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Ernie Glam Interview

During the late 1980s, New York nightlife was transformed by an unlikely group of self-made celebrities: teens and twenty-somethings that had left their hometowns in the hope of expressing themselves -- and, perhaps, finding themselves along the way.

club kids

Many of them were fashion students at the time. Others worked the clubs as dancers, promoters, or entertainers. And among them was a yet undiscovered RuPaul.

Unconcerned with the conformist fashion of the day, they made their own clothes, painted their faces multicolor, took inspiration from the Superstars of the Warhol era, and soon found themselves on American television, vilified, admired, and, yet, figures of hope and admiration to gay youths and misfits everywhere.

Eventually, drugs invaded the scene which, over a number of years, became increasingly dark. But, in the early days, the Club Kids brought a powerful message to the world: You can be yourself, no matter who you are.

The Club Kids phenomenon has enjoyed something of a revival. Their message and the style has been a huge influence on Lady Gaga. And late last year, a new, 375-page book New York Club Kids by Walt Paper, was released.

Because we know you’ll want to know what was really going on, ORTTU spoke with one of the early movers and shakers of the Club Kids scene, Ernie Glam.

ernie glam

ORTTU:

Give us a little background on the Club Kids phenomenon and how you became involved with it.

Ernie Glam:

The Club Kids were this group of very flamboyant people that populated New York City nightclubs in the 1980s. It started around 1987, when the stock market crashed in New York. All of the parties and the nightclubs were very lavish. But, after the crash, all the really wealthy people and the stock brokers stopped going out, and it caused a collapse in the club business.

So clubs were looking for “celebrities” that didn’t command celebrity prices. And there was a party at the Tunnel nightclub that was attracting these flamboyant, young people. We were all in our early twenties. A lot of us were in school -- art school or fashion college.

It was this little scene but it just got bigger and gained momentum. Because that party was successful it sparked other parties that were successful. Clubs have always needed flamboyant personalities to attract the less flamboyant people who need a spectacle to look at while they’re at the club -- because there has to be something besides the drinking and the dancing or the possibility of a hook-up.

Michael Alig, who was the party promoter at the Tunnel, didn’t really pay us that much to work for him, so he could afford to hire a lot of us. So we would go to these clubs where he would throw parties and we’d work, go-go dancing or just running around being ourselves. We eventually acquired this following of New Yorkers who went to nightclubs. They enjoyed being at the clubs with us because they knew at those parties there would be something fun or crazy going on.

That’s how it emerged. Then, in 1990, when we moved to the Limelight nightclub and began the Disco 2000 party which was the rocket that really propelled the Club Kids to national prominence. 

ORTTU:

Right. You were on Geraldo Rivera Show and some other T.V. shows.

Glam:

Yes, we were on the Joan Rivers Show -- a lot of those shows. The producers watched all the other shows and as soon as the producer saw us -- we were so outrageous and so perfect for daytime talk shows, which are full of judgmental people who want something crazy and wild -- they all invited us to go. I didn’t go to all of them because the tapings were at seven in the morning and we were often up, working, ‘til four or five.

There was also a front page article in New York magazine in 1988, and the words “Club Kids” were on the cover. And, by the way, some people say that New York magazine coined the term but I believe it was Rudolf Piper, the creative director of the Tunnel nightclub who coined that term.

interview

ORTTU:

Okay, and how did you get involved with the Club Kids?

Glam:

Well, from the moment I arrived in New York in 1984, I started going out. At the point, the really big clubs were Area, the first incarnation of the Limelight, and the Pyramid Club. I was going to all these clubs and, after a while, I found out about the Tunnel and the parties they were holding there. So, I started going to it, and it was just so much fun. It was a great scene.

Michael Alig noticed me because I was all dressed up. We struck up a friendship. And then he started hiring me to dance at his parties. At that time I was making my own clothes, and Michael also asked me to make clothes for him. And that’s how we were able to promote this Club Kids style.

ORTTU:

So why did you move to New York? Was it to pursue fashion? Or something else?

Glam:

I had always wanted to move to New York City. I graduated from college in Philadelphia in 1984. And because it wasn’t far from New York, many of the students were from there, so when I graduated all of my friends were moving home, so instead of moving back to California, where I was from, I just moved with them. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I didn’t really have career goals at that time, and it took a while to really figure that out.

ORTTU:

Sure. But then you started producing the magazine Project X, right?

Glam:

Right. Well, the magazine was founded by Michael Alig and Julie Jewels. I think they founded it in ‘87 or ‘88 in the basement of the Tunnel and used its photocopy machine to produce the original issues. It was really a promotional vehicle for the parties they were doing and the nightclubs they worked for.

