Disclaimer: This is a semi-fictionalized version of my all-too-real experiences working as a DJ in New York City. Many of the names of venues, organizations or people mentioned herein have been changed or, in some instances, totally pulled out of my ass so stop even trying to guess, cool? Cool.
Stately yachts. Creamy-white sand. Salad Nicoise and the finest Moet. Hollywood starlets and Monacan gamblers. Yes, I am setting the scene for a DJ gig. The ultimate one, actually. This is the Cannes Film Festival, a young open-format DJ's dream where his career might live or die, or at least where his drunken delusions of grandeur might be quietly drowned off the coast of France.
I first arrived in Cannes a nightlife rookie, a debutante disc jockey if you will. I imagined Cannes as my coming-out party: I'd parade about in my finest attire, my ample crates on display, impressing future employers with my musical dowry and 8th grade French.
My passage across the Atlantic came courtesy of a notorious bottle-service club promoter named Frankie Legend. We'd met earlier that year when a mutual friend dragged him to what was then my only DJ racket: a rundown East Village lounge where I'd make $150 cash a night, plus some free beer if the bar was ringing well.
From our first encounter, I knew Frankie and I were a Hilton and Richie of sorts: we might have something to gain from linking up, but it would inevitably end with someone in black mascara tears (read: me).
Frankie was the quintessential nightlife bro bully -- an Italian sandwich stuffed with testosterone. His black hair was slicked in grease, his feet shod in overpriced sneakers, and a different 18-year-old "model" pasted to his side every night.
I, on the other hand, was a fresh-faced, gay momma's boy DJ, maybe the only of my kind attempting to break into the mainstream "models and bottles" nightclubs. I had talent, maybe, but I'd barely even been to a high-end club before I met Frankie, let alone spun in one. Despite being intimidated by his douchebaggery, I also knew that Frankie had the nightlife wherewithal I sorely lacked.
Luckily, he liked my set that night. I know this because he said, "I fuck with your set, bro." He gave me my first major residency on the spot -- a headlining slot at his Thursday party in an exclusive Meatpacking District venue.
It was a big break, spinning there among the crystal chandeliers and celebrity-stuffed banquets. And despite Frankie paying me only 50 bucks more than I'd made at that shitty Village lounge, it made me feel like Mark Ronson. Or the poor man's Mark Ronson whose dad still helped with rent, anyway.
The catch, though, was that working for Frankie meant putting up with his bullshit. Frankie had a way of building you up ("You're one of the best DJs I've heard in a long time, fam!"), then kicking you in the back of the knees ("but your set tonight was wack, bro. Do better.") He also had a knack for gleeful homophobic slurs ("You're basically a chick, aren't you!?" was a favorite), was slippery with payments, and would often demand that you DJ for free ("It's a great look for you!"). Whatever the slight, I'd grit my teeth and never object. I came to view Frankie's abuse as a rite of passage, kinda like my Bar Mitzvah but with bottle service.
When he asked me, later that year, to accompany him to the Cannes Film Festival to spin (for free, of course) at a pop-up brunch restaurant he was promoting for the week, I jumped at the opportunity. It seemed this might be my moment to leap from poor man's Ronson to lower-middle class man's Ronson. I was thrilled with the prospect.
The notion of spending a week packed into a "Cote-De-Azur" frat house with Frankie, his crew of sub-promoter sub-humans and assorted other macho DJs, though, was decidedly less appetizing. It kept me awake for nights leading up to the trip.
Imagine my delight, then, as our bro-clique rolled up to our rented Riviera pied-a-terre on that breezy May afternoon and were greeted by a previously undisclosed house-mate: one of Frankie's latest "models." "A female!" myself exclaimed to myself. "Thank Beyonce!"
My savior's name was Camila, a New Yorker by way of Chile. She was stunning -- a tan, towering, waifish creature who, adorably, believed that Frankie had brought her to France merely out of the goodness of his heart. "He's a really nice new friend I make at SL last week!" she intoned earnestly upon our arrival.
In fact, Camila was genuinely surprised when Frankie informed her that the plan was for them to share a bed. "No no, Frank. This will not be accepted," she said in her thick South American accent. Frankie reluctantly stashed her in the free bedroom down the hallway, pending future reassessment of the arrangement.
As we headed out for our first night on the Riviera, and perhaps out of sheer necessity on my part, Camila and I quickly became BFFFAWIF (Best Friends Forever for a Week In France). We sealed it by guzzling matching bottles of Rose at the Weinstein party we'd snuck into later that night.
Each day, Camila would hang out with me in the restaurant DJ booth. She'd tell me about her model aspirations back in New York and her desire to bring her mother to America.
And indeed, by most counts, Cannes proved to be all I'd dreamed it would be. When I wasn't spinning in the restaurant, Camila and I bopped around to parties and screenings, hobnobbed with celebrities* (*I accidentally spilled an entire champagne flute on Susan Sarandon and then ran), and were featured in Vogue.com's street-style feature like we were the fucking Olsens or something.
