Roy Halston Frowick is back! The late designer, known simply as Halston, redefined chic in the 1960s and 1970s while romping around nightclubs and being gay-fabulous. Before he died of AIDS in 1990, Halston made big fashion waves while living a life (with his outrageous boyfriend Victor Hugo) that was at times reckless and eye-popping, but never boring.
Steven Gaines wrote the 1991 book Simply Halston: The Untold Story, which is being made into a TV series starring Ewan McGregor as the fabled designer. (McGregor is also producing.)
The designer is also the subject of a documentary that’s heading to theaters in May. I spoke to Gaines—who co-wrote Obsession: The Lives and Times of Calvin Klein and has many other titles to his credit—for some insight into Halston’s rise and fall.
Hello, Steven. Why were you attracted to the subject of Halston?
I wrote an article about him for Vanity Fair, and The New York Times Magazine scooped me with an article called “The Prisoner of Seventh Avenue,” so Vanity Fair canceled it. My agent brought the Vanity Fair article to Putnam and they bought it as a book. Halston was ill while I was writing the book. I lived through the Studio 54 era. I had met Halston, and been to his home and salon. He was one of the big characters of the era. He represented all the craziness that was going on at that time in the world. We all knew he was dying, so I think the time had come to write about him.
Halston with his models.
Halston designed Jackie Kennedy’s pillbox hat in 1961. Was that what catapulted him to fame?
Yes. One reason he did all these hats for Jackie is they had same size head. She had a very big head for a woman, and his size was the same, so he could try them on and fit them. Halston moved into the fashion business when it was gimmicky and people were trying to decide what was going to be the new look. His new look was an old look—expensive fabric and a way of draping things. He had a remarkable eye and brilliant taste. He didn’t do crazy Norma Kamali things where you look like the Pillsbury Dough Boy, he made women look great.
They mocked Ultrasuede [which he pioneered], but they’re bringing it back. He wanted to be a haute couturier. In order to do that, you needed to deal with and speak with people. Growing up in Chicago, he was kept by a famous hairdresser. Making hats, he learned how you talk to the ladies—how it goes beyond just hairdressing or giving them a hat, it goes to understanding what’s going on in their life. The women loved him. That’s why Liza Minnelli fell in love with him—though of course they both had coke habits.
Halston and Liza Minelli.
Was he charming or standoffish if you’d run into him at a disco?
He was standoffish. He could be very grand, but if you were a cute bartender, he could be charming. He could be wonderful—part psychiatrist, part designer, and he gave great advice.
Did he ever come out on the record?
I don‘t think he did. None of them would—like Calvin Klein—though they lived openly gay lifestyles.
But what a gay life! Tell me about Halston’s wild, Venezuela-born boyfriend, Victor Hugo.
You were one of the hosts at my 1991 book party at the Palladium, where Victor intended to come and make a scene and beat me up, even though I’d paid him $10,000 for his interview in the book. You wrote that I was pretending I didn’t have a double chin. That was the beginning when I fell out of love with you.
From left: Victor Hugo, Elsa Peretti, and Halston.
Sorry, I have evolved.
On the tape of my interview with Victor, all you can hear is “[mumble, mumble] Halston." He could really obliterate what he was saying, but I figured it out. I paid him quite a bit of money and he spent it all on cocaine.
Was it real love between Halston and Hugo?
This is a matter of debate. I think it was real love of a sort. It wasn’t the kind of romantic, sweet, tender, caring love. Victor was stealing stuff out of the house when Halston was dying. They had to lock him out of the house. But Halston liked being humiliated and having the shock value of having Victor around. It was a whole other side to Halston. And Halston was a very sexual person and so was Victor [though Victor claimed they didn’t have sex after the first three months].
Halston had gone through a long series of male prostitutes. He met Victor on Dial-A-Dick. At the time, there wasn’t the Internet, there were personal ads in the back of the Village Voice. Halston would have steak and a dick. He’d call a hustler and make a steak, which was easy to throw in the oven, and then he’d get fucked. Halston liked to be on the shocking end of things. Victor would show up at Studio 54 wearing a hose over his dick. And he pissed and came on canvases for Andy Warhol. He had a big dick, like a baby salami. Halston had him sign a non-disclosure—and he paid him for it—but he broke it. Victor also ended up being ill and had no respect for anything. He thought he was untouchable.
Was he really an illustrator?
I never saw Victor illustrate anything. He was also supposed to be a window-dresser, but a child could have done what he did. And one night he jerked off on the Halston salon windows inside. People walking by on Madison Avenue noticed there was this goo that had dripped down on the windows. The block association got after him.
Clockwise from top left: Halston, Andy Warhol, Martha Graham, Liza Mennilli.
Was Halston’s signing with J.C. Penney in 1983 the death knell for his brand?
