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La Petite Mort

Interview

Office – What first drew you to New York?

 

Michael Alig – When I was young I knew absolutely nothing about New York, except that it was where Studio 54 was, and where Andy Warhol lived. Besides that, I didn’t know anything, the only reason I came out was because my father sent me to look at colleges. I was given a scholarship at Fordham, which is why I came.

 

O – You knew a little bit about the party scene, so when you got here was that something you naturally fell into?

 

MA – I never thought that I would have anything in common with any of these people that I’d heard about, like people from the Factory scene, Andy Warhol, Edie Sedgwick. I bought a T-shirt in Chicago when I was sixteen years old, it was a reproduction of the French movie poster for Ciao! Manhattan, I didn’t know what it was, I couldn’t understand anything that was on it, but I liked the image. I took it home, and our neighbor was an older French lady, so my mother and I brought her the T-shirt to ask what was written on it. When she saw it her face just distorted in horror, and she said “Oh, Mrs. Alig! Do not let your child associate with these people. These are awful, awful people. You don’t even want to know what it says.” She wouldn’t translate it for me. So of course I had to know what it said, and then I went out and rented the movie. It all seemed very glamorous and decadent to me, and I never thought that I’d have anything to do with that.

You either get the ones who love me, or you get the ones who think I should have never seen the light of day again, or should have been given the electric chair.

O – So it wasn’t your plan to conquer the New York party scene.

 

MA – No, I was studying psychology and architectural engineering! But one of my roommates was dating Keith Haring, and at the time Keith wasn’t huge, but he was becoming a star in the art world, and because of that he was invited to all these parties at Area, which was the big club back then. So we would go with Keith, and we met Andy Warhol, and Grace Jones, and all of these other people in that little clique.

 

O – It must bewildering to look back and realize you were in the presence of these people.

 

MA – Right, and Keith would come over to our apartment, and he painted the refrigerator, and the toilet, and the wall—the entire apartment was painted with these squiggly bouncing boom boxes, and the radiant babies and everything. He was just coming up at the time, and was still thought of as just sort of a graffiti artist, not very fabulous. We thought it was cool and everything, but I remember times when we thought the room was just too busy, we had to paint over some of that trash! And then look what happened.

 

O – That’s hilarious. So what led to you becoming so prominent in the party scene, was it your charisma, your hard work?

MA – I think it was my German Protestant work ethic. Coming from the Midwest, you’re taught there’s no sloughing off, there’s no being lazy, you have to work work work work work, and make sure everything is done perfectly, and do it enthusiastically. Also, feeling like an outcast in high school made me boost the wattage of my personality, in order to make friends. The combination of those two things.

 

O – It’s interesting, because the public perception of the club scene is the “play hard,” not necessarily the “work hard.” But those who are making a lifestyle and career out of it are putting in a hell of a lot of work.

 

MA – I think so, and it was difficult for me to understand this in the beginning, but it takes a lot of work to make something look spontaneous. I learned that all these things that seem spontaneous are actually planned behind the scenes to look like they just happened.

 

O – As you embark on a new phase of your life, what are you doing for work? What serves as your office?

 

MA – Well especially in New York City, it’s possible to have your office anywhere. And there’s a saying that if you love what you do that you’ll become very successful, and that’s another New York thing. In the Midwest, people never associate work with enjoyment, it’s always something you dread going to. I was so enthusiastic about my job that it didn’t seem like work at all to me, whereas when I was in school, learning theology, studying for an English test, that was work. That’s why I had to drop out, because I didn’t enjoy that kind of work. Right now, I’m throwing ten thousand different projects at the wall to see which ones stick. I have a single that came out last week, and another coming out in a month. I’m working on Aligula, my autobiography. Me and my roommate Ernie Glam are working on a webcast called the Pee-Ew, sort of a satire on The View and all those shows, it’s a short form talk show where we discuss daily happenings and celebrity gossip and what’s going on in our lives. Then I’m painting, I’m looking for a gallery to have my first art exhibit. What else am I working on? Oh, a line of clothing, Lunatic Fringe, featuring designs from me and three artist friends–Ernie Glam, Andrew Barret Cox and Flloyyd.

 

O – All creative pursuits, then.

