Swelter 16

Sometimes you just get lucky, and lately life's just been coming up roses: Expecting nothing, and for once getting back everything in return. Curiously enough the recent glamour drought ended overnight with the National Urban League Conference, which turned out to be a virtual firestorm of bliss. And so we waltzed down the high road, the great Patti LaBelle doing a benefit concert at the Jackie Gleason Theater, a roiling groundswell of irate black professionals vexed by chaotic ticketing arrangements. An old hand at gala protocol, we simply slipped past security and had a grand bitterness-free time. LaBelle's eventual emergence inspired absurdly faint applause, and her perfectly appropriate ensemble -- a red sequined creation with touches of early Supremes and late Tina Turner -- didn't do any better with the audience: "Girlfriend, you better go back to that closet." Tough love all around, and naturally, the consummate pro dissed them right back: "Don't you all be looking at me that way, using your negative energy on my dress, instead of something important like AIDS. I've been here since 6:30, ready and able, so go ahead and hurt my feelings -- I'm just going to have my own fun then. And always remember -- straight or gay, black or white, crippled or blind, Patti loves you."

A risky move, but the counterattack turned everyone's negative ass around, and from then on it was all uncommonly personal, a triumphant, if occasionally surreal, evangelistic lovefest crossed with a faux USO revue and just-us-girls talk show. Full-bore numbers drifted off into massive engagement with the audience, from casual chats to dance contests and total seduction. One fan rose up in abject supplication, bearing witness to her glory, and LaBelle obligingly brought him on-stage for an elegant duet and slow dance. Lyric fragments spiraled off into scatting, general whoops, and notes sustained to infinity, the showboating followed by an absolutely straight rendition of the classic ballad "At Last," crystallized with perfection. In between numbers she wallowed in self-promotion ("I'm wearing my own makeup line tonight, and honey, it's about to fall on the floor.... Have you all been to my club, Chez LaBelle?") and alternately embraced maudlin sentiment, self-pity, grandiosity, and hubris, remaining drop-dead lovable throughout. But then she's a splendid creation, still here after losing her sisters to cancer, and forever unto end a true star.

Unfortunately, the soul train went astray for Oprah Winfrey -- actress, media tycoon, being with a certifiable grip -- and we just missed her closing-night speech at the Fontainebleau Hilton ballroom. As people will, the delegates were still chewing over small matters: Oprah's hair weave, the relative fineness of companion Steadman Graham, Winfrey's disavowal of let-us-now-praise-dysfunction talk shows. The world by the balls, and yet she looked decidedly glum at the head table. As fate would have it, Winfrey glided right by us on the way out, close enough for all that good fortune to rub off. Mightily intimidated, we wimped out completely: This legend, quite obviously, was in no mood to be fucked with. In need of a drink and change of scenery, we stumbled over to Tommy Pooch's party at the Forge, and there's Richard Bey, the pioneer of postmodern trash-talk television, down from New York City for a respite in the Sensurround dementia of Miami Beach. He never knew what hit him.

A locus of controversy, Bey has taken the scratch-and-sniffle dimensions of the talk-show form, the human slop jar that Oprah has sworn off, and added burlesque, media parody, game-show high jinks, and hard-edged humor. It's all a kind of freak show anyway, the fall of Rome revisited with TV gladiators and jeering hordes, ritualized as kabuki theater. The host, awash in crocodile tears, lobs probing and generally specious questions at the kinky, criminal, pathetic, and merely low-rent, as the audience passes judgment on only-for-the-cameras breakdowns and true psychic bloodlettings. Worse yet, there's an ugly lie at the heart of the public stonings, the whole mess supposedly being geared toward the edification and moral instruction of the masses. Bey's version of tabloid theater is pitilessly honest, and it doesn't suffer from the mock seriousness that shrouds the other shows: Sally Jessy Raphael's yenta humanism; Montel Williams's thunderings on propriety; Jerry Springer's pointless pontificating, and the endless horror of Geraldo Rivera.

