“It doesn’t matter what you look like! I mean, if you have a hunchback, just throw a little glitter on it, honey, and go dancing.” That — as articulated by Seth Green’s James St. James in the movie Party Monster — was the irresistible ethos of the Club Kids, a group of young party-goers and party-throwers who ruled downtown Manhattan nightlife in the late 1980s and early 1990s. To an outsider, the life of the Club Kids looked seductive and glamorous. And the fact that their most notorious figure — convicted killer Michael Alig — was locked away, in prison for manslaughter, made it all too easy to romanticize his world. It was almost like he was dead, and Party Monster was like any number of posthumous depictions of a yesteryear. But he wasn’t dead. And now he’s back.
I was in elementary school during the Club Kids’ heyday, but when Party Monster came out in 2003 and people started talking about the scene again, I was primed to listen. As a college student who’d already lost a few years to nostalgia for the glam-rock ’70s, which peaked a decade before I was born, this more recent subculture of outré, freak-friendly music, fashion, and sexuality appealed to me immediately.
In retrospect, I didn’t reflect much on the fact that Party Monster was a true-crime tale, based on Alig and his friend Robert “Freez” Riggs’ 1996 murder of a drug dealer named Angel Melendez. The theatrical costumes and the decadent, high-concept parties were what caught my eye, perhaps partially because I spent those years living in Baltimore, a city that offered plenty of grit but whose glamor topped out at the local Britpop dance night or an illegal warehouse party that was bound to be immediately shut down by the cops. At least at the time, it was a place where, if you wanted an over-the-top party, you generally had to throw it yourself (and in many ways, that was what made living in Baltimore great).
I wouldn’t say I became a full-on superfan, but I certainly cultivated an interest in all things Club Kid. I watched Party Monster: The Shockumentary, the 1998 Alig doc by the directors who went on to make the Macaulay Culkin film, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato. I read Disco Bloodbath, the real James St. James’ 1999 memoir about his onetime best friend Alig’s descent into drugs and murder. And though I cringe to remember it now, it’s only fair to admit that I goaded a few friends into dressing like Club Kids — to the extent that Baltimore thrift stores allowed us to do so — for a Halloween party one year.
This brief, strange fascination with Michael Alig’s world has been haunting me since his release from prison earlier this month, after 17 years behind bars. Sure, youthful naïveté was part of what drew me to the Club Kids, egged on by the intellectual and recreational excesses of college. But perhaps even more than that, in 2003, because Alig had been forcibly removed from the spotlight, it was possible to love Party Monster and fantasize about the debaucherous heyday of Limelight and Tunnel without admitting to yourself that you’d become a fan of a living, breathing murderer.
That was, of course, always self-deception; whether it’s Jeffrey Dahmer or Michael Alig, there’s nothing morally defensible about romanticizing the life of a killer. And while it’s hard to blame St. James, Bailey, and Barbato for telling a stranger-than-fiction story they actually lived through, it must have been painful for Angel Melendez’s family and friends to watch as a documentary, a book, and a narrative film that glamorized Alig’s rise and fall appeared within seven years of his death. The fact that Melendez, who was born in Colombia, has been all but forgotten while his white murderer’s legend has only grown just adds a layer of racial bias to the story.
Alig’s return to New York a free man — albeit with a 9pm curfew and a ban on alcohol and drug use — makes it impossible to continue treating that story like a historical curiosity: nightlife so decadent it crossed the line from B-movie-themed “Blood Feast” parties into real-life murder. Not only did coverage of his release spread from magazines like BlackBook and PAPER to the New York Times, but Alig himself has wasted no time telling his story in print. In a lengthy NY Post piece, he details both his rise to King of the Club Kids status and how he and Freez killed Melendez, making sure to include some hints of self-awareness and regret:
Eighteen years on, looking back at the person I was at that time, I feel nothing but shame and disgust. I was a selfish junkie who killed another human being…
Involving the authorities, as gross and selfish as it sounds, would have involved being sober, facing the terrible thing we’d done. We were junkies. We didn’t do that.
