My Favorite Mistake: Michael Musto On How Cross-Dressing Cost Him An Ad Campaign

My Favorite Mistake: Michael Musto On How Cross-Dressing Cost Him An Ad Campaign
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My Favorite Mistake is a twice monthly column where columnist Seema Kalia asks public figures about the mistake that taught them the most. In this post, she talks to Michael Musto about being the "Mario Cuomo of Gay Gossip Columnists".

Seema Kalia: I was thinking about the interesting life you've led as a New York icon and I want to find what you were willing to share as your "Favorite Mistake"?

Michael Musto: Yeah! I just saw Erica Jong and I told her I read her Favorite Mistake!

SK: Isn't she great?

MM: Yeah, she regretted suing a major studio that bought her book.

SK: You can tell a lot about people by whether they're even willing to admit they made a mistake in a huge career.

MM: Exactly. But I think most people regret not suing someone. (laughs)

SK: Anything you regret not doing?

MM: Well, in general, I have a kind of self-sabotaging bent to my career sometimes, as we all do. I'm very comfortable being the "alternative weekly guy in the corner" who's attained a nice level of success, but is never going to blow up into the big time, so when something larger comes along, I tend to, unconsciously, blow it.

SK: So you're the Mario Cuomo of gossip columnists?

MM: (Laughs) Yeah, we're both Italian that way, or something. But I first noticed this in 1987, when Amaretto di Saronno, you know, the liqueur, was looking for different, supposedly "cutting edge creative types" to promote in a massive ad campaign...

SK: By different, did they mean gay people?

MM: Well, I didn't know what they meant, but I thought they meant an all-encompassing assortment of creative people. Which naturally would have to include some gays, right? Or so you would think. And it involved having your picture in every major magazine for a whole year, every issue, for an entire year, so this is like the Judy Holliday movie where she was a billboard of herself, but on a larger scale. And they wanted me, and asked me to submit a press kit, just to see me, I guess.

SK: And did you have a press kit? How does that work? Did you have a branding company and PR people who were managing your image and getting you press?

MM: Oh no, no, no. I'm a total "mom and pop store" kind of guy. Well, I assembled something of all my clippings and I remember thinking, should I include this GQ article that had just come out about me and Stephen Saban who was a columnist for Details. But that article had not even come out yet in GQ and I had an advance copy that hadn't even hit the stands yet, and it was about the Duke and Duchess of Downtown. They called me the Duchess because I wore a dress sometimes, half jokingly and half aiming for some kind of glamour I guess (laughs).

SK: And, well, because dresses are fun.

MM: Yeah! Women's clothes are always more fun than men's. And there was a picture in the article of me in this big hoop dress. But not looking female at all, I mean, I wasn't in drag, I was just standing there with my bicycle, in a hoop dress, looking kind of clownish. But I included it because I thought I should be true to myself and present the full picture of me, because that's what they wanted. And they told me I had been chosen, we were all set to go forward with the photo shoot, and it never happened. Everyone else got their photo shoot and got their massive exposure, for a full year, and I found out a year later, that the reason I had been bumped from this incredible campaign, of supposedly cutting edge people, was that the Italian folks who ran the company were offended by the picture of me in the dress, and thought it would cause problems because it's not a manly image, and look.

SK: So they wanted cutting edge, but they wanted Midwest cutting edge, like Disney cutting edge, they didn't want really cutting edge -- What year was this?

MM: This was way before Will and Grace. It wasn't cool to be gay then, sometimes it still isn't. But I had to sit there, and watch, for a year and watch this campaign explode knowing that if I'd only withheld that one clipping, I probably would have been in the campaign. The whole thing felt like a movie. That issue of GQ with the damaging picture hadn't even hit the stands yet. I happened to have an advance copy at that exact moment, and sent it, and it was the end of me. Although I guess there was nothing else in my clippings that screamed "raving heterosexual."

SK: Is it really a compromise you still feel you should have made? Not including that GQ picture?

I didn't even like that article in GQ. The whole picture of me in a hoop dress getting on a bike was a set-up. You can't even get on a bike in a hoop dress. Although one might wear a hoop dress to a party, but not in the day time riding around. I think it gave an exaggerated view of me as someone who wakes up, puts on drag and runs around the city.

SK: But not even practical drag. You can't get around the city like that.

MM: You can't get anywhere in a hoop dress.

SK: So is this a dark lesson in pragmatism, that if you had simply self-censored and managed your image less honestly you could have been more personally successful?

MM: Um, it's a lesson in the way I sometimes tell too much, I show my hand, I can't help being unflinchingly honest about myself even in my column, and in retrospect I don't think it's such a bad thing. I think I continued to carve out a career because I am honest and unashamed and unabashed. And most of the people in that campaign actually went nowhere, so (laughs) maybe I dodged a bullet.

SK: Well, you might feel good about not having participated in that on some level, that you've been able to do your job well because you've been so consistently forthcoming?

MM: Yeah, I never learned to play the game so that I could get my message across farther, and I think the best thing for me to have done would have been to soft pedal the zany side of my personality to get in the campaign and become bigger in the mainstream, and that would have allowed my subversive views to go more public. I never learned that, I always present this entire zany package, which is harder to take, sometimes, to the public. But now I've learned, for example, when I go on TV, I just wear a button-down shirt and a nice tie. It allows you to get your views across better. Instead of people saying, "Oh he's a clown," they're saying "Oh he looks like a perfectly respectable pundit."

