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the mb q&a

the mediabistro Q&A:
Michelangelo Signorile, New York Press columnist

Hometown: Staten Island, New York.
Age:
41.
First job: Celebrity publicist at Mike Hall Associates.
Career highlights: Cofounder of OutWeek; columnist for The Advocate, Out, and Gay.com.
First Sunday Times section he reads: Week in Review.

BY ALBERT LEE | Michelangelo Signorile has got some coglioni. He called Matt Drudge a "nasty faggot," revealed to the public Andrew Sullivan's bareback sex adventures, and lambasted Rosie O'Donnell for "promoting a lie" as a closeted lesbian. Call him whatever you like (O'Donnell called him a "moron"), but don't call him meek. Yet to read his prickly opinion column, "The Gist," which appears in the New York Press, The San Francisco Examiner, and a few other papers nationwide, you wouldn't think the former ACT UP activist once cared more about parties than politics — nor that the pioneer of a particular form of journalism known as "outing" got his start as a publicist who concealed his clients' homosexuality. These days, Signorile spends much of his time in his Manhattan apartment writing, surfing the Web, and looking after his website, Signorile.com.

Okay. Let's make it clear upfront you're reluctant to talk about Andrew Sullivan.

No, I thought about it. It's fine. You want to raise some hell in an interview.

Why did it bother you the first time I brought it up?

Oh, I just don't want to get bogged down talking about him.

But people think of you as his natural antipode. Do you remember when you two first clashed?

That's true. We've had disagreements for a long time, going back about ten years. We both came onto the scene, career-wise, at the same time from very different places. I was coming up through the gay press, involved in activism and ACT UP, where many of the ideas and events in the gay community were developing; and he was coming up through The New Republic. I remember we both spoke at the first National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association convention in San Francisco in 1991, when outing and activism were flash points. Andrew attacked me in the morning, Randy Shilts attacked me during lunch, and then I spoke at 4 or so and attacked both of them. It was that sort of thing.

Andrew and I went for a walk after that. I said, "You know, they" — meaning the homophobic right wing — "would love to see us fighting all the time. It'd be good if we really tried to understand each other, and not attack each other in public." He wasn't very open to it, although he did sort of agree; then, a few months later, he criticized me again [in print], or something like that. What I came to realize is that he was defining himself against the prevailing opinion in the gay community. He couldn't really follow the agreement, because he saw himself as a reaction to what I was. We saw each other a few times again after that, but we haven't spoken in a very long time — years.

And since the whole barebacking thing... [Signorile reported that Sullivan, who is HIV-positive and an outspoken critic of gay sexual culture, had sought unprotected sex online.]

Absolutely no communication. All I've been able to ascertain is that he is so angry that he doesn't even want people associating with me. There are people whose friendships with him died that day because they agreed with me, or supported some points in my article.

What do you make of his getting banned from the Times?

In typical fashion, Andrew tried to spin that into a self-promoting thing. He did it with The Advocate when they banned him. I think Howard Kurtz was the only one who bought [his spin], because he seems to be increasingly disconnected — maybe he's really busy with his CNN gig? I don't know. [Sullivan] thinks he's being censored. What it comes down to is his sloppy journalism. What's so interesting is this is a guy who's spent a lot of time critiquing victimology, and then he's very good at playing the victim of the heinous gay activists, Howell Raines, liberals...

You two never managed to connect on a deeper level since that walk you took in '91.

No. I don't think he was ever interested in connecting. I don't think he's really interested in making real progress with the people with whom he disagrees, even on issues he claims to feel passionate about, like gay marriage. It's really about the fight, the argument.

Okay, no more Andrew, I promise. What's this new column on your website, "Email Mike," about?

I get so many questions all the time — teenagers dealing with their parents or coming out of the closet, older people and married people asking political questions — and it's an enormous amount of work to answer every email. I thought it'd be a good idea to have a simple Q&A format: People send questions. I answer them. It's weekly, and Gay City News is publishing it.

Have you thought of starting to write a blog?

If I do, it'll be very slowly. It's incredibly seductive as a writing form, but I can see it taking up all my time. I'm excited about blogs in general. You don't have to read every single thing. You have 10 or 15 blogs that bring stuff to you and help gauge what people are thinking. It's exciting to see a more liberal-left blog culture emerging now; the conservatives were more organized before. Plus, the Web is so democratic: Nobody cares if you went to Harvard or wrote for this or that place. Blogs could be the start of something big. On the other hand, maybe this is the CB radio of the era, and it'll just die out.

What are some of the blogs you're reading?

I've just started reading Eschaton. He's incredibly energetic, and posts frequently. I've been going to Eric Alterman a lot, and The American Prospect. What else? Buzzflash, Smirking Chimp, The Hamster, The Rittenhouse Review, Josh Marshall. I read all the conservatives sites, too, like National Review Online. Then you go to Romenesko, and the newspapers.

For people who aren't familiar with you, can you briefly sketch your career?

I came out of Newhouse, the journalism school at Syracuse, and began working in publicity for Mike Hall Associates, a "column planter": we'd get items into Liz Smith and Page Six for our clients, which included most of the movie companies and some Broadway shows and performers. That was my entry into the media world: through gossip. Then I wrote a column for New York Nightlife magazine, did work for People magazine, and covered parties and celebrity events for DNR, the Fairchild pub.

I was having a ball. It was the early '80s, a great party scene. I was very apolitical at the time. It was prior to the height of the AIDS epidemic — but that's what changed me dramatically. I started losing friends, and then got plugged into what was really going on, and how the government was ignoring the epidemic. I got involved with ACT UP, which was a really incredible group, in the late '80s and early '90s. People from all walks of life came in. I learned an enormous amount there, and developed ideas about the gay issue, AIDS, and politics in general.

