Bill Mullen’s “Places I’d Rather Be” Books Are a Pandemic Time Capsule to Cherish

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Meet Tinky, Vampiro, and Morticia. Bill Mullen’s cats and parrot had the glammest of lockdowns, mixing with Baby Jane Holzer at the Silver Factory, sharing a cigarette with Gloria Steinem at the Playboy Club and a drink with Grace Jones at Le Palace, and vamping on stage with Hibiscus, the leader of the psychedelic gay liberation theater collective The Cockettes. It all went down on Instagram.

Mullen’s is a familiar name in fashion circles. His CV includes a seven-year stint as fashion director at Details in its 1990s glory days and a long run styling men’s collections for Donatella Versace. These days he works with Anna Sui and Vera Wang and contributes to magazines including Mixte, CAP 74024, and Pan & The Dream. In its earliest incarnation, his Instagram account was a showcase for his editorial work, but now photographs by Ellen Von Unwerth, Mikael Jansson, Bettina Rheims, and Matthew Brookes mingle with Mullen’s deeply personal sketches. He was an artist from a young age—“my mom had Tupperware boxes full of drawings in the garage,” he says, “that’s what I did”—but he gave it up for the busy life of magazines and runway shows in New York. Then, in 2016 Mullen decided something was missing; it wasn’t long after his 50th birthday.

“I was taking stock of my life, as we do, thinking I have it so good. I have a career, I have a mortgage, I have a nice partner, everything is good,” he said. But “I felt like there’s something I left behind. And I thought, I don’t draw anymore. And I decided that I was going to just make myself draw and I was going to stick it on Instagram, so I could make myself do one a day. I was just going to draw, and I was going to draw the way I did back then.” To start, he made a subject of his work-life, but his mom died “and then it all became real stuff,” he says. Mullen is gifted both with Prismacolors and the iPhone keypad. His keenly felt, confessional tone makes his posts all the more moving, be they about his father’s new girlfriends or his partner Todd’s cancer diagnosis.

When the pandemic hit, Mullen began a series of “I’d Rather Be” sketches, inserting the above-mentioned, much-loved pets into his drawings of long defunct nightclubs and Covid-shuttered restaurants. Earlier this year he gathered them into a pair of limited edition books that read like a history lesson in after-dark New York, its hot spots and its hot people. “I posted about the books after I finished my lunch and they were sold out before dinner,” Mullen said, surprised at the memory. He shipped each one with a hand-made sketch of Tinky or Vampiro, and threw in a sketch of Morticia for anyone who bought both volumes. He did 300 new drawings and shipped all the books himself. This week, a second edition of the books featuring new back cover images will hit the shelves at Bookmarc in the West Village. I sat down with Mullen at the Brookfield Place Mall to talk about magic markers, New York the way it was, and why print still matters.

Gloria Steinem went undercover at the Playboy Mansion for 11 days in 1963. Photo: Courtesy of Bill Mullen

Photo: Courtesy of Bill Mullen

The Pointer Sisters are a favorite of Mullen’s. “They had the best look,”  he says. Photo: Courtesy of Bill Mullen

Photo: Courtesy of Bill Mullen

Grace Jones famously performed on Le Palace’s opening night on March 1, 1978. Photo: Courtesy of Bill Mullen

Photo: Courtesy of Bill Mullen

Nicole Phelps: Did you like fashion magazines from a young age?

I liked to escape from a young age. Seeing Farrah Fawcett in Vogue was the same as seeing an episode of Charlie’s Angels. It was the same, and they weren’t like what an army base looked like in Kansas in 1977. So you see something like Parliament Funkadelic on Soul Train, and you just go, ‘Who are they? Where are they? I wanna be like that.’ I remember seeing David Bowie for the first time in a music class history of rock and roll, and just going like, whoa, because you know everybody had a crew cut. Cher, that to me that was fashion, or whatever, I didn’t even label it, it just was amazing. I was an only child, a little skinny four-eyed kid drawing pictures, so all that was Escape 101.

Paint a picture of Details in the 1990s.

