Fashion, art, nightlife and the queer scene - all of these territories have been touched and remade by Susanne Bartsch's far-reaching tendrils. The club scene curator has quietly been nurturing artistic talent since throwing her first party, Savage in New York, thirty years ago. Legendary doesn't cut it - we need a new word to describe the queen of club kids, and it's high time she was given this homage to her unique and enduring career.
The weird and wonderful Susanne Bartsch has been shaping underground nightlife in New York for decades. Her parties are legendary, and now she's inviting you to experience one.
This weekend she's launching a month-long residency at the McKittrick Hotel, the home of Sleep No More and a slew of whimsical watering holes. Taking over the spot's sexy, velvet-draped jazz club, The Manderley Bar, with her limit-pushing brand of debauchery, Bartsch, in collaboration with Dee Dee Luxe, presents The Bartschland Follies.
A perfect nod to the 1920s and the famed performers of the Ziegfeld, the eccentric midnight show will feature a rotating cast of after-dark characters from Joey Arias to Amanda Lepore, resulting in a cabaret extravaganza that falls somewhere between madcap burlesque and a full-on circus.
Guests can sip one of the Manderley's classic gimlets (or go the extra mile with a Pernod Absinthe cocktail) to truly set the mood.
Performances will run every Friday through April 13th. Get tickets HERE!
The McKittrick Hotel (530 West 27th Street, NYC), home of Sleep No More, and Susanne Bartsch in collaboration with Dee Dee Luxe, announce the Bartschland Follies, a weekly midnight residency in the hotel's jazz age-inspired speakeasy Manderley Bar. The Bartschland Follies will take place on Fridays from March 16 - April 13.
The McKittrick Hotel is combining forces with Bartsch to create the Bartschland Follies - an eclectic and eccentric cabaret extravaganza, where a night at the opera collides with a burlesque circus for a high fashion, madcap and unforgettable entertainment experience.
Doyenne of downtown Susanne Bartsch herself will host each show and feature a rotating roster of performances by nightlife fixtures including Joey Arias, Amanda Lepore, Shequida, Aquaria, Fou York, Dirty Martini and many more.
"I am so excited to have a new home at The McKittrick Hotel," says Bartsch.
Manderley Bar, the jazz-inspired concert hall and speakeasy in the heart of adult playground The McKittrick Hotel, welcomes guests for drinks and live music nightly during Sleep No More performances, and after-hours often with no cover.
The venue's classic cocktail list includes a McKittrick Gimlet, Champagne Cocktail, daily Bartender's Choice Punch and a Pernod Absinthe concoction called The Green Beast. Bubbly and wine by the bottle are also available, as is an expansive spirit list highlighting bourbon, rye and single malt Scotch whiskies, to enjoy during performances.
Tickets range from $25 for General Admission to $75 for Reserved Seating, and are available at https://mckittrickhotel.com/events/bartschland-follies. Doors open at 11pm and all guests must be at least 21 to enter.
Manderley Bar is located in The McKittrick Hotel at 532 West 27th Street, New York, NY 10001. For tickets, reservations and additional information, visit mckittrickhotel.com/manderley-bar or call the Box Office at 212-904-1880.
For a full schedule of Sleep No More performances and events at The McKittrick Hotel, visit mckittrickhotel.com/calendar.
Susanne Bartsch (@Bartschland) is New York City's patron saint of transformation and inclusion. The parties she's thrown for three decades-from Paris to Tokyo-have provided a venue for countless creative souls and "creatures" to express themselves, come together and forget the hum-drum of the everyday. Since 1987, Susanne has become notorious for the beautiful, strange, and outlandishly dressed people who flock to her events, at venues like The Soho Grand Hotel, Le Bain & The Top of The Standard. The colorful crowd has followed her for 3 decades and still gather at her current weekly bashes in New York and special events around the world.
For additional information, visit www.susannebartsch.com.
The McKittrick Hotel (@TheMcKittrick) is home of the immersive theater spectacle Sleep No More, year-round rooftop bar Gallow Green, jazz age-inspired speakeasy Manderley Bar and The Heath, a full-service restaurant and performance venue - currently home of the new storytelling experience Flight. The McKittrick is also renowned for elaborate costume parties and one-of-a-kind events, including The McKittrick Masquerades, and regularly hosts intimate live concerts and music festivals.
