It's been over 20 years since he killed and dismembered a fellow club kid, but will his former scene take him back?
It's been over 20 years since he killed and dismembered a fellow club kid, but will his former scene take him back?
In a club in downtown New York City on a Monday night in December, Michael Alig is celebrating. After spending 17 years being shuttled between state penitentiaries, followed by nearly three years of supervision, he is finally, totally free from the legal consequences of committing one of the grisliest crimes of the 1990s. No more phone calls from prying probation officers. No more house inspections or pesky curfews. Alig is back, trying to regain the fabulousness he lost while locked up.
Tonight Alig is sporting a tank top and a pair of thick-rimmed glasses, which frame a face that, despite long years behind bars, has managed to retain an air of boyish youth. Right now that face is looking a little flushed from all the house prosecco he's been swilling – it's the only drink he ever orders, and tonight he's got a reason to toast. Everyone in the room seems to know him some way or another, and they call out his name constantly. Some want another drink ticket – he's equipped with a stack at all times – while others just want the party monster to pose long enough for a perfect selfie.
"Michael Alig is Free From Parole. Is it the Beginning of the End, or the End of the Beginning…" reads a flyer promoting tonight's party on Michael’s Facebook page. The venue, Rumpus Room – more spacious bar than actual club – has, for several months, functioned as a petri dish for Alig to try to recreate an era in which he was the undisputed King of the Club Kids.
And at first glance, it appears to be working. Alig doesn't just collect a weekly paycheck for throwing parties here – he's also cultivating a new set of people to populate them. But the recruits have familiar party-scene antics, like Timothy "The Human Money Tree," who struts around the club naked save for dollar bills taped to his body and a selectively applied coat of green paint. His conscripts find their names added to a growing list on weekly invitations to these Monday night parties.
Alig's longtime friend DJ Keoki Franconi, who was a fixture of the club kid scene in the Nineties and went on to achieve success outside of New York, is the resident DJ of the party; he got Alig his gig here. Otherwise, the presence of any of Alig's former comrades is exceedingly rare. "Most of them have jobs now. You get tired of doing this," he says. As for him? "This is all I know."
Now that he's free from the watchful gaze of his parole officer, tonight's soiree marks a milestone in Michael's second act. The timing could not have been more fortuitous; just days before, Netflix had added to its inventory Glory Daze, a 2014 documentary that detailed his incarceration and release. (Michael is also the subject of another documentary called Party Monster, as well as the 2003 feature film of the same name in which he is played by Macaulay Culkin.) Alig says he's received hundreds of emails since the film was added to the streaming service just four days ago, and he's managed to sell eight of his paintings (costing $500 or more each) since then, too. "I'd better get while the getting's good!" he jokes.
All of this renewed interest has also brought some new faces out to Rumpus Room for tonight's party; three pretty, blonde girls in their twenties are here just because they'd seen the film on Netflix earlier that evening and subsequently discovered Alig, and this party, on social media. And two weeks from tonight, Alig and Keoki will be flown to McAllen, Texas, a small town on the Mexican border, at the invitation of a club promoter for an all-expenses paid party trip. "Club Kids Are Back. Money, Success, Fame, Glamour!" reads an invite for that event, which charges $35 dollars for a "VIP Meet & Greet" with Alig. But it ultimately ends before it starts, with the arrest and detainment of Alig at a local airport for public intoxication mere hours before the party. The promoter ended up refunding those disgruntled club-goers who'd paid extra to meet him. (Once out, Alig attempted to patch things up with his fans, meeting about 25 of them at a local bar the following – free of charge.)
But it's not all free drinks and comped flights just yet. Many are upset about tonight's cause for celebration. "This is disgusting, why are we celebrating a murderer?" asked one commenter on the event's Facebook page. "Tacky and tragic. Y'all are tired," declared another. Worse still was one post with a picture of the man Alig had dismembered all those years ago, reminding would-be partygoers of the host's checkered past. The swift backlash caused Alig to issue an amendment to tonight's invitation, stating that he would donate half of his paycheck to a drug treatment center — a strange paradox considering many in attendance were on drugs. "I don't even know why Michael is paying lip service to this whole anti-drug thing," says one friend. "He should just be himself."
"Why are we celebrating a murderer?" asked one Facebook comment.
Predictably, this charitable ploy did little to stem the flow of outrage online. Page Six would later report that Alig received death threats for throwing the party. "The bad ones are really bad," says Alig. "They're like, 'we're going to kill you and we think you should get the electric chair and since the state didn't do it, we’re going to do it!'"