 

MA – All creative pursuits, yeah. Also I’m running my Facebook page, Vining—all of which takes up so much time, I don’t understand how people have the time to do these things these days. It is a full-time job! And we have something called Alig Mart, where we’re selling lithographs, wristbands, keychains, magnets, paintings, T-shirts, and oh my god, I’m exhausted just thinking about it all.

 

O – It can really be a lucrative and successful career to manage a personal brand online now. The Internet has changed so much during your time in prison.

 

MA – I know, the Internet changed everything. But all roads lead back to Andy Warhol. In the early ‘90s we took what he was doing and magnified it a little bit. There’s an NYU and Columbia professor, Victor Corona, he does an entire course on fabulosity, and the lineage between Warhol, who discussed branding oneself, and turning the unlikeliest people into superstars, to the Club Kids, to Lady Gaga, who took things even further. It all goes back to Andy, to one person. He said everybody can be famous for fifteen minutes, but now it’s looking like fifteen seconds!

 

O – The Internet has also allowed so many so-called “outsiders” to band together, and not be a minority anymore.

 

MA – Right, the minority has now become the majority. What’s even more interesting though, is that when we were kids, we thought we were trying to subvert the establishment, but you can’t do that, because once you become large enough, you become the establishment, you are no longer cool. It’s a big mind-fuck. The establishment is like the Borg, it assimilates anything that is trying to be used to subvert it.

 

O – You see it happen with so many artists and musicians, they start out with something great, and as soon as it gets popular it rots.

 

MA – It’s so hard to walk that line, you have to be cool enough that you are edgy, but not so cool that you offend and shock everybody, and scare them away. Which was always my problem, I never could straddle that line. Whenever I found that balance I had to go one step further, because I couldn’t stand not shocking and offending everybody, so I would have to go one step further and ruin everything. It’s self-sabotaging, but in a way to save yourself from becoming a sellout.

O – The club scene is so closely associated with drug use, which can be used as a facilitator for spontaneity, or to bring about certain fun, different situations. Knowing what you know now, what is your philosophy on drugs?

 

MA – Well, I cannot preach. I’ve tried doing the NA thing, but the part where they say you can’t associate with other people that are using drugs, they kind of encourage you to look down your nose at people who are doing what you yourself were doing only weeks or months earlier, I see that as being so hypocritical, I can’t bring myself to do it. I feel that actions speak louder than words, and obviously what happened to me should say enough. Again, it’s straddling that line. A lot of people can use cocaine, and ecstasy, and even heroin and lead very normal lives, but some people can’t. My story speaks for itself, I’m not going to say that you should use drugs, like we used to say, but I can’t tell anybody not to either. I used to think the drugs or alcohol were helping me be creative, or come up with ideas, or be sociable, when in fact all of my innovation came to a halt when I started using drugs heavily. I thought I was being innovative and clever, but all of the creative things I accomplished came before I got heavily into drugs. It’s a delusion.

 

O – It’s said that drugs enhance the appreciation of art, but not the creation of it.

 

MA – They’re not going to make you a genius, in fact they’re likely going to hold you back. You look at all of these people, RuPaul, Richie Rich, Larry Tee—while they were stuck in the moment with all of us, none of them did anything basically, except go out every night and be fabulous and get high. It wasn’t until they stopped and got off the treadmill that they were able to reformulate what they were doing and come back with something fresh. And it was because they were off drugs and were able to get something done. It’s not a coincidence that the people who became very successful are the ones who made the decision to stop using drugs and get their act together. It was the same for me, when I was in prison, for probably twelve years I continued to use drugs because I thought that it was too late for me. That I was middle-aged, and that nobody would forgive me for the crime I committed, and that I would never forgive myself, that nobody would ever want anything to do with me. If ever there was a time to use drugs, it was then, right? I thought I would continue to use drugs until I overdosed and died. Everybody kept telling me, if you stop using drugs like we did, you will become very successful, and I didn’t believe them. I tried it almost as a dare, to prove everybody wrong, “I’m going to stop using drugs, I’m going to get cleaned up, and I’m going to show you that nobody will accept me, that I will never be successful!” [Laughs] But the minute that I did, everything happened, just like everybody said it would. All my friends came back and offered me jobs, places to live, kind of a second chance that I would not have been given had I continued down that path.

 

O – Your reintroduction to society after seventeen years in prison has generated very polarized reactions.