For additional information, visit www.mckittrickhotel.com
For the next five Fridays, NYC nightlife icon Susanne Bartsch will be hosting a weekly party at The McKittrick Hotel's jazz-age speakeasy, Manderley Bar. It's called the Bartschland Follies—and seeing as this week's event sold out in under a day, you should probably secure your tickets to next week's sooner than later.
The event has been heralded as an eclectic and eccentric cabaret, where a night at the opera meets a burlesque circus. A rotating crew of nightlife fixtures including Amanda Lepore, Joey Arias, Aquaria and more will be making appearances.
The Bartschland Follies, a weekly midnight residency is set to play at the McKittrick Hotel, home of Sleep No More, at the venue's jazz age-inspired speakeasy Manderley Bar. The show will take place on Fridays, March 16-April 13.
The Bartschland Follies is described as "an eclectic and eccentric cabaret extravaganza, where a night at the opera collides with a burlesque circus for a high fashion." Susanne Bartsch will host each show, which will feature a rotating roster of performances by nightlife fixtures including Joey Arias, Amanda Lepore, Shequida, Aquaria, Fou York, Dirty Martini, and more.
Bartsch's parties, which she's thrown for three decades are described as having "provided a venue for countless creative souls and 'creatures' to express themselves, come together and forget the hum-drum of the everyday. Since 1987, Susanne has become notorious for the beautiful, strange, and outlandishly dressed people who flock to her events."
The W Fort Lauderdale hotel threw a grand-reveal party to show off its $55 million makeover on March 8.
The evening included a concert from breakout neo-soul singer Sabrina Claudio and a pop-up fashion display by nightlife event producer Susanne Bartsch.
The renovation, which started in the summer of 2016, includes all the hotel’s rooms and residential suites, as well as the pool area, meeting spaces and what the W calls the Living Room, its version of a hotel lobby/lounge.
Nightlife impresaria Susanne Bartsch presented a pop-up fashion display at the grand-reveal party for the renovation of the W Fort Lauderdale hotel on Fort Lauderdale beach. (Rod Stafford Hagwood / SouthFlorida.com)
Partygoers also got a sneak peek of El Vez, the oceanfront restaurant from James Beard Award winner Stephen Starr, which is set to debut soon. Starr already has a popular eatery on the property with Steak 954.
New also is Sushi Bar, with its menu designed by sushi chef Shuji Hiyakawa, a protégé of Masaharu Morimoto, the star of “Iron Chef” and “Iron Chef America.” Next up will be Mingle, a 4,000-square-foot ballroom.
On the WET Deck pool area of the W Fort Lauderdale hotel during the grand-reveal party for the renovation of the Fort Lauderdale beach resort property. (Rod Stafford Hagwood / SouthFlorida.com)
The oceanfront hotel on Fort Lauderdale beach also announced the launching of a weekly lineup of events, including:
Mondays: “Mondays Are a B@#&%!,” with hand and arm massages offered by Bliss Spa technicians and a bar for attendees to create their own organic body scrub.
Tuesdays: “Bollywood Night,” where the hotel will offer cocktails and complimentary henna designs.
Wednesdays: “The Studio,” which will feature live art demonstrations.
Thursdays: “Off the Wall,” which will allow guests to pick out their own songs for the DJ to play.
Fridays: “Heat Wave,” when visitors can start the weekend with Latin music, free cigars and specials on mojitos and rum.
Saturdays: “Neon Lounge,” which will have a retro ’80s vibe with a live DJ spinning.
Sundays: “Saxxxy Sundays,” featuring live jazz.
For more information, go to WFortLauderdaleHotel.com.
“Susanne, you gave me my big break at the Copacabana back in the ’80s, and today you continue to inspire all of us,” Ru said in a taped message.
“You provided a platform, and safe spaces, where LGBT artists can express themselves,” Ru gushed. “You brought our tribe together.”
Born in Switzerland, Bartsch has been a force to be reckoned with since the early 1980s, bringing together uptown and downtown at unforgettable parties, store openings, product launches, and more. (Her Love Ball raised millions for AIDS research.)
You’re just as likely to bump into a Grammy winner or top designer at a Susanne Bartsch event as you are a drag queen or streetwalker.