But when the buzzy "Michael Alig is Free From Parole" end of times party finally arrived, his new army didn't arrive en masse. Instead, even at 1 a.m, the tiny club was half-empty, with the peripheries and back booths remaining mostly vacant throughout the night. Revelers started clearing out well before last call. One bartender was all that was needed to attend to the pockets of the dance floor occupied by the chummy knot of club-goers, all of whom seemed to know one another. Nobody "fabulous" from Alig's past had come to help usher him into this new age of freedom either. "Don't bring that up to Michael," says his friend, as we look around the half-empty club, "It'll just depress him."
After all, it's been nearly two decades since this now 50-year-old party boy ruled these downtown streets. Try as he might, Michael Alig may never be welcomed back to this scene – or whatever is left of it – because forgiving someone for committing a crime, however heinous, is different than actively supporting a return to the very lifestyle that fueled the act in the first place. If there is a path back to the limelight for him, it's going to be a long one – but Alig, who truly believes that nightlife is still his calling, seems prepared to walk it for as long as it takes.
Alig's parties were once the stuff of New York legend. Hundreds would attend, no matter the night of the week – especially the drug-fueled bacchanalias in the gothic-church-turned-club the Limelight. They put him at the forefront of the nightlife scene in the Nineties; with the notoriety came magazine covers, talk show spots, even national party tours. But as the decade dragged on, the scene that Alig had pioneered – once celebrated for its inclusivity and free expression – took on a far darker persona as hard drugs like heroin and ketamine replaced ecstasy.
The movement experienced its Altamont moment in 1996 when Alig, along with fellow club kid Robert "Freeze" Riggs, fried on a mind-bending mix of heroin, ketamine, cocaine and rophynol, murdered their on-again-off-again roommate and drug dealer Angel Melendez. A dispute over drug-money turned violent, leading Riggs to strike Melendez unconscious with a hammer to the head, then Alig suffocated him with a sweatshirt until he died. The pair stashed the mutilated corpse in the bathtub and covered it with ice, and hit it with a few spritzes of Calvin Klein Eternity, then continued to party for the next eight or nine days – even inviting friends over to the apartment while Melendez' body rotted in the other room.
It's been reported that Drano was used in some capacity – original news stories claimed that he had been injected with the pipe-cleaning chemical, while Alig has said more recently that they poured it on the body afterwards, to help cover up the smell. Either way, when the stench became unavoidable, the two dismembered Melendez and dumped his body parts into the Hudson River. Several pieces would wash up on the shores of Staten Island eight months later. Alig was apprehended in a motel room in New Jersey one month after that, when detectives investigating the owner of the Limelight, Peter Gatien, for drug charges discovered a link between Alig and the disappearance of Angel Melendez.
Alig walked free in 2014, returning to a very different New York than the one he remembered; the legendary Limelight had become an upscale shopping mall, and his once-seedy Times Square a Disneyland. Young people now lived in Brooklyn and the last time he called Manhattan home, New Yorkers were still two years away from meeting Carrie Bradshaw for the first time, and five from the fall of the Twin Towers.
"If you think about it, he really is sort of like the Andy Warhol of our generation," says one college student who first met Alig on Halloween.
Riggs, who was paroled in 2010, had quietly reintegrated to city life and was last reported to be working toward a degree at one of the city's universities. "Freeze has always been really smart in a way that I am not," says Alig, who had different plans post lockup.
Alig's return was met with intense interest by the media – everyone from The New York Times to Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone clambered for an interview. "When I came home, everybody warned me, 'don't read the comments!' But of course I could not help myself," he says. The comments were not kind. The media, and seemingly everyone else, wondered what act two would look like for the killer club kid.
Attention faded fast as parole restrictions – like a 7 p.m. curfew – kept Alig far from the spotlight he sought. He bounced between friends' places for a while, eventually landing in the apartment of a boyfriend, a walk-up on Manhattan's Upper West Side. But the drama isn't over yet. A few hours before one recent party, plans to meet at this apartment were quickly changed when Alig was forced to gather whatever belongings he could carry in a cardboard box and flee more than 100 blocks south to Rumpus Room. Life at home does not seem stable: an article in the New York Post titled "Club Kid Killer Allegedly Attacked By His Lover," dated just one month prior describes how police were called to the apartment after Alig was forced to climb onto a fire escape at 7 a.m. to flee his live-in boyfriend.
The party won't start for another hour or two, but Alig is already hard at work; standing in the corner of the brightly-lit, silent bar and drinking pink lemonade instead of his usual prosecco, he's autographing giant lithographs of his original Limelight invitations from 1990, which he sells for $100 a piece. Two new scenesters have arrived early for copies.
Before Alig can explain more about the incident at home, the poster purchasers are joined by a steady stream of Alig hangers-on – "co-hosts," as he calls them – who all want to talk to him. By the time he finally takes a seat in a booth across the room, the lights have gone down and DJ Keoki has begun tonight's set.
