The fixture in New York nightlife hosted an event with The Prisoner Wine Company to celebrate the “creatures of the night”. The Knockturnal takes a moment to chat with the Swiss icon. The interview with Susanne Bartsch was conducted by Benjamin Schmidt for the The Knockturnal in New York City on Tuesday, 16 November 2021. It was edited for brevity and clarity.
The Knockturnal: How did you come to work with The Prisoner Wine Company?
Susanne Bartsch: They asked me to be involved with this event that they wanted to have: to celebrate people of the night, the creatures of the night. These people are just so magical to me. It was a fantastic match. I love that they wanted to celebrate that. I also love wine, so that was just perfect as well. I don’t drink cocktails. I just drink wine. The Prisoner Wine is great and I’m totally hooked, so it paid off in a big way.
The Knockturnal: Absolutely. Do you have a favorite Prisoner wine to drink?
The Knockturnal: I had all of them, but I ended up continuing with the Chardonnay because it was tasting great.
Susanne Bartsch: It’s so good, that chardonnay. I love it. This is totally my kind of wine. The pinot noir, I go from red to white. I never just do red or white. It’s a fantastic brand. Really, really good, and I love that they get the spirit of my events.
The Knockturnal: Let’s talk about the event. I read some things about how important you find performance in events when you host something. How do you meet performers? Do you give them any advice?
Susanne Bartsch: As far as advice, when I meet someone and I like them, I like to promote people’s talents, that’s it. So if I see something I like, I want them to go as far as they can with what they enjoy and want to do, rather than telling them, “Do this. Do that.” It was a little bit of stress to have a stripper pole in that space because it was so small, but that’s what I liked about it, and Làszlò does really good floor shows. He was going to do a floor show, and I did know I wanted a pole in there, because it was more abstract and of course he loved the idea as well. So its about creating ideas.
Susanne Bartsch: Joey Arias used to his Billie Holiday show as a man, and one day I said, “Put on a dress, baby,” and he did, and then it took off after that. Not that he wouldn’t be doing any sort of drag type before. He had the counterculture thing, but it just made that Billie Holiday act perfect. So I give tips and stuff, but as far as explain, I don’t tell people what to do in the end. When I like an artist, I go all the way with them. I’ve been in the club, nightlife, entertainment world for a long time, so I meet a lot of people, and if I see someone and I like how they look and I go up and talk to them, and lo and behold, before you know it, it turns out that they have something, like an act, for example. Last year I was introduced to Làszlò Major by a friend because I wanted a male dancer able to do acrobatics and ballet and everything, and he is the perfect one. But generally I talk to people. I find that If I focus on something, it happens. I find something. I find what I focus on. It’s the same as the performances. I want to meet a performer, a burlesque person for example, to celebrate the art of the tease. I wanted to have a great stripper and I met Precious. I met her in a club. When I focus on something, it happens. But a lot of things are fluid in production. If you’re doing something, people will call and ask you, “Hey, let me write something about this.” People come to me and say, “Have a look at my show.” So that’s kind of how it happens.
Yeah. I’m very organic. I don’t plan too much. I just go with my gut.
The Knockturnal: Very dynamic and unpredictable in a way. You just never know.
Susanne Bartsch: Yeah. I’m very organic. I don’t plan too much. I just go with my gut.
The Knockturnal: Do you like a themed party?
Susanne Bartsch: I think to me, the theme is the people. I mean, I like… When a theme is done well, it’s fun, but it doesn’t dominate my style. Whoever comes is the theme.
The Knockturnal: I do like a themed party. I have spoken with other creatives and they sometimes like to have a theme, because then their creativity can be, well, let’s say restriction can breed creativity.
Susanne Bartsch: It’s a focus. It helps people focus on the creativity. I mean, that’s what Halloween is for: we always had a theme. Halloween theme and the clowns. Everyone had the clown phase. Maybe New Year’s Eve I would do a theme, at least a color theme. I like monochrome. Color theme. Sometimes I tell everybody do red, red and silver. So that works well. Theme parties have their purpose.
The Knockturnal: Do you like that small venue like The Chapel, where the Prisoner Wine Company party took place? Do you prefer a big space?
Susanne Bartsch: No. I think there’s something to both of them. It seems the intimacy and the experience that you offer of that space, I think it’s really magical. If you want to have a real dancing, then a lot of space can be easier to do that, but lately it seems like a lot of people are into the intimate. Funny enough, because of COVID-19. You’d think they would want to be in a bigger place. They like the intimacy. Like the Hall where I do my show. We could have 1,000 people, but I have 350 because it just feels good. In the end, it’s the vibe of the space rather than the size. Of course if you want to have a big dance, you’ve got to go and look at a big space, but we wanted something intimate and special for this particular event.