Anthony&Alex’s new documentary chronicles Bartsch’s impact on nightlife, celebrity and New York itself, with interviews with Ru, Michael Musto, Amanda Lepore, and of course, Bartsch.
“You were really the one who championed me in New York—and really got me propelled to a place where I could pay my bills,” Ru told Susanne in a 2014 episode of RuPaul Drives.
“We were a good team,” the nightlife icon replied. “You were just such an addition to what I was doing. I started out with just me dressing up and eventually I wanted hookers and looks and god knows what and in the end it was Lady Hennessy. You were somewhere in between.”
Below, check out some of Susanne’s show-stopping moments with Marc Jacobs, Joey Arias, Cyndi Lauper, Pat Fields, Donna Karen, and, yes, Cher.
Rupaul “condrag-ulated” nightlife queen Susanne Bartsch on a new film about her life via video at NewFest.
“Susanne, you gave me my big break at the Copacabana back in the ’80s, and today you continue to inspire all of us,” the drag icon said at the “Queen of the Night” screening.
“You provided a platform, and safe spaces, where LGBT artists can express themselves . . . You brought our tribe together.”
Afterward, Amanda Lepore performed at Top of the Standard.
When you enter the "Susanne Bartsch: Art-a-Porter" exhibit at the Tampa Museum of Art, you've stepped into the fabulous world of New York City's "Queen of the Night."
The exhibition of fashion icon and event producer Susanne Bartsch's wardrobe is a visual timeline of her influence on New York's art, fashion and nightclub scene, and fashion's top designers, spanning from the early 1980s through today. While the designs are all incredible works of art, the notion of self-expression as an art form is what's truly being celebrated here.
You're instantly greeted by a mannequin of Bartsch in a slinky, sparkly dress by Zaldy, paired with a military jacket from Jean Paul Gaultier, backed by a graffiti wall holding a long scroll, meant to be a guest list. The tone has been set: a mix of high fashion, whimsy and fearless personal style, with a lifestyle to match.
Swiss-born Bartsch came to New York in 1981 from London, bringing with her punk fashions from up-and-coming designers, which she sold at a boutique in SoHo. A few of these early looks are on display, and are a precursor to the full-on theater into which Bartsch's looks evolve. A papier-mache skull mask is perched atop Leigh Bowery's punk take on the classic trench coat.
After moving her shop to a larger space on West Broadway, Bartsch's boutique was one of a few to carry designs by Vivienne Westwood, the so-called "mother of punk." Included in the collection is Westwood's Mini Crini Dress, circa 1985, which resembles a maid's dress, very reminiscent of something from the The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Bartsch began throwing her legendary parties at nightclubs in 1987. The vibes created in these parties gave way to the Club Kids, who came to the forefront in the early 1990s with their DIY, outrageous costumes. Through the parties, Bartsch forged friendships with designers Thierry Mugler and Mathu and Zaldy, of whom she was a muse. Many of their pieces are included in the show.
During this period, the theatrical element of Bartsch's style ramped up. The corsetier Mr. Pearl began dressing her in his elaborate creations, bejeweled and nearly architectural in structure. Bartsch has the figure of a human Barbie doll, so the tiny waists on these are a sight to behold.
One point of departure comes in the form of a dress by John Galliano, whom Bartsch met when he was an emerging designer in the mid-1990s. The blue velvet evening gown, one of Galliano's first gowns ever made, is exquisite, but seems almost demure for Bartsch in comparison to the rest of the exhibit.
Another standout is Alexander McQueen's sublime Leaves Dress, with black leather leaves intricately cut out. The exhibition label says the dress was made in 2010, so this may have been one of his last designs before his death.
Bartsch clearly has an affinity for bodysuits, as a number are featured in the show. Many are made by Mathu and Zaldy, including a spectacular, mirrored suit with attached boots. Another recent bodysuit, from designers the Blonds, features hand-cut paillette scales and a chromed fiberglass bust.
It's not all about the clothes, of course. Makeup and hair are vital elements of Bartsch's look. Elaborate wigs and headpieces, masks and jewelry are also crucial. Feathers, tulle and mesh, actual crowns fit for royalty (she is the Queen, after all) and even cages for the face take each look to the next level. Strangely, the exhibit is devoid of shoes.
