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So What Do You Do, Michael Musto?

"I had the luxury of going on a madcap trolley ride through Gotham's twilight zone in a trashy, man-about-town whirl that was part Proust, part garbage pail."

By Rachel Kramer Bussel - January 8, 2007

Over the past 22 years, Michael Musto's name has become synonymous with a kind of uninhibited, in-your-face gossip that both New Yorkers and those who want to dwell in the epicenter of the media universe gobble up each week in his Village Voice* column, "La Dolce Musto." What began as a third of a page and "grew like a fungus" (as Musto himself puts it) is now one of the most recognizable sources of Big Apple gossip thanks to its brash, no-holds-barred style. In his first greatest hits collection hitting shelves now, La Dolce Musto: The Zaniest Writings by the World's Most Outrageous Columnist (Carroll & Graf), Musto reveals a few of his secrets while spouting off on everything from a pre-Jen-and-Angelina Brad Pitt ("an enigma who quietly forces you to succumb to his ambiguities") to Madonna and Lindsay Lohan ("I value you as an actor even as I devour you as a good-copy machine").

Musto doesn't escape his sarcastic tone, mocking his ubiquitous talking-head appearances, but what might surprise readers most impressed by his all-blind-item columns (some of which are included in the book) or who recognize him only for his fondness for outing celebrities like Rosie O'Donnell are his emotional, impassioned, and moving pieces on the AIDS crisis: "You want to shoot it -- throttle the virus with your bare hands until it knows what pain is and goes away. You want to yell at it, talk sense to it, blow it up, make it run far from this place." These are some of the most powerful -- and least flashy -- pieces in the book.

While Musto now also freelances for Out and other publications, all the pieces in his debut book are either columns or feature stories originally published in The Village Voice. A glimpse into his early days reveals the excitement of shaking up the gossip establishment: "I had the luxury of going on a madcap trolley ride through Gotham's twilight zone every night and reporting my first-person thoughts -- sometimes even favorable ones -- in a trashy, man-about-town whirl that was part Proust, part garbage pail." Speaking by phone recently, Musto revealed his penchant for partying seven-nights-a-week, explains ethical dishing, and why when it comes to gossip, blogs are the new black.

How did your Voice column "La Dolce Musto" come about?
I was writing for the Soho Weekly News, another alt weekly, and I had done a few pieces for the Voice for Karen Durbin who was the arts editor. When there was an opening, Karen considered me. They wanted an injection of downtown nightlife mixed with celebrity and humor. They gave me the ball to run with; there were no limitations.

What appealed to you about the idea of writing a gossip column?
With mass market magazines, freelancers have very few rights, you're asked to format into a very strict formula for that particular magazine. The Voice column was really freeing and cathartic, the only limits being libel and incorrect facts, and they have libel lawyers and fact checkers. "Otherwise, go too far." That spins your head around as a freelance writer. I'm spoiled now; it's hard for me to write for anyone else, I hate taking orders.

What was the landscape for gossip like then?
There was not a lot of snark. It was literally press releases rewritten, a lot of puffy journalism, and as far as celebrity sexuality, nobody went there; it was considered a huge taboo. For me to start throwing hints and curveballs and rumors and outing... I was the weirdo in the corner. Now, all these years later, it seems like everybody caught up with that and it seems like I'm some kind of pioneer.

You praise the gossip blogs for pushing the envelope, even though it's made your job tougher.
I'm in favor of the blogosphere. It pushes everything a little forward. It forces the print columnists like myself to work harder, and it's opened up the realm of possibility for gossip. Bloggers can get away with anything; it's like a Wild West situation. Some of it is erroneous and some of it is what you'd find in print columns.

When you read a press release in a daily column, it's generally erroneous because it's from a publicist who's paid. [The blogosphere]'s a burst of fresh air that can only shake things up; it just makes me work harder to stay relevant. For the columnists who are dangling on the precipice of obsolescence, the blogosphere is making what they do seem all the more archaic.

