When polite society needs a favor from Daniel Nardicio, it usually comes with a caveat.
"I don't get invited to a lot of things," Nardicio says on a recent, gray Monday afternoon as we sit in a glassed-in conference room at his office in Chelsea (the space is shared with a real estate company). Doughnuts are served.
"I was asked to help with a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton," he says. "But we still can't put your name on it," the organizers told him.
In 2012, when he brought together Liza Minnelli and Alan Cumming for a night of cabaret at the Ice Palace in Fire Island ("the gayest evening in history," as he puts it), much of the gay media overlooked the event (it was Minnelli's first time in Fire Island after more than 40 years away), and his name was left out of the
New York Times
"The press always asks to come to my parties, and then never mentions me," he says.
On the other side of the glass behind Nardicio -- reclining, hands behind his head, wearing a jesus loves homophobic bigots T-shirt -- a handful of dowdy brokers mill about their cubicles. Nardicio's director of marketing, Robbyne Kaamil, and his assistant, Sam, discuss the week's agenda: final touches on a Thanksgiving Eve underwear party; getting Irma Thomas, the legendary New Orleans soul singer, to perform in New York; an upcoming office-themed holiday party at the notoriously carnal bar the Cock; blog posts about lube; and finding hotel accommodations for Ricki Lake, who will be appearing on stage with Alan Cumming at Carnegie Hall, in a show Nardicio will produce.
Nardicio, the 49-year-old nightlife promoter infamous for his underwear parties (for 14 years and counting) and the founder of DList, the now defunct gay social media site, is undergoing a transformation of sorts.
"I had to go mainstream because I'm getting older," he says. "Plus, I like the mainstream stuff. As soon as I started doing that, people were like, 'Oh, you're cool. You're legit.' "
In recent years, Nardicio has worked with Shirley Bassey, Margaret Cho, Sandra Bernhard, John Waters, and Chita Rivera, among other top-billed performers.
"I spent a week with Chita. At one point I said, 'You're like the mother I never had.' She said, 'I thought Liza was like the mother you never had.' I said, 'Sadly, Liza was like the mother
I did have.' "
In December, Nardicio produced a Broadway-studded centennial celebration in honor of Edith Piaf, at New York's Town Hall, and he's been in talks with several TV executives, pitching ideas for shows. He's also on a mission to make the Seattle and Provincetown drag performer Dina Martina into a huge star, producing her sold-out Christmas show at B.B. King's in New York, and writing treatments for a TV series centered around her. When Bianca Del Rio moved to New York from New Orleans years ago, he was one of the first to jump into bed with her (professionally speaking). He is also credited with bringing
magazine back from near-death after he got Levi Johnston, the man who impregnated Sarah Palin's daughter at the age of 17, to pose nude in 2010.
On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Nardicio invites me to one of his underwear parties at a multi-level nightclub in Chelsea he's commandeered for the event. Admission is $25. There's a mandatory clothes check upon entry, where a harem of svelte, young men in colorful briefs tend to a palisade of garbage bags stuffed with patrons' clothing. It is, in typical Chelsea fashion, a fairly clean-cut and upstanding iteration of a sex party. One of the jock-strap-clad go-go boys is making his New York debut; Nardicio flew him in from Kansas City that morning.
"This kid sent me everything but his colonoscopy," Nardicio says. It's a common theme in Nardicio's life. Men, often straight guys looking for adulation or a thrill, contact him all the time with sexy photos, making themselves available to dance or model. Sometimes, like tonight, he takes them up on it.
Should Nardicio continue to gallop into the mainstream? To what extent might his filthy reputation hinder him, if at all?
"He manages to fuse the two worlds in a unique way," says Nardicio's close pal Murray Bartlett, who plays Dom in HBO's upcoming
movie. "He's not interested in making anything average. He always veers towards the extraordinary." Bartlett considers Nardicio "one of the best friends I've ever had," and used to work the coat check at some of his events.
"I was fresh off the boat from Australia and suddenly in the midst of a downtown nightlife wonderland. It was eye-opening and exciting for me," Bartlett says. But the larger gay community always seemed equally devoted to and embarrassed of Nardicio and his dark-room empire.
"I think more than ever if someone can still bring a sense of danger to sex, I applaud them," Sandra Bernhard wrote of Nardicio in an email. "We live in a hypocritical society where everyone pretends to be so virtuous. Then you find out what's really going on behind the scenes."
Nardicio's staff has plenty of opinions, too. "I've seen it in the black community, and now I'm seeing it in the gay community," Kaamil says. "When people are kicking your ass, you galvanize. Then as soon as it seems other people are opening their arms to you, you say 'kiss my ass' to your people. It's the same thing in the gay community. As soon as people overcome, they lose their minds."
Nardicio grew up outside Cleveland, and his introduction to the performing arts came at an early age -- his mother was a stripper. She often brought him to work. He came to New York to make it big on the stage but never thought he was very good.
"I love not being on the throne but being the person next to the throne," he says.
After the staff meeting, Nardicio is off to acquire a new companion, a pet Pomeranian, and prepare for the following morning's breakfast meeting with Robert Osborne, the host of Turner Classic Movies. Come sundown, he sidles up to the bar at Sid Gold's Request Room, on West 26th Street, for a date with the Australian pop singer and Instagram muse Kim David Smith, who, with his boyish good looks and pale complexion, is a dead ringer for Nardicio's assistant, Sam.
The two lean into each other over appetizers and red wine. Seven years ago, Nardicio got sober following a particularly difficult period. Both his parents passed away around the time Hurricane Katrina destroyed a house he'd bought in New Orleans.
"After seven years, I wanted to integrate drinking into my life again, and I want to see if it works," he says.
Later in the evening, a couple of Nardicio's friends -- the drag queen Sweetie and burlesque performer Angela Di Carlo -- along with Sam the assistant, join the pair for karaoke in the backroom of Sid Gold's. Nardicio and the bartender, a beaming, no-nonsense blond, sing a duet of "Proud Mary."
"Do you remember when Ike Turner died, and the
New York Post
headline read, 'Ike Beats Tina to Death'?" Nardicio asks. The crowd groans.
Next, Smith takes the stage to belt a rendition of Edith Piaf's "Monsieur et Madame."
"He's married," Nardicio says, a bit deflated. "But I'm still going to fuck him."
"Honey, if you can't make a happy home, ruin one," Sweetie replies.
A week later, Smith is added to the lineup of the Town Hall show.