Ghetto Fabulous

It’s 12:30 on a Saturday night completely wiped out by a blizzard, and although there’s barely a soul on the street and every cab in the city has its off duty sign on, no fewer than 1,700 gay revelers are partying inside the megaclub Roxy. In a cryptlike storage space removed from the dance floor, Marc Berkley reclines on a scuffed sofa, surrounded by barbells, crates of Pride bottled water, and three off-duty go-go boys. One stands in a football jersey and tights, nibbling a Godiva chocolate; another laboriously squeezes into a gold G-string; the third, minutes before it’s his turn to dance, huddles in the corner coolly masturbating, an open copy of Hustler his inspiration.

Berkley gestures to the self-abusing go-go boy and, in a mocking, air-quotey tone, boasts, “See? I treat my boys right – I even buy the straight ones Hustler.” He takes in the scene – stretching muscle, stretching Lycra, stubbed-out cigarette butts – and offers, “Is it any wonder I have a hard time differentiating work from play?”

Chances are, if you don’t know whether Soma is a spa or a party drug, you’ve never heard of Marc Berkley either. But just about every gay Manhattanite has. Born in the Bronx, raised in Queens, the 48-year-old party promoter and magazine publisher has remained atop the gay club scene for over fifteen years. Last year, he threw an estimated 185 events, and although he won’t go on the record about exactly how much money his company, Ms. B’s Parties, made, he crows, “I’m definitely in the top tax bracket.” Besides the three-year stint at Roxy with co-promoter John Blair, Berkley also throws the Sunday-night party “Drama!” at the Limelight, catering to “a younger crowd than the Roxy: kids who just came out of the closet and are going through that fashion-victim stage.” (He shares production credits with Blair and Beto Sutter.) Berkley’s also one of the promoters of “Ülträ,” a Thursday-night dance party at Spa (“Sort of my answer to ‘Beige’: another mixed party with lots of models”).

While his parties come and go (if only to resurface with a new name at a new venue), his ace in the hole is HX, the gay weekly-listings magazine he launched in 1991 with business partner Matthew Bank. What began as a sheet of newsprint folded into quarters is now a free 80-page glossy distributed to basically every gay business in the five boroughs.

His latest publishing venture is the thicker, glossier quarterly “lifestyle magazine” Empire, launched last year. It’s Berkley’s answer to the long-ailing Out magazine, which he dismisses with his usual tact as a “piece of shit.”

Berkley’s in surprisingly good spirits tonight, especially considering that less than a week ago he was attending the funeral of close friend and fellow promoter Dan Forrester, an attractive, blond, blue-eyed man who died from AIDS at 31. “It was surreal,” Berkley recalls. “All these muscle queens who had partied with him were dressed in little black shirts, being as stoic as possible. Afterwards, we all went to breakfast and one guy said, ‘You know, Dan didn’t look like himself.’ I replied, ‘Um, yeah? He looked dead! Did you think they were going to bring in Kevyn Aucoin?’ “

He throws open the storage-room door and, holding a thick stack of drink tickets, makes his rounds through the club, gravitating toward what he calls Silicon Valley – the space near the front bar, which tends to attract the beefiest, most skimpily dressed muscleheads. “If this club were the Titanic,” Berkley says, “we could use these boys as flotation devices!” He seems to know every other boy here; amped-up revelers accost him to gossip about their latest breakup or comment about the success of Berkley’s recently affixed hairpiece. The drink tickets fly.

“What should I do, Marc?” coos a handsome 22-year-old whose six-pack abs come up to Berkley’s head.

Well … ” Berkley says, handing him a drink ticket. “You’re not planning a career in politics, are you? How much are these guys offering you?”

“About $300,” the boy says.

“Well, it’s just one solo-jack-off video.”

“Yeah, but what if my parents hear about it? They could cut off my inheritance … “

As Berkley heads for the D.J. booth, where guest D.J. Susan Morabito is doing the honors usually reserved for Victor Calderone, his eye falls to an attractive, deeply tanned man who has just collapsed. Berkley snaps a security guard to attention and the reveler is hustled away toward the front of the club. “GHB is going to single-handedly destroy New York’s gay nightlife,” Berkley says. “It’s already happening.”

the future impresario attended central michigan University in the seventies, planning to teach emotionally disturbed children (“Now,” he jokes, “I just throw them parties”). In college, his peers thought he was merely hyperactive as opposed to homosexual, when, in fact, he was both. His true calling was foreshadowed when he joined the programming board, which oversaw and scheduled all the campus entertainment events: “They gave us a $100,000 budget. We had Aerosmith and ZZ Top come and play.” The concerts were a success, but when Berkley held a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the majority of the crowd stormed out. “It was just too gay for them. They couldn’t handle it.”

