An interview with gossip columnist Michael Musto on the art of celebrity journalism
Sunday, October 7, 2007
There are two things one can expect on a trip to see Michael Musto at the offices of the Village Voice: a 20-minute round-trip wait for the elevator and rapid fire answers from one of the most recognizable gossip columnists in the United States. Musto, in addition to his appearances on Countdown with Keith Olbermann and the E! network, has been writing his column for the Voice since 1984. He has recently compiled the best of them in a book released this year titled, La Dolce Musto: Writings by the World's Most Outrageous Columnist. He was Carrie Bradshaw, replete with a prodigious use of puns, before Sex in the City was a thought. His column is a romp through his life, spats and opinions on socio-political issues. As David Thigpen of the Chicago Tribune wrote, Musto is "a funny and caustic satirist who masquerades as a gossip and nightlife columnist."
Musto, a Columbia University graduate, is a rarity in today's celebrity world: he is accessible. He often corresponds with his readers and his public functions are a mix of parties, nightclubs, academic lectures, university panels and film premieres.
He is friendly and frank, and he welcomes people to join him in his world ("I just got a message that Michael Lucas died!" he says staring wide-eyed at his phone; the message turned out to be false). Wikinews reporter David Shankbone spoke with Musto about his life and his relationship to the world of celebrity journalism. And he did not hold back.
On writing a gossip column
DS: What do you prefer: gossip columnist, journalist or celebrity reporter?
- MM: I always like the sound of gossip columnist.
DS: Do you have a favorite gossip columnist?
- MM: Page Six is still my bible; they break a lot of stories and it's very readable.
DS: Was it difficult to write a gossip column after September 11?
- MM: The weird thing is, in the middle of all that craziness, I decided to just write my usual column. I put a couple of references to 9/11 in the column, but basically I just put it out there as a run-down of Fashion Week that week. There was more than enough coverage of 9/11 and I wanted to make my little statement to the world that we have to keep doing whatever it is we are doing, no matter how trivial it seems.
DS: Was there a reaction to that business-as-usual reporting of the column?
- MM: I got a great reaction. UPI later did a profile of me because I wrote another column about running around Washington D.C., and they said that I was the one who made it okay to be fun and fabulous again.
DS: How does that feel when someone acknowledges you achieved an affect you wanted?
- MM: It feels great. I always was someone who marches to my own drum and I have been vilified for it at times, so it feels nice to be around long enough that people come around and say, 'Hey, maybe you are doing something good.'
DS: I photographed at the Tribeca Film Festival for Wikipedia, and a lot of the paparazzi photographer would talk in a derogatory way about the celebrities they were photographing, and they gave themselves a lot of credit for making their images. Recently, Cindy Adams wrote in her column a blurb about something Alan Greenspan said, and then she said something to the effect of, 'and I'd mention the name of his book if he had told me that to me first,' as if Greenspan is going to go run to Cindy Adams just to get a book mention in her column. Is the celebrity press lacking humility because they report on the famous?
- MM: It's a double-edged sword. Because you are covering the celebrity, some of the celebrity glitter falls on you, and you experience a miniature version of celebrity yourself, especially if like me you go on TV a lot. So you do develop this lofty idea that you're hot shit. But then you go to an event, like a movie premiere, and you are reminded of your place in the food chain.
DS: How so?
- MM: You have to go through many hoops just to talk to a major celebrity. You have to get past three different sets of publicists: the publicist for the event, the publicist for the movie, and then the celebrity's personal publicist. They all have to approve you. Last night I talked to Kenneth Branagh, who directed Sleuth, and the publicist had to approve me, talk to him, and then I saw him talk to his publicist and say, "Michael Musto...is that okay?" And somehow she said yes. That should actually fuel my ego more that I'm potentially risky enough that I have to get so much approval to even talk to somebody, but what you want in your mind is this fantasy like the Cindy Adams thing, of like, "Oh, let me come to you!" And that often happens! Tori Spelling's publicist was like, 'Sorry, she's not talking right now,' but when Tori recognized me from TV she was like, 'Michael, come here, let's talk.' So that's an ego-enhancing situation, but you are always going to be lower than the celebrity, no matter what. Even if you think you are a celebrity yourself.
