No one photographed Peter Berlin—the porn actor/model/designer with the Dutch boy ‘do and the giant manhood bulging in his skin-tight white pants—better than Peter Berlin. Born Armin Hagen Freiherr von Hoyningen-Huene in Poland in 1942, Peter grew up in Berlin, then moved to San Francisco (where he still lives) and made a splash as a sort of pornographic Ken doll, one whose paths crossed with Sal Mineo, Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, and anyone else who cared about exposed chests and changing aesthetics. In between making adult films like Nights in Black Leather (1973) and That Boy (1974), Berlin took penetrating photos—of the gay sex scene in New York, of interesting friends and collaborators, and mainly of himself. There are photos of him in leather, denim, or nothing but an ascot, with lots of flashing flesh and sultry ‘tude. There’s even a shot with two Peter Berlins—one a sneering master and the other his plaintive servant, waiting to take orders. All that work culminates with the ClampArt gallery show in New York, “WANTED: Peter Berlin” (starting September 10), about which his friend/handler Eric Smith said, “He was the photographer, stylist, clothing designer and model. He specialized in the original selfie, before the advent of digital photography.”
I recently called Berlin for some intimate conversing about his life, art, and enduring sex appeal.
Musto: Hi, Peter. So your photo show consists of all self portraits?
Peter Berlin: I turned the camera on me because I thought, “My God, I look so good.” At that time, I was very sexually driven and I thought, “Why not take a picture of that?”
What were you going for in your unique look?
You have what you have. You were born with a certain look. I wanted to enhance it by dressing up in the way I did. I sure didn’t find the naked body as interesting or erotic as a dressed one. I like the whole idea of dressed from head to toe.
But there are some nudes in your collection.
And these are not my favorite. There are millions of naked bodies--what makes it different is what you do with it. If one lives in California, one could actually walk naked around the street, but to be a naked body is rather boring, so I’d rather have it embellished. Women are much better at that.
But you’ve never done drag, right?
No, it was never my cup of tea. I always wanted to stay in the male area. When I was growing up, when you talked about gayness, you talked about gay men. At that time, the lesbian side was very much underground and separated--which made sense to me because the gay men were looking for other men, not for women. Now, everything is mixing up, and there’s no separation between lesbian, transgender and all these titles. With the fantasy world of women’s drag, you have so much to work with. But I don’t want to do drag.
Peter Berlin then (left) and now (right).
It would be hard for you to tuck your penis, for one thing.
I never in my life talked about a penis. To me, even the word is…Actually there is a difference between the penis and the dick. For me, I felt like not hiding my dick. But I could completely hide it, if I wanted to. You know how small a penis can get? It’s amazing. I bet there are a lot of endowed men who like to wear women’s clothes and can hide it.
But enough about hiding penises. Tell me about your sexploits in the gay ‘70s.
When you’re living in that era, you take it as normal and nothing special. When I was part of Studio 54, everyone was running there. There were big lines outside, and [co-owner] Steve Rubell was standing on some kind of pedestal to look over the adoring people. He said, “Peter you don’t have to be in line.” I was ushered in.
Once inside, people had wild, rampant sex in the balcony. In fact, they had sex everywhere.
Not only was it available everywhere, but in my mind, I thought, “That is really great. I can walk around and do something very sexual, but I’m not getting arrested.” In my naïve mind, I said, “That’s all great, but it could be better.” And then I realized it went backwards. I look back and think, “My God, what a time it was. At least I took advantage of it.”
Did you ever fall in love as a result of one of your anonymous encounters?
I never understood that term “falling in love” or “being in love” or “love”. I avoid that word. I don’t think I ever was in love. I always had friends and I met people on a sexual basis and if it was good, I maybe had another one, but the idea of being in love and focusing on one person, it’s alien to me. In that sense, I’m completely normal, because that’s what men are.
But people do love you as an icon.
People tell me, “You gave me strength. That it’s OK to be gay.” I think, “Oh, it’s nice that I did that.” Not only that, but I gave them a lot of good climaxes because my image was there and available and I was used as a picture of erotic content.
You still are. What do you do these days?
Every morning, I wake up and say to myself, “Do something.” I’m not doing a thing, actually, for decades. I’m very much using my head and I‘m entertained by my own brain. I’m not very happy with my life because I feel I’m wasting my time, but I’m not so unhappy that I do anything about it. Life is actually very simple. We lost that compass of decency, normality, and beauty. We are all running after money and fame. I can’t take it seriously. That’s why I haven’t done anything in years. But I don’t feel good about it.
The excitement I had when I was out for sex—I was driven every night, every night, every night. When I was in that zone of great pleasure of having met someone, that was intense, and I had to work hard for it. It doesn’t fall into place. You ask me was I in love? No, I was in lust. I saw sex as the best workout—good for the mind, the body, and the soul. To me, it’s not the everyday sex that people have—“let’s get it over with” sex. When I was cruising Central Park, or Berlin in the park, because I like outdoors… [drifts off]
What was the most unusual place you had sex in? A bed?
Did I ever have sex in bed? No! A bed is where after sex you go to sleep because you’re so exhausted. But the sex was happening, my God, in the parks. One day I ended up in Central Park, and my God, what a place at night in the summertime, with the smell of blooming trees and flowers. I had a great time in there and in the dungeons. The Mine Shaft [a ‘70s sex club in the Meatpacking District], what a thing it was. I only had the unusual places, and I liked the outdoors—Fire Island, what a place that is.
At the Mine Shaft, did you sprawl out in the famous bathtub and get urinated on, perchance? That was a common occurrence there.