The Knockturnal: Yeah, I wrote about this aspect, how the space was not huge but it was so tall that it gave this very certain atmosphere that was really satisfying, that felt infinite.
Susanne Bartsch: Yeah. It has the atmosphere of a palace. It was grand and yet it was intimate. Very special. Yeah.
The Knockturnal: So when you create a look, where do you start? Where do you shop? Do you make stuff yourself?
Susanne Bartsch: I have things made. I used to make things but not since the pandemic. I don’t have a recipe either with that. It’s just about the vibe. Let me do a Spanish feeling, an idea. Or I want to be a doll look. Once I know the idea, I’ll look for pieces that have that feeling.
Susanne Bartsch: I mean, I won’t go anywhere without a wig, and the makeup. Sometimes it’s just that: let’s do makeup. Maybe you have a piece in your wardrobe that just needs to be styled. A lot of it is styling a garment.
The Knockturnal: Do you recycle a look?
Susanne Bartsch: Yeah, a lot! The hair and makeup is very powerful, because it really can change the vibe of a look. It can be one thing and another thing. The hair, the makeup changes. It could be something else.
The Knockturnal: That’s a nice piece of advice. If you don’t have a huge closet, just have some makeup. When you are not at a party, what are you wearing? In Your day-to-day life.
Susanne Bartsch: I was always head to toe. I had to take turns, day drag, semi drag and full drag. Day drag is a look. I’d maybe go with a dress and smaller heel, and then the makeup and a ponytail. Semi drag is where you have a wig and bigger makeup and really dress up. That would be to go to dinner or the opera or the theater, and then the full drag is when I do events and I do head to toe. It doesn’t have to be matching, just everything larger than life or strong, strong looks. Now to be honest, I’m very happy in my Uggs. I got this fabulous pair of Uggs with a platform. Have you seen the Ugg collaboration? They’re like slippers in a way but they have a platform. They’re really comfortable. They’re chunky.
The Knockturnal: Let’s talk about The New Romantic style. You’ve talked about this for some time. It’s something you’re very appreciative of. What about the style that satisfies you?
Susanne Bartsch: New Romantic style… that’s an era, really. I like dressing. I don’t like just one style. You know how some people have signatures? They have the same hair always. I don’t have a signature. My signature is switch it up all the time. You never know what I’m going to have or what I’m going to do. So that’s my signature. The new romantic isn’t necessarily how I dress. It’s more an era which was very bold. It was more of the punk, the hardcore, face paint everywhere and rock and unkempt and swearing. The new romantic was that crossroads, music, electronic music and punk that they had in London. What fascinated me from that was just the whole vibe. Every week, everybody had a totally new look. It doesn’t mean it’s romantic with lace and details. It’s the era. The era was called that.
I don’t have a signature. My signature is switch it up all the time.
The people had a totally different look every week and it was more elaborate than the punk look, and then in the clubs, I wish we had taken photos. Nobody had a camera. It was uncool to have a camera. It was uncool unfortunately, and everyone would dance in the same moves. We all had the same move, like 300, 400 people were dancing, but the same, that robotic movement. It was fantastic.
The Knockturnal: The Chelsea Hotel where you live is very iconic. Can you recall some of your neighbors or any particular story maybe that has happened.
Susanne Bartsch: Viva was my neighbor. You know Viva from the Warhol days? She was one of the society girls, an uptown girl who got really into art. What’s her full name? Viva? No. She’s just Viva. She was a kind of eccentric; one of those. She was on my floor and she used to be so… She was always moving the garbage cans. There’s a big garbage can and she would move it from her wing to my wing, and we would move it from my wing to her wing. There was this whole thing going on with it. She was a little… I don’t want to say that, but she was a bit crazy, to be honest. A real character. A bunch of characters. And then I have Robin Wood, who is a performer, a cabaret performer, is across from me. Do you know who she is, Robin Wood? She’s one of The Box regulars. She’s a really wild act. She’s my neighbor across from me. Russel Thompson, I used to know. He went upstate. He lived on the 10th floor. He had the tuba things. Who else did I know? A lot of hookers and pimps. A lot of kids coming here. You know what’s really amazing? One of my rooms here belonged to Janis Joplin. I never met her here, but yeah. There was a nurse living next door to her and she was always noisy and the nurse would get upset, and so she would give the nurse signed records. And then when the nurse died, they found all these signed albums from Janis Joplin. How about that?
The Knockturnal: Where is creativity happening today? How can one find inspiration?
Susanne Bartsch: For me, it’s really the people, the kids. Travel, museums, the street. It’s basically art. It’s not really a specific place. Oh, I’m going to look at this book and then I know what I’m going to do. No. It’s just being alive and going around and interacting with people. It’s what inspires me, and definitely travel. I love traveling and being in new cultures, see some cultures and interacting with people from different worlds. That always inspires me.