DS: Do you have celebrities who simply will not talk to you no matter what you do or say, because you pissed them off so royally?
- MM: Oh yeah, I mean, there's so many names I can't even list them [Laughs]. When I walk into a room half the room runs away, and that's a good thing. But the longer you do it, the more people come around because I don't think I'm as bitter as I used to be in my column. I think I'm a little more willing to show my appreciation. Some people would rather it go back to having more sting to it. But I'm still a risky person because there is so much media out there now that they can pick and choose; these publicists really are the editors now.
DS: Do you ever punish people for an infraction against you?
- MM: Sure. My column is very personal; it's La Dolce Musto so it's all based on personal grudges. If somebody can play the game well with me and give me good copy then I love them, and if they slight me I'll get them back.
DS: Can you give an example?
- MM: Oh, gosh, I have telegrams from Whoopi Goldberg and...I think Gwyneth Paltrow was smart. She said, "I admire your rage." [Laughs] Vincent Gallo, who hates everybody, was leaving me nasty messages on my home machine, calling me Miss Musto. I don't know. Tinsley Mortimer just called me yesterday. She's a hot socialite, the new Paris Hilton. She called me at home because I said something to The Observer that came out today in which I kind of paraphrased something she said to me, and she was angry with me. She's actually right.
DS: What did you say?
- MM: We were co-presenting an award at some nightclub award show, and I told The Observer that she said, 'Don't queer me, don't go off the script.' She didn't actually say 'don't queer me,' so it somehow became a gay issue where they made it sound like she is anti-gay. And she's not. She loves the gays, except for me. But the weirdest thing is Paris Hilton I have trashed mercilessly, but then when they were doing the cover story for Out Magazine I heard she hand-picked me. So, fly to the L.A., do the interview, be shot for The Simple Life, so...
DS: Do you have a sense that celebrities are paying much attention to the war, that there's a consciousness they have, as a community or individually, outside of the glitz centers of New York and Los Angeles?
- MM: Well, in the early days of the war when I was going on peace marches, I certainly didn't see any celebrities there. And then came Madonna withdrawing that promotional video for American Life because of some controversial image; even Madonna didn't want to go there. And then came, of course, the Dixie Chicks, who were crucified for one honest remark. So, the celebrities held back when they saw your career could be devastated at that point for telling the truth. And then suddenly it became okay to bash the war, to bash Bush, and everybody jumped on it. Now it's almost cliche. Sally Fields saying, 'If mothers ruled the world there'd be no war.' Excuse me! Hillary Clinton is a mother and she voted for it. Barbara Bush is a mother. So don't give me that horse shit. They bleeped her, anyway.
On the gay community
DS: Do you think you play a certain role in the gay community?
- MM: Yes. I'm kind of the elder statesman, court jester and someone who has been there, knows history and can use that to comment on current situations. I'm a critic, but I do it with humor, and I'm above all self-deprecating. I make fun of myself before anybody, so that kind of frees me to lash out at other people. I'm also out about everything. I've written columns about my promiscuity phases, and my seizure disorder...everything! There's nothing I hold back from my readers and that allows me to go forth without hypocrisy into all kinds of subjects about public figures.
DS: You are a sharp critic of the gay community, almost in the mold of Larry Kramer—
- MM: —not quite—
DS: —not completely, but in terms of criticizing apathy and the party lifestyle of the gay community where they do not focus on meaningful issues.
