“This hug is for your mother,” I whispered embracing Michael Alig, the former “king of the club kids” after he emerged from a prison truck at the entrance to Mid-State Correctional Facility, in Marcy, New York, last Monday. “I can’t believe this is really happening!” He was finally being released, after serving 17 years for manslaughter, for the death and dismemberment of Andre “Angel” Melendez, after a drug-fueled argument one night in 1996. Alig, now 48, smiled and blinked in the sunlight.
Suddenly: “Michael!” Astro and Scotto, two ex–club kids, nudged me aside, while a third guy videotaped and snapped photos of the confused-looking Alig.
“Hi!” exclaimed Astro. “Oh, and I see you already have a boyfriend! Did you [sleep with] him in prison?” Alig looked mortified. Standing behind him was a cute, straight 26-year-old man who was also being freed. He and Michael had bonded that morning, after the prisoner said, “I think someone famous is getting out today—they said there’s a van full of press outside.” Michael ended up inviting him along for our four-hour journey back to Manhattan. The guy’s name was Mike, “but his Facebook name is Rico Suave!” Alig told me, delighted.
As we walked to our van, Alig whispered: “Why are they here?” He claimed hadn’t heard from either Astro or Scotto in more than a decade. I just shook my head.
Alig’s prison release was originally going to be somewhat low-key: I’d pick him up in a Zipcar, we’d get dinner in NYC with some of his loved ones, and then head up to his old roommate Ernie Glam’s apartment in the Bronx, where Alig would be moving. But then the Hollywood production company World of Wonder apparently wanted to fly in James St. James, writer of the book Disco Bloodbath, basis for the movie Party Monster (both about Alig) from L.A., for a filmed, multi-day reunion; Ramon Fernandez, director of the upcoming documentary Glory Daze: The Life and Times of Michael Alig, asked if he could shoot Michael for his first two weeks of freedom; The New York Times requested to ride along with everyone for his release. The production company rented a 15-person van for the occasion.
Alig, Rico, and I climbed in. Outside we could see Fernandez being questioned by a pissed-off prison official: no big cameras were allowed to film on prison property.
“How do you feel being free, Michael?” I asked, excitedly. We’d become close over the past decade, after a magazine asked me to interview him, for an article coinciding with the release of Party Monster. I’d thought Alig was an intriguing, complex person, and he seemed to have genuine remorse about killing Angel. After two interviews I’d agreed to help him with his autobiography, Aligula.
“I feel like I’m about to be re-arrested!” Alig said.
A prison truck had pulled in front of our van, facing us, and a hardened corrections officer wagged her finger and yelled, “They told me not to let you leave!” A second truck parked beside us.
“They’re blocking us in!” Alig exclaimed.
“Oh man, this is crazy,” I heard behind me. I looked back at Rico, who was wearing a rosary. He smiled sweetly.
After a few stressful minutes, we were allowed to leave. “This is an iPhone,” I said, showing Alig as we raced along Interstate 90. For the past 18 months I’d been posting tweets he’d given me over the phone, so I taught him how to tweet for himself:
Happy to be free and so grateful for this second chance. Can't wait 2C @JSJdarling at dinner. #frenemy pic.twitter.com/AJwvtPcyFf
— Michael Alig (@Alig_Aligula) May 5, 2014
At a rest stop, Alig tried Starbucks for the first time: “So decadent!” Then he and I took a selfie in front of a tree with large purple blossoms. “It’s so pretty—springtime! New beginnings!” Michael gushed. “It feels like being reborn again: everything is new and unusual.” In Manhattan, St. James and his crew waited outside the restaurant Almond in the Flat Iron district. “I’m nervous he’ll think I look fat and old,” Alig told me.
“But he’s your friend,” I said. “And your skin looks great because you’ve been out of the sun for 17 years.”
The reunion went well (“He’s the one who looks fat and old!” Alig joked), and we all sat down for Alig’s first fancy dinner in almost two decades. “It’s so weird tasting spices again,” Michael said, digging into his pan-roasted arctic char.
