Born and raised in Bäretswil, Switzerland, a sleepy town nestled between the Glatt and Töss Valleys, Susanne Bartsch rejected the pastoral, “hausfrau life” that was planned for girls in her village in favour of parties and punk music when she moved to London in 1979, aged just 17. There she discovered Vivienne Westwood, Leigh Bowery and milliner Stephen Jones, falling in with a crowd of musicians and creatives which included Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, and Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren amongst others. Several years later she moved again, resettling in New York, bringing her favourite British designers with her, opening an eponymous avant-garde fashion boutique in central SoHo. When the economy began to slow in the late 80s, Susanne took her menagerie of costumes and couture to the basement of the Chelsea Hotel for her first party in 1986 at Savage. From that moment, her life’s work has been spent creating moments of safety and self-expression for the queer and disenfranchised. Constructing fleeting, overnight reveries from Paris to Tokyo, Susanne and her parties have helped propel performers and designers like RuPaul, Amanda Lepore and Marc Jacobs onto a global stage, crowning her Warhol’s heir and “Mother Teresa in a glitter G-string” in the process.
Now, through never-before-seen archival footage, verité cinematography and deeply intimate testimonials, she’s the subject of her first doc – Susanne Bartsch: On Top. Named after her famed Tuesday night parties, atop The Standard, High Line, On Top paints a vibrant, shimmering and above all, deeply human portrait of one of New York’s most iconic promoters. Capturing an aesthetic which blends Susanne’s world of performance, fashion, art and artifice to bend the rules of gender and breakdown the boundaries of class and race, On Top offers a rare window into the mind of Manhattan’s undisputed queen of the night. With the film’s release on demand this month, we spoke to directorial duo Anthony&Alex about how Susanne picked up from where Warhol left off, her pivotal role in club kid, queer and drag culture, and why her life’s work is so much more than simply putting on great parties.
How did you both first meet Susanne?
We met Susanne about a week before we started filming the documentary at one of her parties. A friend of ours, Stella Rose Saint Clair, premiered a fashion film we directed for her at Susanne’s On Top party. Susanne loved the little film, and the next day she invited us to see the FIT exhibit she was putting together. Susanne was clearly such an artist and force of nature that we instinctively knew we wanted to make a feature documentary on her.
To those who’ve never experienced Susanne’s work, how would you explain what she does?
Susanne curates experiences, and expresses herself with outfits and looks to match those experiences. She brings everyone together to celebrate one another, and she does it while looking like a piece of art in her own public gallery of people.
Susanne has been described as picking up where Andy Warhol left off. What do you think drove that desire for her? To celebrate and uphold such a strong sense of queer community?
Susanne has always been a champion of the underdog. She sees people who are suffering, or are under represented and wants to bring out what’s special in them. We see it every time we’re at one of her parties. What was so fantastic about Warhol is he saw beauty, talent, and immense creativity in people that may otherwise have gone totally unnoticed. Warhol had a factory because he knew that when you take a lot of talented and exciting people and put them in one big room, important cultural shifts can happen in society. Queer community is based on collaboration and inspiration in a safe space, and that’s exactly what Susanne is all about. She gets an intense high from the feeling of people around her getting inspired by each other. She has such an eye for the beautifully strange and eccentrically wonderful, which is also what put Warhol on the map.
In Matt Tyrnauer’s recent Studio 54 documentary, one of the co-founders says he doesn’t think Studio could exist today. He said guests felt uninhibited and were free to experiment precisely because they knew there would be no smartphones and few cameras capturing their revelry. Do you think the same can be said for Susanne? That her parties have changed now that every moment can be captured and shared?
That’s incredibly true, but we also think Susanne’s parties have adapted. There’s been such a monumental shift in what it means to be seen. An important aspect of Studio 54 was the privacy to do what you wanted, but it was also important to go to the place where everyone would look at what you were wearing, and admire each other. While the children may now turn a look for the social media response to a photo, they are also completely in love with the feeling Susanne’s events give them. Once the photos are taken and the phones are put down (which does happen at some point in the night) people come together and dance. Anyone who goes to Susanne’s parties, and goes to them regularly, can attest that even though technology has changed the party there is still a palpable feeling when bodies start moving together to the music. Technology really can’t replace that.
It felt to me like the theme of ‘family’ is one of the most important threads of the documentary. Susanne’s chosen family of performers and her relationship with David and Bailey are so important to her...
To us family is absolutely one of the most important threads of the documentary, and it’s also one of the most important aspects of Susanne’s life. She is inherently motherly, and takes many people under her wing. It’s definitely informed in part by the way Susanne was raised, and the things she lost as a child when her family split up. Susanne has something inside her that is innately attracted to creating that family feeling with people who otherwise may not have one. It’s a rare quality that we truly wish more people shared. For us it's absolutely her most important characteristic, and one that we wanted at the forefront of the film.
