Things To Do

Reflections from Miami Beach Nightlife Pioneers

Courtesy of Lesley Abravanel

Prior to 1990, this writer’s own perception of Miami Beach was confined to the Aventura Mall, the requisite meals at Rascal House where, in addition to a basket of rolls, we took home stories about Sinatra and assorted old timers coming in late at night to chase their copious cocktails. That was about it. 

Then there was ‘Scarface’ and ultimately ‘Miami Vice’, which still didn’t quite make Miami Beach a hotbed of celebrity activity. Fast forward to 1990 and all of a sudden, Miami Beach was dusting off the tumbleweed of the past 75 years to make way for a virtual runway of supermodels, super stars and, this writer included, the super starstruck. 

There are too many celebrity encounters to recount here, but one of the best was a night at Joia, where Madonna and her entourage were at one table and a very fresh off the block and ‘Selena’ flick Jennifer Lopez at another. Let’s just say the two didn’t mingle. Then there was that time in the Raleigh Hotel penthouse during the MTV Video Music Awards when Christina Aguilera made out with Paris Hilton and Jimmy Fallon hung out with some guy from Jet at 5 a.m. And then that time when Michael Jackson headlined a disco-themed 70th birthday party for Al Malnik at The Forge. And … and … and … 

What follows is a misty, vodka-tinged trip down memory lane by some of South Beach’s pioneers, players and stars in their own rights. 

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Proprietor, Liquid nightclub

“I have many stories but the best party I ever went to in Miami had to be the millennium [New Year’s Eve]. We started off the evening crossing the bay from Madonna’s house by boat, we landed in Monty’s and had a car pick us up. So much talk of traffic and not being able to drive because of the Y2K crash so we made it easier on ourselves. From there, Donatella Versace had a party at her house. Our group was Madonna, Guy Ritchie, Gwenyth Paltrow and Guy Oseary plus myself and Dennis Schaller, my boyfriend at the time and father of my son. We all partied at the Versace mansion with a beautiful sit down dinner and out of no where Jennifer Lopez shows up. She had just been arrested with Puffy (Diddy) in New York for a weapons charge and came to Miami to escape the press.

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After the dinner we all decided to walk to BarRoom where we took over the upstairs of the club. Besides our group and the Versaces, the Estefans attended the party plus Ricky Martin and Roy and Lea Black. Roy was representing Chris (Paciello) at the time. Tracy Young was spinning while Madonna played the bongos. At around 2 a.m., Miami Beach police come upstairs and we all thought we were being raided due to Chris’s recent arrest. We all looked at Roy like, ‘What is going on?’ It was [music mogul] Tommy Mottola with uniformed police doing security for him and then girlfriend [and eventual wife] Thalia. I remember everyones sigh of relief and we partied on until at least 5 a.m. “

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Le Loft, The Whiskey Bar, Chaos, Ready Bar, Nikki Beach, Ricochet, It Lounge  

The first time I met Michael Douglas he walked into The Forge to meet me, and when I went to shake his hand, I spilled a glass of red wine all over his white pants. He looked at me and said ‘You’re lucky you came highly recommended.’ [Hollywood talent agent]  Shep Gordon had told him to meet up with me. And we became fast friends from that night on.

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Hotel Astor, Quattro, Mokai, WALL

For me it was actually my birthday in 1997 which I hosted a 70s private-themed party at the Astor Hotel. Nicola Siervo assisted me in the planning. I had Cameron Diaz partying dressed as Blondie. James Woods, Oliver Stone and Dennis Quaid. Short of Al Pacino I had the entire cast of ‘Any Given Sunday’ attending. DJ Mark Leventhal played a mean 70s vintage set. The pool was covered with a plexi cover to serve as a dance floor. The floor was packed with all of our friends in full costume boogying on a Tuesday night. The party kept going strong [think Winter Music Conference volume on a Tuesday] until the Miami Beach Police Department showed up and if it wasn’t for Cameron Diaz helping schmooze it over they would have shut it down right then and there. They let us slide another 30 or 45 minutes until 12:30 a.m. It was a glorious February night and the party was the best birthday I could ever wish for. 

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Former Queen of the Night columnist, PR pro

Sly Stallone’s house party in the mid-1990s when he was living in a sprawling mansion in Coconut Grove. The house itself was open – we weren’t just confined to the grounds – and Sly was such a gracious host, introducing us to his mother and showing us his Francis Bacons in his kitchen!


