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James St James’ latest novel reaches out to empower queer kids

Writing Outside the Margins

Credit: (austinyoung.com)

At the height of the club kid scene in the 1990s, James St James could be found dramatically confined to a cage and wearing a diaper at New York’s Limelight club.

As the lights came up and the party ended, St James reinvented himself as an author by writing what is now the seminal club kid culture story. Disco Bloodbath is the true-life tale of club kid Micheal Alig, who became so unhinged by drug use and his own club land celebrity that he lost touch with reality. In 1996 Alig and his roommate murdered their drug dealer, Angel Melendez, and partied for a week while the corpse was left to rot in the pair’s bathtub. The resulting scandal effectively put the kibosh on club culture in New York.

St James’ book was applauded by critics and adapted for a screenplay which became the 2003 film Party Monster.

St James’ outfits from the club kid era are legendary, so it seemed natural that since Disco Bloodbath he has continued as cutting-edge fashionista with appearances on America’s Next Top Model and The Tyra Banks Show. St James will always stand out from the beige and boring throng — he is still known to don a shaving cream or spaghetti wig, and to substitute a dress for a shirt from time to time — but his club kid days are firmly behind him. He preaches an age-appropriate look and favours stylish suits for himself.

“The more structured my outfit, the better I look,” he says. “No more diapers.”

Long before reinvention on the Hollywood social scene, St James was just another fabulous queer kid who was trying to grow up without feeling so isolated and scared. His latest novel, Freak Show, is inspired by his high school days.

Freak Show is the story of Billy Bloom, a high school freshman who shows up for his first day of class in a fully flaming pirate outfit. Unfortunately, his school is in very conservative Fort Lauderdale, Florida, so his flamboyance soon makes him a target for bullies. Through it all, Bloom perseveres and gains strength, eventually befriending and uniting all the school’s misfits and outcasts, as well as gaining an unlikely ally on the football team. With his motley crew behind him, Bloom launches a Quixotic effort to become homecoming queen.

High school is a hard time for almost everyone, especially queer kids, and St James tells Bloom’s story with sharp wit, compassion, warmth and humility. In some ways Bloom’s story describes the universal experience of queer youth. While they may not all run for homecoming queen, many do suffer greatly because their sexualities make them stand out at a time in life when fitting in seems all that matters. At the age of so much self-questioning Freak Show could be a valuable touchstone for young queer people. Bloom believes in himself and his uniqueness, and comes out on top in the fine tradition of heroes past.

Like Bloom, St James was greeted with shocked stares of disbelief when he showed up for his first day of high school sporting an outrageous Rosalind Russell-inspired outfit. Despite his own ballsy debut, St James describes Bloom as far stronger than he was at that age.

“I would never let a bully intimidate me these days,” he says. “But when I was living in Michigan, I thought I was the only gay teen in all of the mid-west. It would have been wonderful to meet and chat with other teens who were going through the same things.”

Still looking back on his high school years and the subsequent insanity of the club kid phenomenon, St James says he wouldn’t change a thing.

“Certainly a lot of events in my life have been difficult and painful, but that’s where your character comes from, your inner strength develops,” he says. “And that’s where my art, if I may be so bold, comes from.”

Freak Show has also lead St James to start another project for and about queer teens. He’s called on teenagers everywhere to send him their true-life stories (at Myspace.com/totally_james_st_james). He says he’s received close to 100 submissions so far. He describes some as “raw and heartbreaking howls from the soul” and others as beautifully written, highly literate and very amusing. St James hopes to publish the stories as an anthology of what he calls, “true artifacts from a turning point in gay history.”

“Read my books, its all in there,” says St James by way of advice to queer teens. “Oh, and study up on your counterculture history. Find fashion icons from the past who inspire you, and don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone when dressing.”