SK: I get the feeling that for you this is about more than being gay. I'm wondering about this almost compulsive need for self-disclosure, and where it comes from. There seem to be a lot of otherwise bright people who aren't pragmatic at key times. My personal joke about that is that it's really exhausting to keep a secret and I just can't be bothered. But I wonder, where do you think, psychologically, this comes from? Do you think that deep down, those people don't really want to succeed, or do they feel that they don't really deserve it?

MM: Yeah, all of that. Yeah, I think I feel comfortable being the alternative guy in the corner, and I do everything to ensure the fact that I stay in that position.

SK: Do you have a sense you're ever going to face this tendency to self-sabotage again in your career?

MM: Oh, yes. That was just the first example; it's happened over and over again. It reached the point where I went to a therapist to talk about it, and she said "Well, I'm sure you've fucked up other things you're not even telling me about" which pissed me off because I had told her everything. She also said we're going to delve into your past in a deep-dark way.

SK: Well that's frightening.

MM: Yes. "We're going to take a long involved journey into your psyche to find out what this is about." So I said. "No thanks. That doesn't interest me."

SK: Why not?

MM: Because I know the answer to that. I already know the answer. I've carved out a certain niche for myself where whatever fame that comes my way is never going to be that overwhelming. It's a nice level of fame where people come up to you on the street and say they like your work, or they might recognize you in a restaurant and give you a better table or something, but you're never going to have to worry about having your life under a microscope the way a real celebrity would. And that's where I feel I belong, so I purposely sabotage opportunities to get bigger.

SK: Years ago you were asked about the rapid success of the "Queer Eye" guys on Bravo and someone asked you about the fact that you had been kind of doing that "shtick" for twenty years before they sort of became America's Favorite Gay People. How did you personally feel about the success they had? I mean, did you feel overlooked?

MM: I felt like a pioneer in a way, but a pioneer doesn't get any props, you just have to kind of pat yourself on the back. Because nobody remembers that you were there first.

SK: Well, the expression is," The pioneers get the arrows and the settlers get the land."

MM: Exactly. And it was bizarre having been told for years by TV producers to "please tone it down," i.e.: "please be less gay," to suddenly have these openly gay guys exploding. But I wasn't bitter even though I had tried out for the show and didn't get on it. I was very happy for the advance in the culture.

SK: Getting back to the essence of your "mistake", to not be more prudent, to not be more pragmatic in managing your image at that time, I wonder if it also had a financial cost to you.

MM: It wasn't big money, but it would have upped the career a notch. The best thing I could have done/would have done would have been to soft-peddle my subversive side in the campaign, and get bigger in the mainstream and that would have resulted in a higher profile. I should have tempered my subversive youth in order to go more public. I never learned.

SK: But I'm not getting this sense that you actually felt regretful about it. Do you really feel you missed out on something, or is it more that you're interested in why you sabotaged yourself?

MM: I was regretful for that year where everywhere I went I saw this campaign of people less fabulous than myself, and with less talent than myself, and I realized that in a way I had ruined my chances. And I didn't know who to be mad at. Be mad at them Di Saronno for being homophobic, of course, but also mad at myself because I didn't know how to play the game to sort of "sneak in there", and to get the acceptance that this would have given me by being selective in my self promotion.

SK: Have your views have changed? Do you want to become more pragmatic, more selective about what you disclose?

MM: I've tried but at this point I can't take back anything, so everybody knows what I'm all about. I've putting everything out on the table for years so I can't suddenly present a different image. I don't have the chameleon-like skills of Madonna or Tina Brown.

SK: So we're left with this answer that you may be self-sabotaging. You haven't made the most pragmatic career decisions, and now what I'm supposed to ask is "What did you learn from this?" and "How has this changed what you did going forward?" Or does it? Or is this a mistake at all, or just a matter of "you are who you are and you have to live with it?"

MM: I learned that this is kind of an endearing aspect of my personality. That I can't lie about myself. And that I didn't belong in that campaign because it was a bunch of whore-y bunch of bland people. Not the cutting-edge creative types they were supposedly seeking and I learned to stop punishing myself for being forthright and to stop thinking that one decision like that really could have changed my life.

SK: So it wasn't really a mistake then.

MM: Publicity can change your exposure and maybe open some doors but it doesn't really substantively change anything. And I know that as someone who GIVES publicity. I'm the peddler of downtown PR hits for the underground crowd with my column. Sometimes I'll meet someone who is so desperate to get mentioned in my column or blog and I'll tell them: "It's not going to change your life in any way."

SK: In addition to your blog, are you going to do TV again, any other new ventures?

MM: I've done different things, I will again. But I can't wait for that sugarplum in the sky. I think my realization is that you can't look for some ideal sugarplum gig that's going to make everything work out okay. I have friends who sit around waiting for some big "moment" - some big Norma Desmond moment where some big director's going to call and want them for a movie. And it never happens. So does that mean, at the end of your life, that you're a failure?

SK: But there is something profound in what you said about finding the opportunities and happiness in the ways that they come, not in waiting for something in particular that comes along.

MM: There is no point in obsessing about what didn't happen, what you didn't do. I have to recognize happiness in the exposure I have, and what I am able to do.

SK: I may forever have to think of you as the Mario Cuomo of gay gossip columnists. I'm trying to get an interview with him; maybe I can ask him if he thinks he's the Michael Musto of Governors.

MM: That, I'd love to hear.

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