And in the end, Bey knows what the savages want. The clueless Rolanda Watts crying on cue, pretending to sympathize with the poor while patently longing to head back uptown? Or "Queen of the Trailer Park," "Teenage Sex Maniacs," the "Mrs. Big Butt Contest," and the "Voice of Truth," liars strapped to a wheel of torture like medieval sinners? What other gleeful horseman of the apocalypse could host "Dysfunctional Family Feud," a John Waters wet dream come to life, 350-pound sons squaring off against slut daughters with middle-age boyfriends, alcoholic dads, hot-number moms, and the generally shiftless? That said, Bey, a Yale drama school alumnus who graduated with Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver, proved immensely likable, a good listener and an even better talker, the perfect tablemate.

Under the sway of his sympathetic nature, we immediately blurted out our secret addiction -- limping home from the debasements of nightclubs, then rubbing salt in the wounds with garbage TV -- before engaging in a little trade talk. Oprah's ratings have slipped, and sweet pea Ricki Lake is closing in -- you can't beat cute, as we've learned from bitter experience. This season, Carnie Wilson of the used-to-be-big Wilson Phillips is getting her own program, as well as the 22-year-old Tempestt Bledsoe, professional pixie from Bill Cosby's old sitcom. And then there's Danny Bonaduce, former Partridge Family star, drug addict, and transsexual abuser, an icon of mondo celebrity and Bey's friend: "Danny was Hugh Grant before Hugh Grant, and he's one of the few I'm worried about. He wants me to do his show -- that's what it comes down to, hosts doing other talk shows -- but I don't know.... No, of course, I'm not too big."

From there we chatted about Oprah's living-well-is-the-best-revenge move -- inviting her former Baltimore co-host on her national glitter pageant -- and the Jenny Jones controversy, death by homo truths: "The media played it their way. Those guys were hanging out together after the show." The early days, Bey hawking juicers on an infomercial, applying for Miami newscaster jobs, and climbing out of the regional gutter in New York: "We didn't have any $10,000 to pay the tabloid flavor of the month, the newest Jessica Hahn or whatever, so we just started doing wild stuff." And then aesthetic issues and standard operating procedures: "Usually the producers work these people up for a couple of hours beforehand. They come out all primed to break down, and there's Sally with a box of tissues. And then you have all the fakes. I've always tried to make my show different, an organic kind of party, where everyone joins in, with the spirit and energy of Sabado Gigante."

Pure as the driven slush, Bey, like us, also an exile of the lower middle classes, and versed in the dicey matter of the American caste system: "I'm uncomfortable with the term 'white trash.' Prince Charles talks about wanting to be his girlfriend's Tampax, and that's okay, because he's royal. Marla Maples openly calls Donald Trump a great lay, and no one minds -- they're both rich. The media had to use euphemisms for the tape Gennifer Flowers made of her phone conversations with Bill Clinton, where she calls him the best cunt-lapper she ever had. No problem there, either -- he's the president. So what's the difference between them and what people call white trash?"

None really, although to be fair Charles and Bill aren't likely to do the show or voluntarily eviscerate themselves for the public. A natural segue, celebrity metaphysics to Miami Beach, as Bey rhapsodized about a jaunt to Les Bains: "It was so insane. There were all these girls, everything from strippers to models, hanging on some plastic surgeon. And then right in the middle of a scene out of Hieronymus Bosch, this guy was quoting Eliot's 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.'"By 1:00 a.m. we had descended into a Vulcan mind link with Bey, talking about women, money, and the art of straddling cultures, all the important subjects. Yet again struck by the dichotomies of darkness, the curious separation between oftentimes unsavory professions -- nightlife journalism, ringmasters of the television -- circus and their cheery practitioners, seemingly untouched by the churning of America's underbelly, more engaging than regular folk.

The reverie interrupted by a mob roar over some song, everyone waving napkins like demented Red Brigade youth, a commercial break of immediate insanity. Bey, who tends to have unusual fans, instantly attracted a personable party boy, gone with liquor: "Richard, you are a beautiful and magnificent man. I'd like you to come nude jet skiing with me. If you come to my house, it will be an experience you'll never forget." Another only-at-the-Forge moment, number-one fan apparently completely heterosexual, rife with a brilliance best defined by a fellow regular: "He's got no clue, no pancreas, and he's had more splits than you can shake a stick at." Wonderful weirdness, smack-dab in the belly of the Miami beast. As with the shimmerings of the divine, there are moments when real life can be almost as good as show business.

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Tom Austin