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.

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‘Susanne Bartsch: On Top’ Review: Behind the Gay Nightlife Queen Who ‘Picked Up Where Warhol Left Off’

“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 NewFestSusanne 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.


Susanne Bartsch: On Top

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.


Review: ‘Susanne Bartsch: On Top’

Susanne Bartsch: On Top
(USA, 84 min.)
Dir. Anthony&Alex
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.


Susanne Bartsch: On Top

New York City has changed a lot over the last 30 years, but Susanne Bartsch has remained a continuous force in its queer nightlife. This loving portrait largely cedes the narrative to the loquacious Swiss-born party promoter, fashion muse and long-time Chelsea Hotel resident, who is launching a new party and prepping a retrospective for the Fashion Institute of Technology when duo Anthony&Alex catch up with her. 

Club scene fixtures Michael Musto, Amanda Lepore and Kenny Kenny pop up, as does RuPaul (a regular at Bartsch's 80s parties), while Bartsch's son and hardbody husband give more personal insight. We learn about her influence on the fashion world and her star-studded 1989 AIDS fundraiser, Love Ball, gets a lengthy sequence.

But as archival dance-floor footage blends into the present day, it becomes apparent that her relevance is not just about ambition, but that the safe space she provides to explore sexuality and gender is still so needed.


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Source: How Women Have Always Ruled the Night Life

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