He reminisced, until a World of Wonder employee/handler said, “No dessert—we have to get Michael to the Bronx!” His parole stipulated he had to be home by eight.
“I feel like I did when I first arrived in 1984,” Alig said, back in the van and staring out at the shimmering skyline. “Like the city is full of potential and totally unwelcoming at the same time.”
On Tuesday and Wednesday, Alig and I were in near constant contact—partially because he kept butt-dialing me with the old Android phone I’d lent him. His schedule was crazy as he met with his state and federal parole officers, a mental-health counselor and a Medicaid employee, sat with reporters for interviews, enquired about writing jobs, searched for a nonprofit that would let him volunteer; talked to galleries about showing his prison paintings . . . and continued filming.
By Thursday morning, I noticed Alig smelled pretty bad. “I forgot to take a shower!” he said. “I’m used to the prison telling me, ‘You have to shower at nine A.M.,’ and now it’s hard to remember everything—to clean my clothes, brush my teeth, keep track of my keys, eat lunch.” I made him bathe at St. James’s hotel later that day, before World of Wonder filmed him watching Party Monster for the first time.
On Thursday afternoon, I scrolled through some of the extremely positive (“You’re my idol! I want to be you!”) and negative (“Just overdose and die, scumbag”) tweets to Alig, feeling overwhelmingly conflicted. The scene Alig built in the early 90s was wonderfully creative, thrilling, and inclusive—at first. Michael has hundreds of letters from people who said he helped them love themselves for the first time, because they saw his gender-bending club kids preaching acceptance on talk shows like Geraldo. But that sparkly scene fell apart when heroin and crack were added into the equation—and now Melendez isn’t ever going to enjoy life again, so why should Alig? And yet: he completed his prison sentence, so doesn’t he deserve a chance to prove himself?
That night, back in the Bronx, Alig seemed troubled. “It’s hard because I understand where all the hateful comments are coming from. I did something really horrible, like the most horrible thing. And am I remorseful? Without a doubt. I would give anything to take it back. I feel sick thinking about Angel’s brother and family, you know? Yet there’s nothing I can do,” he said. “All week part of me has felt the cameras shouldn’t be there, and a part of me felt giddy that they were there, and then another part of me felt guilty about the giddiness. And I’m wondering if the rest of my life is going to be that way: that any little pleasure is going to come with an equal or larger amount of guilt.”
When I hugged him goodbye in his bedroom late that night, Alig looked forlorn. He gave me a little wave, and then lay back on his bed, trying desperately to be a free man.
Michael Alig’s First Week of Freedom, after 17 Years of Prison
New York party promoter Michael Alig was released last week after serving 17 years in jail. The self-proclaimed “King of The Club Kids” infamously slayed his drug-dealer friend, Angel Melendez, in March 1996, before dismembering the body with his accomplice, Robert “Freez” Riggs, and disposing of it in the Hudson River. Here, in his own words, is his story.
It was just after we had heaved the cardboard box containing Angel’s remains into the Hudson that we heard the deafening sound of helicopters. Police searchlights blinded us as we cowered by the roadside, raising our hands above our heads.
In truth, there was no 4 a.m. swoop on that dark, chilly morning in March 1996. It was a figment of our drug-addled imaginations. Our day of reckoning on the West Side Highway was a paranoid hallucination caused by panic, fear and the mountain of heroin we’d consumed.
Yet the dismembered corpse that Freez and I threw into the river and the sickening crime we had committed were all too real.
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. But that’s not the Michael Alig I am today or the Michael Alig I was before I became an addict — the misfit from the Midwest who came to New York City in search of acceptance, opportunity and a whole lot of fun.
It was August 1984 and I can still remember the knot of anxiety and excitement in my stomach as we crossed the George Washington Bridge as Mom and her boyfriend, Bill, drove me to Fordham University in the Bronx. It was intimidating looking at the famous Manhattan skyline, wondering how I was going to compete with all the beautiful, smart, talented, rich people living there.