Artist, South Beach personality

A funny story was late one night at Club Hell, Efrain [artist Conte] was at the bar and I was mischievously under the influence. So I got this notion to prank [Ocean Drive co-founder] Jason Binn. I told him that Efrain was Raul Julia. Jason still hasn’t forgiven me, I don’t know what he said to Efrain, but I’m sure it was classic!


Drag Queen

With nearly 2 decades of decadence and celebrities in and out of nightclubs on Miami Beach I can write a book, but, I’d have to say probably the most surreal evening was hanging out with Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake when they were a couple in the hip-hop room (called the Boiler Room) at Level, with everyone taking pictures and trying to climb over the rope it became unbearable, so I suggested the three of us retreating to my private dressing room as refuge.  I’ll never forget when we stood up to walk out of the room, the entire room flowed like a wave moving with the ocean. Until we got to the back of the house and once we were behind the closed locked door in my dressing room,  we sat down and all three just laughed about how fun yet weird it all really is. I asked them, “Is it like that everywhere y’all go?”  and Justin said it was worse.

They were both so sweet and somewhat innocent then. She liked beer out of the bottle and cigarettes, he and I drank champagne. 

Being the ‘queen of the nightlife world’ for over 15 years i’ve come into contact with so many celebrities and for the most part it’s been sheer magic. I guess that’s why they call Miami the Magic City. And I’d like to think the wand of this Fairy has made it a little more magical.

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Party host extraordinaire since the late 80s, co-founder of In List, global app that promotes the hottest nightlife in 25 key cities

1993 at the Strand. We’re at dinner with [Ocean Drive co-founder] Jason Binn and Sly [Stallone] and a big group. During this time, the two biggest action stars in the world were Sly and Arnold [Schwarzeneg

ger]. Of course, Arnold comes rolling in. They greet each other in the middle of restaurant as the entire place watches. Fast forward a few months and Planet Hollywood opens in Coconut Grove with over 60 blockbuster celebs in attendance. Sly throws an after-party at his house, 5 doors down from Madonna’s, next to Vizcaya. It looked like a night at the Oscars. These kinds of events put Miami in the spotlight for all the world to see, the beginning of the second wave since the revitalization of the Art Deco district.


Bash, Shadow Lounge, Liquid, Bar Room, Level, State, Shine at the Shelborne, The Fifth, Karu &Y 

My favorite was Attorney General Janet Reno dancing with glow sticks backstage at Level. [Editor’s note: This took place in July 2002 during Reno’s gubernatorial race against Jeb Bush. Janet Reno’s Dance Party at Level was a fundraising riff on a Saturday Night Live skit about her.]


Music publicist, minority owner Stephen Talkhouse

“Woody’s (named for Ron Wood, not me) opened at the end of 1987 and closed in 1989 and was a shooting star in the South Beach entertainment firmament. Stephen Talkhouse (which I was a minority owner in) ran longer, from  92-97. Asking me to recount my favorite celeb moment is like asking me who my favorite child is.  There are so many you could write a number of columns just on my adventures.  I probably have forgotten more than I can remember. I hung out with so many celebs in the VIP room at Woody’s, but unlike some of my other South Beach brethren I wasn’t much of a star**cker. 

One thing that stands out at the Talkhouse was a New Year’s Eve where the Mavericks performed.  Martina McBride was in town for the Orange Bowl Parade and Trisha Yearwood was still married to Mavericks bass player Bobby Reynolds. Both women showed up and sang back-up the whole night for Mavericks lead singer Raul Malo as the band just mesmerized the place with a great performance. Another time Bob Marley’s mom, Cedella Booker, joined Taj Mahal on stage for a wonderful duet. And the list goes on and on and on! Buddy Guy playing to the crowd from the men’s room; Ray Charles bring his whole orchestra and Raelettes to Woody’s.   

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Celebrity photographer

I loved seeing, along with 100,000 people,  Pavarotti perform on the beach on Miami Beach and at the after party when he didn’t want to eat what they had so he  he ordered pasta. I also loved running into Gianni Versace at News Cafe frequently when he would come and buy a newspaper and magazines.

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Liquid, Risk, Anatomy

My favorite moments? Cher’s performance at Liquid during the 1998 Super Bowl. Madonna hosting Liquids 2-year anniversary with her ‘Ray of Light’ release party in 1997. Bette Midler performing at Bar Room in the 90s. Donatella Versace’s birthday party at the Versace Mansion in 1997 with Madonna, Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown. Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna partying at the last party at Bar Room.


