day. I'm supposed to be on vacation this week, but obviously I have to blog about Michael Jackson—I mean, I wanted to. So it's just taken on different forms.
Have you been nervous about your job security with all of the turnover at the paper? Yeah, but I was nervous in the '80s. I'm just a nervous person. I'm a worrier. But I think I deliver the goods and I'm extremely visible in the media, so I think I'm a good face for the Village Voice to have out there. And I don't make waves. I don't get even get involved in any of the politics.
How have you had to adapt to the explosion of Gawker and so many gossip blogs being out there? Not at all because I was sort of the original blogger anyway—I just didn't have a blog. I was the original snarky, sardonic person. But I do sort of first-person, man-about-town reporting. So I just stuck to my guns and kept doing it. I always had to compete with Page Six from the beginning. If I had an item, I knew that Page Six would probably break it first. But now that I have a blog, I feel like I'm me, Gawker, and Page Six—everything thrown together...but with a super gay slant. I mean you can't get any gayer, even on Perez. I mean, you turn gay just reading my blog. It immediately makes you wanna marry Liza Minnelli.
What's the craziest thing you've ever seen in a nightclub? There was this performer named Lady Hennessy Brown who performed at Susanne Bartsch's parties in the '90s. Her talent involved squirting breast milk on the audience on cue. She didn't need any warm-up or anything. I'd hold out my Kahlua and make a White Russian out of it.
But that's just one of many. There was a pee drinker at the Limelight, which is now the Avalon. Michael Alig, who's currently serving time in jail for manslaughter used to put on this "Unnatural Acts Revue" every Wednesday, where there was a guy who used to drink his pee. And I remember getting letters saying, "You're demonizing gay people by writing about these disgusting, deviant things they do." And it's like—no, the guy was straight. You're the homophobe for assuming that someone who drinks his own pee has to be gay.
My life has always been a bizarre mixture of that element and then a Meryl Streep tribute at Lincoln Center. That's what I love about it. I love my finger in every hole—not hole—in every pie.
Do you still go out a lot? Yeah, I have nothing to go home to. I don't even have a potted plant. I wanna go out. I wanna just forget.
How has club life changed in the last twenty years? Well, unfortunately with that murder, which I believe was in 1995, that's when Giuliani really cracked down hard on nightlife and used that as excuse to say, "Look at how devious nightlife is," ignoring the fact that nightlife was a thriving industry that that brought in tons of money for New York and provided a forum for lots of creative expression. So it became very sanitized after that. And this whole last decade was the decade of the bottle service and rich people able to buy their way into a club and get a table just because they were willing to pay for this overpriced bottle of booze from a busty blond woman. But that's on the wane now because of the economy. So the only good thing about the recession is that there's gonna be a resurgence of fun nightlife. It hasn't happened yet though.
Is there something you can tell me that I wouldn't know about your old Gossip Show cohort AJ Benza? Here's the shocking thing: we come from the same neighborhood—Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. He's the type the popularizes that neighborhood and I'm kind of the exception. I don't wanna say guido, that sounds demeaning.
Italian Stallion? Yeah, he's the Italian Stallion and I'm more Adrian.
What was growing up in Bensonhurst like? Everything was covered in plastic, including my father. We didn't only have bad taste; we had no taste. It was kind of like a budget version of New Jersey Housewives. But I love that aesthetic and I never learned good from bad as a result. Like, I went to see movies just as an escape from boredom as a child and I didn't get the memo that they were bad movies that had crash landed at the local dollar theater. To me they were good cause they were a two-hour escape.
Do you get back to Brooklyn much? I do. But the idea of going to Brooklyn for something fabulous is so alien to me. That's where I grew up. I spent my whole early life trying to get over that bridge, so I'm not going to go back for something trendy. To me, Brooklyn is the antithesis of trendy in my mind. What I would do to it for is meatballs and sausage. People always say, "Oh you grew up in New York!" No, I grew up in Brooklyn. We never went to the city. I went to the city maybe once a year. You're in Brooklyn.
Who's the New Yorker you most admire? Joan Rivers. A real pro, she keeps pushing boundaries of taste while excoriating vain celebs in an endlessly hilarious manner. Obviously, I strive to emulate her as much as possible.
What's your favorite "only in New York" moment? Last year, an imposing looking man chased me down the street, anxiously saying “You’re Al Franken!” “No, I’m not,” I replied, smiling, as I kept walking. He became furious and screamed, “First I called in on your radio show and couldn’t get through and now this! How fucking dare you!” I kept racing away and he followed, getting angrier and more unhinged by my denial. “You ARE Al Franken!” he exclaimed, looking cuckoo, then he handed me a crumpled piece of paper and demanded, “Sign me an autograph!” Faced with this fuming creature, I had a choice of either sticking to my guns or becoming Al Franken. I signed Al’s name and scooted away. I am a forger!
If you could change one thing about New York, what would it be? I'd really burn down Times Square. It really makes my skin crawl. When I'm riding my bike anywhere near there, I can't ride fast enough. But then of course, it's my bread and butter because that's where all the theaters are.
So you've been there since the new patio furniture is up? Yeah, I wrote in my column this week that New York has become a city where gangs of people just roam around and sit on patio furniture and then roam around and sit some more. And they never buy anything. I went to the High Line recently. And there's just these packs of people sitting on steps wherever you turn. Which is fine. But it feels a little bit like a Sam Raimi film and it's not really helping the economy.