This is the sixteenth installment in HuffPost Gay Voices Associate Editor JamesMichael Nichols' 30-part series "After Dark: NYC Nightlife Today And Days Past" that examines the state of New York nightlife in the modern day, as well as the development and production of nightlife over the past several decades. Each featured individual in this series currently serves as a prominent person in the New York nightlife community or has made important contributions in the past that have sustained long-lasting impacts.
HuffPost Gay Voices believes that it is important and valuable to elevate the work, both today and in the past, of those engaged in the New York nightlife community, especially in an age where queer history seems to be increasingly forgotten. Nightlife not only creates spaces for queers and other marginalized groups to be artistically and authentically celebrated, but the work of those involved in nightlife creates and shapes the future of our culture as a whole. Visit Gay Voices regularly to learn not only about individuals currently making an impact in nightlife, but those whose legacy has previously contributed to the ways we understand queerness, art, identity and human experience today.
The Huffington Post: You've been involved in the New York nightlife scene for decades, having previously worked with the likes of Leigh Bowery. What did your journey to becoming a fixture as an artist within New York nightlife entail?
Kenny Kenny: I grew up as a young teenager in Ireland during the 1970s, a very repressive period of time. But at the same time it was also a period when I was exposed to things that had just started to blossom, like Bowie and Marc Bolan and the whole androgynous thing. So it was a dichotomous experience that was happening, with undercurrents of the first time that gay people had to actually come out en masse, at least within one part of the world. I think that was an extraordinary sort of movement and I do think that I was aware of that and it started to bubble -- and then I went to art college in Dublin and I met other gay people.
Even though I think all of us were very damaged by the whole experience of growing up in Ireland I think we were all so very hopeful. There was this sort of excitement that not now but in ten years time we could be self-realized in some way. There were possibilities. I think that really energized me to have hope, whereas if I grew up in the '40s it would have been a whole different matter and a bigger struggle.
So then, of course, Ireland being a very small place and being very influenced by London and the whole club and fashion scene, I went to London and got involved with Rachel Auburn, who had a fashion line with Leigh Bowery. I don’t think Leigh did the line for very long –- probably months rather than years. But Rachel continued and he designed with Rachel, even though his name wasn’t on the label. He was very involved with her and he was also running the club Taboo, and she was the DJ. So I automatically had an in and I was very influenced by that whole time because it was definitely a departure from what had happened before. It influenced me hugely -- the whole punk thing, Vivienne Westwood, Malcolm McLaren -– and you’re talking about the whole history of pop culture in the '70s. I mean, growing up during that time and being androgynous myself, as well as very influenced by visuals, you couldn’t ignore it. You had punk, the new romantics, the blitz kids, you had goth, which was new in the way it formulated itself in the early '80s, and then going right into something that seemed to be completely different.
It was high camp, unapologetically high camp, Taboo, and the sole mastermind really was Leigh. And he had created this sort of visual of an over the top, camp, dandy, surrealist persona and people were wearing frilly clothes and platforms and mixing everything up. It was definitely very new and very bold and I think that was extremely formative for me.
Looking back on my life I’m beginning to think that it really was destiny because it’s almost like everything had a roadmap. I don’t think I would have been the same person if I had not been around Taboo, Rachel, Leigh, Mr. Pearl, Dean Bryce. I was hanging out with all of these people at a very young age. I had left art college in a country with an amazing history, Ireland, of writers mostly but not for visual artists. And to be around this full-on, unapologetic original take on camp, mixing Victorian with provocative frilly knickers, putting polka dots on top of that –- that was formative for me for sure.
Taboo was very extreme. I always felt like it was the Titanic sinking -– the last party before it sinks. It’s like, we've got to do this now because it’s not going to last. But nothing lasts, you know, it’s the nature of time.
So I just decided to come to America, not for any reason except everyone spoke English [laughs]. I came as an illegal alien and sorted it out somehow. I got a job in a jewelry design studio and a piece of a floor to live on from a gay man who needed money.
The Huffington Post: How did you move from your formative experiences with Leigh and Taboo to becoming NYC's seminal queer door person?