What do you think about the flak blogger Perez Hilton's been getting for outing celebrities like Neil Patrick Harris?
I know what it's like for someone to vilify you for calling them gay, Rosie O'Donnell called me a gay Nazi. Perez is going through the same process and I think what we're both trying to do, Perez and I, is say there's nothing wrong with a celebrity being gay. If you find that unreportable, you're making homophobia the last taboo and you're projecting your own distaste for the subject.

I've written entire articles about Anderson Cooper -- while understanding why he might not want to come out personally, his reticence doesn't mean I can't go there.

What is your philosophy about what you call "ethical dishing?"
The gossip world is a world of conflict of interest and I'm certainly part of that on some smaller level. You do everything you can to present both sides of the story, but you still have to give publicists the decency of allowing them their point of view in the reporting. I really tend to stay away from anonymous people who email me things because these people are generally just making things up or they have an agenda. If they're not gonna cop to who they are or their relationship to the story, I try to shy away from them.

I am allowed to take press junkets, but I generally stab people in the back in my write-ups. It's almost like bad manners what I do.

What do you think of the Jared Paul Stern case?
It's good that it came to the surface -- the gossip world needs a purging. It's just the tip of the iceberg.

In terms of Jared's involvement?
I would still love to the see the full transcript and see the context of his asking for the money and what that was related to, even if he was asking for a giant lump sum...

Jared's trying to claim total innocence, it's a gigantic mess that should never have happened. You don't meet with someone you're trashing in an attempt for them to get better coverage.

[Covering gossip] sounds liberating in that you could write whatever you wanted, but did you have trouble getting access to parties or events?
You go up and down in waves of popularity, that reflects the way celebrities are hot and then not hot and then hot again. I was shocked to see that nobody cared that much and I wasn't getting that much access to anyone, that made the column more bitter.

In the '90s, New York magazine did a cover story on the gossip world and gave me a great rating about my column and then every publicist got on board.

I started getting booked on E! and these other channels and that helped my visibility a lot. Ever since then, my access has been tremendous: premieres, Broadway shows... I have carte blanche in the nightlife scene. If I am turned away from something, there's always something else to write about; I'm not dependent on being on every single guest list.

Do you ever have writer's block?
There are times when you're in a panic when there seems to be nothing on the horizon, in the dead of summer or dead of winter. Sometimes you wind up with your best columns. It forces you to dig deep into your psyche for some crazy idea or high concept. You pull a rabbit out of the hat, and it's something kind of refreshingly different. Sometimes it's fun to riff on one topic instead of zigzagging around to different parties or find some offbeat personality to profile, but it is scary. Once I have the material at my fingertips, I can pretty much sit at the computer and start writing. I'm very good at it and have never missed a deadline. When I think about the daily columnists and how they have to write six columns a week, I feel less sorry for myself.

What's your schedule like? How often do you go out?
I go out literally every night.

Because you have to?
I could probably go out three nights a week if I wanted to coast and just turn in something, not caring what it was. I'm extremely driven to go out every single night. That's partly a reflection of a personal emptiness in my life. I don't want to sit home alone and watch TV and order takeout, I'd rather be out with the fabulous people immersing myself with the glitz and glitter and excitement, so I go out more than I really need to.

When do you write?
I wake up at about 9:30. I'm not out past 2:30 usually, I'm not one for all nighters and after hours clubs. I can write sometimes during the day.

I could go to a 6 [p.m.] screening and write for two hours and then go to a nightclub. The writing comes at any time and usually when I'm at an event, I can't wait to run home and start writing about it; I'm dying to put down my ideas. The column evolves during the week. I put each thing in the column, and work in the segues and transitions all week long, and turn it in Monday morning.

With the Web extras, if there's breaking gossip and something I want to add, I'll throw it online as a Web extra. I do that whenever something happens that I want to get out to the readers, and don't want to wait a week put it online as a freebie.

Has the new ownership of the Voice affected you?
No, not at all. I've been through many owners and many editors. It's bizarre. I feel like the last one voted off the island. They've been nothing but good to me.

