A Man and His Purse: A Night with Mickey Boardman
Text by Khalid El Khatib, Photography by Sam Clarke
“Will this be in your piece – all of my stories about my close friends who are dead now?”
I smile. I shake my head no. I couldn’t include them if I wanted to. Mickey Boardman, editorial director of PAPER and New York City nightlife fixture, tells stories like he’s a Mamet character narrating a VH1 Pop-Up Video: divulging an annotated history of New York scenes so quickly and with so many obscure references that you need both Wikipedia and Page Six open to keep up.
He’s happily agreed to take me out for a night on the town so I, an ‘everygay’ with a corporate nine to five, can see what it’s like to walk a day in his Nikes. The shoes are a staple of his going-out ensemble, which is most typically comprises a Lacoste polo, a sparkly L’Wren Scott cardigan, a necklace from a robust costume jewelry collection, thick-rimmed glasses (a rotation of Dolce, Miu Miu and Burberry), and a Stella McCartney cruelty-free purse.
When I tell friends I’m writing about Mickey Boardman, about half of them say they don’t know who he is, so I flash a picture from his popular Instagram account and they backtrack: “Oh right, him.”
Despite the eccentricity of his clothes (“I dress like a freak,” he tells me) he’s one of the most accessible and interested people I’ve met – as comfortable talking geopolitics or Swedish royalty as he is fashion.
Over the course of our night, the parties he takes me to blur together – each fun and interesting, but secondary to the color and context he adds to every conversation. At one point, we’re talking to an artist he knows on a street corner in NoLIta. The artist is keen to engage Mickey in an intense politico-philosophical conversation, albeit one that doesn’t make much sense. (The guy seems a bit stoned.) Mickey spends a few minutes nodding his head and politely excuses us to dinner nearby.
Then, he turns to me, “Very talented and connected, but troubled. He will be doing great work and then get into a fight with David LaChapelle over a cheeseburger and disappear for months.” They made out once in the 90s while they were both on Tina but the artist wasn’t into it.
Mickey’s a great storyteller, so much so that he allows himself to get lost in his stories and expects that you won’t mind being lost with him. Halfway into our night, we’re talking about how YouTube has provided a new platform for creating celebrity and how the notion of celebrity has changed since the Warhol days. I stop for a moment to process what it means for someone like Mickey. I’m not lost in thought for more than 20 seconds when I tune back in. We’re onto raccoon videos on YouTube. He pushes his glasses up as our car pulls to a stop. “Weirdly, I was in a room with a raccoon in Anderson, Indiana in the 70s.” The story ends and the door slams.
Later, we’re at the entrance of the New York Highline for Coach’s Summer Party. The event’s been going on for over an hour and the entrance is unblocked, just a few fashion types lingering in pockets – smoking, taking selfies, or both.
Mickey purrs to a PR girl with a clipboard in her hand, “Mickey Boardman and guest. We’re on the leeeeest.” Before she can look down another more senior staffer comes over.
“Mickey! So glad you could make it. Here are your wristbands.”
Up to this point in the evening I’ve spent two hours with Mickey and he’s been the perfect date – introducing me to everyone he speaks with, drawing me into conversations when I’m quiet. He is a unique combination of characters from a John Hughes movie – he’s the prom queen, the nerd, and the quarterback all in one. But now, for the first and only time all night, he disengages.
He asks me to hold his wristband and doesn’t look back. He straightens his posture and approaches the step- and-repeat where six or seven photographers are yelling out his name. They want to know who he flirts while listing the labels.
We walk through the party for 30 minutes and Mickey says hi to everyone – the security guard, the head publicist for Coach and for Louis Vuitton, a former male model now trying to position himself as a designer – “typically too drunk to make sense,” says Mickey. But tonight – through skin too tan and a mess of hair – he shows some of the charm that’s still getting him into parties 10 or 15 years later.
At one point a Brazilian-looking man – at least 6’3”, chiseled in a Helmut Lang cutoff tee – says hello in passing. I ask who it is and Mickey, without turning back, says, “I have no idea.” After a few seconds he grabs my arm and leans into me, “How do I not know who that is?”
The scene is a marked difference from the first stop of the night: a cocktail party at a private home in TriBeCa celebrating the prince of Jaisalmer, India.
At this party two threads become clear. First, that Mickey is as passionate about humanitarian issues as he is about fashion. Second, that he strategically works a room.
He’s been supporting CITTA – a non-profit organization that helps build and support development in some of the most economically challenged, geographically remote and/or marginalized communities in the world. Part of that means he’s leveraged his connections with the fashion world to support a school in Juanga and start building a girls’ school near Jaisalmer. The 20 or so guests at the party – hosted by a stunning architect and socialite – each approach Mickey demurely only to ask for a selfie.
Through the conversations, Mickey employs an adage popular with politicians: Repetition wins campaigns.
