In the ephemeral world of queer nightlife, it's rare to find a constant and important figure. Mario Diaz, who first made a name for himself back in 90s New York City with his take on what nightlife could be, is just such a person. Raised by "a pack of drag queens," Mario had a specific idea about the kind of atmosphere he wanted to create - one of uninhibited self-expression, sexuality, and fun. Now residing in Los Angeles, Mario is continuing his reign as the king of nightlife with events like Full Frontal Disco and Brutus. I had the chance to catch up with the Club King and chat about how he got his start, the nature of his ethos, and how he feels about the evolving state of queer culture.
You got your start as a nightlife maven in 90s New York, right when Mayor Giuliani was running his whole "quality of life" campaign aimed at "cleaning up" the city. How did that campaign impact the club scene as you knew it?
I actually first started producing events when I was still a wee homo in my Seattle high school days. It was really just about creating something more interesting than what was available. Something with a little more style and a place where my weirdo crew could show off. But NYC was always in my sights so as soon as I graduated I made my way into the big city. And yes, Giuliani was there waiting to put a damper on all my fun. His "quality of life" campaign was starting to take effect. Not my quality and not my life that's for sure. The down and dirty nightlife that I read about and the sexual freedom that was being celebrated was slipping away and I felt cheated. I've always felt, as a gay person especially, that being able to accept our true sexual nature without the shame so many of us cary with it to be essential. So I made it sort of my mission to bring back the sexy, wild NYC I moved there to be a part of.
I've seen Party Monster, and have done my fair share of research on the Club Kids' scene, which was happening around the same time you were getting stared in New York. What was the biggest difference between what you were doing at The Cock and what was going on at places like Limelight?
My first residence in NYC was living with Superstar DJ Keoki, the Disco 2000 DJ and former boyfriend of Michael Alig. The first faces I saw upon my arrival were James St. James and Freeze...Alig and all those kids. I fell in love with James and thought he was hilarious but the rest of the crew left much to be desired. Needless to say I didn't last long in that scene. I always thought Michael was a total dickwad and was flabbergasted that all these children were so far up his ass. But then I saw the way he shoved K in all their noses with abandon and it all made sense. I realize now that my move to the east village may have been fueled a bit by my need to escape that environment. They were wrapped up in drugs and narcissism and we were all about sex and rock and roll. I found my people.
I've heard many people lament the proliferation of smartphones, particularly their impact on what used to be a more private scene. On the other hand, we now have all these amazing photos of what's going on, instead of the almost complete void of photos or video that exist from the earlier days of gay nightlife. Where do you stand on the whole "taking pictures with your smartphone at the club" thing?
Well that's life right? Change? It's either going to be forced upon you or it's in your best interest to create it for yourself. I love the advancements of our technologies in so many ways. The quick fix of information and connection is amazing and I fully partake in the conversation. But I also have a melancholia for the days of past where we were all present with each other and there certainly was a safety net. There was no fear of anyone taking a picture of you wasted with your balls out at the club. That made for a perfect environment for the kind of events I was doing. I was celebrating and facilitating some real amateur exhibitionism with my parties like Foxy and that just wouldn't fly these days. People would be too scared of public embarrassment. Back then we were all being drunk and stupid together, so no one cared or would remember the next day for that matter. I'm just glad I grew up in a time where I was able to experience both realities. Plus I'm a different person and don't need to live that lifestyle anymore. The cities have changed...as have I. It all worked out just fine for me. But these kids today have no idea what real fun looked like. I kinda lucked out.
Along with the use of phones to take pictures, there's also all the hookup apps that have become kind of ubiquitous with the younger generation of gays. How do you think those have impacted the nightlife scene?
It is kinda gross to see guys on there phones all the time. Especially at the bar when there are a gaggle of horny and adorable guys right in front of them. Everyone seems to be out there looking for something better when some real lovely connections could be staring right at them. We are distracted and uneasy. It's kind of scary.
From the beginning of your career, you've made a point of including what many consider to be the more "extreme" elements of gay culture, including lots of drag. Why do you think drag plays an important role in queer culture, and what was your introduction to the world of drag queens?