And it wouldn't be a respectable fashion event without the wedding element. As you can imagine, Bartsch's would be over the top, from the ceremony to the outfit. She married David Barton, the founder of a successful chain of gyms in New York, on the runway after one of her fashion shows. She wore a nude leather bodysuit made by Abel Villarreal, topped by a giant egg-shaped veil made by Thierry Mugler. Her new husband wore a leather thong.
Soon lucky us will get what’s called “adult entertainment” from what’s called “The Queen of the Night” in what’s called the McKittrick Hotel in what’s called their speak-easy Manderley Bar.
Midnight on Fridays, Susanne Bartsch soon presents “Bartschland Follies” starring highlights like Dirty Martini and Amanda Lepore.
She is the host with the most
Susanne Bartsch is a name within NYC that does not need any introduction. She is the hostess with the mostest, known for throwing some of the most extravagant parties NYC has ever seen. Susanne is also known to be a mother of sorts to many of the queer people living in NYC. She has an eye for talent, and when she takes you under her wing then you know you have what it takes to succeed. And it is about time that a documentary about her has come to be.
Susanne Bartsch: On Top is a documentary that really tells the story of who Susanne is. The documentary focuses on a night on the town with Susanne. This documentary shows parts of Susanne that people don’t really get to see such as how she gets ready, the planning and detail she uses when putting on her look, and what it is like to be an underground legend.
Some fun parts of the documentary include moments where legends such as Amanda Lepore and Rupaul describe the impact that Susanne has had on them as far as helping their careers start and grow. Another interesting thing that the documentary talks about is how Susanne has impacted the LGBTQ community as a whole. Susanne was one of the people who brought attention to the AIDS crisis in the 80s, throwing the Love Ball which garnered the attention of many celebrities.
Overall, this documentary does a great job in really conveying how important Susanne Bartsch is. Not only is she a legend in NYC, but she is someone who can be considered an icon all across the country, maybe even the world.
We screened the film at NewFest 2017.
The debut feature from filmmaking duo Anthony&Alex tells the outrageous true story of Susanne Bartsch. As a nightlife maven and fashion icon, her life is unlike anything you've ever seen before.
The Swiss native has, for the past 30 years, been known as the "Queen of the Night." She changed the nightclub scene in New York in 1986 with her own special events. As drag icon RuPaul says in the film, "Suzanne picked up where Warhol left off." Kicking off a post-Studio 54 era, she emphasized fashion and uniqueness at all times, often going for a full-scale theatrical experience.
Her home in the infamous Chelsea Hotel is a never-ending archive of her achievements. This film attempts to tell these stories by using the curation of an exhibition of her party outfits for the Fashion Institute of Technology as an anchor. Her explicit attention to detail and copious amounts of photographs and video footage illustrate her unquestionable influence.
Bartsch's life was at least temporarily sidelined by her passion and empathy for others as the AIDS epidemic ravaged her circle of friends in New York. Referring to it as a "cultural holocaust," Bartsch never wavered in her commitment to helping her friends and, in 1989, she hosted an event called the Love Ball at Roseland Ballroom that raised millions for AIDS research through major corporate sponsors while first putting the spotlight on the Harlem drag balls that inspired Madonna's "Vogue."
While never exactly going down a normal path, Bartsch still got married to a bodybuilder and had a child named Bailey who praises his parents' unconventional lifestyles.
Before the film ends, it devotes time to interviews with many gay and gender non-conforming people who have attended Barsch's events over the years who express their gratitude. One man notes that when you went to one of her parties, you "didn't have to hide, at least for one night.
Susanne Bartsch moved to New York City in 1981. The fact that this was the city’s most violent year for recorded crime is perhaps unrelated to Bartsch’s initial arrival, but the opening and success of her eponymous SoHo shop “Barstchland” may suggest that New Yorker’s were searching for escape from the danger on most street corners.Read More
RuPaul, Michael Musto, and more channel the legendary party promoter's life and legacy in a stylish documentary opening this year's NewFest.Read More
“Susanne Bartsch picked up where [Andy] Warhol left off,” RuPaul Charles says of his friend, the woman he says set him down the path to become Supermodel of the World. He’s not the only one: Performance artist Joey Arias credits Bartsch with encouraging him to try drag, transgender pioneer Flawless Sabrina speaks of her in the same breath as Warhol, and fashion historians trace London style’s expansion to New York and Tokyo in the ’80s to Bartsch.
