Michael Musto: Dish Warmed Over
Since 1984, shrewd and self-deprecating humorist Michael Musto has written his La Dolce Musto column for New York’s Village Voice, tirelessly chronicling nightlife and celebrity culture both highbrow and low-rent. [Update: Musto was axed in 2013 and is now a columnist for Out.] As he celebrates the release of his new book Fork on the Left, Knife in the Back, his second collection of classic columns, the bridge-burning blogger and baron of blind items blabs about his hard-earned position as both historian and spokesman for the gay community.
The Advocate: Kudos on a terrific title. What’s the story there?
Michael Musto: There was a cater waiter at Robin Byrd’s house on Fire Island who once told me that the motto of the Pines is “fork on the left, knife in the back, spoon up the nose, dish, dish, dish.” I thought it would be too unwieldy to run the whole thing, so I just went for the first half.
In the book’s introduction you explain and defend your longtime love of gossip. I’ve read that you prefer the term gossip columnist, but that’s not really an accurate job title anymore, is it? You review film and theater, you interview celebrities, you’re a pop culture pundit, and so much more. Does being a gossip columnist somehow trump everything else?
Well, growing up, I never imagined I could ever be called a gossip columnist, so it seemed like the most exalted thing to be, even though other people in the gossip field saw it as a comedown, because they wanted to be seen as cultural anthropologists or something. The reality is that I’m basically a humorist who just happens to write about gossip and entertainment. But I don’t mind any label, as long as people spell my name right.
Do the columns collected in Fork on the Left differ in theme or tone from those in your 2007 collection, La Dolce Musto — or are they just the columns that weren’t quite good enough to make the cut for the first book?
Actually, in digging deeper, I found way better ones than were in the first book. I went for some of the more obvious things that stood out in my mind for the first book, but when you really read through literally 1,300-plus columns, you start to find some hidden gems. The running theme is more current than the last collection, because I have a lot more columns from the last 10 years. Also, the last collection had nothing original, and in the new one I have four original essays: I did something on the allure of blind items, the celebrity glass closet, blogging, and the social networking generation.
How have your columns evolved in terms of what you cover or how you cover it?
My tone in general has stayed the same. Once I found my voice, I pretty much stuck with it. But I find I’ve perhaps developed a little more compassion over the years. When I started out, I wanted to make more of a splash and have people notice me, so I raged against everything. Gradually, I became more willing to show my appreciation of certain celebrities, because deep down I do worship celebrities. If I didn’t, I couldn’t do what I do all these years.
So you’ve mellowed as opposed to growing more and more bitter as you age.
I am getting on a bitter bent again, because lately I’ve been running a series of columns on things that I hate. In fact, parts of the new book read like one long screed, where it’s like I’m getting shit off my chest so I don’t have to pay for therapy. I actually don’t go to a therapist, so the column has provided me with years of free catharsis.
Have your columns gotten gayer?
Yeah, which doesn’t even sound possible. It used to be that every word was gay, and now it’s every syllable. They just scream “gay” from beginning to end, but they’re not written only for the gay community. I always hate when celebrities finally come out and then say, “It’s not that important. It’s just like my hair color.” You can change your hair color, but you can’t change being gay, and it’s intrinsic to my fiber. I was born this way, and so was my column.
You also cover gay porn more than the average columnist.
When you write about anything involving porn, people click on it. One thing I always wanted to do with my column was to level the playing field: I can gush over a hot guy the way the old Walter Winchell types would drool over some young starlet. Porn is a great leveler, because everyone on earth is into it, whether they admit it or not.
You’ve become a go-to gay voice of authority in the mainstream media. How do you think the gay community regards you?
By now, they’re not afraid of me anymore. They’ve realized I’m here for the long run, so they do tend to respect my opinion. The reality is that I’ve lived through so much, and I’ve reported on all of it coherently; I don’t do drugs, I don’t drink, and for many years I was the only clear-headed grown-up in the room. I have a strong opinion, but I try to factor in not just my own feelings but also the whole situation in every case. Some people probably hate me or just think I’m tired, but I get a lot of kudos as well as cooties.
Yet you didn’t start out with the goal of becoming a mouthpiece for the gay community. Are you comfortable with that position and the responsibility that comes with it?
I like it. But you’re right: When I started the column, there was no pressure on me to be any particular thing. When my column went through the original AIDS epidemic, which was like a horrifying sci-fi movie in the ’80s, I became more politicized, I joined ACT UP, and I started introducing gay politics into my column as well as fluffy event coverage. So I put myself in the position of being somebody who’s going to be called upon to comment on issues in the gay community, and I’m thrilled to be in that position.
I wondered how AIDS affected your column — if you struggled to achieve a balance between being a respectful reporter and providing fluffy distraction.
