For New York City’s nightlife personalities, the pandemic has turned their worlds right side up. Since March, many have been spending their waking hours like the rest of us — rising with the sun, as opposed to the other way around. “If I’m still out on someone’s stoop at 11:30 p.m., I’m yawning,” said Mohammed Fayaz, an illustrator and the art director of Papi Juice, a Brooklyn-based art collective that threw its last in-person event on Valentine’s Day at Elsewhere. “Which is crazy, considering that I’d be out until 5 a.m. normally.”
And while COVID has been particularly disruptive to the nightlife community, sometimes devastatingly so, the show must go on, and most have found ways to stay busy from their apartments — and keep their communities drinking and dancing, too.
The Queen of Nightlife Zooming From the Chelsea Hotel (top image)
Susanne Bartsch, producer, performance artist
“RuPaul always said, ‘You gotta be on the square’: meaning the iPhones, iPads, televisions, whatever. I’ve been wanting to get on the square for a long time, but I could never get it together. This pushed me onto it. I was doing a show called Bartschland Follies at the McKittrick Hotel every Friday. When it got canceled, I told everyone to come over to my house at the Chelsea Hotel and film it. It was just performers — like ten of them. But then the full lockdown happened and we couldn’t do that anymore. So I started streaming on the DragFans website, which is great because there’s no censorship. I now have a show on Vimeo as well called Bartschland Strip Down. I’ve done the On Top party at the Standard every summer for the last ten years. When that was canceled, I decided to do On Top Zoom parties. I’m actually really into it.
I’ve also been cooking a lot. I made some bread. I’m trying to clean my closet out. I wore sweatpants. (Like Adidas gym pants. Maybe they’re not sweatpants …) And yes, I didn’t wear a wig around the house. Only for the Zoom parties. There’s nothing good about this nightmare, but if there has to be, I think we’ve all gained five years to our life, and I got on that square.”
The DJ Who Blasted Songs From His Window
Matthew Mazur, a.k.a. Mazurbate, DJ
“My best friend came by one day during lockdown and stood outside my window. I was like, ‘Stay there! I’m going to play you a song!’ and I played ‘Missing U,’ by Robyn. I blasted it. And I filmed it and posted it on Instagram. It kind of went viral. I was like, I have to do this for my city. It became a regimen: Every day, I had to be home by 7 p.m. to do my thank-you song to the city. I never missed it. People would be like, ‘I’m coming by tomorrow!’ and I would think about the song that they would want to hear. Or sometimes I’d apologize and be like, ‘I’m sorry, today was a sad day for the world. I can’t just play upbeat Whitney Houston.’ None of my neighbors complained. One of them would go out on her fire escape with her husband and slow dance. It was the cutest thing.”
The Bouncer Guarding a Preteen Now
Ana K. Guzman, Head of security at Baby’s All Right and co-owner of Thrill Life Productions.
“Before the pandemic, I was working at Baby’s All Right as head of security. I’ve been there for seven years now. And May marked my first anniversary of becoming part owner of a security company. It looked like 2020 was going to be a really great year, especially for a POC-woman-owned company in the security field, which is predominantly male. And then this happened.
I’m used to being out on the weekend. From Friday to Sunday, I was only sleeping three, maximum five hours a day, and sometimes not even making it at home, trying to crash at the club or at an employee’s or a friend’s, and then going straight into work the next day. As a person who’s constantly busy, I was like, What am I going to do now? I decided to go and pick up my godson, who’s 12, from my sister’s house. I’m his legal guardian, and he’s going to live with me now. So I have responsibilities: I have to get up in the morning; I have to cook for him; I have to make sure he gets ready for online school. It’s like a job. He’s amazing. He keeps me busy, but he’s also a great companion.
What I miss the most about my job is that every day was different. In a week alone, I could probably meet 2,000 new people. There was always a new band and new fans coming from different countries. When you work as a bouncer, especially in an atmosphere where people are drinking, people lean on either you or the bartender to tell their life story. I always felt like the therapist at the door. Maybe even Cupid on some nights. I miss that interaction, those characters. I also miss being in charge. And the money, of course. Definitely miss the money!”