Rumi. Ricochet. Soirée party at the Raleigh Hotel. Magic Garden at the Albion Hotel, publisher of 944 Magazine (2006 – 2011), TAI Entertainment (2003 – 2013),  Owner of Runway Resort in Hollywood,  FL Summer 2015) 

I found myself nestled between a drag queen, a supermodel and famed retired basketball legend turned lady-killer Wilt Chamberlain in a dark seedy underground club in 1993.  The music was loud and pulsing through my body and you had to lean in to hear the person next to you.  But we all had one thing in common –  enjoying the joint we were smoking and the pulse of the night.  I remember looking around and asking myself where am I and how did I end up at this table with this group.  We had arrived!  South Beach was officially a playground for many to escape to be free.  


Drag Queen

I have one major celeb nightlife moment that I will never forget:  New Years Eve 1998-99 at Liquid Nightclub. Myself and another drag performer, Leslie Quick,  got a chance to hang out and dance with Madonna in the VIP lounge. The only people around us were the DJ and her bodyguard. Wow! It was so surreal. 


Drag Queen

Maybe 15 years ago when the movie ‘The Birdcage’ was all the rage and it was “in” to have a drag queen perform at your party the way that you would have an ice sculpture  or crudités. I  booked myself, [fellow drag queens]  Damien Devine and Daisy Deadpetals to perform at the 21st birthday of the son of race car driver Emerson Fittipaldi.  Before going on, I went to hide in the kitchen to go over the lines of the song I was going to lip-synch, and who else was hiding in the kitchen with me but George Harrison of the Beatles!  I thought to myself,  ‘What can we talk about ? What can I say to him? I’m sure he’s sick about talking about the Beatles,” and I know that he  was sued by the Shirelles for that song ‘My Sweet Lord’. Was it Bangladesh or no nukes ? So I looked around the room and both our eyes settled on the cake and I said, ‘I wonder what kind of cake it is?’  He said in his Beatles accent, ‘I love wedding cake, I love white cake, I love all kinds of cake!’ So one of my best memories of Miami Beach was hiding in a kitchen in full drag in a gazillionaire’s home with one of the Beatles talking about our mutual love of cake and all of the different cake varieties.  And that was just a day at the office for me back in the 90’s.

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Sr. VP Communications, Opium Group

In 2007, Britney Spears emerged fresh off her head-shaving, umbrella-beating period with a concert at Mansion. It was quite unprecedented as she had always played arenas, but this was a comeback tour of sorts. No one knew what to expect – and it ended up being a pretty decent show. What was remarkable to me was that this was at the advent of the media and paparazzi frenzy which now dominates the press with sites like TMZ. Before that time, there were just one or two magazines covering celebrity – now there were 10, and dozens of websites and paparazzi pages – and Miami was in the center of it all.  


Miami’s premiere gossip columnist

On May 17, 2003, Michael Jackson was the big headliner – emphasis on big head if you see his ‘fro wig – at the 70th birthday bash of then financial advisor and owner of The Forge, Alvin Malnik. With the invitation, a recorded CD was sent out with Jackson singing the praises of his favorite restaurant. (I lost that CD and whoever has it will probably make a fortune with it.) Anyway, Jackson did appear larger than life at the disco themed party – with a few young male friends in tow, which of course raised eyebrows. (I have hundreds of pictures from that night because, like everyone else, I was also pretty starstruck.) Now we wait to hear if Malnik, named godfather of Jackson’s child Prince Michael II, also known as “Blanket”, will be raising a Jackson of his own. Maln

ik told the New York Times that, although he has yet to hear from the family regarding his status with the child, he has every intention of taking care of Prince Michael as if he were one of his own.

And during the MTV Video Music Awards in Miami in 2005, Farrah Fawcett was a surprise celeb at many of the parties, including one at Thomas Kramer’s Star Island mansion, where she walked and worked the red carpet and mingled with the crowd like the true celebrity she was, not like some of the other one-hit-wonders gasping for their three seconds of fame. We ran into Fawcett, no joke, at the faucet in the ladies’ room at the Delano where we shared a laugh about hotels trying too hard to be hip – not that we were talking about the Delano, of course. She was a class act and we were lucky to have her down here, if but for a fleeting weekend.