Michael Musto | Longreads | February 2019 | 8 minutes (2,035 words)
Like a really good book, life has given me way more chapters than I ever expected. Alas, I couldn’t have predicted that as an Italian-American kid growing up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn in the 1960s. It was a time of hippie-dippie love and peace — which I read about and saw constantly on TV — though those warm and rosy feelings were apparently reserved only for the young; older people were considered business suited, untrustworthy, corrupt, and pretty much doomed. At the local movie theater, I had the misfortune of catching the 1968 youth exploitation drama Wild In The Streets, in which anyone over 30 was forcibly retired and those over 35 were rounded up for re-learning camps. Seeing this flick at an impressionable age, I wasn’t worldly enough to reject its ideas or realize it was a youth fantasy as perpetuated by the suits. I thought it was a true harbinger of things to come and was horrified by every melodramatic moment. The movie haunted my adolescence, and I went to school sensing that hitting 30 was going to mean the end of meaningfulness, so I’d better live and achieve to the max until I was ready to be carted away.
Well, I’m 63 and not only not retired or in an internment camp, but I’m actually doing pretty well. I have a weekly column on a popular site called NewNowNext.com, I get freelance offers (like this one), and I’m asked to appear on TV and in documentaries to give my opinions on various pop cultural topics through the years. What’s more, having produced four books, I’m often asked by agents and publishers to crank out some more. Shady Pines is not beckoning me in the least — but I wish I’d have anticipated that fact, not only as a kid, but in my late 20s, when I thought I had already peaked as a writer. Yes, I felt like a has-been at 28!
Things certainly started well enough. After graduating from Columbia College with a major in English lit in 1976 (at age 20), I pursued freelance writing, along with steady day jobs, and eventually was able to move from my parents’ place in Brooklyn to an apartment in Manhattan. Not long afterwards, I realized that I was accumulating enough freelance work to make a living out of just that, thrilled that I could subsist as a free-floating agent with bylines everywhere, able to fill my own plate and make my own hours. With assignments from After Dark magazine (a glossy gay monthly), Us magazine (a fawning celebrity magazine, before it became Us Weekly), Soho News (a lively alternative weekly), and the daily newspapers, I was paying the rent and then some, while making a name for myself as an up and coming critic who knew his stuff. But eventually, all that excitement seemed to come to a head. I had become overexposed, and the freelance assignments were harder to come by. Amazingly enough, by 28, I was starting to feel a bit like yesterday’s hash browns. I practically thought the plot of Wild In The Streets had come true! Yes, I had a music review column in Us, but it didn’t get much response and it wasn’t really up my alley anyway. (I’m better suited to critiquing movies, theater, and nightlife.) Then out of the blue came a chance to do all of that when the Village Voice hired me to write my own column in late 1984. I had pitched myself for the job, having done a few pieces for the paper, so they asked me to submit a sample column and meet with the publisher/editor, David Schneiderman, to discuss what I could offer them and vice versa. To my utter shock, I nabbed the gig, which I knew would be a high profile, steady venue for me — and they paid expenses and health insurance too! Best of all, my personal editor there, Karen Durbin, advised me to do whatever I wanted with the column, and I heeded her advice, making it a first person romp through clubs, fashion shows, and show biz events, related with a breathless, idiosyncratic, snarky spin and often a political bent to go with it. This was a bright new chapter for me, and as a result of the column, everything else starting coming my way too. I barely had to pitch myself for jobs anymore, as other publications courted me (I got a long running contract with Vanity Fair), all my new opportunities keeping me wildly busy as I went into a 24-hour cycle of hobnobbing and observing. I was far from over! In fact, I felt like I had finally been given the break I’d long craved, and this was just the beginning. Sure, at 29, I was called a “tired old queen” by a drunken club employee, but I had the feeling he was projecting his own insecurities about that. I still felt full of life, and full of ops.
I had become overexposed, and the freelance assignments were harder to come by. Amazingly enough, by 28, I was starting to feel a bit like yesterday’s hash browns.
And then I wanted more. In the ‘80s, I did a few nightlife-related segments for MTV and loved the chance to branch out into TV work, but that seemed to fizzle, and by 1993, at 37, I was feeling a little restless about just being a writer. Having seen The Gossip Show — a daily E! channel exercise in compulsive dishing where gossip columnists looked at the camera and divulged their best tidbits — I felt the show was missing one thing: Me. So I pitched myself again and launched a whole other chapter. The producer, Gary Socol, knew of my work and had me audition — shades of the Voice — asking me to whip up a 90-second segment consisting of three gossip items. I rehearsed that segment so arduously that when a producer came to my house to tape the audition, she was astonished that I nailed it in one take. I became one of the show’s regulars until it ended about seven years later. What’s more, just like my column had prompted other publications to book me, the same happened with TV. I ended up with a slew of other channels hitting me up for sound bites and appearances, and found myself on Dateline, The Today Show, CBS Sunday Morning, VH1, AMC, Late Night with David Letterman, Best Actress (an E! TV movie), and even a commercial for AT&T.
