The Horrors of Being the Sound-Bite King

The trials and tribulations of the all-purpose bobblehead savant for every documentary in town


As someone who’s been privy to many cultural happenings for decades and remembers every second of it all, I’ve appeared in so many documentaries that a Facebook friend is seriously considering contacting the Guinness Book of World Records about it. (Maybe someone should do a documentary about whether or not I get in.)

As a sort of all-purpose bobblehead savant for the streaming era, I pop up in documentaries about nightlife, New York City, queer history, fashion, movies, celebrity gossip, politics, and porn stars. I’ve been interviewed for docs about gays, lesbians, bisexuals, “f*g hags,” and Paris Hilton. Last year, I was even interrogated for a doc about Persis Khambatta, the obscure model-actor who played the bald Lieutenant Ilia in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, back in 1979. The director wanted me to provide some context for Persis’s career, and I gladly did so, delighted to have yet one more person aiming a camera at my face. Considering the practically nonverbal childhood I evolved from, it’s head-spinning to emerge as the unofficial king of documentary talking heads,  and to have so many people clamoring for my opinions. By now, I know the drill involved in incorporating the question into the answer and speaking in zingy sentences that don’t run on like this one is threatening to. But the reality is, when the glitter clears, being an endlessly yakking commentator is a hollow triumph that makes you feel like a beheaded chicken who is technically deceased, though the head still bobs. Let me tell it to you zingily.

The truth is:

It doesn’t pay.

They will gladly take up the bulk of your day with the interview, only to whittle you down to one or two sound bites you could have said in your sleep. I once did a 90-minute interview for a network’s pre-Oscar special and was cut down to just two biteless bites—“Michael Douglas is part of an acting clan” and “Warren Beatty is Shirley Mac-Laine’s younger brother.” I’m serious! Instead of using any of the seasoned observations about the Oscars I’ve cataloged over the years, they picked two utterances that were on the level of “Breaking: Water is wet!”

Doc filmmakers not only want a long interview, they increasingly try to pressure you for advance expert input, too. They want you to lunch with them, Zoom with them, and practically produce their movie—for no pay, and by the way, you’ll eventually be cut from it anyway.

They get the facts wrong. One nightlife doc jarringly jumbled the chronology of my reporting. When I complained, the director replied, “I used what [another reporter] told me. I’m a documentarian. I don’t care about exact chronology.”

The filmmakers apparently have lots of rights, but you certainly don’t. When the director of a doc about a horror-film actor wanted to put me on camera for some ’80s-related insight, I agreed, but specified that there was a certain topic I wouldn’t address (long story). But when I sat down to be grilled, that was the very first question out of the interviewer’s mouth! I headed for the exit, screaming as if I’d just seen Freddy Krueger.

In addition to all that grief, letting this stuff dominate your schedule can be so damaging to your well-being that your head can barely keep chattering (though it manages). For one thing, they will gladly set you up for stardom, then suddenly become as incommunicado as the shop owner who claimed to have Hunter Biden’s laptop. I totally understood when some docs I was scheduled to be in were scuttled because of lockdown; the blow to my omnipresence is hardly the main casualty of Covid. But then you have docs that are postponed again and again, like a Claudia Schiffer–produced film about fashion that’s been bumped more times than my attempt to refinance. (I’m still available, Claudia!) I must admit I wasn’t that upset when a streaming show on which people read fan letters they’ve written to celebrities wasn’t renewed. They had wanted me to talk about how incredible it was for director Ava DuVernay to include someone playing the gay civil rights activist Bayard Rustin in the movie Selma, though the truth is, while the inclusion was lovely, it was basically a glorified cameo and his gayness was not mentioned, so it hardly deserved a Pride parade.

Then you get the clueless types who fancy themselves producers but have never even successfully made pasta. One guy messaged me, “Tomorrow, you will be sent the one-sheet [a detailed rundown] for a new AMC show we want you for.” But apparently, there’s no such show—and whoever was supposed to send the one-sheet must have been three sheets to the wind. And a long-brewing doc about a nightclub I long ago frequented has kept putting me on hold with bouts of “The director will contact you soon.” “Soon”—like my last boyfriend—never comes. Also, there’s a streaming series in the works about famed hairdresser Mr. Kenneth; the project’s head of development initially wanted me because I had written an obit for Mr. K in 2013, though he eventually realized I’d never actually met the guy. But I never said I did! I wasn’t up close and personal with Persis Khambatta, either, but that didn’t stop me from being in her doc!

With everyone on earth doing a documentary about something or someone or other in order to feed the mania for pop history, it’s no wonder the quality of the films and their production processes vary wildly. Along with the triumphs, other recent disappointments have been plentiful and annoying.

I asked the directors of a documentary about International Male, a gay-friendly fashion line that had a moment back in the day, if I could be in it—I’ve always been obsessed with the campy clothes and sexy models—and they were excited about the prospect. But I never heard from them again—and that serves me right for having pitched myself for yet more torture in the documentary hot seat.

In 2017, after leg and ankle surgery following a bike incident, I managed to hobble to a residential location to be interviewed for one more documentary, proving the dire extremes of my whoredom. And what a waste! This doc was supposed to be a companion piece to a feature film (with actors) about controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, but I was only briefly asked about Mapplethorpe. For the most part, the questions spanned all sorts of seemingly random topics—Vietnam, outer space, artists—and while I tried to be incisive, I mostly sat there thinking, Who the f**k would care about what I (and assorted others) have to say about any of these things? And what exactly is the hook here—a bunch of people sitting around, talking about stuff? Well, the feature flopped, and perhaps as a result, the doc was never heard from again. Meanwhile, my psychic pain was starting to match my leg ache.

