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  • Heather Cleal, Victoria Applegarth

Meet James St James: Author, Editor, Podcaster, and a former NY Club Kid

© James St James

Join us as we delve into the fabulous adventures of James St James and his "Night Fever" podcast - a glittering journey through the annals of club culture, one unforgettable story at a time.

It’s just after 9:30 on a Monday morning when James St James calls from his Los Angeles home. Chatting over Zoom, he is quick to bring up his current lack of sleep following a weekend spent celebrating a friend’s birthday. Not that anyone could discern a single trace of fatigue; St James remains as exuberant as ever, social batteries apparently re-charged and ready to go.

It’s a kind of infectious energy that can likely be attributed to his former years spent as a Club Kid, reigning over the infamous New York nightlife scene during the late 80s and 90s. Incomparable to other groups before them — and indeed in the years that have passed since — the Club Kids were a self-styled subculture built upon fashion, flamboyance, and excess. Their outrageous antics signalled a radical explosion of youth and pop culture within New York and, ultimately, cities across the globe. It was a time of unconstrained creativity and total freedom for these young revolutionaries. Looking back, it almost feels inevitable that a scene that burned so brightly was destined to crash out.

There also existed a unique sense of urgency within the New York club scene at this time, as the AIDS epidemic decimated gay communities and nightlife culture. It led to a collective ‘now or never’ attitude; as St James recalls, “You would meet someone [at a nightclub], and then a month later, they’d be gone. Everyone was terrified and freaked out. You had to live each day as if it were your last. It was sort of like ‘dancing on the lip of a volcano’ – you might fall into it at any moment, but you’re going to dance as hard as you can. That made for some memorable characters and memorable nights. It made for a really interesting time that I don’t know that you can ever replicate again.”

It’s a reality of the world we find ourselves in: as we continue to ‘contentify’ our daily lives and experience our very existence via social media, how does a former Club Kid feel about our modern — and highly manufactured — sense of fun? “I was out last night, and about three-quarters of the time, everybody was posing for pictures to document the events, as opposed to actually living the event,” says St James. Whilst we’ve undoubtedly sacrificed an element of authenticity amidst the curation of our digital selves, St James is quick to reassure us of the advantages for today’s trailblazers and trendsetters, “It always comes down to finding your tribe. Now, you can find your tribe online… It’s the idea that it's like one global Freak Show!

© Disco Bloodbath by James St James

He is, of course, referring to his own book of the same title, published in 2007, and telling the story of teenage drag queen Billy Bloom as he navigates his ultra-conservative surroundings. For St James, it’s a story inspired by his own experiences growing up in Florida before he ultimately found his way onto the Manhattan club scene. Freak Show was far from St James’s first foray into auto-biography, however. In Disco Bloodbath St James details his experience as a New York celebutante, including his close friendship with the notorious promoter and eventual ‘club killer’ Michael Alig.

For St James, learning of the murder of fellow Club Kid Andre “Angel” Melendez at the hands of Alig served as a brutal awakening. Shattering everything he knew and loved about the New York club scene, it ultimately led him to the path he now finds himself on. ““It was a realisation that everything I thought I knew was a lie; everything I thought I felt about New York and ‘the scene’ was wrong. I knew, in that moment, that my life was going to be changed forever and ever. I could never go back to that innocence and that happiness that I had,” he reflects.

Prior to this, fabled venues such as Area and Danceteria had closed their doors for good, and those still open suffered under the hand of a political campaign committed to stamping out the city’s nightlife. As Republican Mayor between 1994 - 2001, Rudy Giuliani made it his elected mission to demonise the club scene in the name of reducing crime, targeting club owners such as Peter Gatien — the so-called ‘King of Clubs’ and friend of St James. Alig’s murder conviction was no doubt the final nail in the coffin for the Club Kid.

St James felt he had little option but to escape the sinking wreck that surrounded him, “I knew that my life was about to become a series of trials…so I got out of New York as fast as I could.” Winding up in Los Angeles, he soon crossed paths with producer’s Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato at World of Wonder (the production company behind his current podcast Night Fever), who persuaded an initially reluctant St James to share the inside story of Alig’s dizzying rise and subsequent downfall from the heights of the New York club scene; “they said that was the only way to exorcise this demon,” recalls St James, “I realised that I was just going to have to accept that it was going to be a part of my life, and you have to either deal with it or die from it.” And so a memoir was born in the form of Disco Bloodbath, which was later adapted for the screen by World of Wonder in the form of both a documentary and a 2002 movie starring Home Alone’s Macauley Culkin.

Despite an initial desire to draw a line under his past, his relationship with Alig, and the New York scene, it’s an experience St James now understands put him on another path. Launching his “Night Fever” podcast in 2021, he dives headfirst with Fenton and Randy into the glittery abyss of the 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s New York club scenes, chatting with the folks who built its empires.

