Michael Alig Four Months After Release

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Alig getting make-up done by Nicky Ottav for a photo shoot by Zack Zannini by Corona

As of next week, it will be months since Michael Alig was released from prison. The sky hasn’t fallen, the earth is still revolving, and New York nightlife hasn’t been impacted at all. The haters still hate, while the rest accept the release. Most don’t notice at all. He meets with his government supervisors and counselors and adheres to the conditions of his release. He is working hard to build a future that includes art and writing and proving to the world and himself that he can be a positive member of our society. He is full of hope and of course remorse.

Victor P. Corona, is a sociologist at New York University. He is finishing a book titled Downtown Superstars: Inside Three Generations of New York Fame. He spends a great deal of time with Michael and offered this:

My Summer with Michael Alig, Victor P. Corona

 Alig Four Months After Release

To work on a book about someone and get texts and calls from that person while you’re writing is a surreal and odd thing. But surreality became the everyday context for the months after Michael Alig’s release from prison when I worked as his assistant. As I told a friend who had dressed up as Alig for a party or two, spending the summer working with the ex King of the Club Kids has been one of the most fascinating, hilarious, and exhausting experiences of my career.

In the sociology courses I’ve taught, my best students always pointed out that my book would be accused of bias given my proximity to the subject. I would counter that working closely with a (sub)cultural icon like Alig was far too valuable an experience for a cultural sociologist. I understand him, New York, and the nature of fame and power so much better as a result of this summer’s work. 

It wasn’t surprising, though, when I screened Party Monster: The Shockumentary in my summer sociology seminar and most students were rightfully appalled. When I asked if I should invite Alig to our class, they quickly became intrigued by the idea of directly posing hard questions to the ex Party Monster himself. When Alig finally bounced into the classroom, wearing shorts and sneakers and waving excitedly at the class, they studied him carefully as he sat down and spoke frankly about his relationship with Angel, his years in solitary confinement, and clumsily learning to use a cellphone after he was released. One student later thanked me for an experience that she said was the last thing she ever expected from a summer class taken to fulfill a requirement.

My summer as Alig’s assistant included cataloguing the over 250 paintings he created while imprisoned, preparing him for photo shoots by Zack Zannini and Francesco Carrozzini (the latter had just started dating Lana Del Rey), and introducing him to downtown New York figures like Bibbe Hansen and Breedlove. I showed Alig how to copy and paste on his computer, did his make-up and hair a couple of times, and listened, as I would any other friend, while he fretted about his bad romances.

It wasn’t all work and worry, though. Together Alig and I had margaritas with my mom in Hell’s Kitchen, gawked at the glittery sea costumes worn at Coney Island’s Mermaid Parade, saw the huge neo-pop sculptures at the Whitney’s Koons retrospective, went shopping at Pat Field’s always chic boutique, and debated everything from the nature of mental illness to the minutiae of hair care how-to’s. 

I watched Alig’s eyes well up with tears when he reunited with old companions like the former Jennytalia, Christopher Comp, Lollipop, Pebbles, Desi Monster, and Waltpaper. Most had long since shed those disco names and nightlife habits, having transitioned to less outrageous careers that still allow them to create and nurture. As we nibbled sushi, they all easily reconnected, decades after they cavorted at Outlaw parties awaiting the police’s arrival. The ex club kids seemed to beam a sense of satisfaction that both they and Alig had survived, alongside a wary hope that Alig would not squander his enormous second chance.

Because of Alig I have come across extraordinary people. One is Steve Lewis, with whom I made eight visits to see Alig in prison. Lewis tells wild nightlife stories that always shock and awe. During our long car rides his thoughts about New York culture made for intense arguments that left my mind brimming with more questions and my voice hoarse. Sitting in those beige visiting rooms in prison Lewis would always give Alig the tough love and warnings that he felt were appropriate. We worried about Alig’s safety in prison since he faced some very difficult moments that made us all question if we’d ever see him outside and alive. On our drive back to the city, Lewis and I would stop at old diners and devour chicken potpie and mashed potatoes while thinking about the likelihood that Alig would ever actually be released.

Another person I met because of Alig is Andrew Barret Cox, the young songwriter and performer who wrote and staged a musical about Alig’s story called Clubland. His immersive pop-dance show had a successful run in Boston and is coming to New York next year. I interviewed Cox twice about his project, intrigued by why a popular boy from halcyon New England would aestheticize a story like Alig’s. Cox has since become a close friend and collaborator with whom I confer constantly. Cox approaches his creative work with the same vigorous energy that many say Alig radiated before drug addiction drained his life. When this summer yielded moments of deep exhaustion it was Cox who reminded me that I had an important story to document and understand, one that demanded my own immersion in a world that I once only observed as a detached and timid analyst.

In late August I pulled together a small Riverside Park get-together with Alig to toast the summer’s end. As an orange sun faded over New Jersey, Alig chatted with FIT and Parsons students about his projects and showed images of his paintings to an up-and-coming singer and his manager. A dapper Ernie Glam arrived with his equally stylish husband David as a few of my past students chatted with the downtown legend and ex club kid Flloyydd, who has worked with everyone from Lady Bunny to Lady Gaga. Andrew Cox brought some of his Clubland cast members to finally meet Alig. They had all performed together at Susanne Bartsch’s On Top party only a few weeks prior, having plunged into the sparkly nightclub world that still bears Alig’s mark. 

Nearly four months after his release, Alig’s future depends on remorse and redemption while remaining true to the endless desire to create that inspires his fans. He knows that as long as he stays away from drugs and all behaviors illegal and inappropriate he can count on me like family. The summer has been one of sharing in his worrying, but also one full of laughter. His imitations of me, for example, are pretty accurate. Alig became the best party thrower in the world for a reason and if you spend some time with him you’ll quickly see why.

I hope that completing my book this fall will help me to fully make sense of Alig’s story. The pouting Party Monster of blue dots, platform shoes, and drink tickets exists only in popular lore now. The former inmate #97A6595 that is now riding the subways, dashing from meeting to meeting, and enjoying the occasional margarita has an enormous second chance at a life as a maker of culture. He’ll write the ending of his own story and I think—I hope—he’ll surprise us all.