After college, he returned to New York and held down numerous jobs in retail (Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s) and management (the Meadows Movie Theater) until he was robbed at gunpoint; that led him to forays in journalism and public relations. In 1983 Limelight owner Peter Gatien hired Berkley to be his publicist. In those days, the Limelight was open seven days a week and attracted a very mixed crowd. Then AIDS hit. “Everyone separated; the straights didn’t want to be with the gays anymore,” Berkley says. “That’s when clubs stopped serving liquor in glasses and went to plastic. Straight people thought they’d get infected if they drank from the same glasses as we did.”

In 1988, Berkley left Gatien to work for Bruce Mailman, the late owner of the now-defunct Saint. Nights were evenly split between gay and straight events: “Bruce had to start courting straight events because half his gay membership had died. I remember we’d do mass mailings for parties, and we’d get about 500 returns: deceased, deceased, deceased.”

Berkley has watched Chelsea develop from a small pocket of gay businesses (the Chelsea Gym, the Rawhide bar) to a self-contained neighborhood complete with restaurants, beauty salons, clothing boutiques, bookstores, “men’s clubs,” and a slew of bars rounding out the mix. “These days,” Berkley says, “Chelsea queens are such spoiled brats, you can barely get them to go anywhere that’s not on Eighth Avenue between 14th and 23rd.”

Although he says he loves Chelsea people, this is usually an afterthought pegged to a bitching session. “The Chelsea boys don’t know what to think of the younger kids that are popping up,” he says. “When they come to my Spa party, they ask, ‘Why are there so many straight people here? Why are there so many girls?’ What are they so afraid of? It’s like they’re so ghettoized they’ve forgotten the point” – the point being to merge with the mainstream. “The kids that are 25 don’t care,” he adds. “They like having straight people around. They know the new fag hag is a straight man.”

Scratch a gay party promoter and more often than not you’ll find a fledgling political activist; Berkley’s no exception. Especially when it comes to Mayor Giuliani’s relentless war on the city’s nightclubs: “We’re living in Nazi Germany done by Disney right now.” He’s told Gatien that he’d be willing to do events at the Limelight free, because “if that club stays open one day longer than Giuliani’s term, we’ve won.” Over the years, Berkley’s served on his community board, coordinated Heritage of Pride’s nineteenth and twentieth anniversaries, and donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to gay charities. Even HX was conceived as a political statement: “I used to sit in on act-up’s fund-raising meetings every weekend; that’s where I met Matthew Bank. It was 1990, and at the time, Outweek was more or less the only gay publication – Matthew and I used to call it The New York Native Medical Journal, because every week, it was all about dying. There was nothing about what else was going on in the city. That’s how we came up with the idea for HX, as an alternative to that.”

Of course, HX does draw criticism for its heavy focus on party culture: “The other day, a guy called me and asked, ‘Why do you only put buff, beautiful men on the cover? What about the rest of us?’ ” With an exasperated snort, Berkley snaps, “I told him, ‘Well, if I put fat, ugly pigs like myself on the cover, who the hell would read it?’ ” Shrugging, he notes, “You know, people think that’s an evil sentiment. But I don’t think I’m any more evil than the world at large.”

Berkley is brooding in a booth at B Bar’s Tuesday-night party “Beige” – a booth that, brooding aside, is also occupied by the likes of Calvin Klein, Christopher Makos, and peta’s campaign director, Dan Mathews. They’re finishing dinner; Klein and Makos are both exhausted – Klein from moving out of his apartment at the Mercer Hotel, Makos from his extensive book tour in Europe. “Calvin and I have been friends for a long time,” Berkley says. “You know, we’re both middle-class, self-invented men from the Bronx … “

He is brooding because he’s just been fired by the Roxy. Asked why, Berkley cagily responds, “Creative differences. I wanted to be creative, and they didn’t.” It’s a few strokes to midnight and the entourage is taking off, leaving Berkley to mumble darkly about “the Machiavellian chess game” that is gay party promotion, and to drink liberally from an enormous steel canister brimming with Cosmopolitans.