Well I was raised by a pack of drag queens so I'm biased. I don't know. I've always been a sucker for a queen. They are generally smarter, funnier, more talented and bad ass than most. I just like being around people who are fearless and make me laugh. And remember these are the bitches who led the front lines at Stonewall. We owe them our gratitude. They're the reason these gay kids today are 'out' in friggin' middle school. It wasn't long ago that there were no gay kids out in school at all. I was the only out little new wave homo in my entire school experience. I think we were tougher and had thicker skin then. Being oppressed and bullied was a much darker reality back in the day. Imagine being so afraid of your lisp and spending your whole life in the closet. The younger feys today need to acknowledge and respect where they came from. Don't be scared to stand out and get your sass on. Because every time you strut your shit there's some kid out there looking at you. And he sees that he's not a total freak, He's just fierce.
I've been at Full Frontal Disco (at Akbar) and watched you instruct your models to stand perfectly still. I believe your exact words were, "You are mannequins! No moving around!" That kind of attention to detail is synonymous with your events. What motivates you to create such a perfectly designed space for people to party in?
Because I'm an anal retentive control freak? I'm just trying to keep things aesthetically interesting and fresh. As the years go by it all seems to have been done. And once you find a fresh interpretation people are on your coattails pilfering all the ideas. I'm just glad I can still have ideas and don't have to make a career stealing everyone else's.
When I think about the current state of the gay community, it's a bit hard to even call it a "gay community," with the word police on patrol. For such a relatively small group of people, why do you think there are so many exclusive groups instead of a big, diverse, gay (as in happy) family?
Everyone is out there trying to feel good about themselves. Finding empowerment in being sexy, funny, charming, stylish, smart or whatever you use for validation. We flock to the group that most facilitates those needs. We all walk into a room wondering what everyone is thinking about us...wondering if we're good enough. When the truth is no one really cares. They're too busy wondering what we think about them. I say just accept who you are and fucking own it.
The recent Supreme Court ruling about marriage equality was a huge deal for a lot of reasons. Did you ever see same-sex marriage becoming a federal right?
I never did. It was so far off the menu growing up in the 80s and for me personally I didn't mind. I've always identified myself as being on the fringe and societal acceptance would only mess that up. I'm so thrilled for all the trans awareness and gay acceptance we live with now. Particularly for all the sensitive kids growing up gay in this world. But I never wanted to be part of the "status quo." Being a shunned outcast and a misfit was where I felt most comfortable. I always knew that me and my people made more sense, were having more fun, looked way cooler and listened to much better music than everyone else and that kicked ass! Now being gay is kind of boring. The taste level has dissipated a bit I think. Don't be mad at me.
With the ruling, combined with the expanding role of queer culture in media (with shows like RuPaul's Drag Race, Modern Family, and Transparent for instance) it seems like people are starting to realize that for the most part, queer people are just like everyone else. Of course that's a great thing in a lot of ways, but do you think queer culture will ultimately suffer from being absorbed into the mainstream?
For me...yes. But I never wanted to be normal.
You're a genius at club promotion, with hugely successful events under your belt both in New York City and Los Angeles. Through the years there have been a few attempts, somehow queer women haven't wound up with a successful, permanent club (even lesbian bars up in SF like The Lexington are disappearing). Why do you think that is?
I don't have that answer but I did work on a lesbian club in NYC at the height of the Drag King movement. It was called CLUB CASANOVA and was produced and hosted by the city's premier King at the time MO B DICK aka Mo Fischer. All the Drag Kings seemed to get there start there. Even that scene has diminished. Not sure why but the dykes at that time didn't drink a lot, would leave early and honestly never really supported each other that well. I'm just telling you what I saw. I have some rad lesbians in my life but I don't know much about that scene. I prefer a mixed scene anyways.
There are a lot of clubs and a lot of promoters, but I can't think of any that have their own documentary! How is everything going with Club King?
It was such a weird thing to be asked to be the subject a documentary. I was hesitant and didn't really feel worthy in a way. But now I'm so grateful and proud of it. It touches me that my story has been an inspiration and has entertained so many people. And getting to travel the world and share it has been a blast. We've done 17 film festivals so far and the next stop is Little Rock Arkansas at the end of the month. I never thought I would find my way there and I'm psyched to get my little rock on!
What do you see as the future for gay nightlife, and what role do you see yourself playing?
Nightlife can get a bad rap. But at the end of the day it's a place to connect, have fun and let loose. Life is short and we should all make a point of having a laugh with friends as much as possible. I don't know what the future holds in the "scene" but I'm excited to see where it takes us. All I know is being gay has been the best thing to happen to me. It's just way more fun and the boys are way cuter! Let's keep it up you guys.