As the den mother of the club kids and the Queen of Nightlife, Susanne Bartsch has been profiled countless times, most memorably in 2006 by New York magazine. Back then, none other than Ian Schrager described Bartsch as “a true icon of the night, someone who goes down in the nightlife hall of fame.” Of course, there is no nightlife hall of fame (yet), but Bartsch has now been immortalized in the form of a documentary, Susanne Bartsch: On Top, that will open Newfest, the city’s long-running LGBT film festival.
The new doc, by out-there music video and short film directors Anthony&Alex, follows the Swiss miss as she prepares for the launch, in September 2015, of a retrospective at The Museum at FIT, not far from her longtime home at the Chelsea Hotel. Given that she’s one of New York City’s most celebrated party producers and consummate hostesses, it’s tempting to view Bartsch as a transcendent puff cloud of fabulosity, but here we see her behind the scenes, wrapped up in the “toxic anxiety” that David Amsden described in his New York profile. Let’s just say that after watching the doc, you’ll want to send some flowers to her long-suffering hair and makeup people.
If you’re under 25, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Bartsch, even if you hang out at Bizarre Bushwick amidst the new generation of gender-bending, fierce-dressing “personalities” who’ve inherited her mantle. For starters, ‘80s and ‘90s nightlife legends like RuPaul, Amanda Lepore, Joey Arias, and Kenny Kenny all credit her with being instrumental in launching their careers, and her 1989 fundraiser for AIDS research introduced Harlem’s voguing balls to a downtown crowd. Legendary gossip Michael Musto, who should know, says that “nobody can throw a party like her.” Alan Cumming, now a nightlife impresario himself, called her the “most fascinating exotic woman I’ve ever met,” when he chipped in to the documentary’s Kickstarter campaign.
Even those who do know Bartsch for her outré outfits, Nico-esque Teutonic accent, and Gaga-esque eyelashes (she launched her own line of them) are unlikely to be familiar with her back story. At the age of 17, she left a stifling life in Switzerland (“the land of clocks”) and got into the punk scene in London, where she eventually opened a boutique selling the early looks of Vivienne Westwood, among others. She opened a similar store in New York City, but found more success throwing parties—or “theatrical assaults,” as a local news report called them— at clubs like the Copacabana and Savage.
At some point, Bartsch met gym impresario David Barton, who developed an “instant crush” on the unlikely match, and they got married during an epic, Playboy-sponsored wedding/party for which she was encased in an egg-shaped bridal veil. They had a son, Bailey, who appears in the documentary. He has a hint of his father’s bulging biceps, but, despite having occasionally bathed in a Little Mermaid outfit as a child, appears to have inherited none of his mother’s love for flair and fantasy.
Then again, underneath all the makeup, Bartsch also seems to be a completely different person— her son notes that “appearing as a normal person is a source of vulnerability for her.” Indeed, part of the documentary’s focus is on the idea that, in addition to being a means of creative expression and community building in the face of oppression, dressing in drag is a way to bury insecurity and self-doubt. Says doorman Kenny Kenny, “You can’t dress like this and be sane.”
In one of the few glimpses we get into Bartsch’s childhood, we learn that her parents split up after it came to light that his father was living a double life with the nanny. Her relationship with Barton is on and off (when the Times checked in with them last year, they were “99 percent separated,” though they hadn’t gotten around to divorcing). “Suddenly I’m single and I’m not 18 anymore,” Bartsch says in the documentary. “Oops.”
Now approaching 50, it’s clear Bartsch feels self-conscious about her age— fashion and nightlife are young persons’ games, after all, and she admits that even for a legend like her, it’s tough to make a living throwing parties. But she’s still On Top, to borrow the name of her weekly at The Standard, High Line. If you’ve never been to one of her Halloween parties, you’ll want to get to this year’s at The Standard. If you can’t wait that long, admission to the documentary’s premiere at SVA Theater on Oct. 19 also gets you into the after-party at Top of the Standard, featuring performances by Sister Dimension, Joey Arias, Amanda Lepore, and others featured in the film. Tickets are $60 and can be purchased here.