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TV was gratifying for me because it appealed to my hammy performing instincts — the kind a writer usually doesn’t get to flex — and also it allowed people to put my face together with my name. The result was way more people stopping me on the street to tell me they liked my work, something that, admittedly, fed my ego and made me feel more accomplished. I felt like a rock star at times because at certain boites, people chased me down to meet me, and when I went away to cover events — in places like South Beach and the Bahamas — I couldn’t enter a room without attracting a conga line of admirers. I was never going to be as famous as the celebrities I covered, but I was starting to get a taste of what makes their lives so delectable and head swelling.
Dad had said, “Life begins at 40,” and I always thought he was crazy — especially since I’d been brainwashed to think it ended at 30 — but it turned out he was right. And my 50s were pretty good too, though I started sensing the decline of print journalism, as I gamely blogged for the Voice all day in addition to doing my weekly column. As the Voice kept laying off their marquee names, I had a feeling I might be next, and sure enough, in 2013 — when I was 57 and working harder than ever to keep my job afloat — I was impolitely shown the door. But the great thing about communication media these days is that, thanks to the gossip site Gawker, I learned that I was on the chopping block before it even happened — and so did potential hirers! So, before I was called in to be let go, I had already lined up two new columns! And then, when the Voice got a new owner and new editor, they brought me back to write freelance pieces! I was one of the few old-school Voice writers who were still popping up in their pages and on their site. Last year, whatever was left of the Voice sadly folded, but I already had my NewNowNext column in action, as well as other venues and projects, including appearances on CNN and other channels. I officially now had been granted more chapters than a Tolstoy novel.
I don’t mind being a sort of aged wise man because I know that as a participant in so many scenes, I can vividly tell the truth rather than let others try to fill in the blanks through guesswork.
As a survivor, I also appear in dozens of documentaries about the history of our culture, mainly because I was there, I was coherent, and I remember all. I’ve been in docs about clubs, gay history, Fashion Week, movie stars, and many other topics. I don’t mind being a sort of aged wise man because I know that as a participant in so many scenes, I can vividly tell the truth rather than let others try to fill in the blanks through guesswork. But you don’t want recreating the past like a broken down projector to become your primary purpose — you want to stay relevant — and I’ve been lucky enough to also be asked to weigh in on current happenings. A lot. For a while, I inadvertently became the obit king on cable TV, sort of the new Larry King. I did so well in commemorating Debbie Reynolds’ and Carrie Fisher’s deaths in 2016 that I got called on to do more — from Mary Tyler Moore to Margot Kidder and beyond. Fortunately, I ended up also getting asked to comment on today’s topics as they unfurled, from celebs’ bad behavior to awards show predictions, and was excited to feel like I’m not deluding myself to say I’m still in the game. Being constantly plugged into what’s happening in the culture has been essential for my goal to avoid being just a historian of yesteryear.
Sometime in this decade, the word “icon” even started being aimed at me, and while that’s extremely flattering — especially considering the fact that I’m best known in certain narrow circles — it can also be shorthand for, “We admire what you did in the past, but we don’t particularly care if you keep doing it in the future.” Fortunately, that hasn’t been the case, and I’ve still been allowed the chance to keep making waves and entertain/inform people, albeit under the guidelines of the changing landscape.
Along the way, I’ve had to battle ageism, as people try to write me off as tired or worn out, especially as newer versions of me have popped up with regularity. I’ve also had to fight the fact that social networks provide a platform for virtually everyone on the planet, whereas I used to only have to compete with a handful of New York City journalists. But I’m still afloat and nowhere near the point of starting any kind of GoFundMe campaign. One well-meaning writer recently told me I was “having a wonderful final chapter,” before realizing the awkwardness of his remark and taking it back. But by now, I know how important it is for me to not think of any chapter as my final one, regardless of what others might assume. I know that another one lurks around the corner, as long as I work for it. To stay afloat in any business, I’d recommend extreme perseverance, undying professionalism, and a service that no one else can replicate. If you offer something unique and you are dedicated and aggressive, you will find that your last page is not even close to having been written, no matter how many candles are on your cake. I’m definitely not ready to blow them out yet.
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Michael Musto is a weekly columnist for NewNowNext.com and a freelance writer for outlets from the New York Times Styles section to the Daily Beast. He was the longtime author of the “La Dolce Musto” entertainment and nightlife column for the Village Voice and has authored four books, including the non-fiction guide “Downtown” and the roman a clef novel “Manhattan on the Rocks.” Musto is an awards-related commentator for Goldderby.com and as such appears on CNN to discuss the Oscars and other entertainment topics.
Editor: Sari Botton
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Also In the Fine Lines Series:
Introducing Fine Lines
An Introduction to Death
A Woman, Tree or Not
Dress You Up in My Love
The Wrong Pair
‘Emerging’ as a Writer — After 40
Losing the Plot
A Portrait of the Mother as a Young Girl
Elegy in Times Square