Four years ago, I was interviewed for a documentary about a well-known boutique from the ’70s and ’80s. I had my doubts that this was a strong enough subject for a feature film—What next? A doc about the history of Petco?—but I dutifully showed up to give my inevitable two cents. I’m still waiting for any forward motion on the whole thing, but at least I kept the sleek promotional mug they gave me at the shoot, and that’s been very enjoyable!

A Dutch producer wanted to do a doc about the late videographer Nelson Sullivan, an old friend of mine who’d shot offbeat creatures like me, RuPaul, and actress Sylvia Miles as we raucously romped through the nightlife and beyond in the ’80s. But during our entire introductory lunch, the producer talked about another movie he’d done, on Syrian refugees. He weirdly never mentioned Nelson, and though I kept trying to bring him up, it just wouldn’t stick. I was unnerved, but when the guy booked me for the doc, I submitted, and did some commentary and voice-overs for him. I later found out that the shoot had just been for a pitch! (There was a definite language barrier getting in the way of our collaborative artistry.) After lockdown ended, the producer met me for another lunch and told me that the movie had been green-lighted, and he wanted to shoot me for real. But by now, Pride—a queer-history doc series on FX—had done a terrific episode about Nelson, which I was in. And this project—whether it was about Nelson or not—suddenly sounded less appealing, even though the guy was offering actual money. Yes—there was finally some dinero dangling for my efforts, and I turned it down! Apparently, I will only whore for free! By withholding my essential participation, I put the whole thing on pause and felt very grand doing so—sort of like if Nicole Kidman decreed, “No, I don’t want to play Carol Burnett right now.”

Even the documentaries that work out and use you can sometimes squeeze more and more from the lemon while leaving an appropriately sour taste. For Gossip, the Showtime series about columnist Cindy Adams that ran last August, they interviewed me for two hours about every little interaction I’ve ever had with Cindy, in addition to talking at length about my own tres gay gossip career. I also supplied them with the New York magazine issue that had us gossip columnists on the cover, and when they couldn’t get ahold of my gossip “daughter” Perez Hilton, I hooked them up with him, and he certainly got air time. But when the four episodes aired, people told me, disappointedly, that I was in only three quick bites. Probably stuff like “Liza Minnelli is Judy Garland’s daughter,” lol. (Thanks to the warnings, I haven’t girded my loins to watch Gossip yet, though I usually do manage to force my eyes onto the screen to find out what the blender-by-committee process did to my bon mots.)

Speaking of famous relations: A doc that aired last year, about Janet Jackson’s 2004 wardrobe malfunction, also apparently pruned me down to an appearance that was almost as short-lived as Janet’s right nipple cameo at the Super Bowl. And recently, someone involved in a doc about offbeat entertainers pre-interviewed me on the phone, then set up a Zoom with me, him, and the director. Both times, I blabbed for what seemed like days and offered lots of my usual expertise. “Next up,” the liaison said, after the Zoom call, “when the director’s in town, can we set up a meeting in person?” “Huh?” I replied. “Another meeting? I don’t really consult documentaries, certainly not for free. I’ve already told you my take on the topic, the personalities involved, and my experiences with them. If the documentary moves forward and you decide you want me as a talking head, then fine, I’m available. But sorry, I’m not doing any more meetings.” The whole process had worn me down so badly, I’d finally grown some testicles of fire! Not long afterward, they said they were ready to start filming and they wanted me for two hours. The new me promptly replied, “I’ll give you an hour.” I really was finally growing up—though I have a strong feeling I’ll give them an hour and a half.

But being the long-running sound-bite king doesn’t always leave me scratching my (talking) head and wondering, “What’s up, doc?” I’m obviously very visible, despite the travails, since people have welcomed my bites much more delightfully than Armie Hammer’s. And I liked the way I was presented in shows like the aforementioned Pride and docs like I’m Gonna Make You Love Me (about a twice-transitioned friend, Brian Belovitch)—yes, I watched them—plus filmic tributes by Jeffrey Schwarz (about drag icon Divine, caftan-wearing producer Allan Carr, and others) and all sorts of gritty, NYC-related segments for Inside Edition.

Besides, less is more, while also being better than zilch. If I hadn’t been in Gossip at all, I’d feel much more demoralized than I was by occasionally popping up in it like a well-groomed pocket gopher. (I did see the stills.) And having the most sound bites doesn’t necessarily make you the most memorable person on the screen. Sometimes it’s better just to create a strong presence by serving up something quick and effective that no one else can provide. One of the most attention-getting appearances I ever had was a quick shot of me and a friend whooshing into Andy Warhol’s funeral, shown in this past March’s much-watched The Andy Warhol Diaries series, on Netflix. And I didn’t have to sit down for a lengthy interview. All I had to do was dress foolishly and go to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1987.

But of course, I’ll still do sit-downs. The more I do, the better my chances at Guinness. And after hearing my tales of wind-me-up woe, you couldn’t possibly fault me for trying to stir up my very own doc on the side. I feel that doing such a thing would significantly reduce the chance that I’ll get cut!  ❖

Michael Musto is best known for his outspoken Village Voice column “La Dolce Musto,” which began in 1984. He writes a gossip column for Queerty, has penned four books, found himself on the Out100 list of the most influential LGBTQs, and is streaming in docs on Netflix, Hulu, Vice, and Showtime.

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