Do you use quotes from a given interview for multiple publications?
If I'm employed by a given magazine, it's for that magazine, but what I might do is use my Voice column to say "in the new issue of Out so-and-so does something amazing" and do a little blurb as that. I try to separate everything. Generally everything is as a result of the Voice column -- Out and TV appearances -- it all stems from having the Voice as a home base, so I treat that with a lot of seriousness.

"Sandra [Bernhard]'s one of the best interviews; you just press record and let her mouth rip. I've never actually met Madonna, but before she was famous, we both shared a bill at a nightclub. She was a horror even then."

Do you have any favorite celebrities you cover?
The two biggest presences are Madonna and Sandra Bernhard. The high point of sexuality gossip was when the 2 of them were pretending or not pretending to be girlfriends. The triangle of Madonna, Sandra and Ingrid [Casares] was too delicious for words. Sandra's one of the best interviews; you just press record and let her go, let her mouth rip.

I've never actually met Madonna, but before she was famous, we both shared a bill at a nightclub. She was a horror even then. She soundchecked the club for hours so my band never got to do a sound check, we were sharing a dressing room, but we couldn't greet our friends because Madonna was getting ready. She was just a diva. I've had the opportunity to meet her but I've let it go. I think she's fascinating. She's done more than any politician to change society and push everybody's buttons.

"The Kids in the Hall" one is among my favorite columns because it wasn't a formal interview. We all kind of went out to clubs and it became this kind of sexual game playing and flirting and rejection; that's the thing you can't do anymore. Celebrities are too protected in front of journalists. That's probably what I miss the most. You could run through clubs and go up to celebrities who were just standing there by themselves and get them to say something on the record.

Do you have any advice to someone wanting to break into the gossip world now?
Be tremendously aggressive but not to the point where somebody needs to get a restraining order on you. Develop your own voice -- sheer imitation will get you nowhere. Try to find your own point of view. Be brazen and reckless and different and funny and have a sense of humor. Being self-deprecating has worked for me, and being honest about myself: There was my seizure disorder, and being a slut. I put all that on the table. It's kind of the Joan Rivers point of view.

Have you ever been sued?
No, and that's the most shocking thing about me. Occasionally we've gotten a threatening letter, always from a minor personality. Nobody's ever gone through with a lawsuit -- I've gotten away with murder. Nobody really wants to take it to the next level where there's a court case having everything I know about them brought out. Usually, when you tell the truth, that's when they're the most angry and their buttons are pushed. The truth really hurts sometimes.

Do you have any regrets about anything you've written?
No, and that's another shocker. I never think "I shouldn't have written that."

I spend the whole week going through [the column with] editors, copy editors, libel lawyers; I'm not just throwing something out there and seeing if it sticks.

A lot of my PC writings were screechy and screaming -- [the ones about] David Geffen and Pat Buckley -- but I meant every word of it. People forget what a dark age that was. Now, when I'm writing angry things about people, I temper it with a little more humor so I never have to feel like 'This is too harsh' or 'This is undeserved.' I've had celebrities come up to me and say, 'You were right about what you wrote about me.'

Like who?
Jason Bateman. I made fun of one of his award speeches and how self-indulgent it was, and he said, 'You were right, I really was awful.'

You're a celebrity in your own right. How does it feel to be written about? Does that give you a different perspective on writing about others?
Being written about does help you understand more about what it feels like to be a subject. I'm just a modest New York celeb, but still you get a taste of how horrible it is when people write erroneous or hideous things -- especially with the blogosphere [where] people are free to post anonymously about how ugly and stupid you are. But, you become inured to it and just keep going. It bugs you, but you just have to think, 'Hey, I must be somebody if they're so angry or hateful about me. They certainly notice me, and that mixes in with all the good.'

Was there any particular moment when you said to yourself, "I've arrived?"
Writing "Life During Wartime," at the height of AIDS. I was pouring out all my emotions of grief and terror and rage about what it was like to live in New York in the really dark era of AIDS, so that's something different that was a real achievement for me.