“Did you see 60 Minutes last Sunday?” He goes on to talk about a new drug that costs hundreds of millions of dollars only to combat double chins. “Can you believe that? All the shit to cure and that’s where we spend our money?” No one can believe it. And I wonder how many of them will use it someday.
The Indian prince, the guest of honor, is handsome and polite. Mickey greets him with namaste, a bow, and adjusts his purse strap as he rises. He asks about the prince’s family, who he’s met on one of his six trips to the subcontinent.
When Mickey steps away from the conversation to meet me by a table of vegetarian pizzas, he tells me about the day he met the royal family, though his focus keeps drifting back to the hotel he was staying in. It’s there that he sometimes made out with a bellboy with “the muscles of a hard laborer and a Bollywood face.” Mickey idolizes all sorts of princes and kings.
Our final stop of the night was supposed to be a private dinner hosted by fashion blogger Alexa Chung for Longchamp, but Mickey wrote the wrong restaurant in his calendar and we end up telling a handsome, young host we’ve arrived only for him to sheepishly tell us we’re mistaken. When Mickey realizes what’s happened the host eagerly asks us to stay. There’s a table for us if we want it, of course.
But it’s a little loud, and a quick glance reveals that it’s a scene. So we walk towards Mickey’s apartment to have a little something to eat. It’s nearly 10 p.m., and these days, he is typically in bed by midnight.
We settle on a low-key sushi restaurant. Mickey is a vegetarian, but he tells me that I shouldn’t confuse that with being healthy. He had a bagel and French fries for lunch.
This reminds me of one of my favorite Mickey Boardman stories from his friend Johnny Knoxville who calls him “absolutely one of my favorite people on the planet.” Knoxville is as quotable as Mickey and after praising his warmth and intelligence, lauds his fashion: “He makes Gloria Vanderbilt look like a sharecropper.”
Knoxville tells me, “I took him as my date to the Super Bowl one year. I extended an invitation via email and he replied: I would be THRILLED to go. Will there be a buffet of some kind?’’ Knoxville also remembers his particular fascination with a 6’4” Latin tight end – he goes on, “My favorite is when you’re talking about something lascivious he’ll say, ‘Stop or I’ll shoot.’ He ain’t talkin’ about a gun.”
Johnny Knoxville is one close friend in a weird and wonderful cabinet that includes the likes of Tatum O’Neal, Bevy Smith, Mindy Cohn, and Ariel Foxman. Mickey was at lunch with Monica Lewinsky one afternoon while we texted.
After spending hours with Mickey in his element and experiencing his social versatility, I allow our dinner conversation to jump all over the place. I ask if he’s on Tinder or Grindr, how he meets men. No Tinder, Grindr only when he’s out of town – it’s a social experiment. Most of his dates come from Instagram.
What’s he looking for when it comes to love? “I always think about my life like, when I’m writing a mini-series about it, will it be fun? There needs to be romantic interludes – like Mia Farrow having all her phases with Frank Sinatra and Woody Allen.” He sucks out an edamame. “Jane Fonda, too.”
I wonder how porn stars fit into this. He’s an open admirer of adult film actors.
“To me they represented the classic stars of studio-age film. Falcon was MGM. It was larger-than-life stars. And you saw them as these gods who were everyone’s fantasy sex dream.” He leans in like he has a scoop, “Magazines like US Weekly with their ‘stars are just like us’ and its reality stars and cellulite pics – that’s destroyed the fantasy of stars of the old days. I miss Joan Collins. That’s what porn stars were.”
“Oh, and you could look them up on Rent Boy, and they would come over and have sex with you. That’s a whole other delicious twist.” Another edamame. “Not that I was doing that all of the time!”
But the glamorous world he relays, of course, was then.
“Porn has gone through some changes, and it’s kind of depressing now. They’re not the sports-hero movie stars they used to be.”
Twenty years on the scene and everything else has changed, too. I ask an obvious question, about New York. Mickey politely shuts me down.
“Look, Micheal Musto [journalist, former Village Voice columnist] says that at Studio 54, people were always complaining it wasn’t as fun as Max’s Kansas City used to be. If you say things aren’t as good as they used to be, you’re old.”
“New York City is certainly different. It used to be the city of extremes. Meatpacking was a no-man’s land with hookers and people peeing in doorways. Now everything is nice or transitioning, but I’m not out looking for the cool young parties in Bushwick or Gowanus. New York is the cultural capital of the universe, and there will always be amazing people doing amazing things here. Maybe they’ll just be a little harder to find for the average person.”
“The places I used to go – Don Hills, Bowery Bar – and even Area and Studio 54, it was cool people drinking and wearing fun outfits having sex. It wasn’t about the place, and that’s still going on.”
Where’s Mickey? He’s out early and then at home watching Golden Girls on the Hallmark Channel. Mickey Boardman, he’s just like us.
He knows the lines between his image and reality are blurred. He was recently on Fox News talking about PAPER cover model Miley Cyrus.
