Remembering Legendary NYC Club Doorman Derek Neen by Glenn Belverio

Derek Neen at the door of the Roxy, early '90s
Derek at the door of the Roxy, early ’90s

Dear Shaded Viewers,

I am shocked and saddened after finding out yesterday that beloved club doorman Derek Neen passed away last week. According to Michael Musto, he committed suicide in Vancouver, Canada where he moved a few years ago. He left NYC after Beige–the Tuesday gay night at Bowery Bar that ran for 17 years–closed in 2011. I knew Derek since the mid-90s when I attended Beige (and occasionally the Roxy where he also did the door) and then in 2005 I spent quite a bit of time with him, mostly at the doors of Beige and Roxy, to research my 2006 St. Martin’s Press book Confessions From the Velvet Ropes.

Derek is one of the four doormen profiled in the book and I greatly enjoyed the time I spent with him. He made me laugh, he made me think, he inspired my writing and he made going out in NYC a wickedly fun experience–an era that is certainly gone forever from this now-corporatized city. We miss you Derek.

Glenn Belverio

Excerpt from Confessions from the Velvet Ropes – my profile on Derek Neen:

They arrive in droves, emboldened with the kind of aggressive chutzpah that German soldiers possessed when they marched into Paris. Marc Jacobs bags swing menacingly like pistols and Gucci perfume hangs in the air like nerve gas as this phalanx of ersatz Carries, Samanthas and Mirandas halt before the velvet ropes. They have come to the Roxy to do what these sort of girls do when they are granted entrance into this sort of disco: Terrorize the bartenders with inappropriate drink orders, noisily invade the dance floor and hunt for potential captives. Their quarry: attractive, amusing, non-threatening men. Gays.

“All twenty of you are together?!” Derek Neen asks incredulously. “I’m sorry but tonight is for the boys. I really can’t let you in.” Derek lifts the rope that holds waiting guests at bay while a security team cohort lifts another rope which will allow the girlish junta to pass momentarily through the box, but only so they can exit onto the sidewalk from whence they came. The mob emits a series of disappointed bleats as they clip-clop past the ropes in their Manolo- and Jimmy Choo-shod feet. In the blink of an eye, the group has been transformed from a squadron of weekend warriors to herded barnyard animals. “There are other places you can go,” Derek shouts over the din, the velvet rope held aloft. “There are plenty of straight clubs that are more than happy to welcome the ladies.”

Derek has been the doorman for the Roxy’s Saturday night gay party for fifteen years. The forty-five-year-old Canadian also runs the ropes on the club’s non-gay Friday nights, which are often devoted to grand R&B music events. That night’s predominantly black crowd brings to the club a retro form of Harlem sophistication – men in zoot suits and fedoras, women in cocktail dresses and chinchilla stoles – which is in marked contrast to the Saturday night gay crowd’s sausage casing-tight tees and jeans, and various stages of ill-advised transvestism. In order to preserve the gay male vibe of this long-running party, one of Derek’s chores is to limit the number of women entering the club. “Tonight is only for the boys but I might let you in if you can come up with a good defense,” Derek, wearing a fox-like smile, tells two women.

“We came all the way from Long Island!” they plead.

“Long Island?!” Derek affects alarm. “Do you have your visas with you?” Stunned by this humorous sting of Manhattan jingoism, the girls fall silent. Derek dives directly into interrogation mode. “Did you know it was a gay night? What other clubs do you go to? Why did you come here?”

“My mom thinks I’m gay!” one girl blurts out, as if she is cracking under the pressure.

“Will you make out with another girl if I let you in?” Derek asks pointedly. The girl grimaces. Derek sends them packing. When another group of girls show up and are identified as Canadians by their accents, Derek subjects them to a pop quiz concerning their country’s history. “Who was the First Prime Minister of Canada?” Derek asks. “And who was the head of the Metis?” When the girls answer all of the questions correctly, Derek opens the ropes for them and the group bobbles excitedly into the club like winners on Jeopardy. “You’re so entertaining!” trills a gay man waiting in line, who is wearing a t-shirt that says DEFINE “GIRLFRIEND.”

“I like to keep things interesting for people who are waiting near the front of the line because they want to see things like that – it’s show business,” Derek is fond of saying. “Whether I’m quizzing people or telling jokes or chatting up stars, it’s a bit like being onstage….and also my job as a doorman is essentially my only ‘going-out’ life, so I do a lot of socializing in front of the club. I could be chatting with someone like John Norris from MTV or Carson from Queer Eye or minor or major European aristocracy, and I’ll talk just loud enough so the people who are waiting in line can get in on it, because I don’t want them to feel excluded…and the people I’m speaking to understand that, they know it’s a stage – they know they’re supposed to be on.”

