One of New York’s best known and most successful event promoter/producers, and a very successful writer to boot: Justin Luke’s is an authority on all things night and life. Now semi-retired, you can still catch him producing the West End underwear parties (there’s one comping up on April 21st) and Broadway Mondays at Hardware. Thotyssey catches up with this nightlife giant!
Thotyssey: Hey Justin, thanks for talking to us! So there’s a little buzz going on about some venue reboots that you can sound off on, being an expert in such things: G Lounge will now be “ReBar,” while Easternbloc come September will supposedly become “Club Cumming.” Do you think these are gonna work, or is it anyone’s guess?
Justin Luke: I think it’s anyone’s guess, to be honest. The East Village and Hell’s Kitchen are the surefire gay bar havens right now. I imagine the Club Cumming rebrand of Easternbloc may very well work in regards to tourists. I’m not entirely sure it will do much with NYC crowds unless it is a massive redesign.
ReBar has a unique challenge in that Chelsea has lost most of its gay bars, and its crowds have moved to Hell’s Kitchen or elsewhere. Contrary to what many may think, proximity to other gay bars is a beneficial thing, because customers like to go somewhere where they have a number of nearby options in case their first or second choices are not ideal.
I wish both of them all the luck in the world. I love the fact that NYC has so many gay bars, and I’d love for it to have even more. Variety is the spice of life… that’s an overused saying for a reason–because it’s true!
I know you always get asked this, especially since your events attract a younger crowd, but what do feel now about the state of nightlife in the city these days? Are apps evil and destroying everything?
Apps are certainly not evil. Have you been to a bar or club? They use the apps right there instead of talking to one another. If apps have ruined anything, it’s social norms, behavior, conversation, and people needing to be interesting !
The state of nightlife these days is segmented, fragmented, and completely in the hands of the customers. Which I love! The power is where it belongs. There are tons of options, and bars and clubs have to work to attract dollars. And if they don’t give the guests what they want, they’ll be gone in no time flat.
Totally! Things have changed, but in that respect have also remained the same. Okay, before we talk more about what’s going on in the biz, let’s get some background on you. You’re a native long Islander, right?
I am! Born in Lynbrook, raised in South Bellmore and then raised some more in North Bellmore.
Were you always into the performing arts when you were younger, or writing?
I was very much into both. I once staged the entire production of Joseph for my babysitter in my living room using only couch cushions for the set.
I also wrote a book called Camp Deadly where a hockey masked killer brutally murdered all the kids who bullied me in elementary school. The bullies found out and the ones I didn’t kill became jealous, and so I started charging them $5 to be slaughtered by “Mason.” It ironically made me “rich” for a fourth grader, and somewhat popular. Luckily, it was long enough ago that I wasn’t carted off to jail as a threat to the school. They were simpler times.
Very enterprising! So, were you sneaking into venues in the city when you were underage?
Fortunately, I didn’t have to! Back in the glory days of nightlife, all the big clubs were 18+. Yes, we had to pay $40 to get in to Roxy or Limelight or Tunnel, but we could get in.
I DID, however, get scandalously snuck into the original XL with a sexy Egyptian fellow I met on (showing my age–ugh) Planet Out. That was 21+, but he apparently had clout. His cocktail waiter teased me for being so young, until I correctly identified his shoulder tattoo as the Bacardi bat (“most twinks think it’s the bat signal!”). My date then tried to blow me in an alleyway after buying me two Midori sours; I told him I wasn’t that sort of girl, and he called me a cock-teasing twink at the top of his lungs as I walked away and headed to the Long Island Rail Road.
I’ve always been one who fears authority, assuming if I ever broke any rule that I’d end up in jail with three lifetime sentences, or even the death penalty, so I sat tight until I was 21 before I ever did that again.
That’s probably a good way to be when you’re an event planner… everything will be up to code! When did it occur to you that you could start creating your own events?
I tripped and fell into nightlife! It was a very happy, very accidental accident. It’s a long, winding, Game of Thrones-esque story that features a blog I was writing with guest writers, Chris Ryan, Akash Abraham, a chance meeting with a man named Alan Picus, a later chance meeting with nightlife Gods John Blair and Beto Sutter, and the fact that I never turn down an opportunity that comes my way, unless it involves riding on a roller coaster or bungee jumping.
You’ve hosted and promoted countless events over the years like Penthaus and Viva Saturdays, and you’ve certainly cemented yourself as one of those great nightlife “characters” that you wanna see when you’re out. When you were Nightlife Justin Luke with your shiny jackets and trademark pink glasses, were you a completely different person then when you were, like, out for for a quiet night with friends?
Funny enough, I retired the in-person Justin Luke character almost a year ago now! I left full-time nightlife, and burned the pink sparkle blazer and threw out all but one pair of the iconic pinks (I keep the final pair here in my bedroom on my bookcase as a memory).
But this is what makes the brand of Justin Luke so interesting – it’s living beyond me. I haven’t been out in public in “character” in 16 months now. Justin Luke lives on as a digital entity via my writing and social media exploits, however. It’s kinda like the floating head of Richard Nixon in Matt Groening’s Futurama. Always here, even if not physically here.
What made you decide to hang up the glasses? Did it just get old for you, or is it better to kind of run things behind the scenes now?
After seven years of full-time nightlife, I had burned out. When being out at parties 5-6 nights a week gets old, it’s time for a change. I also “lost myself,” which sounds so dramatic and Behind The Music, doesn’t it? [Laughs] But it’s true.