The early and mid-90s were so long ago. Remember we did not have the internet. We did not have all-access to everything. I’m talking about us at the magazines and the readers too. People are very blessed now. I know this is obvious, but it has to be emphasized. There is a great quote in the movie Videodrome: “Videodrome has something… that you don’t have, Max. It has a philosophy, and that’s what makes it dangerous.” Details had a philosophy; we were people that weren’t being spoken to, and we wanted to speak to people like us. Connect via pop culture and a world experienced through a new set of eyes which were actually just eyes that hadn’t been looked into before in a mainstream American magazine.

When Grunge happened, the magazine hit a groove because it proved we were right. There was a whole segment of the population out there that had been ignored. People who responded more in their formative years to David Bowie than James Bond. Sensitive people and darker arts. A new breed of actors like Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix. Johnny Depp. Leonardo DiCaprio in Basketball Diaries. Our girls and goddesses were women like Rose McGowan and Shirley Manson. We did them first. Our biggest selling cover was Traci Lords, far outselling our Madonna cover not that long before. I remember shooting Nirvana and Kurt Cobain being all excited to show me his white sunglasses that were a reference to a character in the movie Over The Edge that he knew I’d understand. Kurt also tried to give me his Transvision Vamp t-shirt. This is the kind of secret code I’m talking about. Now, everybody can be an instant expert on whatever subject, but this was not the world back then. We all needed doors unlocked and options explored.

So, it’s 2016. Was there a driving factor that made you decide you wanted to start drawing again?

I just felt like something was missing. You know, you’re defined by, I don't know, your clients. How old was I in 2016 I was just a little over 50. So, maybe it’s some version of the midlife crisis. I just thought I’d sold out something that I liked to do, I really liked to draw.

Your medium is magic marker, right?

Yes, I’ve become sort of addicted to buying magic markers at Blick. I use the Prismacolor pens that have the brush on one side and the fine point on the other. The brush is excellent because you can get a point out of that too. I really hope Prismacolor reads this and sends me magic markers. That would be so genius. They could send cash too. Magic markers and cash, an unbeatable combo. My signature scent. The drawings in the first edition were on Strathmore Marker paper.

And quite quickly you began drawing and writing about private things.

You know what? I didn’t tell my parents I was gay until I was 40—or 39. I mean, I didn’t tell my friends. I wasn’t an out gay man till I was 39 and I work in fashion. The mind boggles. But that’s how private… I’m an only child and I’m an introvert, but I thought, well, I’m not going to be ashamed of what is going on with me anymore and I’m going to tell stories that I’ve been afraid to tell, because I think that’s how we connect. I don’t want to get into a criticism of social media, but it’s daunting to see people’s feet up in Air Emirates first class cabin, or ‘here we are in all in a group hot tub.’ I mean it’s fine if you know them, okay, cool. But the false advertising is hard to relate to, right?

It can make you feel like shit.

So. I’m gonna tell you things that made me feel like shit to make you feel better. Let my pain bring you joy. This is the only way we can connect, right? My mom dies, then my dad, you know, starts dating really quickly. And my parents were very wildly happily married, you know, and my dad’s a religious man, and then my boyfriend has cancer. Okay, so how am I not going to write about cancer? It’s like the front of my mind.

Cher was an icon of Mullen’s from the days when he saw a photo of her in Newsweek. Photo: Courtesy of Bill Mullen

At some point, you launched a second Instagram account. The first was @BillMullenInc and the new one is @BillMullenInk. Why did you decide to do that?

The diary entries went up on the original Instagram page around 2016, and my agent said around 2018 that I had to make a page devoted just to those. It brings me great joy having the postings laid out consecutively, drawing next to drawing. Telling a story. When I was a kid I’d draw and I’d always run out of room. There was always more tale to tell, so I’d Scotch Tape another piece of sketchbook onto the previous picture. The @billmullenink page reminds me of that sacred 1973 technique. Somehow it is the real me, which is probably the opposite of the way most people approach Instagram. I keep posting the diary entries on my original account because I am attempting to show the complete picture. Work and personal, past and present and future, influences and dreams, fantasy and reality and where it all blurs… whatever that might mean. But I’m glad the diary entries have their own place.