Later on that night Hollywood fashion stylist Philip Bloch arrives, stands in front of the roped entrance reserved for VIPs and props himself up on the stanchions, waiting to be noticed. He is wearing a sleeveless mesh athletic shirt and a cocky expression that says “Hello? Here I am!” As Derek greets him warmly, the boys at the front of the line aim a rapid-fire series of questions at Philip concerning his recent E! channel appearances. “So Philip, how do these boys look? What’s the style diagnosis?” Philip makes a sour lemon face and then waves dismissively in their direction. “I’m off duty tonight,” he says before filling Derek in on his recent trip to Australia, much to the waiting boys’ delight.

Whereas Kenny Kenny’s early velvet rope days resembled Grand Guignol and Thomas Onorato’s door bitchery is often an exercise in twenty-first-century efficiency, Derek’s door-side manner is something akin to a vaudeville act. At his Tuesday night door gig, Beige – a long-running gay party at Bowery Bar – Derek tosses off corny one-liners as he edits a non-stop parade of fashionistas, hair and makeup artists, NYU students and nightlife diehards, with the latter receiving a sly “Good morning!” from him as they stride up at midnight. Women attired as if they’re female female impersonators enter undeterred while other ladies, who arrive on the arms of men who are in practice of posing as gay in order to secure entry, are stopped.

“Are you straight?” Derek asks a preppie-looking man who has shown up with a slender blonde. “No, I have a husband but he’s in Budapest,” the man replies. Derek emits a stagey Bronx cheer. “Budapest? That was no husband! If you have to pay for it, he’s not a real husband!” Derek cracks. Later, a Russian girl with a heavy accent arrives with two men but sans ID. DADDY’S GIRL is printed across her t-shirt in gold letters. “But I’m twenty-seven,” she insists.

“So where’s Daddy?” Derek asks.

“Daddy’s in Istanbul. He sells airplanes.”

“Sounds like Russian mafia to me! What do you do for a living?” he asks.

“I’m studying liberal arts at the New School,” she explains.

“What? You’re still in school at twenty-seven? Sounds more like the Nude School – that strip joint out in Brighton Beach!” Derek says, channeling Jackie Mason.

As the evening progresses, gaggles of friends and acquaintances have gathered in front of the door, filling Derek in on the details of recent trips to Paris, photo shoot gossip, relationship drama and fashion bulletins. There is a sense that the real party is happening outside – in Derek’s honor – rather than inside. At around one a.m. elderly Andy Warhol factory legend, Taylor Meade, hobbles up the front steps with his cane, his characteristic goofy grin lighting up the night. “Taylor!” Derek exclaims and the entire crowd of lingerers and line-waiters burst into applause and cheers. Taylor raises his cane above his head and basks in the glory. “Taylor has been coming here for eleven years and he always drinks for free,” Derek tells a friend. “And I even have the young people here trained to receive him in a manner that befits an icon. Everyone knows Taylor.”

Derek hails from a small city in British Columbia called Kamloops (First Nations word meaning “meeting of the waters”) and as a teenager migrated to the big city of Vancouver, where he received his unconventional education from “street kids, prostitutes and drag queens.” He soon became involved with an older lover – a rock ‘n’ roll and travel photographer – and moved to Hawaii with him where he began a career as an actor in TV ads. “I appeared in the first ever commercial for Sony Walkmans in 1979,” Derek relates. “I was playing air guitar with a tennis racket dressed in little tennis shorts.” After some TV gigs in Japan and seven years of traveling with his companion, Derek found himself single again and back in Vancouver wondering what to do next. After a stint as a bicycle messenger, Derek decided to move to New York after celebrating New Year’s Eve in that city at the end of 1988. “I moved there in the spring of ‘89 and went out every single night, dancing to house music at places like Mars and Boy Bar.” In the winter of 1989 Derek entered, and won, the Mr. Boy Bar contest. “The prize was $100 and a job at Boy Bar, which I really needed because I was running out of money. The choice was a bartending job or a doorman job. I knew that bartending was hard work, so I chose the door gig.”

He quickly learned “the ropes” from the club’s longtime doorman, Len Whitney, a video artist known for his penchant for outré leather outfits and codpieces. “Even though it was only $5 to get in, a lot of people were insulted if they were made to pay,” Derek remembers. “Len taught me which local artists, writers and performers got in for free and how to handle all the egos in a diplomatic way.” Another trick he learned was what to do when the police arrived.

