Michael White Is the Most Famous Person You’ve Never Heard Of
Michael White in the early 1970s. All photos courtesy of Michael White unless otherwise stated
How do you begin to tell the story of a man who’s spent his life telling the stories of others? I’m sitting on the floor of impresario Michael White’s home in London’s fashionable Westbourne Grove, sifting through an endless collection of photo albums and trying to work out the answer.
“I have 20,000 photographs of people. I only like to take pictures of people, not places,” says Michael, casually ignoring the fact that the “people” he’s talking about happen to be some of the most iconic figures from the past four decades of popular culture.
Bruce Anderson, Margaret Thatcher, Dennis Thatcher, Naomi Watts
Here’s a picture of a young Bob Geldof holding a pair of Easter eggs; there’s a photo of Jack Nicholson flexing his muscles by a pool; a few pages down, Naomi Watts, conservative columnist Bruce Anderson, and Margaret Thatcher are leafing through books next to a Christmas tree. On his mantelpiece there’s a tiny framed picture of Kate Moss with Michael’s son in her lap, taken on vacation sometime in the 1990s.
“Michael White is the most famous person you’ve never heard of,” says actress Greta Scacchi inThe Last Impresario, an upcoming documentary about his life. You might not have heard of him, but there’s no doubt you’ll be familiar with his work.
Michael White, Susan Sarandon, Boy George
Having basically discovered men like John Cleese—as well as introducing women like Yoko Ono and Pina Bausch to Britain—he’s had a hand in shaping the sensibilities of both your generation and your parents’. Meanwhile, his productions Oh! Calcutta, The Rocky Horror Showand Polyester liberated the concept of camp and elevated it to a mainstream aesthetic.
The Bizarre and Terrifying Propaganda Art of the Children of God
The Children of God movement was founded in 1968 in Huntington Beach, California, by former pastor David Brandt Berg, known to his followers as Moses David, Mo, King David, Dad, and Grandpa. Essentially a communist cult founded around banding together to proselytize the word of Jesus in the streets, the group maintained an “old world” idea of Christianity, which, at least in Berg’s view, centered largely around sex. By the time the organization changed its name to The Family of Love in 1978, Berg had introduced a process called “flirty fishing,” which involved the women of the group recruiting new members by fucking them.
The use of sex within the Family did not end at the recruiting stage. When the group changed its name again, for a second time, in 1987, to simply “The Family,” numerous allegations of abduction, pedophilia, and various sexual abuses were leveled at the group, which by this time had locations in countries all over the world. In 1993, more than 70 percent of the group’s 10,000 members were under the age of 18, operating under a strict and insane set of guidelines laid out by Berg and his wife, Karen Zerby, the latter of whom still heads the organization to this day, under their current moniker, the Family International.
I have paraphrased 20 of the Family’s foundational ideas below.
1. God loves sex, because sex is love.
2. Satan hates sex, because sex is beautiful.
3. Incest is OK, because there’s no better place for a young man to learn about doing it than from his own mother.
4. Eleven-year-olds are capable of becoming pregnant, so why shouldn’t they be having sex?
5. Fucking your grandpa is awesome.
6. Everybody is married to everybody else.
7. Children should have at least an eighth grade education, provided by their parents, and if the children want more education, it is “up to the parents to see if the Home can comply.”
8. Pictures of naked congregation members, referred to as “nudie-cuties,” make good bookmarks for the Bible.
9. It is OK to lie to non-believers in order to protect God’s work.
10. Men should not be gay, but it is hot when women are gay.
The fact that Sharpton dealt in the underworld 30 years ago isn’t really news. The value of the Smoking Gun report is mainly historic—it offers a glimpse into Sharpton’s past life, before Obama and MSNBC, Upper West Side apartments, and private cigar clubs. It takes us back to a time when Al Sharpton wore tracksuits, weighed 300 pounds, and incited riots. Which gets at the real question: Why are we still talking about Al Sharpton?
It’s 1985 and I’m on a mountain in the Angeles National Forest and someone has opened the gates to the loony bin. A three-day shindig for alternate religions: witches; warlocks; Satanists; doomsday Christians; Unarians from space; ghosts and goblins; psychedelic druggies; wizards and elves… I’m naked and taking pictures of all of them.
Ibiza Looked Just As Fun Before the Ravers Came
Before the crap ecstasy and Paul Oakenfold, Ibiza was something else entirely: a sleepy Balearic island known for being the favored vacation destination of famous, wealthy hippies hoping to escape the exhausting stresses of making music for a living. There was, however, a short period of change between the boho years and the Ibiza Uncovered era—a span of time that last roughly from the mid-1970s until the late-80s.
During that time, instead of being overrun by tourists getting dressed up in their best pair of shorts to hurl $15 at a luminous bottle of drink in Pacha, Ibiza Town was full of beautiful European people wearing weird clothes and dancing around in open-air nightclubs. It was a bit like Berlin was in the 2000s but with glorious, blazing sunlight and sandy beaches rather than Arctic winds and stern Soviet architecture.
Photographer Derek Ridgers happened to be on a family holiday in Ibiza in 1983 when he came across all these European club kids, and fresh from photographing London’s skinheads, he trained his camera upon them. For whatever reason, no publications would buy his photos at the time, so they’d been sitting around unseen for decades until he dug them out and put them on display this month as part of the ICA’s “Ibiza: Moments in Love" exhibition.