As for the woman herself, she’s still throwing parties.
While dressing for one of her fabled Tuesday night parties at Meatpacking district club Le Bain, Bartsch was fretting over the colors for one of her outstanding looks: “It’s not really pink,” she says. “I mean, I know it’s pink, but it’s not a pink that I feel pink in.”
It’s an auspicious introduction to Bartsch’s world, well chosen as the opening scene in “Susanne Bartsch: On Top,” the stylish debut documentary from queer filmmaking duo Anthony Caronna and Alexander Smith, who go by the moniker Anthony and Alex. The film, which takes its title from Bartsch’s Le Bain parties, is the opening night selection at Newfest, New York’s LGBT film festival.
Originally hailing from Switzerland, Bartsch speaks in a heavy German accent and loathes tardiness — both in herself and others. “Where the fuck are you?” she barks at her assistant, before he saunters casually into the party, directing costumed performers onto ornate pool floats. Later, she instructs him to stop tapping on a list with a pencil so as not to make marks. In another scene, she tells her make-up artist: “This look, I hate it.”
“She does not walk into a room unnoticed,” David Barton says admiringly of his ex-wife. Bartsch married the New York gym mogul in a lavish wedding in 1995; archival footage of Bartsch in a nude body suit, wrapped entirely in a cocoon of white tulle is one of the film’s more amazing finds. (As is the revelation that the wedding was sponsored by Playboy). Other precious archival footage includes a very young RuPaul gallivanting in New York bodegas and emceeing Bartsch’s nights at the Copacabana in the late ’80s.
The film charts Bartsch’s history with sufficient detail, touching on her complicated family life in Switzerland, her mark on the fashion world, and her early and steadfast commitment to AIDS activism. The film’s most impressive interview subject is Bartsch’s college-aged son, Bailey, who offers a candid peek behind the fabulous curtain with a wisdom beyond his years. “It’s weird to be around Susanne when she’s playing Susanne,” he says, using his mother’s first name. Bailey addresses the difference between the “character” and the real person with a measured frankness. “I think appearing as a normal person is a source of vulnerability for her. She doesn’t want to be normal, she wants to be more than that.”
“I would never want to walk into a fabulous event not with a wig and a look,” says Bartsch. “I think I would feel less interesting.” Of course, she is terribly interesting, look or not. “No one can throw a party like her, no one carry on like her, no one’s personal life is as interesting as hers,” says Michael Musto, who has dedicated his life to writing about New York’s gay culture and nightlife. “She’s endured for 30 years.”
There are plenty of events and settings to keep the film just as interesting as its subject — from preparing her closet for a retrospective at The Museum at FIT to a fascinating look at her ornate apartment inside the fabled Chelsea Hotel. These grand moments are peppered with an intimate window into a more domestic life, like Bartsch shoving a chicken in the oven with a ceremonious, “Back in the oven, bitch!”
As the film’s techno score swells to an overwhelming frenzy during one of her events, the music stops short as Bartsch answers a call from her son. Her voice lightens, her face brightens, and she shouts over the clamor of adoring fans: “This is all for you. You give me a purpose to leave a legacy.” In Anthony and Alex’s capable hands, the Susanne Bartsch legacy endures just as brightly as it began.
Susanne Bartsch moved to New York City in 1981. The fact that this was the city’s most violent year for recorded crime is perhaps unrelated to Bartsch’s initial arrival, but the opening and success of her eponymous SoHo shop “Barstchland” may suggest that New Yorker’s were searching for escape from the danger on most street corners.
Opening up this season’s NewFest, Susanne Bartsch: On Top premieres Thursday Oct. 19 at the SVA Theatre. The vibrant documentary is decorated by a slew of archival footage. One evening news segment from the late 1980s stands out in particular: A square-shouldered anchor reports that Bartsch’s weekly parties at clubs like Savage (below the Chelsea Hotel) were “full scale theatrical assaults.” From debut directors Anthony&Alex, On Top catalogs the nightlife institution as she and her team of equally animated assistants and associates prepare for 2015’s Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch at the FIT Museum.