By late ‘88 or ‘90, the magazine had reached the point where they needed more content for it, and Michael knew I could write so he asked me to start writing articles for it and to help with the day-to-day operations of the magazine because he was too busy. So, I was pushing the magazine along.

ORTTU:

And it became a professional-looking magazine, going from black and white to color, so that’s pretty cool.

Glam:

Yes, by the time the magazine closed -- I think, in January of 1996 -- I was selling advertising for it and doing outreach to the big agencies. And we had sold ads to Calvin Klein. It was glossy throughout, and color.

ORTTU:

Yeah, so one thing that strikes me is that a lot of things that you were doing back then -- maybe in a grittier way -- is almost coming back with the internet. You have celebrities who are not celebrities in the traditional sense. Everybody, now, is a celebrity on social media, but you were being celebrities back then, even though you didn’t have celebrity status. Does that make sense?

Glam:

It’s true. We were very inspired by Andy Warhol and his concept of fame and celebrity. And we had read Warhol’s books -- Popism, particularly. And the whole Club Kid idea, and the whole idea behind renaming yourself and giving yourself a more glamorous name, all came from Andy Warhol. We were very inspired by him, and by the Factory, and by his superstars, and how he manufactured these counterculture celebrities, some of whom are still remembered today, like Edie Sedgwick… He didn’t have a fake name but Ultra Violet did… and Candy Darling. So these were the people that we were trying to emulate.

ORTTU:

Cool. Well, it certainly was a phenomenon, though I think it’s one of the phenomenons that’s been a little bit forgotten. To me, it’s much more New York than the chain cafe on every corner -- the situation that we have today. I just wonder what you think was important about it or what it had going for it that maybe we’ve lost a little bit today.

Glam:

We were trying to create a subculture. We wanted to have a subculture or a scene that would be just as remembered as the Beatniks, or the Hippies, or the Punk Rockers. We wanted to have our own archetype or stereotype, so we worked very hard to promote the idea of the Club Kids and the idea that there was a big scene in New York. And when we spoke to the media we would play it up as this really big thing -- even when it wasn’t such a big thing.

We were trying to create something that would reverberate with young people. And it reverberated when they saw us on T.V., especially when we were appearing on those daytime talk shows. I mean, there were these gay kids all over the country who saw those shows.

And they lived in places where they couldn’t be gay, and where they were afraid to be gay. And we gave them an opportunity to think about other possibilities for expressing themselves and that were non-conformist and radically queer, and that’s what’s caused us to be remembered and embraced, and to be immitated by young people all over the wold.

ORTTU:

Yes… It did spread around the U.S., right?

Glam:

It did. Certainly, by ‘93, we were traveling around the country doing parties in different cities. And every city where we did a party, there would always be a group of Club Kids would show up. In some cities they were larger than others but certainly in places like Chicargo and Los Angeles large groups would show up dressed like Club Kids. So, yeah, it resonated with people. They liked it. It was something they hadn’t seen before. And they embraced it.

ORTTU:

I was just wondering… you mention Popism. In London, one of the closest figures to what you were doing was Leigh Bowery, if you know who that is.

Glam:

Oh, yes. I knew him personally. He came to our parties. He came over to my house a few times for dinner. We were very inspired by Leigh Bowery. I remember seeing pictures of him in iD magazine -- either iD or Face.

This was all before social media when it was really hard to see images of radically Queer people, or even gay people, in the media. And even to buy iD magazine or Face, there would only be one or two stores in New York that sold them so we’d have to make a special trip to get them.

But that’s where we saw him, and we really liked what he was doing. We were very inspired by that. We were inspired by a lot of things -- The Rocky Horror Picture Show, punk rock, and movies like Beyond The Valley of The Dolls and Liquid Sky.

ORTTU:
So, moving on from back then to today, maybe you want to give us a little about what you’re up to now. I know you’ve written a couple of books and you have other projects that you’re working on.

Glam:

I stopped working in nightclubs in 1993 but I kept working on Project X, writing for it, and I just started sending story pitches to other publications, and they ended up hiring me, and it just snowballed into my journalism career. And by 1999, I was working for newspapers, and I did that for twenty years. Then, in 2012, I started publishing books. I had all these photos and I wasn’t really doing anything with them, so I thought let me memorialize all this stuff.

I’m still going out. I would say that I don’t go out as much as I did in the early ‘90s or late ‘80s but I do go out once or twice a week right now, and I can tell you that the nightclub scene in New York right now  is almost as good as it was in the early ‘90s -- so I highly recommend it.

ORTTU:

And, besides going out, you’re working on a documentary.

Glam:

I am. But I hate talking about things that I’m working on. But, yes, I am working on a documentary about nightlife. I don’t want to go into too many details about it but it’s going to be multimedia.

You can find out more about Ernie Glam and view past issues of Project X magazine here.



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