I never had sex in any of those places. I went for being seen and seen. I’m so shy that you would never have seen me having sex. Sex was for me a very intimate, private thing.
But you had sex in the park.
Yeah, but I made sure nobody else was there to watch it. I would have people standing in line [to have sex with him]. Not because I’m so this or that, but because when you’re exhibiting yourself the way I did, people thought, “He might be fun to be with.” Sometimes I went all night long to find the right person. Sometimes I’d climax one, two, three people in the night without even touching them. A friend of mine was very fancy and refined. Well, there he was in the bathtub being pissed on. You pretend you don’t see it. I spent a lot of time in the bathhouses, but I only had sex when I went in little cubicles and locked my door. Isn’t that strange that I never was comfortable? My sexual game was always different—sometimes I didn’t want to fuck or suck or kiss. People would say, “But what do you want?” I’m not very outlandish in what I do. I’m very vanilla. I’m very visual, and that’s why I did the photography. I wish I had the writing ability like you do.
But a picture is worth 1,000 words.
Actually not. The photos are giving people something to look at and the interpretation is so limited. What it really expresses is that people don’t think. They don’t see what I try to express. They just see an exhibitionist who’s running around and wants to get laid. But what I want to do is give people a good time. I did that, and I have the love letters to prove it!
Photo by Garrett Matthew
Another ‘70s icon, plus-sized drag star Divine, gets her own homage in a show at the Fringe Festival (an annual event for people who must really love theater, because there’s never enough air conditioning, lol). Written by E. Dale Smith from a concept by Braden Chapman (a.k.a. drag star Mimi Imfurst), Divine/Intervention takes us to the end of Divine’s life in 1988, as the John Waters cult star is about to do a guest role as a man on Married With Children, a career twist that tragically wasn’t meant to be.
The play assumes the interesting, split-personality conceit of having actor Glenn Milstead banter with his drag persona Divine from opposite ends of a makeup mirror, which segues into revealing flashbacks, monologues, club performances, and snatches of media interviews. The thing is, both Glenn and Divine seem to be loudly unhappy. Glenn doesn’t want to be chained to his high heeled alter ego anymore—he craves “normalcy”—while Divvy never feels as if she’s getting enough respect, or not for the right reasons anyway.
As directed by Chapman, Ryan Walter and Bobby Goodrich are well cast and truly terrific in those roles, and the other actors score as notable figures in Glenn/Divine’s life, like quirky auteur Waters, excitable manager Bernard Jay, and various boy toys angling for their place in the sun. There’s ultimately too much angst and screaming, but Divine/Intervention does a strong job of probing Divine’s dark side and exploring the real feelings behind the false lashes.
Photo of Jonny Beauchamp by Tony Kelly
NEW STONEWALL STAR ISN’T A DRAG
Even older LGBT history was probed when a cute young guy gave me a warm hello at the Hell’s Kitchen country gay bar Flaming Saddles the other night, as eyebrows raised. It was Jonny Beauchamp, who has a major role as Ray/Ramona in the imminent Stonewall movie, playing what he told me is a composite of activist Ray Castro and Stonewall veteran Sylvia Rivera.
Jonny is extremely personable and generous. In fact, after a Flaming Saddles bartender hopped atop the bar to do some elaborate two-stepping, he didn’t think twice about handing the guy a five dollar tip. “He really did amazing stuff up there,” Jonny told me, “plus before we were anything, he used to work at Mother Burger [an HK restaurant], and I’d go to him to get fed. He’d give me a free burger because I was hungry.” Anyone who hands out food to future stars and can also dance up a gay storm on a bar deserves a shot at President, in my opinion. If he also knows who Peter Berlin is, he can definitely be my next husband.
WHAT A WHORL, WHAT A WHORL
I ran into Johnny again, on the streets of HK the very next night! But I was already glowing from having caught up with another fave, Sherie Rene Scott (Everyday Rapture, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) at the opening night bash for Second Stage’s Whorl Inside a Loop. It’s a seriocomic play that she and Dick Scanlan wrote about a slippery white woman who teaches black prison inmates how to “theatricalize their personal narrative” while inadvertently teaching them about the limits of trust. Sherie is quirkily appealing and complex, as always, in the role, which prompted me to approach co-director Michael Mayer at the party and ask, “Is she the new Carole Lombard?” “She’s the new Carole Lombard,” he agreed, “and she’s also the new Goldie Hawn. There’s something about the show that sets you up for a Private Benjamin sort of thing--‘This isn’t the prison I signed up for’—and then completely subverts it in a really smart way.”
I told Sherie about the Lombard/Hawn comparisons and she grinningly replied, “My hairdresser will love that! And I love that no one under 50 will know who Carole Lombard is. ‘Which talk show host is that?’ ” Hey, I will gladly educate them one by one, about Carole, Peter Berlin, Stonewall, and my childhood.
As for the play, Sherie told me, “Dick and I were transformed by our volunteering in prison. We were freed from a lot of prisons that we all live in. We wanted to understand people that were compartmentalized and we got to explore a lot of issues through humor and tension.” Wow, I’d gladly do her hair—and be her kooky yet appreciative best friend—any day.
Miley Cyrus was almost going to be on Broadway! I hear that the singer/twerker—who did great last night as the VMAs host, down to her drag-star-laden finale—was in talks to be a replacement in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, but neither side had committed and the current Hedwig, Taye Diggs, failed to ignite the box office, so the show’s simply closing. Maybe it’s just as well. When another famous woman—Ally Sheedy—played the transsexual character in 1999, it was a bonafide disaster. And I feel Miley’s better suited to another part—Dr. Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I’m serious! Get that wrecking ball out of my face!