While I didn’t develop an addiction to painkillers or alcohol or get caught raving on a train track somewhere, I did end up with no real friends, a billion acquaintances, an awful, anti-social sleep schedule, alone in my apartment every day working, and around people drunk or on other substances or acting out to get through their stress and anxieties every night. It was eating away at me. I was probably depressed, or, at least, on autopilot, because that’s what paid the bills and I had no idea how to get out. But, as soon as an opportunity to hit the eject button presented itself, I did so. I haven’t regretted it even once since that date. I now say that I “moonlight” in nightlife.
I run a weekly Broadway Happy Hour at Hardware on Mondays. I do a monthly Underwear Party at The West End every third Friday. And I still will agree to an occasional hosting opportunity or a judge spot in a drag competition. Basically, I took from nightlife the parts that I actually enjoyed and was passionate about, and dumped the rest.
This past year, I’ve been re-discovering me and then introducing that “me” to people who’ve thought they knew me for all these years. Some love the new Justin. Some hate him. And lots of people still think I’m a guy in pink glasses throwing every great party they go to. That’s New York!
I’m sure no one hates the new Justin! Well in the meantime, your literary alter ego Gulliver from the series of novels you’ve written has had his fair share of wacky nightlife adventures. It’s quite a feat that a book series that began as self-published became so successful! Do a lot of your nightlife people assume that this or that character is based on them?
Back when they first came out, many people DID think that. Ironically, the only characters that were based on people I cleared in advance and got permission and literally named after them. I’m not sure how many people still read the books as they came out a number of years ago! But my defense would certainly be that I probably didn’t know those people back when I wrote them.
Nowadays, I’m focused on writing sketch comedy and TV scripts, and I am happily stealing whatever I damn please for the sake of laughter. And the best part is, no one will know I stole their soul or what they said or did to me until Titus Andromedon or Bojack Horseman does it!
I see that you’re writing a Kimmie Schmidt spec script now! I would think that would be kind of difficult, to jump into a pre-existing world and and adhere to a certain style.
Actually, I prefer it! I’m presently banging my head on every surface around me as I try to create an original pilot script. I’m having a lot more challenges creating a world and the people who live in it. Writing a spec script–to me, at least–is so much easier. Tina Fey already came up with an incredibly hilarious world populated with colorful clowns. I have no problem moving them around like chess pieces and putting jokes in their mouths.
You know, for the few gay-themed TV series that we’ve had, there has yet to be one about NYC (aside from Will & Grace, but that was 90′s Sitcom New York). Could that be a thing you do someday?
I wouldn’t be opposed to it! I’m actually working with a number of funny gay web series, presently. All of them are great, and it’s a joy to be involved on the scripts and plotting.
How about performing? Have you ever acted on stage or screen?
I have! I was a theater major in college. Well, until I realized I didn’t have what it took, and dropped the major in my junior year. But in high school, I truly thought I was Broadway-bound. I played Grandpa Joe! The Lion in a very white and racist production of The Wiz! A number of significant guest star roles in The Who’s Tommy! I also have made some appearances in independent films since.
But, when it comes to the performance gene, I give full props to my brother Jared Zirilli. He’s been on Broadway. He played Fiyero on the first equity national tour of Wicked. He was just a guest star on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and he was the rape suspect who wasn’t guilty!
Congrats to him! Well, you certainly harness your stage calling as a producer of Broadway Mondays at Hardware, originally starring the amazing queen Sutton Lee Seymour who shared the stage with a revolving cast of Broadway guests. Now Cacophony Daniels is the queen in charge.
Actually, let me go ahead and give you an exclusive here: Beginning the first week of May, Broadway Mondays is launching a revival! The weekly show will feature Sutton Lee Seymour AND Cacophony Daniels every week WITH a special Broadway guest to boot!
Werrrrk! Love them both, it’ll be great to see them onstage together. Just curious, do you give them requests for songs or shows to cover?
I personally believe in trusting your colleague’s talents. For that reason, I give Sutton as well as Cacophony full power and freedom over their show. They’re Broadway queens with significant track records and followings. They run the thing from start to finish. I just make sure everyone knows it’s coming, and put as many butts in the seats as I can!
You’ve been hosting the monthly underwear parties at the West End for awhile now. I’m guessing you must have a lot of fun doing those.
The Underwear Party is one of my crowning achievements, which is why I still run it every month. Gay men need somewhere to let go and let their hair down, and I am pleased to be able to provide it. It’s also nice to know that I’ve still “got it” every month as we bring in hundreds of guys. It really is a sight to see, and everyone should experience it at least once! So much of NYC is shiny and expensive and classy. Sometimes you just need to be a bit trashy.
Yes! I love that this month’s excuse to be in your underwear is “tax day.” Like, just because I’m paying for this border wall doesn’t mean I have to do it wearing pants!
Okay, is there anything else you wanna or mention?
Just to keep an eye on me! I’m sure I’ll have plenty of adventures ahead that many will enjoy being a part of, or at least just witnessing from the stands.
Lastly, I know you’re not Drag Race’s number one fan, but you’ve certainly worked with top queens in the city and you were a regular judge over at “So You Think You Can Drag.” And Bella Noche is your protege! So, what would your drag name be?
I already have one! I’ve actually appeared in drag and performed live three times over the years. My name is Gigi Twenty, which is a reference to my Facebook group, GG20 which is a secret invite-only group of almost 12,000 gay guys in their 20s and 30s from around the world.
Werrrrrk Gigi! Thanks, Justin!
Justin Luke produces “Broadway Mondays” Monday nights at Hardware (10pm), and monthly underwear parties at the West End (the next one is Friday, April 21st at 11pm). He can be followed on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and has a website.