He leans over and pulls a laptop out of the box, to update the Facebook page for tonight's party. The light from the MacBook illuminates his face in the darkness of the club and he looks stressed out. "What do you think I should do? Should I go home later?"
Before he's barely even shut his computer, an associate beckons Alig from out of the booth and into the fray; there are people here waiting to meet him, apparently. Others at the table are eager to discuss their newfound friendship with the party monster. These are the diehards that can be found here week after week, sometimes ending up back in Alig's apartment at 6:30 in the morning, where the party can go until almost eight. (Alig says he often doesn't wake up on Tuesday’s until 5p.m.). Some are half his age; almost all were unfamiliar to Michael before his release from prison in 2014.
"If you think about it, he really is sort of like the Andy Warhol of our generation," says one, named Jonathan, a college student who first met Alig here on Halloween and has been attending the "Outrage" parties ever since, his name now one of many on weekly invitations. "I do support him, and I think young people coming to these parties are drawn to the idea of what the original club kids stood for, before all the drugs."
This is a prevailing notion for Alig, too, who later tells me, "I go [to Rumpus Room] once a week just to kind of inspire people. Because it's kind of inspiring for the younger kids who've seen "Party Monster," and it legitimizes the night, and the party, and the club. Well, if they like me."
"He should stay far away from open bars and fabulousness," says columnist Michael Musto.
Most do. "In fact, in McAllen [Texas], there were three or four people that said they want to move to New York now, because, you know, they're 19 and they're creative and they're smart and maybe they should."
And would he take them under his wing if they did?
"Absolutely. That's what I do. And other people benefit."
In the booth, another new friend pipes up to defend Alig's decision to pick up where he left off in 1996. "Anyone who isn't cool with Michael throwing these parties here just doesn't know him yet, he's a really good guy."
While that's a nice sentiment, it doesn't exactly ring true for all of Alig's old acquaintances – the ones who knew him at height of the Limelight days. "I'm not exactly sure what [Alig] should do, but I know what he shouldn't do, and party promoting is at the very top of that list," says the venerable nightlife and society columnist Michael Musto.
As a writer for The Village Voice, Musto was a foremost chronicler of the club kid scene in all its Nineties grit and glory. He detailed both the rise and fall of Alig in those days, and with a blind item in The Voice that alleged Angel Melendez disappearance was due to foul play, by fellow club kids nonetheless, it was Musto who first brought the truth crashing down on Alig and Riggs.
Musto says he is hardly surprised, if not unsettled, to learn that Alig is in the midst of a reboot.
"He would definitely be a mother goose to a whole new generation of kids again, if allowed to," says Musto. (Oddly enough, Alig would later describe himself as "a mother hen").
"When [Alig] first got out, he was hounding me to get together, and although I felt hypocritical in avoiding him, I thought he hadn't changed at all. He still seemed delusional and he blamed me for the Drano quotes," says Musto, referring to the lurid detail first reported by him. "He kept saying that was preventing him from getting a job – not the fact that he murdered and dismembered someone, but this Drano thing. That lead me to think he was totally delusional."
However the two would eventually cross paths on the set of an indie film shoot earlier this year. Musto reports that he did not find Alig to be delusional after all, but in fact well adjusted, to a degree. "He's got a million ideas… he's actually kind of a genius," says Musto, shrugging.
Still, a million ideas might not be enough. "The Rumpus Room isn't the Limelight, and I don't think the current nightlife scene lends itself to his reemergence anyway," says Musto. "But I think he wants to start again as if the murder never happened. I don't want to encourage him as a promoter… let's not let that happen again."
On another recent night in January, Alig is taking it easy at home, answering emails from the couch while listening to Disturbed and drinking more pink lemonade when the phone rings. It’s his (newly) former parole officer and he needs her advice on how to handle his public intoxication arrest in Texas earlier this month; Alig claims the whole ordeal was one big misunderstanding involving a lack of proper identification and trumped up charges meant to hold him. "It’s all kind of taken care of now, but I just thought that maybe you could help the situation," he tells her. Listening intently, he walks over to a desk and jots down a date in his calendar for the two to meet again.
Hanging up the phone, he returns to the couch. "I guess technically right now they could put me in jail," he says, more to himself than to me. For Alig, the 17 years already spent in jail were especially harrowing; in addition to having to get clean off heroin from behind bars, he spent numerous long-term jaunts (totaling five years) in solitary confinement for failing drug tests — like many incarcerated addicts, he was able to use inside. “I know from experience that when you put drug users in solitary confinement, all they do is plot and scheme, because you go a little bit crazy in solitary.”
