As with many people hailing from colder climates, longtime Village Voice columnist Michael Musto has an anecdote of being impressed by friendly locals during his first visit to New Orleans.
"I remember getting picked up, which doesn't happen in New York," he says. He was at Cafe Lafitte in Exile while in the city with a group of friends who stopped in New Orleans while en route to Las Vegas in the early '90s. "Not just because I got laid, but I found (New Orleans) to be very open and friendly. This gentleman just came up to me at Lafitte's and said 'You're handsome' and started chatting me up. I thought, 'This doesn't happen in New York.' People there are still a little full of themselves. Everyone thinks they're a VIP — especially me."
In his nearly 27 years covering gossip and nightlife in his column, Musto has positioned himself as being both a keen observer of those VIPs — whether they be club kids, reality TV stars, bona fide celebrities, drag divas or porn stars — and a bit of one himself. Musto is no mere fly-on-the-wall observer of events; in his columns he's another character in the pop culture circus he's reporting. He's a star in the LGBT community, and his frequent chiding of celebrities living in the "glass closet" (he coined that term in a 2007 feature for Out, in which he wrote about stars who are living as gay people but aren't officially "out" to the public) has earned him praise from some and ire from the closeted celebs he criticizes (a then-closeted Rosie O'Donnell once called him a "gay Nazi"). Generally, he's either loved or loathed.
Appropriately, his newest book Fork on the Left, Knife in the Back (Vantage Point Books) is dedicated to "to everyone who is still speaking to me." His second compilation of writings — mostly consisting of columns from the Voice and from his blog for the paper, with a few original essays thrown in — is a grab bag that spans the '80s to the present. He'll be back in New Orleans during Southern Decadence for a book-release party at the Country Club. Local drag bombshell Bianca Del Rio will host the party along with New York club promoter Daniel Nardicio ("He's been called the Willy Wonka of the East Village," Musto says).
In the book, Musto's brand of sardonic wit permeates musings on celebs like Lindsay Lohan and Madonna, dispatches from Manhattan clubs and aboard a hellish Hamptons jitney, and in rants about bad parties and closet cases. Even more journalistic endeavors, like interviews with Paris Hilton, Sarah Silverman and Jerry Springer, are colored by Musto's trademark point of view. There also are amusing personal anecdotes, like Musto's conversation with a Psychic Friends Hotline operator who provided a wildly inaccurate reading.
Some columns are centered around that week's gossip fodder and blind items, making the book partially function as a historical almanac of fleeting tabloid news. Remember when "Bennifer" broke up?
"I didn't want to elaborate on (those gossip items) or add any footnotes or explain anything. I thought, let it just be ... If it proves that gossip is ephemeral, then I can live with that," he says. "But I think people might be fascinated and have their memories jogged by reading this old stuff and thinking, 'Wow, I remember that moment when Ellen DeGeneres was actually in the closet.' Or when George Michael first got caught (having sex in a public bathroom), or when Arnold Schwarzenegger was running for governor ... Or if it doesn't ring a bell, you could at least get off on it."
Because of the Internet, these kinds of gossip nuggets are now disseminated and consumed in the time it takes to compose a tweet, which might seem scary for a scribe from pre-Gawker times. But as he writes in the essay "I've Entered the Blogosphere," starting a blog for the Village Voice site and adapting to the Internet's fast pace felt natural for him.
"It was pretty easy, because in some ways my column was the original blog ... because it was not traditional reporting — it was basically a first-person diary that took me around to different scenes that make New York interesting, written with a very personal, subjective point of view," he says. "I found it came naturally to me and it was a great way to get quick bites out there into the blogosphere, especially when you have a breaking story or a point of view that you want to get out there right away"
The Internet has not only sped up the news cycle, but it's empowered nearly anyone with a smartphone to become a vigilante gossip reporter. But Musto's experience and perspective has helped him maintain his position as an elder statesman among pop culture commentators.
"It's bizarre because originally the gossip family was about 10 people, now you're competing not just with other sites, but with everyone on earth who has a blog, who posts on Facebook, who has a cellphone ... So now I really feel like every individual on the planet is a gossip columnist, but what has kept me going this far is my point of view makes me unique. I will still go to places, both literally and figuratively, that other people won't go to, won't think of or won't dare to go to because I have free reign at the Voice to write whatever I want," he says. "So it's weird to not be the only snarky one anymore, to not be the only openly gay one anymore, but I still find that I'm pretty hard to imitate."
Also hard to imitate is Musto's tone towards the VIPs he covers, which is simultaneously harsh and reverent — call it benign bitchiness. Musto recalls gossip and celebrities helping him survive a lonely childhood when, as he says in his book, he "didn't even have imaginary friends."
"I put myself in the position of the one who wants to bring people down a notch when they deserve it. And they do deserve it a lot. But I'm not afraid to show my appreciation and be a fan, because celebrities are my salvation," he says. "They got me through my childhood and adolescence. And to this day, they pay my rent. I love celebrities. I find them radioactively exciting and worth covering. I hope they can take my abuse."