“People from home [Hanover, Illinois] are saying I’m doing so great because I’m on TV and met Miley Cyrus. They don’t care that I’m gay or an ex-heroin addict. They don’t know my mom still pays for my trainer and that my rent check bounced last month.”
Mickey’s been sober for a long time. PAPER’s co-editor Kim Hastreiter fired him in 1996, saying he could come back after he got help. He credits her with saving his life. Some of his friends from back then weren’t so lucky and many more are still a mess. I have no doubt that Mickey sweetly throws sparkles at all sorts of people struggling in darkness, but he’s modest. All he tells me is that he “loves praying for people he hates – that’s the best thing about AA.”
A week or two after our night out, Mickey traveled to the south of France to teach a fashion class to SCAD students with Vogue’s Lynn Yaeger. It’s nearly midnight for him and we’re texting. I know it’s late but ask if we can Skype – despite our many meetings I’d forgotten to ask how and when Mickey added ‘Mr.’ to his column Dear Mr. Mickey.
He’s on his hotel bed in a Lacoste polo, still wearing his necklace, and sipping a Coke.
“I’m sorry it’s late.”
“I’m not tired.”
“Well, you’re drinking a Diet Coke.”
“This is a regular Coke. Diet Coke is for pussies.”
“Tell me how you became ‘Mr. Mickey.’”
“I spent my junior year of college in Madrid and then went there to teach English. I spent some time in Germany and made friends with Americans including Alexandra Kucyznski, a writer at The New York Times. She introduced me to the managing editor of PAPER, Wendy Gabriel. I told her I was obsessed with PAPER and she asked me to come be an intern.”
Mickey moved to New York, interned at PAPER and went to Parson’s, where, despite affording him the opportunity to attend his first show (Marc Jacobs for Perry Ellis), he was unhappy. “I couldn’t really sew and the teachers didn’t like me. I was offered a chance to write by Wendy but I didn’t think I could do it.”
His nerves prevented him from interviewing Vanessa Paradis (pre-Johnny Depp) who he still proclaims has one of the best pop songs of all time with “Be My Baby.”
The push to write took a lot of convincing – he’d never done it before. Kim told him that they weren’t looking for classically trained journalists, rather interesting and interested people. She assured him, “If you can talk, you can write.” Mickey could talk.
He said “Fuck it,” skipped school, and took an assignment interviewing Rupert Everett on the rooftop of The Peninsula Hotel for $35.
Rupert was in a mesh tank top and swimsuit and the conversation was “dirty and gay – a lot of talk about jockstraps” – something that wasn’t happening in 1992. It was then that he realized he wanted to write full time but with a qualifier: “I’m an Andre Leon Talley or Hamish Bowles. I never wanted to be Anna Wintour. I want to write about things I’m obsessed with or that are about me in some way. That’s when I’m my best.”
He takes me back to present day: “Lynn [Yaeger] and I were just joking that I failed out of fashion school, and she got fired from the Christmas card counter at Saks. Look at us now.” The last sentence is delivered with wild theatrics. It’s midnight on a Wednesday.
“And the Mr.?”
“I was doing a pre-Internet message board column type of thing, where you could only post if one of four modems was working and the phone wasn’t ringing. Kim asked me to write about fashion, and someone told me columnists are like hairdressers. You need a great name.”
The story is peppered with great timing, chance encounters, and good luck. Threaded together by Mickey’s charm and talent. So how can anyone possibly replicate his success – have everything they want in the big city?
Mickey is quieter but speaks with the same animated cadence. “Look,” he takes a sip of his regular Coke, “The thing that makes you bad is what makes you fabulous. I dress like a freak. I’m super gay. I was suicidal, miserable, and then one day I woke up, and all of a sudden I realized these things. The fact that I carried a woman’s handbag made me who I was.”
“I was born in Hanover Park, Illinois, and I thought it was a cruel joke – that I should’ve been born in Paris. I thought, was I born to the wrong parents? They hate to travel, they named me after Mickey Mantel. And then I realized – if I think that about them, what do they think about me?”
“I’m always telling kids that the thing you think will be the end of your life will make your life.”
This wasn’t the first advice he offered. When I initially asked what he’d like to tell the young gay guys around the world reading about him, it was less actionable. He threw his arms up and sang, “I’d tell them... Kiss me!” It’s a joke he says he borrowed from Warhol superstar Holly Woodlawn. Then he pauses, “I hear she’s not doing well. So sad.”
I bite my lip to hold back a smile at his inability to not editorialize.
The anecdote reminds me of the first time I had a conversation with Mickey. We were sitting down to breakfast at Bowery Bar early on a hot summer Saturday. My forehead was dripping with sweat from my walk. I went to shake his hand. He stopped me.
“No, no, kiss me.” He pointed to his cheek. “We’re fashion.” I obliged. I didn’t remind him that I’m not fashion at all. Because maybe, just for a moment, I forgot. That’s Mr. Mickey’s magic – no matter what you are, he makes you feel as glamorous and interesting as him.