Usually, Berkley claims, he doesn’t drink – but then again, “it’s not every day I’m fired from the Roxy, either.” He’s actually not supposed to drink at all: He takes Neurontin, a powerful medication that helps stabilize his manic-depression. The drug often makes the usually fast-talking Berkley slur his words, or they will suddenly come out ajumble. With a few drinks in him, he grows considerably more subdued.

“When my mother died in 1998, I fell into a very deep depression,” he says. She had been suffering from various medical problems for years, and was living for a time in Berkley’s Chelsea Gardens building. After her asthma and emphysema began to worsen – and ambulances started making regular visits to the apartment – he reluctantly placed her in a nursing home upstate. Within six months, she had died. “I couldn’t stop thinking, If I hadn’t put her in a home, would she have lived?” he says.

The drug that finally got him was the cat tranquilizer ketamine (known as Special K), a dissociative anaesthetic known for its highly hallucinatory effects. “It didn’t work on me that way,” he insists. Instead, the drug made him focus: “I could concentrate on little projects; it made me feel so creative and on top of everything.” During his worst phase, he’d combine ketamine with two or three Rohypnols, the powerful sedative often referred to as the date-rape drug. “It’s the third Rohypnol that always gets you,” Berkley says. Once, he fainted mid-conversation in a D.J. booth; another time, he fell asleep on a balcony and was grabbed by a friend right before toppling off the building. “I was really just self-medicating,” Berkley says. “But now the Neurontin does the trick. Sometimes it makes me so hyper, people think I’m on ecstasy.”

As he talks, he’s habitually interrupted by a cavalcade of boldface names who stop to say their hellos: Madonna’s brother, Christopher Ciccone (“So, when’s the restaurant opening up?”); Vanity Fair’s George Wayne (“You’re having another party, George?”); porn star turned director Michel Lucas. Performance artist David Ilku; NBC’s vice-president of program content, Andrew Brewer; and “Beige” promoter Erich Conrad also swing by. The next Friday, most of them show up in HX’s “Homo Dish” column: “Much like Seussical, the lounge party is filled with a bunch of kids and costumes – only the children are a bit older and wear designer labels.”

Berkley pours another Cosmo and says, “You can’t take any of this seriously – the parties, the schmoozing. You have to take it with a grain of salt, or else … ” He pantomimes putting a pistol to his head and squeezing the trigger. Twice.

“I’m a little anal-retentive, if you can’t tell,” Berkley says. His apartment is big on photographs and entertainment clusters (one in his living room, one in his bedroom), and little else. Most of his bric-a-brac is shoved into a storage closet filled with rows of tiny boxes marked sunglasses, gloves, gift-wrapping paper, batteries, etc. The kitchen is a slender alcove off the living room; the bathroom is the shower – a handsomely minimal silver box that begs to be used in a hard-core porno film. The office for Ms. B’s Parties is adjacent to his apartment; it’s a cramped little space with numerous photos of Mark Wahlberg in rampant Marky Mark mode. (He keeps this office separate from the HX headquarters to ensure that the magazine is relatively independent of his parties.)

In his living room, there’s a picture of Madonna from 1982: She’s leaning against a telephone pole on Houston Street, looking downright chunky and homely in garish boy-toy regalia. Above the dining-room table, there are snapshots of three divas: Madonna, Bette Midler, and Cher – all taken from impromptu live performances at the Roxy.

But never mind the Roxy. Berkley’s been busy since Tuesday night; it’s only Saturday, and he’s already in the process of cooking up half a dozen events to take the place of his old stomping grounds. A Friday-night dance party at Octagon; a gig as promotions director for Heaven, a brand-new Chelsea nightspot; a deal throwing out-of-town parties with Jeffrey Sanker. I ask Berkley why he lives this way, going out every night, promoting three or four parties a week, working eight-hour days in an office, keeping constant tabs on his weekly magazine. “I don’t think that I’m important,” he says.

“That’s my secret. I put myself out there because I don’t think anybody else would. It’s why I’m always talking. I force myself to keep talking because I start worrying that if I don’t, I might vanish completely.”

Ghetto Fabulous