When Mike Gardner walks through a room of well-connected Miami movers and shakers, a reasonable amount of fist bumps and handshakes can be expected. As president and CEO of Headliner Market Group, the party promotions company responsible for some of Miami's most lavish bashes, Gardner makes sure the right people are at the right place at the right time. As a promoter, this could mean anything from securing the ever-precious celebrity club appearance to ensuring every member of said celebrity's posse is supplied with their preferred drinks of choice.
Given the staggering number of players involved in Gardner's line of work, it makes sense he'd be an affable, sociable guy. Even so, it's only when he walks through a particularly large room of Miami's power players and influencers — like the domed, LED-laced interior of LIV, the nightclub where he has been tasked with making Sunday the most lit day of the week for several years — that one can begin to appreciate the breadth and scale of the goodwill that Gardner has engendered over the years.
Upon stepping out of one of LIV's undoubtedly star-studded green rooms around 2 a.m., Gardner is besieged on all sides by a flurry of friends and networking opportunists. One would be forgiven for thinking Gardner's arm and upper torso were stuck in a permanent state of outreach and embrace, a sight that would surely register as surreal if he didn't make it all seem so effortless.
If you have never heard of Gardner, that might not be through any fault of your own. Despite having his hand in many an important Miami stew, he's not a man of flagrant self-aggrandizement. In conversation, he is cool, calm, and collected — all traits that run contrary to the insanity and larger-than-life personas that define his chosen occupation. As the man behind LIV on Sunday, the nation's most excessive hip-hop club night, Gardner is something like a nightlife Kermit the Frog. It's his job to preemptively untangle the largest clusterfuck Miami has ever seen on a weekly basis. But rather than use flailing arms and moving banjo ballads to manage his kooky cast of characters, Gardner navigates the chaos of Miami after dark with an assured and soft-spoken confidence, a disposition forged from years of rigorous trial and error.
"I actually came to Miami on a basketball scholarship with the University of Miami," Gardner recounts from his Wynwood-adjacent office. "So of course, like any kid, I had hoop dreams."
Two years into his career as a starting point guard on the team, Gardner was dismissed for missing curfew during a trip to play Georgetown. Upon leaving UM's basketball team, he returned to his birthplace of Illinois around 1993 to complete his marketing degree at DePaul University in Chicago. However, it was not long before he traded the bitter cold of the Windy City for the humid warmth of Miami once more.
"My cousin, who had barbershops down here called Headliner, wanted me to come down here to help him," Gardner says. "He called himself the 'Black Paul Mitchell' at the time, and he was going to open up a bunch of Headliner barbershops. So I came down here to help him and nothing was happening, so I found myself doing nothing."
Nothing became less than nothing when Gardner eventually found himself homeless, working out with old UM buddies and NBA players by day and crashing in his cousin's barbershop by night.
"Even the barbers, they didn't have an idea that I was actually living in the back of the barbershop. They thought, Oh, he's a hard worker; he's here early in the morning opening the door for us!" Gardner recalls.
"I came up with so many different hustles and schemes — not that I took from anyone. For example, I used to go to McDonald's or Taco Bell and I didn't have any money, so I'd go and be like, 'Hey, I came here yesterday and you guys gave me the wrong meal, and the manager told me I could come and get [a free meal]," Gardner remembers. In his estimation, it's these trials and tribulations that have made his decade-and-a-half-strong success streak with HMG and its various endeavors possible.
"I definitely understand the value of a penny, because I can recall when I didn't have a dime. When I look at certain situations now, it gives me a better, honest approach of how to handle situations because I know what it's like to be completely broke," he says. "I think my perseverance drove
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In the years since Headliner Market Group's founding in 1999, Gardner has quietly but triumphantly ascended the Miami social ladder; no longer a mere piece on the board of Miami who's who, he's among the lucky few players who can actually and meaningfully influence the game. His recent move into the realm of charitable work is the logical culmination of his respective highs and lows in Miami. Much of Gardner's charitable work has concerned the Overtown area. That includes July's free Overtown Music & Arts Festival, which hosted the likes of Estelle and Jeremih in a neighborhood equally troubled and tenacious.
"It's almost like a challenge for me to be a part of seeing the turnaround of that community, because once before, it wasn't like that," Gardner explains. "[It was] the [Harlem] Renaissance of entertainment. So I want to be a part of the transition and the turnaround... because the city of Miami has been so supportive of me."
Even with his obligations, it doesn't seem as though Gardner will walk away from the party lifestyle anytime soon. By 3 a.m. on a late-August day, Gardner is seated in a makeshift chair in the innermost recesses of LIV's ground-floor VIP section, using the booth below his feet and the glass partition around his shoulders to prop himself up. Mere feet away, Rick Ross has just finished rattling off enough verses to sate a hungry crowd, and DJ Khaled has assumed control of the microphone. Those who have somehow broken their gaze and attention away from Khaled's bellows of "Chris Brown! Mike Gardner!" might glimpse Jamie Foxx lovingly gesture to Chris Brown from across the room. Khaled, increasingly resembling a Bond villain in flamboyance and gravitas, continues imploring LIV patrons to give it up for Rick Ross, Chris Brown, and Gardner.
Gardner himself remains unmoved. Asked if he's aware of the absurdity unfolding around him, he says he knows exactly what he's looking at. The natural followup question — "Is there anything you haven't seen?" — produces only a knowing smirk.