- MM: I differ from Larry in that I do not think the young generation are a bunch of morons who need to be lectured and told they are stupid and retarded. I think they are brighter than ever; they just need a little guidance. But I am a harsh critic of the gay community because I feel that when I first came out I thought I would be entering a world of nonconformity and individuality and, au contraire, it turned out to be a world of clones in a certain way. You are expected to be a certain type of gay to move the community forward, whereas it has always been the fringe-y, crazy people who move it forward. We're the ones driving the bus, but we are the ones who are usually told to get in the back of the bus by the gay community. I also hated the whole body fascism thing that took over the gays for a long time.
DS: Do you think that conformity is gone?
- MM: It's on the wane. I think everyone still goes to the gym, but it's not as obsessive and I think the new people coming up in the gay community are more interested in embracing their feminine sides and presenting their bodies 'as is.' The main reason I know this is happening is that I am getting more sexual interest, whereas all through the 1990s I was completely invisible because I wasn't a gym queen.
DS: You inhabit that partying, gym-fetish world, the one you criticize. How do you criticize, yet live off of that world?
- MM: Because I celebrate it more than I criticize it. I am attracted to people on the edge, the gays, the drag queens, anybody who comes to New York and becomes celebrated for whatever reason they were criticized in their hometown. The nightclub scene is where all of these diverse people come together and create something celebratory, and I am totally in favor of it. But while I'm there, I always feel like the weirdo in the corner because I'm not doing drugs, I'm not going to the gym, I'm not doing all the cliched things. I'm totally able to lash out and say, 'Look at you fools.'
DS: Were you ever part of that world?
- MM: No. I'm too much of a control freak to submit myself to drugs, or I'm too scared. I don't even drink. I had a sip of vodka last night and...
DS: [Laughs] —you look a little hung today—
- MM: [Laughs] —it does! Really, it hit me with a wallop because it was my first one in thirteen years and it really reminded me of why I can't do it.
DS: You recently did a column that opened talking about how gays don't want to bottom anymore; later you talk about Michael Moore's Sicko and the problem of hospitals over-medicating their patients. Do you think that style of mixing glitz and substance reaches people, or do you think they tend to gloss the substantive parts?
- MM: I've always mixed a conscience with a lack thereof; I've always put serious issues into the mix of my party-going. That's just my style, and I think people do appreciate reading me when they are reading me as a guilty pleasure when they come across some serious discussion of a topic that pushes buttons. People love it. I get the most reaction to those. I got a huge reaction to the bottom thing. That's not really a serious topic...
DS: It seems to be because it's a reaction of a community to a health related topic, since you were saying it was a health consciousness that is causing a dearth of bottoms. Bare-backing is still the rage.
- MM: The body fascism thing actually did originate as a health phenomenon, because people were reacting to AIDS. People were like, 'I'm going to build up my body so that AIDS can't get me,' and we were being bashed at the same time by people saying we deserved AIDS. So that was a way of saying I'm not a "sissy." But it became totally obsessive and absurd, and it didn't protect you from bashing or AIDS or anything else.
- In this case, I did notice a shift where everybody is boring in bed, where everyone is like, 'Oh, I'm kind of a versatile top.' But then I got a lot of response from people saying, 'Are you crazy?! Everyone on Manhunt is a bottom!' One guy said, 'I'm a bottom, the problem is the tops don't know how to do it the right way, the tops just kind of stick it in.' I can't picture this on Wikipedia...
- Then the Michael Moore thing; Sicko was great, but the opposite would also make a great movie. That people who are sent to hospitals or become part of the medical system are over-medicated because one part of the system washes the other. So a doctor will give you too many prescriptions. If you go to a hospital they will keep you there a week longer than you need to be, to get the money for the bed. I got responses to that, too. Somebody sent me a book called Overmedicated, so that topic has been written on.
On outing gay celebrities
DS: What stands out as a story that you did where you were bowled over by the reaction to it.