The Piano Man Keeping Broadway Alive
Dan Daly, pianist at Marie’s Crisis
“I’ve been playing Sundays at Marie’s Crisis for 18 years. The last song I played was ‘What the World Needs Now Is Love, Sweet Love.’ I didn’t know that we were going to be closed after that, but I knew things were serious and that we needed to leave on that note. One of our employees actually died from COVID. His name was Mark Castelli, and he was a singing waiter. I also work at Monster across the street, and the security at the front door passed away. A fellow pianist from another place died. So it’s really hit home.
I’ve been doing my Sunday-night show on Facebook Live now. It’s almost like a virtual barroom ambience because there’s people listening and talking to each other in there. Like someone will log in and say, ‘Hi! How are you? I just opened up a bottle of wine …’ One song that’s always a favorite is ‘Ladies Who Lunch,’ from Company. I’ll break for a few minutes and tell people to go fix themselves another cocktail, and then when I come back we’ll do a toast. The opening line in the song is, ‘I’d like to propose a toast.’ It was Elaine Stritch who sang it, so she’d say it with a drunk, deep voice. At the end it goes, ‘Rise! Rise! Rise!’ and everyone raises their martini glasses from home.”
The Aerialist Yearning for the Fun Side of Danger
Jonathan Jõni, performer at House of Yes
“I worked at House of Yes, Thursday through Sunday. When I perform with my aerialist duo partner, Queen Ravenden — together we’re Twin Eclipse — there are a lot of instances where I’m actually holding her by either my feet or hands. The thrill makes it worth it, plus the audience oohing and aahing and clapping in excitement. Feeling all that energy from them is amazing. With performing, the risk is there, but I still have some sort of control. I’m the one holding on. It’s my body doing the things that need to be done. Dealing with the pandemic, though, you don’t know who has it. You don’t even know if you have it. You have no control over anything.
One thing I’ve been doing is roller-skating around Bushwick and sometimes meeting some friends at the park. I haven’t done that since I was a child. Raven was a figure skater, so I want to get to the point where we can do a duo roller-skating act as well. Another thing that I haven’t done since I was a child is batons. I bought two, and I’m working on that, so when we come back, I can be a baton twirler and put some fire on the ends and be a fire-baton twirler. I’m still beating myself up with the regular batons, so the fire isn’t going to happen anytime soon.”
The Club Owner Who’s Getting Into Podcasting
Alan Cumming, owner of Club Cumming
“I was in London doing a play for a few months before the lockdown, so I haven’t been at Club Cumming since November, and I’ve basically worn pajamas since March. Last month, when I got out of quarantine in Canada, where I’ve been filming a TV series, I walked with my dog all around Vancouver, and I was like, What’s going on with my feet? I realized that I haven’t really worn socks or shoes since March. I’ve been in flip-flops or Crocs or just barefoot upstate in the Catskills. My feet were really sore! I also haven’t really worn trousers with a button or a belt either. It’s been a big adjustment. During lockdown, everyone was like, Oh, I’m drinking so much more. I’m drinking way less than I normally used to. I’m actually much healthier than I have been in years because of lockdown. I’ve become a podcaster. I’ve got my own microphone and everything. I also became a bit of a mountain man. I look a bit like Kris Kristofferson right now. It’s a look. I’ve let myself go … in the hair department anyway.”
The Dancer Struggling to Perform for an iPad
Dottie, dancer and bartender at Pumps
“In the beginning, I did a handful of online shows until I just couldn’t anymore. It was too hard to try to perform in my house for my iPad. As a live entertainer, you feed off your audience. When you’re performing to a screen, you’re hoping that your energy is coming across, but you can’t tell. Even people who are extraordinary live performers can come off very dead onscreen. I have a pole at home, which I used for some of the shows. But even that was challenging. Like, how do you get the angle right so you can get the whole pole on the screen? Watching other people’s shows, I could tell who had people who could help them with that. I was living alone. The logistics were very hard. I had to rearrange my whole house every time. I had to do my hair and makeup and get all dolled up just for an hour. It kind of drained my soul more than it energized it, so I stopped.
