Susanne Bartsch will go to the grave in a look. As dramatic as that may sound, it’s the only suitable ending for New York’s most sustaining nightlife icon. The Swiss-born artist has spent decades cultivating a legacy as the aptly-titled Queen of the Night with an endless stream of parties as unforgettable as the legion of personalities that attend them. Who else can say they hired RuPaul to work events long before he settled into superstardom and also recently gave a platform to queens like Aquaria who won the most recent season of Drag Race?
It is Susanne Bartsch’s fabulous world and we’re just living in it. Yet, despite these claims to fame and enough iconic looks to literally fill a retrospective at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s museum in 2015, Bartsch is unphased by the trail she has blazed for nightlife and the city’s LGBTQ community. As she explains over the phone from Los Angeles, “I just do what feels right. I’m happy to hear that I have left one and that people can relate to things I do. My goal is to keep creating and inspire people. My goal is uniting people.”
Far removed from the skyscrapers of New York, Bartsch has touched down in the city of angels for the premiere of Susanne Bartsch: On Top, a historic new documentary by filmmakers Anthony & Alex. Compounded into a tight hour and a half, the film is at once a greatest hits timeline of her life as well as an intimate look beyond the otherworldly costumes and precariously perched headpieces.
What began with a chance meeting at the nightlife icon’s famous On Top party at The Standard Hotel quickly turned into a deep dive into her influence across the spectrums of art, fashion, and activism — from inspiring Alexander McQueen collections to the 1989 “Love Ball” that set her on a path to raise millions for AIDS research.
We caught up with Susanne, Anthony, and Alex as Susanne Bartsch: On Top made its way to video on demand to talk about mothering generations of drag kids, retirement, and who RuPaul wants to play Susanne in a biopic.
OUT: Anthony and Alex, what was the most difficult part of filming this?
Anthony & Alex: The most difficult thing about doing this was being as sensitive as possible. We’re dealing with Susanne’s legacy. Every time something happens, you want to be there. There’s never an amount of time that’s enough to spend with Susanne to capture that. Wrapping anyone’s life up in ninety minutes is impossible.
Susanne Bartsch: There’s a lot that’s not there. It made sense to focus on the exhibition.
It has a good narrative structure leading to the big FIT exhibition.
A&A: That was one of the most important parts of maintaining the backbone for the film itself. So much of Susanne’s art is ephemeral. You have to be there. We were very lucky that this thing was happening and going to be around for a long period of time while we were filming.
Susanne, you’ve been doing this for over thirty years. How has technology changed the way you interact with club culture?
SB: It’s definitely a challenge. In a way, it’s a gift because you can get a message out in one beat of a heart. The whole world will know. The downside is that people are so overwhelmed with too much information that they’re starting to ignore things. I’m still into phone calls and personal emails. I think it’s more important than ever to do events where people can look at each other’s eyes and feel the energy of each other. The cyber life is surreal. What’s really true? I could be an 18-year-old boy. It keeps me going when I see people get together and enjoy the beat of the music on the dancefloor. It’s such a rewarding feeling to see the joy on people’s faces and to give them a moment where they can be without their phone. It’s a brilliant, beautiful thing.
Ryan Burke in Susanne Bartsch: On Top. Photo courtesy of The Orchard.
Do you feel that you’re a mother to all of these drag kids you’ve met?
SB: They often call me mom. I guess it’s in my nature to nurture people. I enjoy helping and giving. I like people so it makes sense that that’s my role — giving people a club to be whoever they want to be and to let them grow. That’s the secret to being a mother. You have to let your child be themselves. That’s the recipe for mothering: you let people be who they want to be and accept them.
Did you have a mothering figure when you first moved to New York?
SB: Not really, no. I didn’t really know anybody. I came to New York for love and my boyfriend lived in the Chelsea Hotel so I guess the Chelsea Hotel is my mother. When I didn’t have any American dollars on me when I came back from Europe, they’d give me money at the front desk and I’d give it back to them later.
Anthony and Alex, you got your start in experimental live theater. Did you see parallels to that world in the club personalities you filmed?
A&A: This was probably ten years ago that we were directing and writing very experimental theater. It definitely took us back. What Susanne is doing now with The Follies at the McKittrick Hotel is not only so important because there’s nothing like it happening, but it is also very similar to what we were trying to do ten years ago. It’s so difficult to make that kind of theater work financially and to get people to come and see that. There was definitely a lot of people in that film that brought us back to those days.
Susanne, have you ever considered retiring?
SB: No. No retirement. I love what I do and it gives me energy. What would I be doing instead? Going on a trip is great but I would get bored. Creativity for me is gold. If you have an idea that comes from within and make it happen and people enjoy it, that’s the best thing there is. I’ll be in my grave in a look.
Susanne Bartsch in Susanne Bartsch: On Top. Photo courtesy of The Orchard.
Do you feel that you’ve done enough to leave a legacy or is there another goal you have that you want to reach?
SB: I have no goals. I didn’t do anything to leave a legacy I just do what feels right. I’m happy to hear that I have left one and that people can relate to things I do. My goal is to keep creating and inspire people. My goal is uniting people.
I think you’re doing pretty good so far. Towards the end of the film, you’re putting on an eye accessory and you say you won’t be getting any dick tonight wearing it. Have you ever used Tinder or anything to go on dates or do you just bring people home from the club?
SB: No, not yet. I haven’t had to do Tinder. I could be anything on these apps. I’ve been lucky and always had people interested in me. It’s all very organic. There’s nothing wrong with Tinder and all that stuff, but I’m around people all the time at these events.
Anthony and Alex, On Top was one of your first forays into nightlife and club culture. What did you think of that scene before you met Susanne?
A&A: There was a really amazing party in Brooklyn when we first moved here about ten years ago. It was insane and then they shut it down and since then, we’ve had eight years of awful nightlife experiences. It was a bummer so we stopped going out and then when we found Susanne’s world, it opened up this entire thing that shut down to us eight years ago. I think that after this film, we’ll continue to go out more than we did because there is a sense of community that I didn’t even know still existed in New York and is really only at Susanne’s events.
We’re also big appreciators of art and all things pretty and the people who go to Susanne’s events are all incredibly special to see. When we were making the film, they were kind of intimidating. With the energy they give off, I forget they’re human in the sense that there’s such a beautiful ornate thing in front of you. People expressing themselves through the way that they look Is something that, by being with Susanne, has given us an appreciation that we’re almost addicted to. We have an incredible appreciation for nightlife now as an art form.
SB: It’s an art gallery.
Aquaria in Susanne Bartsch: On Top. Photo courtesy of The Orchard.
What do you all want people to take away from this film?
A&A: For us, we want people to take away a sense of personal individual empowerment by watching Susanne’s life and seeing someone who does what they want on their own terms. She enables people to do what they want in a beautiful way. Live outside or inside the box however much you want but just be true to yourself and know that you can do that.
SB: Don’t let fear run your life. My mother had a great line for us growing up. She said: “Winning or losing is not important, it’s important to play.” With the exposure from this movie, I’m getting so many messages from young kids saying I’m afraid and live in this small town. It’s scary what people go through.
Susanne, if there was a biopic made about you, who would you pick to play you?
SB: RuPaul suggested Lady Gaga. (Laughs) She would be perfect.
Susanne Bartsch: On Top is now available on iTunes and all major platforms.