From there, I cofounded OutWeek magazine with some other people from ACT UP, including Gabriel Rotello (who went on to become a Newsday columnist), and Sarah Pettit (now at Newsweek). I started writing a weekly column called "Gossip Watch," which drew upon my experience at Mike Hall, but now I put it through this political framework. I looked back at how we used to cover up homosexuality and glamorize heterosexuality, and that really was how I developed my ideas about this contentious issue that came to be known as "outing."

Time credited you for starting that phenomenon.

I became the lightning rod, particularly after writing a story about Malcolm Forbes after he died. From there, it became a big issue — and it still is, in many ways, though the issues of outing have changed dramatically.

Liz Smith thought you were a terrorist.

Right. David Geffen hated me. Barry Diller. I had a lot of enemies.

Because you were naming names.

Because I was talking about them, and a certain duplicitousness, at a time when people were dying. They were just going to parties, empowering homophobes, and mingling with Bill and Pat Buckley. It was a crucial time. But they've changed dramatically. I mean, Liz Smith and David Geffen came out. They became more aware of the issues. I'm not going to say I caused that. The media attention around the gay issue caused them to grow.

Did you know at the time Liz Smith had had affairs with women?

Yes. The entire issue is misunderstood. It's still misunderstood. Outing was never about private individuals. It was about public figures, and only when relevant to a larger story. But people don't like the word "outing," so they attack it, like how many women who have feminist viewpoints refuse to call themselves "feminist." It's a semantic problem. But you know, Barbara Walters asks every other celebrity if they're gay, and if they don't answer, she'll keep pushing them!

There was that Page Six item on Chastity Bono. [In her new book, Bono writes that her publicist, Lois Smith of PMK, set her up on dates with men to mislead the public into thinking she was straight.]

I wrote about that 10 years ago. It goes on routinely. When you're a celebrity, you want to trust in your publicists and agents. These people make you. They sell you. You're a bit insulated, you're not really in the real world dealing with it, and they are, and they're telling you what you're supposed to do. Of course — well, this is the cynical view — they don't really care about you. They care about making money. They don't want you to take any risks whatsoever. That's the situation with anybody you think is gay.

Did you participate in concealing people's sexuality when you were a celebrity publicist?

Oh, absolutely. We all did. That's what I look back on: Most of us were gay — the columnists, like Liz Smith; the publicists, like me; and the celebrities — and we pretended like the celebrity's career was the most important thing. I remember Peter Allen was a client, and of course we maintained he was a heterosexual. He was a theater performer, married to Liza Minnelli.

Like David Gest.

I know, right?

What happened to OutWeek?

It went down in a flurry of financial difficulties. After that, I went to The Advocate with a story I'd been working on about Pete Williams, the assistant secretary of defense, and how he was gay, even though he was the Pentagon's spokesman defending the policy of dismissing gay people in the military. That story had a significant impact on the issue of outing: People came to understand it was a political issue, and not about celebrities.

There was a period where you kind of disappeared after your feud with James Collard at Out. You wrote a column for Gay.com, but for the most part, I didn't see your byline. Or am I mistaken?

Well, let's see, I was a columnist at The Advocate in the early '90s, then I went to Out, then I went back to The Advocate, and then I left again around 1998 to write a weekly column for Gay.com and do an online radio show [for a now defunct website, GayBC.com]. It was truly Internet boom time. The Gay.com gig was great, because it was global: The column would be translated into different languages, and I traveled to Rome to World Pride when the whole thing with the Vatican was going down. And I covered the political conventions.

It must have been your cushiest gig ever.

Yeah, it was! Gay.com was paying my way, and it was better for me to be mobile. Half the time, I was in New Zealand, because my boyfriend, who's a film studies professor, had taken a position there in a small town called Dunedin (sometimes nicknamed "the Riviera of the Antarctic"). Here I was on the bottom of the world, writing columns and breaking stories. I broke the story of the million dollars stolen at the Millennium March. Then, with the Internet radio show, I'd hook up a little contraption called a Vector to my phone, and I'd be in New Zealand interviewing Bill Bradley in Seattle, and a friend is IM-ing me from London. It couldn't go further than that! [Laughs.]

And then... everything collapsed.

After Gay.com merged with PlanetOut, it was difficult to stay on, since there weren't enough editors around. I left to work on my book, which grew out of a New York magazine story [to be published by Simon & Schuster in the fall of 2003]. It's about a murder in Staten Island, but it's really about Italian-Americans and this place I grew up in — the mob stuff. Staten Island's an interesting place that people don't know much about. It's very isolated, and this one ethnic group dominates it, unlike the rest of [New York City]. The Italians have their own thing going on. They don't assimilate. Other groups assimilate toward them. You've got Asian guys wearing gold chains and driving Cadillacs.

You're known primarily as a writer on gay and political issues, but with your New York Press column, you seem to be tackling a broader swath of issues, like Enron. Are you broadening your beat?

The editors at the Press are really terrific. They've always told me, "Cover the issues you feel passionate about." Because it isn't a gay publication, I'm happy I can talk about all these other non-gay issues I feel strongly about. The perspective of a gay columnist on these issues is something that should be out there.

In one of those columns, you wrote that the outpouring of post-9/11 schmaltz inspired you to write the Signorile Pledge: "I pledge to continue deliciously gossiping… and I promise to never, ever, ever lead a better normal life!" Please do share some gossip.

Oh God, the juiciest gossip you really can't say on the record, and if you can, it's been in Page Six already!

My cue to turn off the tape, then.

Albert Lee is the editor of mediabistro.com.


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