The mention of her shop and its place for all things cool creates a solid place to begin the legacy that Bartsch has created over the past three decades. Having worked in London’s Chelsea Market, befriending many associated with the New Romantic movement, Bartsch was among the first retailers in the U.S. to carry names like Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano. The film follows her from her home inside the Chelsea Hotel, where she’s lived since arriving in New York, to the many fast-paced parties that conglomerate to assemble a colorful, electric aura around this fervent film. The dance music and high-fashion personas that surround Bartsch on a daily basis inflect her every move. At one point she’s tending to a roast chicken for her son Bailey, which is like seeing an illustration come to life.
Bartsch has the rare talent of successfully straddling fashion and art. “Appearing as normal is some form of vulnerability for her,” says Bailey, whose interviews in part with those from ex-husband David Barton help to normalize “the character” we know as Susanne Bartsch. From her Thierry Mugler geometric wedding dress, to her various Mr. Pearl corsets, the fashion in the film is remarkable and the detail exhibited at the FIT Museum proved that Bartsch, having archived all of her get-ups, has always been dedicated to turning her life into art. In 2013, Michael Schulan for the New York Times wrote, “Ms. Bartsch’s name is the equivalent of a couture label.” Anthony&Alex give us the best of the best here, from her distaste for particular wigs – “Don’t cut that, I don’t care anymore” – to her duty as bankroll, “I have all of the check books,” she says before leaving for a party.
What is most revealing in the documentary is Bartsch’s tenderness. Clubs are associated with sex, drugs and everything in between. On Top, which shares the name with a party Bartsch has been throwing every Tuesday at Le Bain at The Standard Hotel, illuminates the maternal care Bartsch applies to her coterie of club kids as well as her only child. “You’re why I’m doing this,” she tells Bailey over the phone. “You give me purpose to leave a legacy.” This exchange takes place while she’s being followed and photographed at the museum opening. Even more illuminating was Anthony&Alex’s incorporation of footage from the inaugural “Love Ball” (now the Life Ball) thrown at the Roseland Ballroom in 1989. That star-studded evening raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for AIDS research – an unprecedented feat during the Reagan administration.
My own personal introduction to Susanne Bartsch comes from lore. I write this having known her name for several years now but not once attending one of her parties. Her clan of nightlife delicacies runs wild on Instagram and across Manhattan and Brooklyn, not to mention other continents. The talk that follows Bartsch is stupendous and the film only solidified the wild behaviors I have only seen inside New York nightlife. The take away from each night I spend partying, however, is that these creative juices that dictate the scale of what makes a party successful, or not, are only pumping because of Bartsch – she is a fountain from which queer culture flows.
Auntie Mame once insisted that “life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death.” That sentiment is echoed in a new documentary about a nonfictional Mame, Susanne Bartsch, who reigned in New York during the post-Warhol era. Raised in Switzerland where she felt “very boxed in,” she created party scenes (“more like full-scale theatrical events”) in London, Tokyo and, especially, New York. When the AIDS era hit, her parties became fundraisers. Her costumes are outlandish and her attitude is pure diva — but her frivolity has a worthy nonconformist agenda behind it. Directors Anthony&Alex will attend the screening. (4:30 p.m. June 9, Egyptian) — J.H.
Susanne Bartsch has donned many hats throughout her lifetime. She’s a business owner, sure. But people in New York City know her more as a party organizer. Now I can already feel the dissenting misinformed. I can feel them snubbing a woman who’s taken what seems like an arbitrary, made-up job title. But we’re talking here about being a party organizer a time when, to paraphrase James St. James, they didn’t play top 40 in nightclubs. This is a woman who sheltered club kids and let them invent and create themselves. She started this all in the 1980’s, a painful decade in queer history.
Directors Anthony&Alex catch up with this strong woman. The showed how Bartsch ameliorated the lives of people who had HIV when that disease was at its worst. She does it with her momentous 1989 AIDS fundraiser, linking homeless POC kids at the ball scene with celebrities. At a time when mainstream America wanted us dead she helped us celebrate who we were and lifted our spirits. This is, of course, one of the many moments in Bartsch’s life. Anthony&Alex also take us back to how her Swiss roots defined the person she ended up becoming.
Anthony&Alex competently structures their film, digging through Bartsch’s life in increments while weaving it with the present. Aside from the AIDS fundraiser the film also focuses on many things. One of those is her retrospective on the Fashion Institute of Technology. How she touched the lives of other figures like Michael Musto, Amanda Lepore, and RuPaul. Her life as a loving wife and mother. One of the film’s early scenes shows her checking on a baked chicken she’s making for her son. And that’s while she’s gilding her eyebrows for one of her recent parties. I can only aspire to such greatness.
