Out columnist/activist stays sharp in new book

“This marks my 25th year at the [Village] Voice,” Michael Musto said about his latest collection of columns, “Fork on the Left, Knife in the Back. ” “I got this book instead of a gold watch, I guess.”

The openly gay writer, activist and gossip columnist has been reporting on the glitz, glamour and dirty little secrets of celebrities and New York nightlife since the early 1980s for the Village Voice, among other publications. “Fork” is his second collection, showcasing some of his more memorable journalistic adventures and musings on the issues of the day, spanning his illustrious career.

“‘Fork on the Left’ is a continuation of [2007’s] ‘La Dolce Musto,’” he said. “It’s a collection of some of my best columns, but then I wrote some additional essays. So you get the same flavor as the columns but a little extra. I start in the 1980s. It takes you through the year of my celebrity coverage and gay activism, mixing it all up hopefully in a juicy way. But my tone never really changed that much. Once I found my voice early on, I pretty much stuck with being this breathless man-about-town, diarist of the crazy scenes that make up New York culture.”

Musto’s tone may not have changed much over the years, but the entertainment industry has. Lesser columnists probably would have washed out years ago with the influx of every Perez Hilton and TMZ-like organization that comes crawling out of the woodwork. But Musto said he is vigilant about staying on top of his game.

“I can’t just sit back and write one column every week now,” he said. “I’m working three times as hard. I’m doing a blog all day in addition to the column. But I always felt like I was the original blogger anyway. It always had that kind of first-person, take-no-prisoners tone to it. I like that it gets a reaction and you can create a debate. You get an immediate response more so than with the column, so I’m enjoying the new landscape. I try not to look back and say things used to be better.”

He added that, even at age 54, he remains a fixture in New York City’s ever-evolving nightlife scene.

“Every night I go out anyway. Nothing has changed for me from the old days because the column is based on my first-person interactions with celebrities. I’m still out there night after night and that’s how I can stay relevant. Most people just sit home and link things, making snarky comments. I’m actually out in the trenches covering Broadway openings, movie premieres, fashion shows and nightclubs.”

The major players, personalities and technology may have changed over the years, but Musto said there’s much about the entertainment industry that has remained the same.

“The general framework stays the same: the celebrities being in control, their publicists calling the shots. But the name and some of the details change. You’ll have socialites pop up: Paris Hilton and pop tarts like Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears. Then the next year there’s somebody else like Lady Gaga. It’s all the same game of chasing celebrities and watching them implode or cheering them as they rise from the ashes and have a comeback.”

Surprisingly, Musto said he didn’t foresee the meteoric rise of the Lady Gaga phenomenon. But he also admitted he was never the most adept at identifying the next big things in pop culture.

“I’m always surprised and I’m terrible at predicting what’s going to be big so I’ve stopped making predictions,” he said. “I’m the one who famously said Madonna is going nowhere. So obviously my perceptions have been off sometimes. That’s the glory of show business: You can’t predict what’s going to make it. I was surprised by Madonna in the 1980s. The first song, ‘Everybody,’ I thought was so annoying. It was like a drill through my skull. I figured, hold your breath and she’ll disappear. But fortunately she proved me wrong. Lady Gaga, they broke her last year in the gay market. I started hearing her in Fire Island for the first time and I thought, oh, this is pretty good dance music. I didn’t realize that she was going to blow up really huge. What she added to it is so much show. She put the show back in showbiz. She fashioned herself and her image in a very artful way and went over the top in a way we can’t ignore.”

Musto has always been ahead of the curve in outing celebrities, which he was doing long before blogging, camera phones and even the Internet was the norm. Also, unlike today, it wasn’t something most news organizations went out of their way to report.

Musto said that even when it wasn’t the norm, he never thought twice about outing celebrities.

“Occasionally, I’ll write something and think I’ve overstepped. But I think it’s good to overstep when you’re a columnist. I think if you get too complacent, you get too safe and boring. I’ve had celebrities angry at me. In the old days, before everybody was out of the closet, I was outing celebrities like Rosie O’Donnell. She wasn’t happy with what I was writing and I was the only one doing so. But I never regretted it or felt I should take it back. Once I knew she was upset about it, I kept going double time with it. Now we’re all on the same page. She came out with a vengeance.”

Musto even upped the stakes in the May 2007 issue of Out Magazine, writing an article called “The Glass Closet” about big names in the entertainment industry that remained closeted.

“I was talking about a certain type of celebrity who is sort of living a gay lifestyle but not saying so on the record,” he said. “I referred specifically to Jodie Foster and Anderson Cooper, as well as some other celebrities like David Hyde Pierce. And shortly after that cover came out, David Hyde Pierce came out. I thought maybe there is some cause-and-effect here. Then Jodie made a remark about her beautiful Sydney at some event. So that was a tiny step toward coming out for her. Though she’s seemed to go right back in. And lately, Anderson, while he still hasn’t come out on the record, seems to be much more comfortable living as a gay man with his boyfriend, who’s the co-owner of a gay bar. Why should he have to live secretly and have his boyfriend enter the plane separately like he’s done in the past? I hope he can find a place where he can be himself and not worry about the repercussions.”

Another thing that hasn’t changed much since Musto started writing is the amount of power Hollywood wields in the press. Major openly gay TV and music personalities are becoming more common, but Musto claims out Hollywood stars are still a taboo subject.

“There’s more money involved and the people who run it, even though a lot of them are gay themselves, are much more queasy about taking chances with their money,” he said. “They always assume the worst about the public. They just assume that they’re not going to be able to separate the performer from the role that they are playing. But, little by little, everything is going to change. In the old days, they would say nobody could be out on TV. Then Rosie and Ellen came out. Then they said, ‘Well, they’re women.’ Then Neil Patrick Harris came out. So each stumbling stone is going to be knocked over until we do have big movie stars that are out too — hopefully in my lifetime.”

“Fork on the Left, Knife in the Back” is available now. For more information, visit blogs.villagevoice.com/dailymusto.

Larry Nichols can be reached at [email protected].