I gave Derek a call to chat about his pictures.
Continue + More Pics
Tom Bianchi Photographed His Gay Paradise Before It Disappeared Forever
Close your eyes for a second and imagine you are at the party of your dreams. Everyone you love and are infatuated with is around you, the music you loved in your teens is playing, and bad trips are not a concept. You dance and you love and you spin and you love some more, and then all of your friends die.
I know it’s harsh, but it’s also sort of what happened to Tom Bianchi in the early 1980s, with the onset of AIDS. It’s also the subject of his latest book, Fire Island Pines - Polaroids 1975-1983—a selection of photos taken in a small part of Long Island called the Pines, that functioned as a kind of IRL utopia for a large community of incredibly beautiful and charismatic gay men in the 1970s.
Tom’s name, by the way, is one of those you should know, because he’s been integral in making the world you live in a nicer place than how you found it. You see Bianchi—who, in the early 70s, also worked as a lawyer in New York and Washington, DC—has spent most of his life fighting AIDS and weird heterosexual attitudes toward gay culture. He is the co-founder of a biotech company researching AIDS medication and, if he feels like it, he can also boast a long catalogue of incredibly affectionate photography, poetry, and video work.
With the release of his new book as an excuse, I called Tom up to talk desire and grow up a little.
VICE: Hi Tom, how are you today?
Tom Bianchi: I’m very good, I just had a lovely breakfast out by the swimming pool. I’m ready to go today.
OK, let’s do it. Shall we start by telling the story of how this book came to be?
Growing up and coming out in Middle America, you had to imagine a world very different to the one you were living in. The world we were living in disregarded us and called us perverts. So the brilliance of Fire Island was that it was built by those people who imagined a different world and set out to create it. We carved out the tiniest little place just for ourselves, where we could be safe and laugh and play with one another on the beach, and not have any negative judgement surrounding us. What that did was attract the best and the brightest gays from all over America—particularly because of its proximity to New York, which was the centre of so much culture, fashion, style, and even film. It was a very glamorous time.
Was the creation of this neighborhood planned or circumstantial?
The island is a 36 mile-long barrier a few miles off the Long Island coast, separated into small communities by extended open sand dunes. The Pines, which is one of these little villages, is a mile-long grid of boardwalks connecting about 600 houses built on telephone pole stilts sunk into the sand. Back then, some real-estate guys got to building on this virgin terrace, and it just so happened that the place began to attract bohemian New Yorkers; writers and artists would come out and live in little shacks. It wasn’t intended for the gay community, but it made sense when it formed to be a home for it.
And you happened to be there with a fancy, new Polaroid camera, too.
I was a lawyer at Columbia Pictures at the time. At an executive conference in Miami, we were given an SX-70 Polaroid camera. It was this little plastic thing, which I took to Fire Island a little while later and started taking pictures of my friends. At the time, a lot of people were still in the closet so, as you can understand, they were extremely wary of having their picture taken. So, the important thing about this camera was that it allowed me to take the picture and a few minutes later put it out on the table for people to take a look. It made everyone immediately more comfortable and I very quickly formed the intention to show the world what a cool, amazing place the capital of Queerdom was. Or the provincial part of it [laughs].
Remembering Margaret Thatcher’s War on Acid House
First she came for the milk. Then she came for the mines. Then she ran out of things to come for, so she went after the soccer fans and acid house.
It might sound unlikely in an age where there are a pair of TV screens showing Sky Sports in every pub in the UK, but if you wanted to go toe-to-toe with the establishment at the tail end of the Thatcher years, the fast track to getting a beat down from the police was to watch soccer or listen to a series of repetitive records with the intention of dancing.
If you were looking for a measure of how the country has adjusted since Thatcher’s reign, you could do worse than consider how two constants of the modern mainstream—soccer and electronic music—were once painted as folk devils by a regime fast running out of new things to point its police horses at.
Granted, soccer fans had been under few illusions about where they stood in the perceived scheme of things since the 70s, and anyone with industrial or union connections would have been aware of Tory policy well before Thatcher came to power in ‘79. But for young people, the harshness of the establishment’s war on the twin evils of soccer and dance music came as something of a surprise.
Photo by Gavin Watson
It wasn’t till I fled a party in Dalston in 1989 that I felt it firsthand. The motivation for my hasty departure was the sudden entrance of a group of cops based at Stoke Newington Police Station who were notorious in the area for their thuggery. They’d come in, take the numbers off their uniforms, and break things up about as violently as they could without firearms, swinging at male and female ravers alike. Say what you like about violence—and this is what the state often forgets when it chooses to apply it—but it sure focuses the mind. If you were looking for a way to galvanise some of the last non-pissed off people in the country (white, middle-class men on euphoric drugs, in my case) then sending the Territorial Support Group onto the dance floor was an efficient way to go about it.
However, until the boys in blue actually turned up to do the truncheon dance, you’d be hard-pressed to find many ravers in attendance who genuinely cared about the government’s policies towards dance music (there’s little time to talk about politics when there’s sweating and jerking to get done). The photographer Gavin Watson—whose book Raving ‘89 documented acid-house raves in the late 80s and early 90s—agreed, telling me, “Politics became superfluous during rave. All of the bullshit that Thatcher was coming out with started to fall on deaf ears, because we were so wrapped up in the culture that we just didn’t have time to care about politics.”