But soon I moved in their circles. I managed to latch onto a student called Ludovic, a flamboyant, sexually ambiguous type who was dating the artist Keith Haring.
One night, Keith threw a party at Area, one of the coolest clubs in the city. In my hometown of South Bend, Ind., a nightclub was a honkytonk of men with beer-gut bellies watching sports on TV. This was a modern-day speakeasy with 300 people lined up outside. The doorman selected who got in, one at a time, like a florist chooses roses and carnations for a bouquet. Grace Jones was there. Cameras flashed. Ludovic, who was led out of our limo on a leash, wore nothing but underwear and white body paint.
As a gay teen coming to terms with my sexuality, I was overwhelmed and exhilarated. It was liberating.
Talk about being in the right place at the time. While the rest of the country was entrenched in depressing Reaganomics and “Just say no,” downtown New York nightlife was having a moment.
It was a Warholian scene of self-proclaimed celebrities with names like John Sex, Billy Beyond and Sister Dimension. Their job was to go out every night and be fabulous.
They were doing the fame thing backwards. Instead of accomplishing anything — writing, painting or acting — their plan was to first achieve a measure of celebrity. Once they got famous, everything they did amplified their notoriety. I wanted entry into this exclusive community.
First thing I did was ditch the tacky Izod pants and Mondrianesque T-shirts which I’d thought were so cutting-edge in South Bend.
I dropped out of college, earned $50 plus tips as a busboy at Danceteria and started organizing my own party nights. The first one at club owner Rudolf’s venue Tunnel was themed “Consumer Hell.”
Satirizing the idea of conspicuous American consumption, I paid someone to bring me 10 shopping carts from a store in New Jersey. TV commercials played on the video screens. I wore a hat made out of an Oreo box and Fruit Loop earrings. People arrived in Saran wrap dresses stuffed with Cheerios and Fluffer Nutter. It was crazy.
The idea of The Club Kids came about after I met James St. James, the flamboyant socialite, and my boyfriend DJ Keoki, who built up a following at Tunnel and later Peter Gatien’s marquee clubs in Manhattan, Limelight and USA.
The clique expanded to include RuPaul, Robert “Freez” Rigg, Jennytalia and Gitsie. I loved the idea of packaging someone like a product, like the old movie industry in Hollywood who took Norma Jean and made Marilyn Monroe.
We became the darlings of the club scene, paid merely to show up and bring a bit of fabulousness to the mix. We led a pampered existence of fancy dinners and media exposure.
Meanwhile, one of my biggest successes as a promoter was “The Filthy Mouth Contest.” I had to do something that would cause a stir and figured I’d have a competition where you went on stage and said the raunchiest, dirtiest thing ever. Whoever shocked the audience most would win $100.
People talked about being raped or raping someone. It devolved into public masturbation with beer bottles. Everyone was riveted. They couldn’t leave the room. I don’t know what the take was that night, but I got paid $500. “Thank God I quit college,” I thought. “I’m going to be a millionaire.”
By March 1988, we made the cover of New York Magazine. I was going through my Little Lord Fauntleroy period — the bower around the neck, the ruffled shirt and the knickers. We were guests on Geraldo, Donahue and Joan Rivers. Our message was: “Love yourself. Don’t give a f— what other people think about you.”
In the early days of Club Kids, it really was quite beautiful and positive. We helped the disillusioned and the disenfranchised believe in themselves — the gay kid from Iowa who didn’t dare tell anyone for fear of being mocked.
Even though I didn’t really buy it myself, I was very good at getting that message out.
Then, in the early ’90s, while I was employed as one of Peter’s directors, a darker side emerged to the club scene.
Drugs were introduced such as Rohypnol and the animal tranquilizer ketamine, known as Special K. Cocaine and ecstasy were social drugs that made people chatty and euphoric. These were heavy downers that turned them into zombies.