I’m also a personal trainer and fitness instructor, so I’ve been trying to work on that business more. It used to be something that I did on the side. My ideal client is a woman who works in nightlife, or sex workers and burlesque dancers, and I know none of us have any money right now, so I’ve been charging a lower rate. [Now that they’re not performing as much], they feel like they’ve lost their strength, or their flexibility, or even that therapeutic environment. Even though it’s work, you’re dancing. And now you’re just stuck at home and you just don’t feel like doing it. I tell them: You’re going to hate it a little bit, but you’re going to be glad you did it. When you get back to work, it won’t be such a struggle.”
The Diva Doing ‘Happy Birthday’ Cameos
Amanda Lepore, model and performer
“During lockdown, I was really scared because I didn’t know if I was going to work. I was just stuck in my place with tons of clothes and outfits. It seemed meaningless at the time. Like, What am I going to do? About two weeks into it, I started doing Cameos, and it turned out to be really good for me. It’s 99 percent birthdays. It’s really friendly and fun, and I get to dress up and be campy. Fortunately, one of my hair-stylist friends lives in my building, so he films me and we have fun with the lighting. It became really successful, and I got good ratings. I like the really overt, overly gay ones. Like I did one for a florist and said lots of ‘Dah-lings’ and all that stuff. Sometimes I’ll say something that is meaningful to someone else, but it sounds really funny coming out of my mouth. Like, ‘Oh, you fucking whore, stay home!”
I got a job at Gitano [a Tulum-inspired bar in Soho], which closed after Halloween. It’s outdoors, so it was COVID safe and they followed the regulations. We got these clear plastic [face shields], which are makeup friendly. That was another thing that made me want to stay home: I couldn’t do my regular makeup. My lipstick is such a big part of my look, and with a mask, it’s really hard. I made a mask with lips on it and got creative with matching outfits. But, you know, I just like good old makeup.
I was so excited [to go back to work]. They told me to wear something jungle-themed, and I said, ‘No, I want to wear a gown.’ It was like a red carpet for me. I’ve been jeweling a lot of stuff — things that are more challenging and time consuming than I’ve done in the past. As a matter of fact, I’m jeweling something right now. I have it all in front of me. I’m working on a birthday dress — my birthday is November 21 — so I’m working on an outfit for that. It’s sapphire and crystal and cobalt blue. Hopefully, when I get back to work, I’ll have all these great new outfits to strip in [laughs].”
The Collective Figuring Out How to Exist As Individuals
Adam R., Mohammed Fayaz, and Oscar Nñ of Papi Juice
Oscar: “One way in which my life has changed over the last eight months is how I’ve had to find the small joys in my day-to-day rather than in the long term. Grounding practices have helped me: meditation, tarot, bike rides, and cooking have been my go-tos. Ultimately, though, practicing acceptance has helped me the most during this time. Some days are bad, and I’ve had to accept that it’s okay for me to not do anything and indulge on a Netflix binge with a bottle of wine.”
Adam: “COVID was a reminder to slow down and take stock every day. I stop every evening and check in with myself. It’s been important to me to be aware of the things I take for granted. This has also been a good time to work on creative projects at home as well. I’m glad I have time to work on music and art everyday. It’s therapeutic.”
Mohammed: “I’ve had to reckon with what the depths of my personality are outside of being busy. When I’m not so consumed with work, not thinking three months ahead, don’t have my calendar filled to the brim, what do I actually want to do every day? I often spend breakfast pouring over magazines. I also feel like all my crutches dissolved — impromptu travel, rampant dating, wild nights out, retail therapy — now I have to directly deal with all of my problems. Baths help.”
The Event Producer Who Put Her Heels Back On
Ladyfag, event producer and nightlife personality
“I got back to New York from Ibiza, where I’ve been since September, days before the election, and everyone was like, Why are you coming back now? Are you crazy?! But I came back, and I’m so happy that we were here for it. I’ve been away for months and haven’t been to a party since March, so it was pure joy to be back just in time to party with the entire city on the day Trump got kicked out. I was just so happy to be exactly where I’m supposed to be, which is in high heels, in New York City. I was with my girlfriend and my friends, and we strolled around for hours. But by the time we got to my friend’s house — she lives a few blocks away from Washington Square Park — my feet were a bloody mess and I had to change out of my heels into my Birkenstocks, which were luckily still in my bag from Ibiza. But I didn’t care; it was one of those days where nothing else mattered. I just let go and danced in the park and celebrated the victory with the city that I love.”