- MM: In the 1990s I was one of the few people outing celebrities—
- MM: —I outed Rosie and Ellen, and it's hard to even imagine now that they ever were in the closet. You have to educate the new people and say, 'Guess what, they were in the closet at one point.' It's hard to believe that Rosie was doing this delicate dance on her talk show where she was the 'Queen of Nice' and the single mother who had a crush on Tom Cruise and I was pointing out the absurdity of it. I was even more angry at the media than people like Rosie, because the media would play along with it. They would do huge profiles of her without even addressing the fact that she was obviously a lesbian. I just spoke at Yale a couple of weeks ago and talked about outing, and nobody argued. I was like, 'Come on! Somebody argue!' I used to get so many arguments over this that I used to have a list printed out with an answer to each argument.
DS: Do you have a theory or philosophy you follow about outing?
- MM: My theory is just that public figures sign an implicit deal with the media that their private lives are to be covered, and to leave out gayness because it is distasteful or there might be homophobes out there is homophobic in itself. It's hypocritical and it makes 'gay' the last taboo. But I don't get arguments anymore. I'm like, 'Come on people! Yell at me!'
DS: What about the argument that it is more appropriate for people who are working against the gay community, a Larry Craig, if you will?
- MM: People like Michaelangelo Signorile started by outing Malcolm Forbes, not anybody anti-gay. He was just saying 'He's dead, he's gay, let's say so in the obituary.' I don't believe in outing only the hypocrites and anti-gay people because then the only people the public is going to know are gay are horrible, hateful people.
DS: There are a lot of gay people who aren't talked about in Hollywood now. Merv Griffin was an example. Do you not feel the need to spell it out for some people who lead very openly gay lives but that nobody talks about?
- MM: Yeah, that was a big uproar after Merv died. Merv almost came out himself; was it Vanity Fair where he said 'I'm quarter sexual, I'll sleep with anybody for a quarter?' or something? 99% of the obits didn't even address it the fact that even Merv had almost coyly come out. So yeah, I wrote something to try and rectify that.
DS: But why not write something before he died?
- MM: Please! I totally did. In the 90's there was a group that put up those 'Absolutely Queer: Jodi Foster' and Merv Griffin posters? I ran the Jodi and Merv posters in my column. It was huge. I was really going places nobody was going; nobody was running pictures of those posters because everybody was so terrified of lawsuits.
DS: Did you ever come under editorial pressure over those?
- MM: No, and the Voice staff at the time was very anti-outing, but nobody told me not to go there, and I've never been sued in my life and I've been here for 22 years.
DS: You are pretty accessible to your readers as well, right?
- MM: Yeah. I'm out there. Tonight I'm doing a reading that is turning into a tribute to Dean Johnson
On New York City
DS: Where do you see Manhattan's culture going?
- MM: It's been weird for me to live in Manhattan and see the transformations. On one level it's exciting, it's booming, it has a bright future. On the other hand a lot of the creative energy and starving artists have been pushed to the boroughs. They're still in New York. I hate when people say there are no starving artists in New York. The boroughs are part of New York: I'm from Brooklyn--it counts! But, being someone who is so Manhattan-centric, it's weird being in a place with so many rich people. It's not what I intended. I'm looking at buying an apartment now and it's horrifying.
DS: Do you miss the old New York?
- MM: I do, and I'm not one of those hypocrites who say, 'Oh, I miss the old Times Square' and were never there. I was there. I was running around and enjoying the seediness.
DS: A friend of mine said that if you transplanted someone from 1983 New York into 2007 New York they would be shocked by how many people there are walking around; they would be like, 'Where did all these people come from?!' People don't realize that there were a lot of empty streets back then.
- MM: And there were 'bad neighborhoods.' There are no bad neighborhoods anymore. I always used to have to look behind my back. I was mugged, like, three times. It's hard to complain about, 'Oh, gosh, I don't have to worry about getting mugged anymore!' But, at the same time, some edge is lost. But when I go to these clubs I hang out with freaky-deaky people who are living on the fringes just as people in the 80's. I don't know if they live off their parent's money, or if they have day jobs...I'm not sure how they manage.