Strangely enough, I’d always been anti-drug. I hated it when Keoki took cocaine. Usually, when I found it in his pockets, I’d flush it down the toilet.
But one time when I discovered his stash, I confronted him, put it on the back of my hand and snorted it. It was a selfish thing. It was like I was saying: “How does it feel now that your drug use has encroached upon our relationship? Now I’m a drug addict too!”
It didn’t take long before things imploded. The drinking, drugging and lack of boundaries took its toll. I wound up in the hospital twice after overdosing on a near-lethal concoction of heroin, cocaine, ecstasy and ketamine.
As for the club scene, it was the beginning of the end.
By mid-1995, the Drug Enforcement Agency was on our case.
The Limelight was repeatedly threatened with closure by the police, who suspected drug trafficking. They said we had a laissez-faire attitude and allowed dealers to operate in our clubs.
In truth, we were paying them around $200 a night to host events. They weren’t the Gambinos, they were small-timers, often drag queens who made only enough money selling drugs to support their own habit.
One of them was Angel Melendez, a 25-year-old Club Kid who lived in Queens but sometimes stayed over at my apartment with the others on weekends in Manhattan. He was a good guy, but we looked down on him because he was part of the Webster Hall crowd, whom we considered second-rate.
In the middle of March 1996, we got word that the DEA was coming to our clubs on a certain Saturday night to arrest 30 or so dealers. The agency was going to threaten them with a lot of police time unless they turned state’s evidence against Peter.
My job was to call them all and tell them not to show up that night and explain why. But Angel came to Limelight anyway around 2 a.m.
On my instructions, the doormen turned him away. But he wanted to show off to his friends who were visiting from out of town.
“Are you at least going to pay me for tonight?” he groused. He had accumulated several nights’ wages that were kept in the club safe.
But again, we refused to let him in because of the threat from the DEA. “It’s for his own good,” I said. High on alcohol and Zanax, Angel left, disgruntled and humiliated.
Then, just a few hours later at around 10 a.m., he showed up at my apartment on 43rd Street and 11th Avenue, the place where I lived as part of my salary at Limelight.
“I want my money,” Angel demanded, still high. “Take me to the club to get it.” My mind was shot because I was just coming off a four-day binge on cocaine, Special K, heroin and crystal meth.
What happened next was a silly, pushy catfight.
Freez, staying over because he was helping renovate the apartment, poked fun at Angel’s captain’s hat. He always wore the same thing — the hat and a pair of wings.
“We only let you hang out with us because you have drugs!” Freez yelled.
“Are you going to let him speak to me like that?” Angel asked, looking at me.
There was a scuffle and I went flying through a glass china cabinet. A large piece of glass pierced my back and blood spurted everywhere.
Angel started biting me and Freez tried to pull him off.
Freez reached for a hammer that was lying on a nearby table and hit him with the wooden handle. Angel fell to the floor. We sat on top of him and, wrapping a sweatshirt around my hand, I smashed it into Angel’s face.
We were all high on ketamine. Maybe it was the combination of me doing it for too long or having more strength than I realized, but Angel stopped writhing.
We laid him on the couch, thinking he was unconscious. It wasn’t until a few hours later that we realized he was dead.
The following days were a blur.
In a haze of drugs and a state of fear, we panicked. Instead of calling the police or even an ambulance, we made the horrifying decision to run from reality and try to cover up the crime.
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.
Besides, once this got out, it would be the end of the Limelight and the other clubs. Hundreds of people would be out of a job. Lives would be ruined because of the scandal.
So we dragged Angel into the bathtub and went to get ice. We had baking soda and Drano in the apartment — the only things we could think to use to mask the odor — and poured Drano over Angel’s body.
Then we left him there while we took enough heroin to work this out.
Opiates give you this blanket of comfort where you think everything is OK, when it it’s obviously not.
I don’t know who made the decision but, about eight or nine days later, Freez went to Macy’s to buy a pair of butcher’s knives.
We had 20 bags of heroin delivered from our dealer. We did bag after bag. “I hope I overdose tonight,” I told Freez. “Then you are going to have two bodies to get rid of.”