One minute Camila and I were getting blow-outs at the Revlon gifting suite, the next we were luxuriating on a mahogany-paneled sightseeing yacht. We got wasted at the Funday party and snapped Blackberry pics of each other sitting on Cee-Lo's lap like he was Santa. A DJ friend let me spin for five minutes during his set at the Paramount party while Camila danced next to me. I played Chelley's "Took The Night" into Major Lazer's "Pon De Floor." It killed.
Back at the apartment, though, things weren't nearly as glam. Relations between Frankie and Camila had devolved faster than an elevator ride with Hova and Solange. Here are sample exchanges:
Frankie: Come on baby, I'll teach you some French if you come cuddle up next to me.
Camila: Je suis à l'aise, merci.
Frankie: (grabbing for Camila's hips) We would fit so perfectly together babe. We're like two puzzle pieces just waiting to get attached.
Camila: (slapping Frankie's hand) I am no man's puzzle, I am woman.
The constant rejection wasn't making Frankie any nicer to be around, either. In fact, it had slowly driven him from surliness to pure, Chris Brownian evil.
One evening, while we were getting ready to go out and Camila was, per usual, fending off Frankie's advances, Frankie hurled a particularly unwarranted jab at both of us: "God, you're an even bigger bitch than Louie." Camila recoiled and stormed out, with Frankie on her tail. I froze, turning beet red and choking back tears but, as was tradition, decided let it slide. "Rite of passage," I consoled myself.
The next evening I was sitting alone relishing a moment a solitude after my brunch set with a fresh panini and a scroll through Gawker when my phone rang. It was Frankie. I answered with an eye roll.
"Louie," Frankie's voiced boomed through the phone, "I need you to do something for me." "Sure," I replied, taking a chomp of grilled bread, "What's up?" "My brother is coming out from L.A. to stay with us for the rest of the week. I need you to walk up to Camila's room, pack her things, and put her bags outside the front door."
"What?" I replied, almost spewing a mouthful of molten cheese all over the floor. "You heard me, Louie. Aren't you two special girlfriends anyway? She'll understand. Walk over to Camila's room, throw her shit in a bag, and put it outside the apartment door. Don't be a bitch, Louie." I couldn't even find the words to reply. "Got it?" Frankie said flippantly and hung up.
I stood paralyzed, unsure of my next move. Anxious thoughts flooded my mind: Was this another rite of passage? This is, definitively, a worse rite of passage than my Bar Mitzvah. What happens if I say no? Would I be the next one to get booted out of the apartment? I really don't know a single other person in France! God, it'd help if my plan to be gal pals with Julliette Binoche had panned out by now and I could just crash with her.
Mostly, I wondered if saying "no" meant I'd be back spinning in that grimey LES club before I could even say "air horn." I sat in a state of indecision for a solid 10 minutes. Then my brain yelled "Stop!" and the record in my head screeched to a halt. It was kinda like the breakdown in Britney's "Crazy" video. My life mentor Biggie Smalls' immortal words came thundering into my consciousness. "Act like a bitch, get treated like a bitch."
I picked up the phone and dialed back. "Hey Frankie," I said, my hands shaking, "I'm sorry, but no fucking chance I'm doing that. You invited her here, not me, and I am not getting in the middle of it." "Oh yea?" Frankie replied, in a menacing tone. "Yea." I said. "Sorry, that won't be happening." I could feel my balls growing in my American Apparel tighty-whities.
There was silence on the other end of the line. I waited for what felt like eternity, or at least the length of an average Justin Timberlake song.
Suddenly, "Ha! Don't worry Louie, it's cool, I was just playing with you," Frankie shouted back, choking out nervous laughs. "Huh?" I squawked. "It was a joke, buddy. Yo! Come out and meet me and the boys at the Fabolous show. I may be able to put you on to spin for a second."
As I ended the call, I stood there dumbfounded. What in all fucks? Had I actually just put this buster in his place? Did I just win hard? Was I the new queen bee?! I grabbed my needles, records and laptop and leaped out into the crisp spring night with a huge smile. I suddenly knew how the Allies felt when they breached Berlin or how Sinead O'Conner felt when she ripped up that picture of the pope on SNL. Nothing on earth would ever be the same.
That moment was a major turning point, not only in Frankie and my relationship, nor just in my career as a DJ, but also in my entire life. It proved an entirely necessary new attitude in DJing moving forward. Frankie, in turns out, was only the first in a line of Frankie's I'd face in the industry.
Camila, of course, eventually did leave the house, but mostly on her own volition. I believe the last straw involved a hot tub, a video camera, and a broken champagne bottle. As we walked through JFK later that week, Frankie threw his arm around me. "You did really good this week, Louie. You're one of the boys now." I smiled back, but had to break our embrace and run for a cab. ET was set to air footage from my Fabolous Cannes gig that night and my mom was waiting to watch with me.
The funniest part is that I still work with Frankie to this day. Only when I'm available, of course.