But there are also chillingly dispassionate passages, like this one: “We did it relatively quickly, cutting at the joints. There was really no blood left because it had dried. Freez sprayed Calvin Klein’s Eternity all over the bathroom to disguise the smell, which was ironic.”
The question of whether Alig truly is contrite, whether he’s even the kind of person who is capable of remorse, remains open. In parts of his Times profile, it seemed he was still rationalizing his actions:
So does he think of himself as a murderer? “No,” Mr. Ailg said the other week before his release. “I think of myself as a drug addict who made some really, really, really poor choices, like the worst choices ever. But I wouldn’t say I’m a murderer because we didn’t wake up that day and say, ‘Let’s go kill Angel.’ ” He laughed at that. “I mean, you know, the distinction, it’s very slight. But in another way, it’s like night and day.”
And then there was the revelation that publishers are wary about his memoir — working title: Aligula — because the sample chapters currently making the rounds “didn’t express enough remorse.”
The publishing industry’s questions about his motives, in particular, highlight how eerie it is that the news media is so enthusiastically facilitating Michael Alig’s return to public life. Despite everything I’ve watched and read about him, after sifting through all the articles that have appeared in the past two weeks, I still can’t tell you whether he’s a narcissist or a libertine or a sociopath or just a devilishly charismatic person who allowed his own life to spin perilously out of control. None of the coverage is giving me any insight; all of it is making me more confused.
It’s not that I’m unable to imagine Alig feeling truly sorry for murdering Angel Melendez; for all I know, he’s genuinely reformed. I hope he is. I’m not even saying that he should be punished further, or shunned, or that his friends and family shouldn’t accept him back into their fold. It’s just bewildering to see him, someone who is now better known for killing a human being than for anything else, so speedily resume his place in the stratosphere of fame. And I feel complicit in it, too, not just because he fascinated me once, but because — as queasy as I am about its existence — I’m still just as captivated by all the news and analysis of him as anyone else.
There is something oddly democratizing about the 24-hour news cycle and its constant pressure to keep throwing up compelling headlines; Beyoncé’s sister assaulting Beyoncé’s husband in an elevator gets the same breathless, wall-to-wall coverage as Beyoncé releasing a surprise album. Once, Michael Alig was a decadent hero to small-town weird kids who learned about Club Kids by watching daytime talk shows. Then, he was a killer so cruel or numb from drugs that he spent the months before his arrest bragging about his crime. For almost two decades, he sat in jail while his friends and acquaintances fed his myth, turning him into a sort of sparkly, sadistic cartoon character.
Now that he’s suddenly back, navigating the 21st-century media landscape for the first time, he has become all of those things at once — and no single piece of his identity seems as important as the undeniable, perhaps inevitable fact that Michael Alig is a celebrity. We’re not asking ourselves whether a murderer should get to give a blow-by-blow of his crime in the NY Post or sit for interviews on HuffPost Live; all we know is that he’s available again, to be famous. To provide headlines.
Even more disturbing, in a way, than the platforms he’s been given or the profiles pegged to his release are the tiny, insignificant news items about Alig that have started popping up. “Infamous Club Kid Murderer Cried While Eating a Cronut,” Gawker informed us yesterday, aggregating a tidbit from the blog Bedford + Bowery’s profile. There’s a cynical, knowing gloss to that headline, but it doesn’t change the fact that Michael Alig consuming an overhyped pastry was deemed worth reporting. A few days earlier, The National Enquirer was crowing about his supposed post-release friendship with Macaulay Culkin. Clearly, that’s not a publication from which we should be expecting restraint — but it highlights the fact that Alig is now just another boldface subject of banal gossip. Just like the Kardashians. Just like Macklemore. Just like Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus and some people who even deserve to be famous. It was probably inevitable, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t give us pause.
Top image: Michael Alig in 2014, via Twitter