The images in the new books are something quite different from the stuff that you’ve gone through with your mom and with Todd.

My mission for the books was to escape. What do you do? You’re here locked up in Covid land. Work is grinding to a halt and everything’s all weird and freakish. It’s the same thought process, though. I’m thinking about what I wish for and just escaping, like astral projecting or Beam me up Scotty. It’s some sort of a defense mechanism and it helps you just get through, right? Which is what I used to do when I would draw; I would draw places I would rather be. Like the roller disco with Cher, and then later clubs and rock and roll, all of it.

You were too young for Studio 54…

How about the Continental Baths? That’s like the early ’70s with Bette Midler performing and it’s pre-AIDS.

The good old days.

I did go to Danceteria, but I didn’t go to the Mudd Club. I was too young for Club 57, but I dreamed. I would read about them.

Where?

If I could get a hold of an Interview Magazine I would. I remember they had Creem Magazine at the library and I’d see that. There used to be a show called Real People. It was like 1979 and I remember they did something on Fiorucci. I would learn through stuff like that.

So how many places in the book have you actually been to?

I’ve been to practically none. Most of its fantasy, you know, I mean, I’ve been to the Chelsea Hotel but not room 506 [where Tinky, Vampiro, and Morticia hang out with Nico and Brigid Polk hang out]. I’ve been to the Stephen Sprouse store—my favorite…

I remember going to a Stephen Sprouse show in the late ’90s.

I remember that show, too. It was the outer space, NASA stuff. The person I wanted to work for most when I moved to New York, I wanted to work for Steven Sprouse. I used to go to the store and beg them to give me a job. I wanted it so bad. When I was working at Vanity Fair, my friend Sasha Charnin was Marina Schiano’s assistant and Sasha gave me a standing ticket to see the Sprouse show for fall 1988. It was the first fashion show I ever saw. And I didn’t know anything about fashion show etiquette, but I remember going in and Mick Jagger was there and Debbie Harry and Keith Haring. I got standing, and I stood in the window of that loft. I mean I can see it like it was yesterday. It the one with Rachel Williams with the big giant Christiaan hair with the neon ends that matched her pumps. Keith Haring squiggle prints, Warhol Last Supper prints…I was gagulating. It was like a rock concert to me. I know the soundtrack; it’s burned in my head.

I wonder how fashion shows will come back after this whole thing? I guess it’s hard to imagine wanting to be in a room with 500 people piled up next to each other.

Did you go to that Tom Ford show where they didn’t let anybody see the pictures? The one with Beyoncé in it? I think that whole concept was very exhilarating. Plus, I think it had the goods inside, too. Bring that back. Yeah. Because I would love to feel that way. I would love to want to be somewhere.

I’m hoping we’ll see a much bigger book from you at some point.

The drawings and writings are a project that I’m proud of. There’s almost 1,100 of them. It’s all very personal, for better or worse. Sometimes the worse is the better part. It’s a record of some tough years… although part of me is happy when I’m sharing the stories, even when they’re sad and/or horrifying. I’m not sure if it’s because it’s not a committee endeavor or if it’s because it feels good to tell the truth. I’m not sure if it’s just fun to draw cats and parrots swearing and chain-smoking. And although I don’t give a fuck if nobody gets it, it is truly wonderful when they do. This is where we can actually connect, not to sound corny. We only know if we actually have something in common if we are brave enough to reveal ourselves. This is where I love social media. To paraphrase Jonathan Richman, this is where I love the modern world.

Bill Mullen’s “Places I’d Rather Be” is available via Bookmarc and on Instagram at @billmullenink.

Hibiscus’s stage costumes continue to influence designers today. Photo: Courtesy of Bill Mullen

Photo: Courtesy of Bill Mullen

Stephen Sprouse was the designer Mullen wanted to work for most as a new arrival in NYC. Photo: Courtesy of Bill Mullen

Photo: Courtesy of Bill Mullen

Mullen was too young to go to Studio 54. “Most of its fantasy,” he says. Photo: Courtesy of Bill Mullen

Photo: Courtesy of Bill Mullen