Are you ever bored?
I don't get jaded, and that's very important in staying fresh. I guess I was jaded from birth. I still love the job, and I always feel like this is the first column and I'm gonna get discovered. I have a fan mentality. I basically worship [celebrities] and that's why I'm disappointed when they deserve the knocking down.

There are times when I don't want to cover the same thing every year for 10 years in a row. Certain events -- like the CFDA awards, or whatever that you get too in the habit of covering every year -- you try to go in a different direction to try to stay fresh.

Is it a challenge for you to write for a weekly when your competitors are publishing daily or more than once a day?
It's a nightmare situation. You have some incredible scoop and are waiting five days, praying, and Page Six gets everything. Now that there are these blogs, they'll get it five minutes after it happens. That's great for everyone except for me. A long time ago, when Ellen DeGeneres was going out with Anne Heche, all the media was reporting they were best friends, I had sources telling me they were openly making out in lesbian bars.

I called Page Six and they ran it as their lead item and credited me, and they said to look for my column in the next Village Voice. You have to use tricky moves like that, and now with the blogs, I just give up. My column wasn't always so item-driven, anyway, so it's not that much of a problem. It's more about my experiences than it is about celeb items, but when I do have [a celeb] item, it's a nightmare trying to hold on to it.

You want credit if you're the first one there. You really want credit for having been the one that got the information. As the Michael Alig thing was unfolding, I was rushing out everything I knew whether it was a blind item -- I had my ear to the [ground], I was the one trying to rush the information out as much as I could.

You include a few of your very popular all-blind-item columns in the book. How did you get started doing those?
I started expanding them and doing entire columns of them, but it's not because it isn't true, but because you don't have physical evidence. You don't have the x-ray of the gerbil, you don't have the severed body parts, so for legal reasons you make it a guessing game, and strangely enough it makes it more appealing. It becomes an interactive game.

People love the delicious torture of getting a clue here and there, and thinking they know who it is but they're not sure -- they can talk it over at the water cooler. The ones I put in here are really old, but they still hold up. I'm trying to remember who some of these answers are!

Do you get a lot of feedback from readers?
It's mostly positive -- people are really great. If you write about Michael Jackson or Clay Aiken, their fan base will mobilize and they mass assault you by email. Usually they're barely literate and they can't really read the item, and they know that they're supposed to be angry. I'm angry that I'm disliked by the retards.

I've had anonymous death threats, stalking, harassment -- it's not by fans, but by people who are hired by celebrities. Fans are terrific.

Has that ever made you fearful?
It's made me more resolute to keep writing what I want. I'm not somebody who can be bullied. The more you try, the more I'm gonna print what I've got. I'm not afraid of anonymous cowards, people who are the real scum of society.

Was it a challenge to cull the pieces for your book from a twenty-plus-year career?
It was difficult because I have literally over 1,000 columns. There were some I had to have: AIDS, Anita Ekberg, Sandra Bernhard -- Musto's greatest hits. I read through each and every one of the other ones to pick out a good selection from coverage of celebrities, nightlife, gay politics. It was a daunting task but it's still much easier than writing a book from scratch, which I've done [Downtown, about the downtown scene, and a novel, Manhattan on the Rocks].

Are most of your readers in New York?
I think online I attract people all over the world, a lot of whom have never been to New York. A lot are people who had to leave New York for whatever reason and miss it drastically. They're getting a taste of it through my column. And people who eventually end up moving to New York, they love seeing a glimpse of what New York is all about, even in its currently sanitized state. I'm in the trenches for you, I'm going out there so you don't have to -- that appeals to people all over the world. That's a little grand... You don't have to live in New York to enjoy "La Dolce Musto."

Michael Musto will read from La Dolce Musto on Tuesday, January 9 at 7 p.m. at Barnes & Noble, 675 Sixth Avenue, New York.

*[FULL DISCLOSURE: The author of this piece, Rachel Kramer Bussel, freelances for The Village Voice.]

Rachel Kramer Bussel is an editor, writer, and blogger.

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