After Andy Warhol’s death in 1987, there was a void. The iconic artist had commandeered the New York scene for his own devices for decades — and when he died, there was a short window of opportunity for someone else to step up and into the spotlight. Enter the Club Kids, a rag-tag band of misfits with oversized, personally crafted personas and outrageous looks, their moniker minted in a 1988 New York magazine cover story.
You know their names: Lady Bunny, RuPaul, Amanda Lepore, and more. Unofficially helmed by club promoter Michael Alig and bouncing around nightlife hotspots like Pyramid, Area, Tunnel, and Limelight, the group represented a seminal moment in culture, notably encapsulated in the 2003 film Party Monster. Walt Cassidy, an artist and jewelry designer then known as Waltpaper, was there when it all happened, as documented in his new book New York: Club Kids by Waltpaper.
Here, Cassidy opens up about how the era was a hotbed of ideas that have blossomed into modes of thought today, and the legacy of what some call “New York’s last true subculture.” Preview the book here.
What prompted you to create New York: Club Kids?
When you look at a lot of the popular topics of present-day culture — things like the gender revolution, reality television, [social media] influence, this idea that personalities and lifestyles can be branded — those were all new concepts that came about in the ‘90s. People wanted to know if you were a performer or if you had a product, and the Club Kids presented their personalities and their lifestyles as products. The question of, “Well, what do you do?” didn’t really matter. The Club Kids felt what they did was enough for you to pay attention, for us to go on TV and establish a certain notoriety and to position [ourselves] within the mainstream consciousness. That’s an idea that we know very well now through social media.
The primary focus for the book was paying tribute to the photographers [of the time] because if it hadn’t been for their work and commitment the Club Kids wouldn’t exist. It was about uncovering, paying tribute, and acknowledging the photographers because they were in the trenches with us every night. They were our Instagram, so they were the ones capturing these moments and filtering them into various media.
The Club Kids were the sort of last subculture of the analog world, so we were using all that media in that way and the photographers were absolutely essential to that formula.
In the book you explained how your relationship with and philosophy of fashion was about shaping how people received and approached you, which wasn’t uncommon for the Club Kids.
We're basically talking about how you develop and define your personal identity as a brand, and back then, since there wasn't the profiling that exists with social media where you define who you are by your online profile, the only way to really convey to the general public what you were about was the way you dressed. You had to say it with your clothes and you had to literally take it out onto the streets during the daytime and into the clubs at night. You were a walking advertisement for yourself. With the Club Kids specifically, there were certain details within that formula — like the name that you chose for yourself which would always give some indication of your personality, or the things that you were interested in, or whatever you did aside from being a Club Kid.
For me, choosing the name Waltpaper was a direct reference to the fact that I was doing illustration and painting at that time. I was doing pen and ink drawings on paper and that's what I became known for as an artist.
I talk a lot about shoes in the book and how we developed and used the shoes to mark our identity and sort of give an indication of our personality, and fashion was that complete tool. You said everything that you needed to say about yourself through your look, and people just walking down the street or attending a nightclub could look at you and sort of do the math and go, "Okay, this is about this, this, and that," based on what you were wearing when they met you. Your name, your identity, and your expression became a whole package. It was something that was not random or accidental. We were very conscious of what we were putting out and we were very conscious that we were the products ourselves.
Today, you can obviously be initially introduced to someone through their words on Twitter or Facebook or blogs. Do you think fashion still holds the same power?
Well, I think it’s probably easier to fake it now because you have this veneer that’s put out, whereas in the ‘90s you actually had to physically show up and present it. You kind of had to walk the walk. Now, I think it’s probably easier because we have this wall of technology where people can put out images and profiles of themselves that are maybe not totally true or accurate. You can certainly manipulate photos to look a certain way. You can broaden your shoulders, or tighten your waist, or clean up your skin.
The challenge in the ‘90s was you got what you saw. So if you were going to do beautiful makeup, it had to be beautiful in person. There was no retouching, there were no filters. That’s one of the most impressive elements of the photography — you can really see how dynamic people were in the flesh. There was so much perfection and so much beauty in their expression. Just look at the makeup. There was no special filters or Photoshop, you took a photograph and that was what people looked like in person. It was incredibly impressive to experience that.
In the book there’s an image of Amanda Lepore on a talk show, and her chyron says,“Dresses to get attention.” Would you say that’s a good description for Club Kids at-large? Or did you all dress for yourselves and the attention just happened as a result?
WC: It was both. On one level, we would have been expressing ourselves whether or not we had the public attention. We were sort of doing it through our own creative motivations, but we were well aware that we were having this dialogue with the public. We had been dealing with the AIDS crisis all throughout the ‘80s, and we huddled together as a community to protect ourselves and attempt to find solutions to this pandemic that was happening. So by the time we get to the ‘90s, we’ve been processing for basically a decade, and we had become almost ghettoized in [the LGBTQ+] community out of self-preservation.
People just wanted to sort of break out, loosen up, and get some air from that whole experience. The Club Kids weren’t about hiding out and projecting this sense of heteronormativity to the general public. We wanted to get in people’s faces. We felt that we had a place within mainstream society and culture; we didn’t feel like we needed to be this hidden underground subculture. We wanted to be right up there with Oprah Winfrey, and we used daytime talk shows to do that.
That rejecting of respectability politics and saying, “I am who I am, take it or leave it,” is quite contemporary.
There was also this notion, at least within underground culture, that by becoming too public and integrated with the mainstream that you were somehow selling out, or compromising on the integrity and the ethics of alternative culture. And the Club Kids were very much about challenging that. I draw some comparisons in the book. When they talk about the gender revolution that we’re so focused on now, the Club Kids had a certain parallel experience with the [transgender] community, mainly because a lot of the trans personalities at that time found shelter, work, and community under these Club Kid umbrellas and at these mega clubs, because that was really the only place they could find work — it was either in a huge nightclub or in the sex industry.
What’s interesting about comparing Club Kids to the trans experience is that both communities embrace the notion of a blurry line and fluidity, versus the more sort of mainstream aspects of the gay community, like cis gay boys, and also even drag [performers]. When you think about drag it’s kind of a rigid form, in that you have a man who’s basically dressing up to be a woman. The Club Kids, and also the trans community, embrace this notion of the blurry line. That things didn’t have to be so rigid, and that we weren’t providing an inverse of straight culture. The Club Kids format was a training wheels moment for a lot of people, where they would come out of their shell and evolve into something else. We were sort of opening ourselves up to more abstract and fluid ideas of expression.
New York: Club Kids by Waltpaper, $55, available October 3 at amazon.com and at other online retailers. The book is currently available for pre-order.
This article appears in Out's 2019 Fashion Issue covered by Janet Mock and Dan Levy. The issue will be available on newsstands on October 1. To get an advanced look at the issue, preview other articles here, or view it on Apple News+, Kindle, Nook, and Zinio beginning September 24. Grab your copy by subscribing now.