It happened before Penney. Drugs and being increasingly incapacitated and bad temper created a situation in the office where they realized they needed what’s called “little designers." But Halston felt he had to do everything himself, and it was too much for him. He was coked up, not coming to the office, and running around late at night. The rent and his limousine expenses and his orchid expenses were ridiculous. For him, it was about show. He needed to be back in a small salon. It got away from him, because of the drugs and hookers.
They took the company away from him and said, “We’ve got to go mass market.” They made this deal with J.C. Penney. He didn’t realize what he was doing. This wasn’t the age where people were selling their names to corporations. This was a new concept. The first thing they assigned for him was a perfume. He wanted Elsa Peretti to design the bottle—which caused a technical problem when she made it in her trademark shape—and he wanted the perfume to smell the way his clothing looked—clean and sharp. The first year, they sold $100 million of perfume. He had sold his company for $10 or $12 million. He got a piece of that, but if he’d held onto that and did his own perfume, the situation would have been different for him. The J.C. Penney deal fell apart and they changed the locks. They locked him out of his own office.
Elizabeth Taylor and Halston.
It seems like a lot of people were being locked out back then. How did Halston deal with coming down with HIV?
At the time, it had a terrible stigma to it. It was still a great shame and embarrassment, and no one wanted to admit they had HIV. He was in a struggle to get back his name and some control of his company, and the more the rumors started that he was sick, the more people were going to sit it out and wait for him to die. They basically raped him. They treated him very badly. They sold his samples on the street. He was very coked up. He wanted his phone fixed, and when they unscrewed the mouthpiece, it was caked with cocaine. He was in bad shape in many different ways. He hid his AIDS and he wore makeup and stopped going out. While he was laying in bed coughing, Victor would come in and steal stuff, like sterling silver Elsa Peretti candlesticks.
What will be the tone of the mini-series?
It’s not about this sleaziness. They raised the level of the discussion. It’s a very classy job. My book was optioned a long time ago and it went through many iterations. First, Alec Baldwin said he was going to be Halston, which was ridiculous.
Are you happy with the casting of Ewan McGregor?
Yes! He’ll be terrific. It used to be that you had to look like the person, but they don’t do that anymore in movies. Some kind of characterization happens.
And who is playing Victor Hugo, pray tell?
I don’t know.
Do you think Justin Bieber can learn how to do a Venezuelan accent?
I don’t think his penis is big enough.
Another Op'nin', Another Show
Shakespeare meets Cole Porter in the 1948 musical Kiss Me, Kate, about bickering divorcees who are co-starring in a musical version of the bard’s Taming of the Shrew, while bantering back into each other’s arms. In 1999, there was a fab revival starring Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie, and now we get yet another one, this time with Will Chase and Kelli O’Hara, and lots of breathless physicality on display.
In this version, hardly anyone is encouraged to just stay put and sing a song. With direction by Scott Ellis and choreography by Warren Carlyle, they climb ladders, are turned upside down, tap up a storm, and often end up mock-fainting (though that might very well be real; I wouldn’t be surprised if respirators are waiting in the wings). All that movement is intoxicating to watch, especially in two show-stopping numbers. There’s “Tom, Dick or Harry,” with Stephanie Styles (as the flirty actress Lois, as Bianca) being courted by three wildly dancing suitors (Corbin Bleu, Will Burton, and Rick Faugno), and it really slays. On the name “Dick,” the three guys thrust their pelvises in a way that’s pretty coarse, but since when would that be something that makes me uneasy?
The other wow is the Act Two opener, “Too Darn Hot,” which starts slowly as a clarinetist percolates, building to a mass of leaping and spinning that garners audience cheers. Styles also does well with a kinetic “Always True To You In My Fashion” (which comes with an automatic reprise), and two gangsters (John Pankow and Lance Coadie Williams) come through with the witty “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” and its three encores.
Yes, there are gangsters, who are there to make sure Lilli (O’Hara) doesn’t leave the Shrew-sical, even though she’s upset about flowers Fred sent that were actually…Well, never mind. The book by Sam and Bella Spewack is pretty thin—especially when Lilli decides to head off to D.C. in Act Two—and basically a framework for some character clashes and great songs. But the leads—while not dominating—infuse the show with presence, O’Hara lilting her songs in a breathtaking fashion (and giving a sweeter than usual interpretation of a woman who’s described as having bitten King Kong and given him rabies) and Chase proving a credible leading man who’s always fuming and sputtering.
Amanda Green has tweaked the script to make it clearer that Lilli/Kate acts up because of bad treatment by Fred/Petruchio (and we don’t see Kate spanked this time around; the men are beaten more than they raise their own hands). But any profound statement about the battle of the sexes is as absent any reason “Too Darn Hot” was put in the show in the first place, other than as a lively second act opener which gives the two leads a chance to breathe. It’s that kind of show, and that’s all fine; this is pure entertainment, and as such, it’s too darn hot, especially when performed with this kind of verve.