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Photographer John Simone, and on the left with Michael Musto at Tunnel Club in 1987
Photographer John Simone and Michael Musto

Party Out of Bounds

In the late 1980s, photographer John Simone captured New York City's outrageous counterculture on film

Long before smartphones and selfies, John Simone (BA 1986) put himself through university snapping Polaroids of patrons at The Copa, a nightclub in Yorkville. For $5, he’d give club-goers a visual memento of their night out.

Little did he know that his after-school gig would turn into a lifelong career and land him at the centre of late-1980s counterculture in New York City, photographing the outrageous antics of the Club Kids, a group of nightlife personalities known for their gender-bending, outlandish parties and elaborate costumes.

For almost four years, Simone pinballed from Manhattan’s Tunnel Club to Club 1018 to The World, photographing a scene that recalled Andy Warhol’s Factory heyday. “The club kids always looked fabulous and they never wore the same outfits more than once,” says Simone.

With his theatre degree from U of T, Simone had initially intended to pursue acting when he moved to New York, early in 1987. But he kept up with his nightlife photography, and got a break when Stephen Saban, the founding editor of Details, published four of his photos, including one of punk rock icon Nina Hagen. “Suddenly I was in the coolest magazine in New York. It gave me instant legitimacy.”

He was 24 and at the centre of New York’s art and club scene, but Simone, who describes his fashion sense as “nerdy dressup” says he never considered himself one of the Club Kids. “They were my friends, but it wasn’t my job to look freaky; it was their job.”

Simone photographed the Kids anywhere they threw a party, which often landed him in unusual locations with hundreds of costumed revellers – at the 59th Street Bridge in Manhattan, the McDonald’s in Times Square, and even the New York City subway.

As the Kids pushed club culture into public spaces, they also stretched the boundaries of gender and sexuality. “Some of these guys were bisexual, some of these drag queens were straight,” notes Simone. “It was transgender before most people knew transgender.”

In his pictures, Simone says he sees people “inventing themselves and re-creating themselves.” “When I see my photos now, I’m transported right back to that moment. This stuff doesn’t exist anymore. It’s a classic period in night life.”

Photographer John Simone, and on the left with Michael Musto at Tunnel Club in 1987
Photographer John Simone, and on the left with Michael Musto at Tunnel Club in 1987

Simone returned to Toronto in 1990 and for 10 years was the nightlife and celebrity photographer for Xtra! magazine under the name Johnny Paparazzo. He’s now hoping to turn his photo collection from 1980s New York into a book.

Simone’s photographs are on display at two Toronto venues during World Pride. They include shots of the most famous Club Kids – Michael Alig, RuPaul, James St. James – and the celebrities who were drawn into their orbit: Madonna, Cher, Michael Jackson and others.

“Legends of N.Y. Nitelife” at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre features more than 50 images from 1987-90 – many published in the original Details magazine. ““Exploding Pink Inevitable” at the Gladstone Hotel includes a dozen large-scale shots from the same period.

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