“Boy Bar didn’t have a cabaret license, which meant no dancing, but people danced anyway. When the cops came by to check on that, I would push a button by the door that would kill the power to the turntables downstairs where Johnny Dynell was DJing. That’s when he knew to put on an Ella Fitzgerald record and by the time the police made it to the dance floor, everyone was lounging around, smoking cigarettes and enjoying Ella.” After Boy Bar closed, Derek had a brief dalliance working as a go-go boy at Mars and a club housed in an old Con Edison power plant called The Building. “I was thirty years old and I knew the go-go gig wasn’t a long-term plan and that’s when I realized the door job would become my niche career.”

Derek then accepted a job offer as the doorman for the Roxy. “New York was different then, things were more intense….you had people wandering the streets in outrageous outfits and in various stages of nudity, and there was a lot of bitchiness and elitism then. And the bitchiness and personal grudges were things we doormen projected onto fairly innocent club-goers at will….in a way, it seemed that people wanted to be abused,” Derek asserts.

“There were nights when things would get out of control, when people would spit on me and I would spit back at them…one night, some guy starting cursing me out and I chased him all the way to the West Side Highway and pushed his face in the snow and told him never to come back to the Roxy again and the whole line applauded. In those days, everything was a big show and doormen were expected to be dramatic. The security who worked with you expected it, they got off on defending you and being your praetorian guard. It’s that whole thing about how power corrupts – you’re out there in your little fiefdom, your twenty square feet of kingdom, and if you’re not self-reflective and conscious of trying to make everyone else feel good, you can start to project your insecurities on people and become abusive and mean.”

As his door reign at the Roxy continued on through the nineties, Derek began to feel discontented. “I was really unhappy with my job, really miserable, and I was hooked on pills: Vicodins, Percocets, Percodans….and I was smoking a lot of weed, doing a bump here and there to round out the recipe….so I was often high at work and it really became a problem.” The years of pill abuse caught up with him on Gay Pride 1997.

“I was at the door of the Roxy, there was a huge line stretching around the block, and suddenly I just collapsed on the ground. This big, Brazilian security guard lifted me up and held me in place. For the rest of the night I held onto him with one arm and opened the rope for people with the other. I got through that night but then I was bed-ridden for a month because my liver just gave out from all the pill abuse….I’m sure I had hepatitis as well. That’s when I decided I needed to clean up and find another way to approach my job.” His new approach involved getting to know club-goers on a deeper, more personal level. “It was no more ‘Hi honey, hey baby’, it was more really looking into people’s eyes, remembering things like who just broke up with whom, and who just got a new job and who was away for awhile, and really connecting with people. You can’t do that if you’re high.”

Derek wasn’t the only one who had cleaned up by the late nineties. The club scene was also being purged, with crackdowns by the Drug Enforcement Agency, which brought down an entire empire of clubs including The Limelight, Tunnel and Palladium. “Suddenly it was all about focusing on rules and regulations and not getting the club in trouble. We had to protect the liquor license because that’s the queen bee of any club. If you lose that, you lose the club and the employees lose their means of support. So, part of my job became making sure we kept the drug dealers out of the clubs.”

Naturally, this new crusade created animosity that went beyond mere spitting and bitchy repartee. “One time a crazy security guard was fired from the Roxy because we found out he was dealing drugs,” Derek recalls. “And one night, very late, he drove high-speed down Eighteenth Street the wrong way toward the Roxy and his car plowed through the velvet ropes and stanchions. I threw myself against the side of the building just in time and he was leaning out the window screaming, ‘DEREK YOU MOTHERFUCKER, I’M GONNA KILL YOU!’ And that was the one time I was rewarded by the club owner….he put $500 in my pocket at the end of the night.”

As he approaches his sixteenth year of door whoring, Derek is ready to move on. “I’m ready to leave the job….I’m not fed up, but I’m satiated. It’s been such a great ride and I feel very privileged and grateful. But the club world doesn’t really excite me anymore….like when Madonna performed at the club recently. I used to love hanging out with her in front of the club in the early nineties, but now it’s not such a big deal. I’d rather be on a quiet beach in Brazil with my partner – so that tells me I’m done. I’m approaching my final act but I have no idea what I’ll be doing next.”

Glenn Belverio

Glenn Belverio is a writer and New Yorker. He has been reporting for ASVOF since 2005 and currently works at The Museum of Modern Art as the Content Manager for MoMA Design Store.