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Jerry Powers, founder of the Miami Beach-based magazine Ocean Drive, remembers it began with German fashion photographers in the mid-'80s. "Europeans thought, Holy moly, this place is cheap," he says.
Designers, stylists, and models were largely gay, and as the fashion industry grew, so did the boy culture. They fell in love with vacant beaches and mouthwash-blue waters that looked yanked from a postcard. Adds legendary local publicist Charlie Cinnamon: "All the hotties came to town."
Gay people felt welcome in a city that was — at least geographically — cut off from the rest of America. "It was a secret," says Desi, a stylist who moved to Miami Beach from Boston in 1989. "If you were gay in the middle of the country and you didn't feel accepted, the word was South Beach." He lived a bohemian lifestyle, working a few photo gigs per week to pay $250 in rent.
No agency tracked how much the GLBT population increased in the following years, but the transformation was evident. Gay storefronts — from leather shops to cafés — began to emerge, and so did nightclubs. "Everything was pastel and glitter," recalls Shelley Novak. "You were tripping over gays." There was a smaller group of lesbians too.
In 1992, fashion designer Gianni Versace announced plans to transform an old rent-controlled apartment building into a bright white ocean-side mansion. For models and photographers, it would soon become what Andy Warhol's Factory was to aspiring New York artists: an epicenter for all things erotic and creative.
When Powers was with Ocean Drive, he befriended the gay fashion genius. "I don't want to say he was a loner, but he loved to go to the beach by himself," Powers remembers, "and then you'd see him a few days later surrounded by celebrities."
By 1996 — thanks to The Real World: Miami — even suburban housewives in Nebraska had a taste of what it meant to be gay in Miami Beach. Dan Renzi, the student-turned-model on the show, felt a tinge of guilt. "People were rolling their eyes at us," he says. "The show was a great success for the city, but it really changed things."
It was true: The Beach had grown more commercial. Even a Gap now loomed on Collins Avenue. Following the national attention, the New York Times reported another phenomenon: "Many men with AIDS have come to South Beach to spend their last years." The warm climate made coping with the virus easier, and there was a sense of family.
Then, on July 15, 1997, as Versace strolled home from News Café, a spree killer shot him execution-style near the front gate of his Ocean Drive mansion. One of the bullets struck "the center of his face," according to police reports. He dropped the Italian magazines he was carrying and fell to the concrete.
Versace was the fifth murder victim on a list compiled by a delusional pharmacist named Andrew Cunanan, who several days later, while holed up on a Miami Beach houseboat, killed himself using the same 40-caliber handgun. National media was all over the story. If you were a gay man walking the streets of South Beach that week, chances are a TV reporter thrust a microphone in your direction.
To some degree, the murder changed Miami Beach. Part of the city's appeal was its easy, carefree lifestyle. Afterward, people were on edge. Some theorized the fashion designer was killed because of his sexual orientation or promiscuity. For a while, gay men stopped cruising Flamingo Park at night.
Says Shelley: "We were all looking over our shoulders." On July 23, Miami Beach Police determined, "No motive or direct connection was found between Cunanan and Versace," according to the report.
Eventually, the fashion industry moved on. So did many gay tourists. The following year, the City of Miami Beach amped its efforts to court them back. City officials placed a glossy $15,000 ad in the Los Angeles-based Genre magazine featuring two men arm-in-arm. It wasn't enough. Gay businesses were beginning to close.
Like storekeepers, gay renters sensed the community had scattered. Some of them felt they no longer belonged in Miami Beach. Others wanted to settle down but couldn't in Florida, where adoption and partnership legislation makes alternative families feel like outlaws.
Even South Beach wasn't immune. In November 2007, a man named William Charles Smatt hung a banner outside his Alton Road home that read, "God created Adam + Eve, NOT Adam + Steve." The following week, the 76-year-old ran for mayor and lost.
"The gay community no longer feels welcome," Miami Beach Mayor Matti Bower observed the following year. She proposed that officials "see what other cities are doing and identify what opportunities are being missed."
Today, tourism director Michael Aller — who is credited for attracting gay travelers — is reluctant to talk about how South Beach has changed. On three occasions, he set up interviews with New Times but canceled or was not available at each of the scheduled times. During a fourth call, he explained, "I'm actually getting in the shower," before hanging up.
Desi, the stylist, sums it up this way: "It's like our private party got crashed."