Well, in the early days of AIDS it was hard to find the right tone, because I was covering Pee-wee Herman parties at the same time I was not only covering but also engaging in ACT UP rallies. It was the height of political correctness, and my column took on a very preachy tone: Anybody who crossed me or the community was in for a real drubbing. Then, two paragraphs later, I’d be writing about some crazy club kid, so maybe that’s what made me unique among the gossip crowd: It was a very bizarre mixture of seeming fluffiness and angry commentary on current events.
When you first began at the Voice, did you consciously decide how openly and candidly gay you’d be in your column?
The Voice gave me free rein to do whatever I chose with the column, and it was with that freedom that I got gayer and gayer. When I started the column, I also had a band called the Must, where I was the lead singer doing cover versions of Diana Ross songs all over New York, so it’s not like I wasn’t openly gay already. But the freedom of being able to go as far as I wanted — combined with the developments in the community such as the AIDS crisis — drove me like a cannonball out of the closet. At this point, I’m gayer than Eleanor Roosevelt.
Did that openness hinder your career in any way? Did you encounter homophobia?
I’ve always gone through life expecting to be bullied and mocked, but it doesn’t happen that much. But there are definitely drawbacks to being an openly gay columnist, especially in 1984, when there weren’t openly gay people in the media and when gay issues were barely addressed in the press. Even though it may have marginalized me in some ways, being openly gay made me special, and I’m the one people turned to for insight on gay issues.
You famously outed Rosie O’Donnell and Ellen DeGeneres in your column, and you wrote an Out cover story titled “The Glass Closet” in 2007. Has your position on celebrity outing changed at all over the years?
No. I’ve always felt that since celebrities are in the public spotlight where their lives get dissected, to leave out their sexuality is extremely hypocritical and in fact homophobic. I’m not as angry as before because so many more people have come out since I started, and because there are so many other places on the Internet you can go for outing; I’m no longer carrying the whole thing on my shoulders. But I still think it’s ludicrous for celebrities, even the glass closet ones, to not just say that they’re gay on the record. Don Lemon has certainly proven that you can be a CNN anchor, a TV personality, and an out gay male.
Rosie famously called you “a gay Nazi,” but you didn’t seem to receive much flak from the gay community about your outing. Meanwhile, Perez Hilton has been crucified for that kind of behavior, but, comparatively, you were largely given a pass. Why is that?
I don’t know. That’s a good question. The celebrities were not happy — incidentally, I’ve never been sued and I never got a call from any of their publicists asking them to lay off — but I think that people know that what I’m writing is true and that it comes from a place of real feeling. People also know that I’m not going to back down and that they’re not going to win if they try to bring me down. Maybe it’s because I’m more of an alternative writer as opposed to a big website, but I’m not sure, because I know I had a lot of impact.
You often write about your sex life in your column — one titled “Mama, I’m a Big Slut Now!” comes to mind — but how do you know if a guy is really into you and not your social status?
Generally, I find that most of the people who are smashed and jumping on you in nightclubs are a little starstruck — albeit on a low level, because I’m not exactly Hilary Duff. But I stopped having a problem with that, because people are attracted to each other for all sorts of different reasons. Besides, being born beautiful is no great accomplishment; at least whatever fame you might have is something you achieved. In the old days, I used to think, Oh, gross, they’re just a groupie. Now, as long as I know what’s behind it, why not take a bite of the apple? Having said that, the two best relationships I’ve had — relationships that weren’t just one-nighters — were with people who had no idea who the fuck I was when they met me. That’s what’s going to work out for a relationship, because I know they’re not after gift bags and reduced club admission.
Do you see a husband and children in your future?
I have a fear of real intimacy. Whenever I do have a relationship, I make sure to break it up and drive the person away, probably because my worst fear is becoming my parents. It’s also because I grew up as an only child — Frank DeCaro and I are the only Italian-American only children in the world — so I grew up with a wall around me, I was shell-shocked, and I really didn’t speak much. Now it’s hard for me to take part in a long-term give-and-take with another person. Not to mention that my schedule would make it impossible, but I hate when celebrities say, “Oh, I’m too busy,” because you can always find time for a partner. Deep down, I just really don’t want it.
So much of your job revolves around fabulous people and fabulous places. Tell me about the last time you stopped and thought, Wow, this is my life!
Every day. I’m not one of those stop-and-smell-the-roses kind of people, but I am filled with gratitude for the craziness and fun of my life — and it’s crazy fun of my own choosing, because I can pick and choose what I go to and what I write about. It’s a really enchanted existence.
Now tell me about the last time you thought, Ugh, this is my life?
I really don’t think that way. I’ve had day jobs, temp jobs, and punch-the-clock jobs, so I will never complain about this kind of job. “Oh, how horrible — I have to go to a Broadway show, then a nightclub, and then come home, trash everything, and get paid for it?” No, I’m never going to say that.