"At first," St James exclaimed, "I was like, 'Dear God, please no! These are the people I've been avoiding for three decades!” In fact, he now realises that he is the perfect person for the role; “I know these people, I know where the bodies are buried, I know the stories, I know what’s funny. And I’m able to do this in a way that probably no one else can.”

The first episodes of "Night Fever" are all about St James himself - a compelling tale of how he came to New York, spearheaded by his encounter with '80s 'it girl' Diane Brill. Then came the nightlife journalist Michael Musto, who took St James under his wing and set him on this unforgettable journey. And Lisa Edelstein? Well, she was St James's bestie, naturally.

Fast forward three seasons, and the podcast has evolved into a mosaic of personalities, stories, and scenes that weave together to create an enchanting tapestry of club culture. As St James says, "There’s an interconnectivity with everybody, and [each] sort of builds on every other person."

But, in the world of podcasting, it's not just about glitz and glamour. St James gets down to the nitty-gritty, chatting with icons like Jayne County about the legendary Stonewall era and punk rock. Then, Cherry Vanilla joins the party, who happened to be David Bowie's manager and lover during the Ziggy Stardust days. And it keeps going! St James, determined as ever, has a list of about 100 people he's itching to get on the show. Amanda Lepore and Tammy Janowitz are on that list, and he is leaving no stone unturned to make it happen. As he puts it, "sometimes these people are just squirrely as hell!"

© James St James

So, why is this podcast so important? St James puts it best: "So many of the people that we talk to are getting older... you need to embrace your elders and get the stories out of them before they’re gone, otherwise, these stories are going to be lost to history…I hope that I'm providing a document of a period that is sort of slipping away.”

Take Brian Belovitch, for instance - a transgender superstar in the '70s and '80s, previously known as Tish Gervais. Brian's journey, which involves de-transitioning, sex work, and identity, moved St James deeply. He said, "I didn’t know these stories, and [this] was my friend that I’ve known for 30 years. At one point, he said that Tish was an angel who came down from heaven and held his place until Brian was ready to be Brian again. I’d never thought of gender as a placeholder; it was just an amazing story, and I was in tears the whole time."

Such stories are all the more poignant in today’s society, where reports of attacks on queer and transgender individuals are all too common, and politicians in states such as Tennessee, Texas, and Florida seem determined to stomp out LGBTQIA+ progress. As St James states: "For a while there, I felt like we were sliding back into the 1950s, and then it started feeling like Victorian times, and now it feels like the Spanish Inquisition."

It serves as a stark reminder that even in an age of progress, prejudice persists. St James drew a striking parallel, likening it to the Salem Witch Trials, where the “people who just want to spread a little of their glitter around” are met with suspicion and hatred.

The impact of these anti-drag laws is felt not only within the drag community but also resonates across the broader spectrum of queer culture, highlighting the ongoing struggle for acceptance and equality in various parts of the country and that the battle for LGBTQIA+ rights remains a pressing and vital issue.

© James St James

And his advice for the next generation of queer individuals?

I think it’s about sticking together. Just last week, a boy (O’Shae Sibley) who was voguing at the gas station was killed in New York. There needs to be protests every single day – what Black Lives Matter did with George Floyd, that needs to happen with every group of people whose rights are being stepped on. We need to stay organised, stay focused, and stay together. Do not let it run out of steam. We need to remain vigilant. You can march, [you can] give money – It’s the ACLU Drag Defense Fund that helps push against anti-drag legislation.”

So, where does this rollercoaster lead us? Are we heading toward a better world, or could darkness overtake us, à la "The Handmaid's Tale"? St James confessed, "I guess for every step forward, you’re going to get that rubber band snap back in the opposite direction. Maybe it’s the last gasp of a dying group of people; maybe we are headed towards a better world? I don’t know where the future is going – we seem to be at this sort of crossroads ahead of us.”

Looking back, St James's life has been marked by challenges and setbacks, but his resilience shines brightly:

“You're gonna get everything that you want. But it's not how you think it's going to be; every dream will come true. But it's not what you're expecting. But just roll with it and keep going because it gets better. It doesn't get better because the problems evaporate; it's just that the older you get, the more you are able to cope with the problems.”

Reflecting on life’s invariable trials and tribulations, for St James it’s often about putting one fabulous foot in front of the other. To end, he rounds up our chat with a quote from one of his favourite works of literature:

There's a great short story by Samuel Beckett called ‘I can't go on, I'll go on’, and I say that to myself every day. It’s like you have no choice but to just keep putting one foot in front of the other otherwise, the tsunami of life will wash over you. There have been times when I’ve just wanted to give up, but I guess I’m a fighter. I just always have that in me, where I’m going to keep going until the next battle, climbing the next mountain. I can’t go on, I’ll go on!

Follow James St. James on Instagram and listen to ‘Night Fever’ on Spotify


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