There are many who still feel that jail is exactly the place he should be today, a fact he is reminded of frequently.
"What we did is an awful, awful thing," he says of the crime. "It's something that even I can't come to grips with fully. I can understand how other people would definitely have a few misgivings, but it’s a very small part of who I am," he says. "When people on Facebook or wherever attack me, I'll usually try to make an attempt talk to them, rationally, and sometimes meet with them." Talking with Alig it’s not hard to see how he could change the mind of a detractor over a coffee, as he says he has done; there's something charming if not beguiling about him. But does he understand why some would find his return to this lifestyle alarming?
"I can be anti-drug and be around drug users and even sometimes use drugs myself," Alig says. "Because I'm human."
"Yes. I think that it's a very complex issue," he says. "A lot of people think that I'm famous for killing somebody. And in some ways, I am. But since I was 18, [party promoting] is what I've done. I've never really had any other kind of job."
He shrugs and shakes his head, "I don't even know what else I would do."
But still, a nightclub isn't a great environment for a recovering addict to be spending his time. Do drugs play a role in Alig's nights at Rumpus Room?
"I mean, I'm not an angel," he cuts himself short, seeming to realize the irony of this statement.
He says how a sign of intelligence is being able to understand two opposing ideas at the same time. "I can be anti-drug and be around drug users and even sometimes use drugs myself, because I'm human," he says. "Everything I do, I don't say it's necessarily right. But it's just part of life and the way it is. It doesn't mean I'm happy about it, but I'm also not ashamed about it," he says.
When the conversation turns again toward his heyday, Michael drags a large cardboard box out from some corner of the crowded living room and begins rummaging through it. The box is filled to the brim with ephemera – photos, old party invitations and trading cards adorned with his old club kid comrades. "I always saved invitations back then. At one point I had 47 boxes like this," he says. "And now I only have one."
One month later, Alig finally throws a party with the kind of draw he's been expecting. World of Wonder, a production company, had sent a camera crew into the club to film scenes for Party Monster 2, a new documentary about Alig’s next saga, and word spread; this was no normal Monday at Rumpus Room.
For one thing, Alig's loyal sidekick DJ Keoki was not spinning as usual – he had been arrested in an Upper East Side apartment earlier that month when a man he was hanging out with overdosed and died; cops reportedly found $26,985 in cash as well as stores of meth, cocaine, and hundreds of ecstasy pills at the scene and held him on a felony drug possession charge. (He's currently in jail awaiting a court date in February. Alig says he's working to have him released on bail.)
While Keoki couldn't make it, former club-kid James St. James – one of Alig's earliest friends and the author of the memoir "Disco Bloodbath: A Fabulous but True Tale of Murder in Clubland" – did. James flew in from Los Angeles to be on set for the filming of "Party Monster 2" tonight. (In the feature film, James was played by the actor Seth Green).
This time, the club was nowhere close to being empty. Despite the fact that New York was being pounded by a Nor'easter, the place was as packed, and Alig's new crew was dressed to kill: 10-inch platform heels, bird wings, copious amounts of glitter. One man wore a hollowed out Clorox bleach bottle as a hat and draped an actual toilet seat around his neck. Alig's new clan had been galvanized – finally, here was the chance to star in the closest thing to the movie that had drawn them to him in the first place.
A sense of palpable anticipation built as Alig's loyal subjects waited for his arrival. Every so often a woman with a megaphone repeated a deafening and alternating chorus of "where the fuck is Michael" and "who has cocaine," drowning out the music of the night’s substitute D.J., who was mostly playing hits from the "Party Monster" soundtrack like "Two of Hearts" by Stacey Q, and Dead or Alive's "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)."
Around 1.a.m, Michael Alig made his entrance like a star arriving on a red carpet. Photographers, several paid for by the promoters, extracted themselves from the crowd and rushed at the tuxedo-clad club kid from every angle; in less than 60 seconds he was enveloped in a pile-on so thick, and with so many flashing light bulbs, that it was almost impossible to make him out from just 15 feet away. A boom mic rose from over the heads of colorful club-goers and hung just above Alig as he posed with James St. James in front of the paparazzi they had willed into existence.
Watching Alig now, surrounded by glitter and glam, he finally looked in his element. In this moment, he appeared to have shed the label of murderer and was able to embrace the club life that had drawn him in so many decades ago. But while he still believes that incident was just a fleeting moment – one that he doesn't want to define him for the rest of his life – it's how most of the people in the room knew he existed. But right now, Michael doesn't care. Here, posing for a mess of flashing lights, glass of prosecco in hand, it looked as though he had actually succeeded in making history repeat itself – at least for tonight.