Susanne’s parties straddle a kind of exclusivity/inclusivity, what role do you think her parties have played in helping queer people create their own safe spaces?
We’ve never seen anyone not be allowed into a Susanne party unless it’s at capacity. Susanne is so inclusive that she even loves when people come in jeans if that’s what makes them comfortable and ready to have a good time. It’s the attitude of come as you are and express yourself that makes her events so popular: you can truly be yourself around other people doing the same. A level of exclusiveness forms when we all come out in droves in search of that, because a lot of us growing up just didn’t have that sense of community. Because Susanne and her parties favor creativity, bravery, and openness the queer community just naturally flocks there. Her parties are so full of love, and within that overwhelming love a safe space just forms.
Susanne has talked about herself as a drag queen previously. Given her formative role in New York’s drag scene, why do you think there’s still some confusion or resistance to female drag queens?
In the course of making the film we were lucky enough to interview icon Flawless Sabrina (Jack Doroshow) who told us when she first started putting on drag she was arrested and given over a hundred felonies for dressing in women’s clothing. When anyone is told they can’t do something for that long and is forced to repress themselves, they can become very guarded. The artistic expression of dressing in drag can become so incredibly sacred that it feels like there are rules to it. You become so completely protective of it, and see the sacrifices made as a man in women’s clothing in a time when that was dangerous, as a predicate to what drag is. We think, or we hope, that the rules are changing as it becomes more accepted, and loved by everyone. Drag is an art, and to declare any art as belonging to one gender or group of people is extremely dangerous. It’s definitely time to get unconfused about it. Women do some aaaamazing drag.
Susanne’s Love Ball and her fundraising to fight AIDS is a key moment in her life. How do you think today’s generation of gay men should think about and understand the legacy of the AIDS epidemic?
That’s such a wonderful, but huge question. Do your research. Which we truly had not done until we made this film. There are so many people that gave their lives fighting, and it’s a real disservice to our community to at least not try and learn as much as you can about it. Ourselves, and our editor Taryn, spent three months learning and living through archival tapes that were made during the height of the epidemic, and honestly it was one of the darkest and most intense periods of learning we’ve ever done. It’s difficult going back and looking at something so traumatic, but it’s absolutely necessary. One of the biggest things that we think about in our understanding of the legacy of the AIDS epidemic is the massive loss to culture that happened. While AIDS brought gay men into the mainstream conversation, it was under a negative and scary light to most people. Everyone we interviewed about the epidemic spoke of the people lost as the most creative people on the planet, and that we would all be different now if their art flourished for the next three decades. We constantly think about what was lost. Learning about that time in our history is so vital because it provides a blueprint on how to fight for equal rights, and we’re living in a time now when all our rights are still in jeopardy.
How do you think our sense of community has changed or evolved over the decades?
It’s funny because we have this discussion all the time, especially as we traveled with this film. Technology has helped tremendously in letting younger generations know it is beyond okay to express yourself however you see fit. There are things now in mainstream media that move us forward as a community more than ever before, which is fabulous. It’s now possible to be niche, and still find your community and know that it’s okay to be who you are. It really helps to show and understand the diversity within our own community. As individuals in the community it’s important we all keep a totally open mind when it comes to other people's self expression. Just because you do something one way, may not be how everyone else in our community does those same things. Sometimes we see folks not letting other people be who they are in an effort to validate themselves, which is so counterproductive. We have the power to be the most open minded community on the planet, but we have to give everyone space to be whoever they want to be.
What do you think Susanne’s legacy will be?
Susanne is going strong so we think her legacy is still being formed. You can see the people that she’s influenced and supported as they shape culture today, which makes Susanne’s legacy entwined with their own as well. Hopefully this film only helps in adding to the legacy of her being one of the few people to give birth to the idea of a truly creative and “safe space.” She is such a model for how to love, and we hope that is what her legacy is.
What other figures, or other stories from the queer community do you think have been largely overlooked? Why do you think it’s important for us to know more about these people?
There are so, so, so many icons that have been overlooked. While making this film we became overwhelmed with the amount of people we didn’t know of before: Tom Rubnitz, Lady Hennessy Brown, Tish Gervais (now Brian Belovitch), Ethyl Eichelberger, Sister Dimension, Taboo!, Charles Atlas, Lypsinka, Grandfather Hector Extravaganza, Brandon Olson- there are just way too many to count or name. The more queer artists you know, the easier it is to understand how varied the queer experience truly is. It’s important to know about these people because their work is so inspirational and timeless, they all did or are doing some incredible and serious work. Take someone like Susanne, most people (even after this film comes out) will look at her as eyelashes, costumes, and parties when really she is so much more than that. She’s using those tools to make her presence and her work known, but once you get beyond that it’s a fight for the queer community, and a fight for self expression. There are hundreds of icons within our community that are just like that.