Well, I was known for going out and dressing up and got noticed by some promoters and I started doing the door at The World. And then I did the doors for Michael Alig’s party and then he hired me to do parties with Victoria Bartlett, who is a designer and stylist now. Then everybody started hiring me! [laughs] You know, once you become the door person and you can actually do it... I was probably the first gay and androgynous door person to really dress up. I mean, Sally Randall was before me and she had an amazing look, but I was the first gay person with this kind of look as far as I know. So it was something new in New York and it got a lot of attention. New Yorkers love the new, unfortunately, since I’m getting older. [laughs]
What would you say was the most influential outlet of queer performance and expression for you during your earlier years in New York City nightlife?
Some of the biggest influences for me came from The Pyramid Club, which was full of avant garde artists like Happy Face, Taboo, Sister Dimension –- all of these people running a club where you would get every fashion person in the world in there but also the most eccentric queens doing the most eccentric performances. It was very organic and, to me, it was very influential because it was nothing I’d ever seen before. I’d never seen a man getting on stage as the MC in a slip that he had bought on St. Mark's Place in a beard and slippers.
It was just a very New York thing -– London is very influenced by waves and very influenced by trends. New York was in a bubble of the '60s and the '70s and was just this hive of humanity that didn’t belong anywhere else –- and The Pyramid absolutely embodied that. You would have old hippies with make-up, you would have punks, skin heads, rastas –- everybody mixing together. It was really something else and would always spill out onto the street and into Thompson Square Park. That, to me, was a very New York experience, whereas Michael Alig I really think was very aware of New York and the tier system in that the freaks ruled -– and I think he was very influenced by Taboo. Because Taboo was very much more in touch with the Club Kid aesthetic. He was very driven and he saw an opportunity when Warhol died and there was a sort of lull for a second because Area was closing, but he ran with it and became the charming Pied Piper who brought us all together and it worked.
How would you describe yourself as artist and your identity within the context of New York nightlife?
Well, it’s this thing that later in life you realize you're going where you were supposed to go all along. I’ve become the artist that I always was but didn’t have the opportunity to express until now. But it was always there; I was always into costumes, I was always into expressing myself through looks and visuals. And I consider myself a visual poet. I express my moods and something that’s indefinable, like sometimes you're expressing something through a poem that’s really indefinable -- you can only hint towards it. You can’t really completely describe everything through a poem. Because words are very limited. But you can hint towards something that’s ineffable and indefinable and sometimes I do that with my visuals, because visuals are also limited. But I hint towards a certain thing that’s in my soul and that’s why I think I’m a visual poet.
I use painting, I paint my body, I use costumes that I create and I use my apartment and backdrops to create something that I feel is intrinsically me and says something about who I am. It’s just a visual language, really. And I’m exploring it and it’s a journey but I’m on the journey now full force. And I just feel like in the past I was so absorbed with my doors and the clubs that I didn’t really leave room for this to happen –- and now it’s happening.
What are your thoughts on nightlife today and the way that nightlife has developed throughout the decades?
It’s lost a lot of its mystery –- its indefinable essence that you couldn’t really put your finger on. It’s also lost a lot of the community that we once had that was once more mixed. With the whole rights thing people have become much more generic.
The gay community has become generic and, you know, I’m wondering if with gaining our rights, have we thrown out the baby with the bathwater? What have we lost along the way? What have we lost that was truly and intrinsically ours that is not part of this preconditioned mind that society has set up as a way to behave? What is it to be different as a sexual minority? What does that mean? These are the questions that were probably raised when the whole movement started in 1969 –- what is it? Who are we?
I think we have probably lost a lot of that essence by being manipulated in some way to conform to preconditions in society that are seen as acceptable. So I think that also trickles down into the club scene, and the club scene maybe becomes less important when there’s a lot of integration, and when wine bars are seen as just as important as nightclubs. Or Gucci handbags or bottle service –- you could go on and on. But definitely it’s become less creative and less important socially, I think, from a community point of view. That being said, it’s still very important.