Susanne Bartsch: On Top
(USA, 84 min.)
Programme: Nightvision (Programme: Nightvision)
Hot Docs’ team of programmers have chosen a large number of character portraits this year—more than in previous editions of the festival. While the focus may illustrate a trend in production, audience interest, or both, it also amplifies the virtues and weaknesses of that genre of documentaries. The strength of character portrait docs generally relies on two elements: the charisma of the subject and the filmmaker’s ability to extend the profile of a single character into a film of greater meaning. The excellent Susanne Bartsch: On Top stands out in the field of first person p.o.v. docs because it has both a great character and a resonant story that situates the subject’s narrative within a larger canvas. This doc about the queen of New York nightlife is a roaringly good time and an empowering story of LGBTQ rights.
If Bette Davis’s attitude was to go out with her heels on while still in action, then Susanne Bartsch’s philosophy is to go out with the biggest, wildest pair of eyelashes one can find while at the centre of the biggest, wildest party New York has ever seen. On Top profiles the long-time Hotel Chelsea resident and reigning Manhattan party queen who still has the spunk and energy needed for a wild bash. Bartsch is a precursor to Lady Gaga, Cher and other party divas who know how to make heads turn with the right “look.” Every appearance Bartsch makes is an utter transformation behind heavy make-up, false eyelashes, eccentric wigs, and bright, vibrant garments. Her appearance is a kind of performance art that has helped her gain attention in the scene and establish herself as one of its most vivacious fixtures.
The Switzerland-born Bartsch recalls her experience of bringing a little life back to the party in the Big Apple when the indie/underground scene faded out with Andy Warhol. She tells how her interest in high fashion (outrageously bright and loud threads) inspired her to import all the hottest trends from the London scene to New York. By opening her boutique, Bartsch established a successful business and a legacy of taking pride in being and looking openly fabulous.
Bartsch herself is heterosexual, but she’s also a flamboyantly gay character with infectious joie de vivre. As the camera observes her testing a variety of looks, one sees how she’s one of those people who simply lights up a room with life and energy. Bartsch is fun and peppy as directing duo Anthony&Alex captures her while she organises and attends parties and humorously commands a room with gaiety and authority. She also readies an exhibit for New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. The show gives the film easy access to Bartsch’s past as she mines her voluminous wardrobe, oversees the maquillage of mannequins, and tells the stories behind her many looks and hairdos, like her wild beehive of a wedding veil that gives the film a gateway to fruitful interviews with her son and her ex-husband (with whom still still has a friendly relationship).
The documentary is especially strong when Bartsch poignantly recalls the friends she lost with the onset of AIDS and the cultural crisis that followed. Susanne Bartsch: On Top looks at how the conservatism of the Reagan years pushed the queer community further past the margins and created stigma rather than support. Bartsch tells of how taking the pulse of this community let her see how much the system was failing her friends and clients. The doc shows the socialite harness her event planning skills and nightlife savvy into one big philanthropic bash.
Susanne Bartsch: On Top extends Bartsch’s story to the community that thrives on her parties. The doc looks at Bartsch’s role in New York’s queer community as residents from all walks of life congregate, mingle, let loose, and thrive in each other’s company. The story of her success is also the story of coming out in America. Her outlandish ensembles and, more significantly, the confidence with which she wears them, invites an atmosphere of openness and acceptance.
On Top sees numerous fixtures from the New York nightlife scene discuss their comfort in coming out with the subculture of drag and performance that Bartsch’s parties invite. The doc lets each of these characters discuss the comforts of finding the right layer of skin into which one may find one’s best self. The film extends the conversation to heterosexuals like Bartsch, including one married couple, who love to dress in drag or make themselves look extravagantly fabulous. Susanne Bartsch: On Top dissolves binaries of gender in an inclusive portrait that encourages audiences to be loud and proud.
Whether it’s an escape or a proud expression of living without fear, nightlife as depicted in this powerful doc, is a necessary alternative to the suffocating attitudes of daytime. What seems like frivolity and excess for some affords a life preserver for others. As far as character portraits go, Susanne Bartsch: On Top is one of the most fabulous docs at this year’s festival.