Anyone who truly knows and goes downtown can do a Susanne Bartsch impression. Consider it a litmus test. Her pronounced Swiss-German accent is a flourish that only adds dramatic bite to her already expressive character, one that incarnates fabulousness. For someone playing the fame game, it fulfills the need for a signature flair.
The state of the downtown elder’s reign is healthy. One can trace a glittery arc from the success of her hit 1980s Copacabana parties to recent seasons in which she held court at venues like Marquee, Gilded Lily, the SoHo Grand, Verboten, and The Standard. Employing beloved nightlife artists like Joey Arias, Amanda Lepore, and Muffinhead, in a Bartsch crowd you might find Alexander Wang rubbing elbows with young art students, or spot Lance Bass and Perez Hilton milling around, or turn around to see the absolutely tiny Hayden Panettiere sipping her drink next to you.
From the very beginning of my night lessons, I have been fascinated by Susanne. I love watching her at work on the dance floor: manically texting, air kissing, dancing, waving, handing drinks to people. The Advocate proclaimed her “The Mother of All Club Kids,” while Vogue described her as “a pioneer on the New York club, art, and fashion scenes since the ’80s,” albeit one, WWD stated, who is “of-the-people, for-the-people.” Chic, fabulous, pretty people, that is.
Her shadow extends beyond New York. Ex-club kid turned fashion star Zaldy remembered working on Lady Gaga’s Monster Ball and being struck by the resonances with downtown royalty: “There were some things where I’d be like, ‘Wow, that’s so Susanne Bartsch.’”
And don’t forget Susanne’s major Museum at FIT retrospective, a documentary film, a Mac eyelash line, and photo shoots for Vogue Italia and plenty of other fashion magazines that have cemented her status as the “queen of New York nightlife.” It’s the title with which she’s most associated but one that she avoids. “I think it’s stupid,” Susanne told me when we spoke in her gorgeous Chelsea Hotel apartment, “I don’t really care what they call me, just come to my events. That’s all.”
But what about another title, maybe the one most cherished by all downtown people: icon. “That I find flattering,” she remarked. In the truest sense of a word so overused today, to be an icon is to be an object of veneration, if not worship, to approach divinity. To this she aspired, “You can’t be more than that, really. Right? What else is there? Immortal.”
Susanne has worked hard to maintain the demimonde diadem on her head. Wait outside her hit summer party On Top and see a lavishly made-up Susanne sweep into the venue with her young assistants in tow, whispering orders or maybe throwing a little shade in that well-known accent of hers. Once inside, watch her oversee the scene that she assembled. When the dance floor is full and arms and heads are flailing and bouncing underneath the throbbing lights, when she isn’t assailed by a dozen people asking for a photo or a drink or a job or some other thing, Susanne relaxes and flashes her very warm smile, as proud as any mother.
When I arrived at her Chelsea Hotel home for a chat, Susanne wore a fuzzy blue bathrobe and mom jeans while getting extravagantly done up for her now-defunct Sunday party Vandam at the now-vanished Greenhouse. Her hairstylist, make-up artist, and personal assistant/companion all attended to the assembly of her fineries while she texted her party doorman, making sure that key notables were properly placed on the guest list. She sat and submitted to her make-up guru’s ministrations. “Ahhh-sk me whatevah.”
Despite the chaos of pulling the right look together, Susanne and her aides clearly loved it all. Her devoted hair stylist Raquel told me, “It really is like a photo shoot every Sunday.” Is it all planned out though? “It’s like painting, creating a piece of art. I love it,” Susanne said. “I think it’s my art form. I don’t really paint, sing, or act, so it’s kind of my form of expressing myself.”
To build rapport a little, I told the Bern-born Swiss miss that I had family in Winterthur. But she instead talked about needing to leave Switzerland because it was all “too predictable.” She moved to London, before coming to New York for a love affair with a painter who initially held the lease to the Chelsea apartment. But she missed London’s New Romantics scene, so she began importing English wares after talking to her favorite London designers. “Why not import what I miss?” Susanne concluded, setting up a downtown boutique that quickly garnered glowing press.
The next move was a fashion show. I started to ask if anyone showed her the ropes, but she cut me off. “No.” Learning by doing, she pulled together her first runway showcasing eighteen fashion designers at the Roxy. “I was like on the floor the night before, exhausted,” she remembered.
The next logical step was to get into nightlife so that her clients would have a place to wear their fineries. It’s good business, no? Sell them both the looks and the stage on which to wear them.
Here a nightlife trajectory began, reaching an apogee with Susanne’s legendary monthly party at the Copacabana, brimming with muscle boys, vogue stars, drag queens, and Brazilian samba dancers. “Incredibly glamorous and decadent,” she called it, comparing it to Studio 54. She spoke about it like any proud mom might talk about a child. As she remembered: “People calling to see if they could land with a helicopter on the roof to come to the party. Everybody went, from Reinaldo Herrera to Carolina Herrera to Bette Midler, Faye Dunaway and Michael Musto and a little queen from Brooklyn or from the Bronx.”
Today she preserves a dance floor democracy threatened by the bottle-model system. But does Susanne’s success emerge from the mad love of it all or a keen business sense that ropes in the elites? “The money does not motivate me. It never has. It should,” she insisted, suggesting that she would have plunged into the bottle service world if business truly were her motivation and not the circus-like revelry of On Top. It’s the joy of the night, people dancing, flirting, laughing. It even makes her forget her own problems, she said. “If it’s a successful thing, a good night, I feel high the next day from it.”
VICTOR P. CORONA, Ph.D., is a sociologist at California State University, Los Angeles, and author of 2018 Lambda Literary Award finalist Night Class: A Downtown Memoir. He is writing a book about creative careers and nightlife in L.A.