The Huffington Post: Especially in an age where it feels being a part of the queer community is becoming increasingly normalized and sterile -– don’t you think that nightlife can act as a preservation of queerness in some ways?
Well, we’re still vilified. There wasn’t always the battle cry. You know, when they open the ovens again you’ll be going in just like me. Your tank top and your muscles won’t stop them from throwing you in, and I think that people tend to forget that very easily. I get a few eye rolls walking down the street from gay couples that are holding hands. When I came to New York first you couldn’t hold hands like that without getting a lot of shit –- the same as I do now by lots of gay people walking down the street. So don’t think you’re immune to it. We are living in a very small city, too. Go outside of New York, go to lots of places in the world and you’re not going to be able to walk down the street holding hands. Don’t forget! You don’t have to harbor on it. You don’t have to harbor on the fact that there’s prejudice or that things used to be bad before, because I think to wallow in it isn’t a good thing. Because of course we should be celebrating our rights, but what have we lost? Have we lost our real essence? Are we just following the norm? I think it’s really important to ask yourself who is the real you apart from what society expects of you. And I think I’m aware of these kinds of things through my art because I am a visual artist who uses my body to speak. It’s in your face and I get a reaction from society, so I’m always very confronted by it. I’m also very androgynous, anyway.
The Huffington Post: I think, like most things, it’s good and bad. And I think in the end nightlife can still, in a way, preserve these aspects of queer culture that don’t necessarily seem to have a space anymore, but at the same there’s this continual outside pressure to normalize yourself.
Absolutely. But not only are we not preserving parts of the gay culture but these are extremely important things within the gay culture that, as I said, are indefinable and we don’t know why -– like a shaman in a South American tribe. We don’t know why that’s so important, it has some indefinable aspect to it that holds everything together.
Are there any projects or upcoming nightlife events that you're currently engaged with?
Well, I’m working on a book, which Antony Hegarty wrote the introduction for and it’s actually quite a poetic piece. I’m going to do an art show which he’s curating and that will happen at the same time as the release. I’m also doing a song with Branden Olson called “Cheetah Woman,” which is about the themes of being an outsider and transcending.
I’m also doing a party with Brandon Voss that opens Aug. 31 at Up and Down nightclub that’s going to be a place for people to come together on Sunday nights. It’s a weekly party and you never know what’s going to happen but I’m feeling good about it. There’s a lot of segregation in the gay community now and I just want a place where everybody feels like they belong and everyone who feels like they don’t belong in the gay community can come. Because I think you really do get a magic and something very special when that happens –- when everyone is in one room and you have that whole tribe supporting each other on the dance floor. That always gives me chills and memories of the ghosts of our beloved people who’ve passed and danced on a Sunday night as well.
If there was something you wished to communicate about the evolution of queer history through nightlife in New York to the new generation, what do you think is the most important thing to ensure is not forgotten?
I think there’s a few things that are really important and I do think it’s important to honor the people that came before us. When I talk about the past I never talk about wallowing in the past, because there is only now. But if you don’t honor the past and people who came before you then you can’t honor the now. You can’t really know who you are in the now -– you’re just knowing what society has asked you to be. But if you look in the past at the struggles and the people like Quentin Crisp, like Leigh Bowery, anybody over a certain age and what they’ve gone through then you realize that is part of the genetic make-up of who you are now. In an authentic way, not in a societally conditioned way.
Look at your history and you’ll learn more about who you are inside. Then look inside yourself and ask yourself who you really are. Are you the boy that really wants to go to bottle service clubs? Or do you have more to offer? And a lot of people learn these things as they go along and I think it’s important to realize we are much more powerful than we think we are. We are selling ourselves short by fitting into what society wants us to be.
It’s great that you have marriage -– but what could you really be?
We are the shamans of society. We’re here to show them you don’t have to go by the conditioned way of living. We’re here to show them you can live your life in a very authentic way. That’s what I think gay people are here for. And of course, to enjoy sex as well. Why not? [laughs]
For more from Kenny Kenny head here to visit the artist's website. Missed the previous installments in this series? Check out the slideshow below.