The Knockturnal: I have found Switzerland to be very inspiring. Graübunden Canton is one of my favorite places. I have spent so much time there because it’s a little backwards and a little strange, which I like.
Susanne Bartsch: Graübunden. That’s a mythical place.
The Knockturnal: Why do things start so late?
Susanne Bartsch: Oh, well, they don’t always. We had an event at 8:00 last week. I think it’s partially because, must somehow… I haven’t ever thought about it, but people work. Then they want to go home, sit down, have something to eat and relax a little bit, and then by the time they decide to go out, it ends up being 10:00, 11:00. So I think it’s because it’s not the main activity of the day, and if we did things at 6:00, it becomes stressful to get there. Even 8:00. I’m working late. I can’t go.
You know those brunches on Sunday? They’re cute, but I’m just a night person.
Susanne Bartsch: In a way, it’s the same if you do parties on a Tuesday or in the middle of the week, people are worried about getting home. They don’t want to get home at 5:00 in the morning because they have to go to work the next day. Sometimes 11:00 to 2:00, 10:00 to 2:00 is a good time, because it fits both ends. They also want to get there. They don’t have to stress. You can go home at 1:00 or 2:00 and have a decent night’s sleep. I think it’s practical, plus the night. I mean, the night is… I would feel like dancing right now. You know those brunches on Sunday? They’re cute, but I’m just a night person. Even if everyone would do night parties earlier, I would still sleep late. I think it’s my time of the day, it’s really the night, later.
The Knockturnal: Yeah, absolutely.
Susanne Bartsch: I get creative at midnight, 1:00 in the morning.
The Knockturnal: What can ruin an event?
Susanne Bartsch: Well, I think when an event is ruined, it’s a lot to do with if you don’t adjust. You have to adjust to what’s going on. You have to go with the flow. I would say a very good schedule can ruin an event. If you have a plan, you’re too rigid with a plan. You got to go feel it out. Okay, the song is not loud enough. You’ve got to adjust and go with the flow and look at everything and be aware and then go with what’s happening. And if you can do that, you generally don’t have a fiasco. I think that’s really the key, to be aware what’s going on. Rain is not good. Let’s have a roof party and rain. That’s bad.
The Knockturnal: Thank you for this. This is the last question. Many young people, especially queer people, are inspired and validated by you, and maybe you don’t like to give advice, but for those that are feeling maybe they want to access this world, their aspect of personality maybe they cannot share always. Do you have any advice for these people?
Susanne Bartsch: I mean, I think they’re the future. These young people are the future. Ideally it’s a lot less fear around your life. You’re afraid. That is a bad recipe to have a successful life. Fear is a valid thing and it’s an important thing, but don’t let it run your life. Find what you love to do and keep doing it. There’s two things in life. One is to find what you love to do, and the other one is to make a living with it. A lot of people can’t make a living with what they love, and a lot of people never do… They make a little bit. They don’t actually love what they’re doing. So that’s a gift. Look for what you love to do and keep doing it, and it will bring you to the place that you’ll be able to make a living from it. As far as being advice and all that, yeah. I don’t really give advice. I don’t even know. I just think it’s important to… My mother always said something that stuck with me that was the best. She always said, “play the game. It doesn’t matter if you lose or win. What matters is that you play the game. Winning is great, of course. Losing is just as important as winning. Play the game and have fun.” Find things that you love. Love is key on every single thing. It really is. Is that good?
Fear is a valid thing and it’s an important thing, but don’t let it run your life.
Come to my parties. That’s what I’m about. I’m all about accepting who you want to be, who you are. We accept that. I accept that. I want people to be comfortable where I am and not feel judged and feel safe, a safe space. Whatever I do is a safe space to accept yourself and be.
About Susanne Bartsch: Susanne Bartsch is New York City’s patron saint of transformation and inclusion. The parties she’s thrown for three decades have provided a venue for countless creative souls and “creatures” to express themselves, come together, and forget the humdrum of the everyday. In 1989, devastated by the many friends she lost to AIDS, Susanne created The Love Ball – an event that rallied the fashion community to raise awareness and funds for those affected by AIDS and hands-on organizations. To this day, she continues to throw extravagant events and happenings in New York and special events around the globe. Her 2018 documentary “Susanne Bartsch: On Top” is now available on Netflix and on major streaming platforms.
About The Prisoner Wine Company: Director of Winemaking Chrissy Wittmann and her team work with over 100 growers in northern California, bringing together exceptional fruit to produce a family of intriguing wines unrestricted by tradition. now offers its flagship label, plus 13 other varieties. Visit https://theprisonerwinecompany.com for more.