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.
That night, we put the legs in a duffel bag and threw it into the river by the Intrepid around 4 a.m.
Then we put the torso and head in a TV box and took it down to the Hudson at 26th Street.
We were crazy paranoid the whole time. I kept imagining the police were coming, scrambling helicopters and hunting us down with giant searchlights.
To be honest, though, I was less terrified about being caught than going to hell.
I think that’s why I confessed to Gitsie and some of the other people I knew. But I told them in a manipulative, matter-of-fact way so they thought I was making it up.
“Freez and I killed Angel,” I told friends at a dinner party who were asking about his disappearance one night.
In August 1996, I went to see the Manhattan DA because rumors were circulating in the media and on the club scene. But nobody took it seriously. The police thought it was one of my pranks or some kind of performance art.
Meanwhile, Angel’s brother, Johnny, came to town and was badgering them for answers. He was pressing the issue and was frustrated nobody was searching for Angel.
I went to rehab in Denver, but it was a halfhearted attempt to get sober.
My dealers were flying across from New York to supply me with Special K, cocaine and methamphetamine. I was in a state of numb haze. Because of the drugs, I wasn’t alive emotionally enough for the crime to bother me. I knew that the minute I stopped using, I would have to face the truth. I was afraid of this flood of reality.
But Angel’s remains were recovered from the Hudson in the fall.
In November 1996, the law caught up with me. I was staying with my boyfriend, Brian, in a hotel in Toms River, NJ, when the police knocked on the door.
Michael Rodriguez, the DA, was actually kind. “We know that nobody wanted Angel to die, but it’s not going to go away,” he said. “Somebody has to pay.”
They let me bring my heroin to get me up to Rikers because I told them I would get sick in a couple of hours. “You’ve got a lot bigger problems to worry about than a couple of bags of heroin,” the officer told me.
Prison isn’t supposed to be easy, and it wasn’t. But, over the years, I found my place.
I started painting and expressing myself through my art. I learned a lot about patience.
After the 2003 movie “Party Monster” was released, based on my life, I received hundreds of letters from kids who were disenfranchised and felt like the whole Club Kids thing was speaking to them. It was really validating.
The prison phones were segregated for whites, Hispanics and blacks, but the Bloods let me use their phone. One of the leaders was the kingpin of this ecstasy ring on Staten Island and Brooklyn. I guess he had been sending dealers to my clubs.
He told all the other Bloods not to touch me because I ran all these great clubs. They saw me as a like-minded figure because I had my own kind of gang with the Club Kids. It was this subversive, anti-authority thing and they saw me eye-to-eye on this.
But I was still using drugs inside. Percocet mainly.
It wasn’t until March 2009 that I finally decided that enough was enough.
I’d learned this through therapy, but it took a really long time to sink in.
I committed a crime while I was on drugs and, for me to continue to use drugs while incarcerated for whatever reason was to say: “I don’t care about what I did.”
The idea of this seemed so disgusting, so obscene that it made me feel like slime. I thought: “I can’t do this anymore. If I have to go through a year of withdrawal, well, you know what, I killed someone and that’s the price I have to pay.” And maybe I’ll feel better about myself later on when I actually did pay a price instead of masking everything continually with drugs.
And that’s where I am now.
It’s a stipulation of my parole that I don’t contact Angel’s relatives, but maybe they’ll reach out to me.
I know that whatever I tell them, they will never get closure.
But I’d like them to know that, when he was alive, Angel was just like the rest of us Club Kids — a misfit from the sticks who was very much loved in our alternative family of friends.
Meanwhile, last Monday, when I was released from jail after 17 years, my friend drove me into Manhattan across the George Washington Bridge. I gazed at the Manhattan skyline and it felt exactly like the first time I came to New York three decades ago. I had the same knot of excitement and anxiety. But I’ve been given a second chance in this city full of misfits and dreamers. I’m glad I’ve survived.