The Club Kids were a famous – or perhaps infamous – group of New York City dance club personalities in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Now considered the world’s first influencers, the group rose to prominence on the dance floors of New York’s most popular nightclubs before social media was even a thing. The Club Kids included Michael Alig, James St. James, Julie Jewels, DJ Keoki, and Ernie Glam in its first iterations. In the 1990s, the group grew to include Amanda Lepore, Waltpaper (Walt Cassidy), Christopher Comp, It Twins, Jennytalia (Jenny Dembrow), Desi Monster (Desi Santiago), Keda, Kabuki Starshine, and Richie Rich.
James St James
The Club Kids captured the public’s attention in large part due to its members’ flamboyant behavior, outrageous costumes, enviable access, and in the end, their obsession with excess. The group was recognized first and foremost as an artistic and fashion-forward youth culture, and secondly as a tour de force within New York’s underground club culture at the time. While their eventual downfall was marked by a grizzly murder and a precipitous change in New York city night life, several of the Club Kids have made long-lasting contributions to mainstream art and fashion. The movement’s aesthetic was dominated by sex, gender fluidity, and DIY fabulousness.
Michael Alig first moved to New York City in 1984. In 1987, he supplanted Andy Warhol as a leading New York partier. As Alig and his friends’ influence grew within the club scene, so too did their access to premier parties, cultural influence, and drugs. The group began throwing their own “outlaw” events, which would spring up at a New York City Burger King, an ATM vestibule, or the old High Line tracks, where party goers would show up fully costumed and ready to hijack whatever location they had decided to co-opt for the night. At the height of their cultural influence, the Club Kids toured the United States, throwing parties at clubs all across the country and recruiting new members. To much of Middle America’s horror, group members appeared on talk shows like Geraldo, The Joan Rivers Show, and the Phil Donahue Show to talk about their exploits in the club scene.
Throughout the duration of the Club Kids’ reign, Michael Alig was plagued by drug addiction. He continued to add drug dealers to the group’s roster, and in turn, contributed to a rise in drug addiction among the group’s members. As the 1990s began, the Club Kids became occupied by a younger group of personalities that were discovered and mentored by Alig. Many of the primary Club Kids lived together in large triplex apartments, and at the Chelsea Hotel and Hotel 17. Prominent music personalities like Bjork were seen hanging with the club kids, and actress Chloë Sevigny rose to fame through her association with the group.
The Club Kids movement’s downfall began when Michael Alig, along with his roommate Robert “Freeze” Riggs, murdered reputed drug dealer Andre “Angel” Melendez in their apartment after a fight over a rumored drug debt in March of 1996. Alig and Riggs then dismembered Melendez’s body and threw his remains into the Hudson River. They were eventually arrested 9 months after the murder, when details began to emerge within their friend group about the murder. At the same time, Rudy Giuliani was elected Mayor of New York City in the mid-1990s and began a “Quality of Life” crackdown on the City’s nightlife. This “crackdown” had an indelible impact on the City’s queer, of color, and dance cultures, and ushered in a new era of surveillance and policing in New York. The Club Kids dissipated as the City’s nightlife continued to deflate, and the group faded into obscurity, even though some of its members remained culturally significant artists, musicians, and designers.