Paul V. Talks About How His Dragstrip 66 Dance Party Defined L.A.'s Polysexual Nightlife Scene
Photo by W.B. Fontenot
Paul Vitagliano, better known as Paul V., is a self-proclaimed "promosexual" — a term he coined and has zero shame about owning. Thanks to social media, of course, self-promotion has become an essential component to party throwing, deejaying and writing/blogging — three things the 50-year-old Vitagliano has been doing for decades.
"I'm proud that what I do is a public convergence of nightlife and activism," Vitagliano proclaims, washing down chips and salsa with a lethal margarita at Casita del Campo, a gay favorite in the Silver Lake neighborhood where he's lived for decades.
In many ways, Casita represents the pan-sexual world that Vitagliano helped bring together in L.A. The crowd here is both gay and straight but always colorful, thanks to the Cavern Club, a theater in the basement, which showcases gay and drag shows helmed by Vitagliano's friend Mr. Dan.
Together, the friends co-hosted the legendary Dragstrip 66 dance party, which started at another Silver Lake restaurant, Rudolpho's, and moved to the Echo and then the Echoplex before ceasing as a monthly in 2010. Now, with Phil Scanlon, Vitagliano is raising money on Kickstarter to film a documentary about its glory days.
The 20th-anniversary party and the "very last Dragstrip event ever," planned for Jan. 12 at the Echoplex, will be part of the documentary.
"We had all this amazing footage of the club," says Vitagliano, who shot most of it himself. "Some people who were part of the Dragstrip family are not with us anymore, and we want to honor them. So many personas were born there: queens like Jackie Beat, Momma. ... It gave them a platform. I want that era to always have a place in history — to preserve it."
Vitagliano is also in promo mode for his recently released book, Born This Way: Real Stories of Growing Up Gay, a collection of childhood photos and personal essays.
Featuring 100 photos and memories, the book grew out of a blog Vitagliano started last year at borngaybornthisway.blogspot.com. Though it had nothing to do with the Lady Gaga hit, it reflects a similar idea: that despite whatever principles of "acceptable" behavior are imposed by society, we are innately who we are. Some boys like Barbies and tutus. And that may indicate homosexuality ... or not. Whether these preferences are due to biology or God or something we don't quite understand, to Vitagliano, is almost beside the point.
The images and text include entries from such recognizable names as Perez Hilton, Erasure's Andy Bell and singer Sia.
Vitagliano says he has heard great feedback from families looking to understand their kids. Some gays — particularly gay men who consider themselves masculine, according to the author — have criticized the pictures of little boys in effeminate garb or drama-queen poses. But he doesn't think the book perpetuates anything negative.
"First of all, these are individual experiences, and the people sharing them are owning them. They don't speak for the entire gay community," he says. "Second of all, stereotypes are real. Every community and facet of our culture has a stereotype for a reason. ... Femininity is associated with 'female,' and our culture still devalues women. If you're given the 'gift' of being male, and you denigrate that by showing femininity, it inspires ire in people. I don't agree with it, but I think that is why effeminate gay men are the most reviled. ...
"Every person has shades of masculine and feminine traits. Straight people do, too. The book isn't saying all gay guys are effeminate, but some gays do find themselves attracted to gender-opposite things growing up," he says. "And there's nothing wrong with that."
As the margaritas kick in, Vitagliano shares that he was constantly teased growing up in suburban Boston. He had some idea he was gay by the time he turned 6, he says, recalling an obsession with David Cassidy of The Partridge Family and a scrapbook devoted to the prettily tressed TV star. The excitement of getting his hair cut by a certain male barber also clued him in at a young age, but it wasn't until he was 17 that he realized "dating girls was a ruse."
He came out at 19 to his sisters and friends but waited to tell his mom until he was 30: "I came out at the time of the AIDS crisis, and if I told her then, I knew she would worry." (Dad wasn't in the picture.)
Born This Way isn't a typical memoir, but it is another example of Vitagliano's lifelong devotion to breaking down barriers in unorthodox ways. As a DJ, he was known for meshing unlikely genres together — leading to the rise of mashups in L.A. clubs and on the airwaves via his "Mashup of the Day" on now-defunct Indie 103.1 FM and via his Moheak.com radio show, Neon Noise.
Most significantly, Dragstrip 66 left an indelible mark on L.A. nightlife, providing a blueprint for the current crop of polysexual parties. The scene, which Vitagliano likens to "a John Waters flick starring KISS as styled by Bob Mackie and Goodwill," blurred the lines between hipsters, homosexuals, punk rockers and the dance-club set. "We wanted to be the antithesis to the mainstream club scene," he says.
Silver Lake had been known for its gay population since the 1970s, but Dragstrip took things to another level of cool. It brought theatricality, inclusiveness and creativity to the club scene and it helped drag gain respect. Boys in dresses became an unintentional catalyst for change in the clubs and, more importantly, the gay community.
If Vitagliano has it his way, the images in his book of young boys and girls expressing their "GLBT selves" in untraditional ways might do the same.
"I would be grateful if any part of my 30-year career — be it my clubs, my deejaying, my blogging or my book — inspired people to carry the torch of self-acceptance and self-expression," he says, punctuating the thought with a final margarita slurp. "Paying it forward is Promosexual 101."
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