DS: How do you define freaky?
- MM: Crazy outfits, insane behavior, swinging from the chandeliers and making for a fun party scene. They are still out there.
DS: Do you think drugs makes for a fun party scene?
- MM: No, I never thought drugs were necessary, and I hate to be like Nancy Reagan and just say no, but my first nightclub was Studio 54 and I was so stimulated by the experience that doing drugs never even entered my mind. I was so naive that I never even knew that everybody else was on drugs. I thought, 'why would you need to do that?'
DS:' So the people you are hanging out with who are swinging from the chandeliers, they are just naturally that way?
- MM: No, I think they are on drugs. But I don't think it's necessary, personally.
Musto on Musto
DS: How would you choose your own death?
- MM: I probably would like to die while RSVPing to a party. And then I just want to be put into a Hefty bag and leaned against a garbage pail. I don't want a lot o fuss because I'm not going to be here to enjoy it.
DS: What's a lesson your father taught you?
- MM: He always taught me that all you need is nerve. We used to watch variety shows on TV and he'd say, "See that, Michael, they have no talent; all you need is nerve." [Laughs]
DS: It's so true, isn't it?
- MM: I guess... it helps to have talent too, though, and thankfully I have it in spades! [Laughs]
DS: Has the Iraq War affected your writing at all?
- MM: Yeah, it's made me more, you know...whenever there's a Republican President you just bash them every week in between all the celebrity gossip, but then that can become tiresome. It's changed in the sense that so many more movies are coming out, and have been for the last three years, not only about Iraq, but with this kind of gloomy-doomy worldview. And most of them are terrible movies. High aspirations can pave the road to hell, sometimes.
DS: Has if affected your world view?
- MM: Yeah. I grew up with Vietnam, and to see it happening all over again is really disturbing. When you get out of something like Vietnam and you enter a freer time, you don't expect to go back to something that hideous and pointless. The pointless bloodshed in the name of spreading democracy is just ludicrous. Obviously, democracy’s not his goal.
DS: Hillary or Barack?
- MM: Well, it looks like Hillary is going to get the nomination. I don't know, though; I don't think either one of them can win. To me, it's devastating that we are being handed a plum. This is the time in history when, if we set up a viable candidate, we would most have a chance to get in the White House, and we're going to blow it again.
DS: Who would be your dream candidate?
- MM: It wouldn't be Al Gore because he's so boring and I don't really care about global warming; I think it's fabulous. [Laughs] I'm wearing my flip flops in October, what's the problem (he said with a joke)!
- My ideal candidate? I guess Gary Coleman. I mean, whatever...he's as good as the other ones.
DS: By magic microphone you have to talk to Osama bin Laden, but you can't apprehend him. What do you say?
- MM: If we ever find you, we're not going to get Marcia Clarke to prosecute because we really want you to lose.
DS: How would you describe your style of dress?
- MM: It's kind of early Reign of Terror [Laughs]]. Which is also my home decorating style! I shop at thrift shops. I got this at Webers's, which is next to Jacks 99 Cent Store. It was US$5.00. It's my new 'big' buy of the year. I just don't throw anything out, and I don't buy anything new. Why bother? But I do have some fabulous outfits, like if I really need to be 'on.'
DS: A nuclear bomb goes off, and the planet is wiped clean of everyone else but you and the animals. What do you do now that you are king of the world?
- MM: Start fucking the animals.
DS: Which animal would you choose first?
- MM: Definitely not a beaver. [Laughs] I guess a cock?
DS: Sounds scratchy.
- MM: It's scratchy anyway.
DS: Would you build a little animal kingdom, or would you set out on your own?
- MM: I wouldn't build an arc, because I saw Evan Almighty and that was awful. I would probably just climb up the trees so they don't eat me alive. Good luck trying to rule over hippos and wildebeests. They're not going to listen to you because you're human! 'Oh, he's human! He's our leader!' It's not going to happen that way!