 

MA – Oh yeah, oh please. Tell me about it. But there is quite a bit of positivity. I was in solitary confinement for five years, until just before I came home, and I was unaware of the media attention around my release. I was under the impression there might be a little bit of coverage, but I never dreamed that Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, MTV and Inside Edition would be interested in me.

 

O – A lot of people heard your name for the first time in the midst of the recent coverage.

 

MA – Right, and then they all go back and do their research. There are two types of reactions, you either get the ones who love me, and would follow me to the ends of the earth, and argue in my defense forever, or you get the ones who think I should have never seen the light of day again, or should have been given the electric chair.

 

 

 

They say the best satire is often mistaken for the real thing.

O – Is it harder to forge new relationships now, because people think they know you based on your public portrayal?

 

MA – It makes me a little bit nauseous sometimes, because I feel like I’ve somehow tricked people into thinking I’m somebody that I’m not. Before I was arrested, I didn’t know myself very well, so I kind of believed whatever the media said about me. If they said I was a genius, then I must be a genius. Then I was arrested and they said I was a sociopath, and I thought, oh my god, I must be a sociopath. Now after years of therapy and counseling I’m able to know myself better, so when I read things in the media it’s easier to laugh about them, because I can see how they don’t really know me at all. But other people that believe the hype that I used to believe, it’s kind of nauseating to me, I feel like I’ve tricked them into thinking that I’m more capable, or creative, or smart than I really am. But then my therapist said there’s something genius about tricking people into thinking you’re a genius.

 

O – A lot of times that’s where the genius lies.

 

MA – But with my public persona comes a lot of responsibility. Almost every day kids email me from all over with really tragic stories. They’re sixteen and they don’t know how to tell their parents that they’re gay, or they’re getting beat up at school because they have green hair, they feel ostracized, and they ask me how they should react, what they should say. It’s a huge responsibility, they feel like I have all the answers, and I don’t. A lot of times they’ll just pack up and drive to the city—I do a drug program three days a week and I get out at noon, so on those days I’ve booked my lunch hour to meet with these people.

 

O – I didn’t realize you met with young people so often.

 

MA – It’s awesome, I meet with at least ten people a week. Yesterday one of them brought me some kind of a term paper for her sociology class, it was called Michael Alig—Monster or Hero?. She was talking about the fact that yes, one person is dead because of all of this, and it’s awful, there’s no excuse for it, but on the other hand, she talked about how my story saved her life, because she was feeling suicidal because of who she is, because she’s gay and didn’t know how to tell her parents. She thought, like I did at her age, that she was the only one in her position, and she said that my story saved her life and she wonders how many other people’s lives it might have saved. Hearing something like that, it doesn’t justify what happened to Angel in any way, nothing I ever do or say is ever going to make up for what we did to him and his family, but it tempers the negativity to know that some people are helped because of my story.

 

O – How did New York change during your time in prison?

 

MA – You know, it’s going to sound really hypocritical of me to say this, but everybody seems so unbelievably self-centered! With the Internet and cell phones, and everybody going to parties not to talk to each other but to tweet people at other parties, the whole thing is just really gross. We were sort of satirizing that absurdly obsessive self-involvement twenty years ago, and in a way it was foreshadowing, and lo and behold this moment has come. There’s no way at this point that you can satirize this anymore, because it’s already a satire of itself. You can’t satirize the Kardashians, they’re satires of themselves. You can’t satirize this whole movement of selfie culture. We were celebrating that, and yet we were making fun of it at the same time. I think a lot of people thought we were just celebrating it, which is why so many people didn’t like us, because they thought we really were the vapid and superficial celebrities that we were mocking. But to see that the world has turned into that is really frightening. They say the best satire is often mistaken for the real thing.

 

O – So what do we do?

 

MA – The only thing that can happen is some kind of Mad Max situation, where the world becomes so decadent and self-centered that everything just collapses. I can totally see that happening. I definitely think it’s the end of Western cultural dominance, in terms of music and fashion, I don’t think we’re setting a good example—well we never were. Now I think it’s too late to do anything about it, but I think the rest of the world has caught on that the American Dream is a lie, becoming rich and famous and spoiled, and the fallacy that you can find happiness in a jar of Folgers, or a certain toothpaste, or designer jeans.

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