NYC Promoter Mark Nelson :: ’Not a Fan of Bullsh*t’

by Kevin Scott Hall

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday August 27, 2012

In the last 15 years or so, chances are, if you've been to one of the Pier Dance that caps Gay Pride, Friday night at Splash Bar, Great Adventure during the annual Out @ Night at Six Flags, Asbury Park's Sand Blast, or a hell of a lot of other events in New York or nationally, you may have noticed the name Mark Nelson somewhere on the invite or the club marquee.

Nelson is not one of New York's most active promoters and producers of dance parties; if you can name one of the gay icons, chances are Nelson has worked with him or (more usually) her.

Nelson rarely takes the spotlight himself; instead, he prefers to remain an eagle-eyed observer behind the scenes, where he ensures everything comes off as planned. So who is the man behind the curtain?

Nelson has come a long way since growing up in a church-going family in the wilds of Minnesota, where he was regularly taunted for being gay.

EDGE got the big blond muscular Nelson to open up and dish the nightlife scene. And has he got stories!

Celebrity City

EDGE: Being a successful event promoter in New York sounds like a lot of work, but also a lot of glamour, what with meeting the celebrities and all.

Mark Nelson: Some people think of promoting as a disease. I am concerned with what other promoters do because if they do something stupid -- like lying about a celebrity coming to an event -- then they'll think that I'm lying. I question what they say.

This whole business is subject to rumor-mongers. I'm 95 percent truthful. I once heard some guys talking about how Madonna was coming to the Pier Dance. I asked them, 'Do you know Madonna? Did she tell you that? Because trust me, she's not coming.'

I hang out with celebrities when it suits them. But I'm more friends with their managers and labels. That's who I do business with, for the most part.

EDGE: Is it intimidating to work with the "suits" at the big entertainment companies?

Mark Nelson: I have to put on the hat that I'm a corporate CEO. You have to have ownership of it and treat it with respect. 'No' is not an acceptable answer to me if I feel strongly about something. And I'll do what it takes to make the event work. I've had people say to me, 'How dare you go over my head?' But you know what, a lot of people don't do their jobs.

When you put yourself in the front seat of the car, people are going to hold you accountable. They know I'm going to do my best. I won't throw them to the wolves. I've lived in Chelsea my entire adult life and I do not want to be ducking, and so far I don't have to.

I once had a singer who signed a non-compete agreement and then it turned out her agent booked her for another event the same night. I said to him, 'Why are people going to come here and pay $175 to see her when they can go across town and pay twenty bucks to see her?' He tried to argue that it would be a different crowd, but I wouldn't have it. I'm not a fan of bullshit, I don't put up with people's shenanigans. I'm in the position where if it sucks, it's my fault. We all have to work together.

Dancing on a Box

EDGE: What is a typical day for you when you're in the zone?

Mark Nelson: The first hour, I walk the dog. Then I sit down and do the social networking and emails for a good hour. I go to the gym every day because that keeps me sane. Basically, I try to accomplish one thing each day with my business. Right now, I have a national coming up for Equinox on Sept. 24.

That means sixty parties at the same time. I'll have four hundred people working for me that day. For those parties, I have to procure everything for the party. So the other day, my task was to get a gin. And it can't be just any gin, because it's a high-end company. So that took a good part of the day.

EDGE: Did you originally set out to be a club promoter?

Mark Nelson: I was bartending at the Break in Chelsea in the early '90s. All sorts of people came in there, but in those days, we had to promote it. We'd go to the Sound Factory and the Tunnel and tell them about the Break. That's where the promoting started. Then John Blair gave me break by asking me to dance at the Men's Room.

EDGE: Did club life take a toll?

Mark Nelson: Oh yeah, I've been going to 12-step meetings for ten years. I'm tired of people telling me they are not an addict, that they can handle it. Crystal meth gives a person a lot of energy and makes you feel that you can do anything. It also makes you a prolific liar. I don't regret a lot in life, but I do regret crystal meth and not remembering so much of what happened.

And I will not work with people based on their actions years before. It's hard enough to work in nightclubs as it is, but to also deal with people who are partaking . . . it's a nightmare.

I'm HIV-positive since 1991, and to tell you the truth, that kicked me in the ass to have my own life. At least I knew. Now I have a thousand T-cells and have never been healthier.

The Social Network

EDGE: How did you deal with your diagnosis?

Mark Nelson: I was living with my boyfriend in Miami at the time and I came up to New York and got tested. I went into retirement mode because I was basically told I was going to die. So I spent two and a half months in Miami, riding around in my boyfriend's Mercedes. But I was not comfortable with that lifestyle. I had a long talk with my boyfriend and decided I wanted to move up to New York and have my own life. So I started working at the Break and going to NYU film school at night, although I didn't finish the degree.

EDGE: How have smart phones, social networks and the Web changed your business?

Mark Nelson: Social networking has watered down the business. It can work against us in a way. It gets them in the door, but if there is one negative thing, they will text someone about it immediately. That sucks.

EDGE: What events stand out as particularly memorable?

Mark Nelson: Back in 2001, just before 9/11, I was doing the after-party for everybody who was not famous at the 30th Anniversary Concert for Michael Jackson. Remember? The one where Whitney looked so terribly thin? Well, of courses I had a VIP pass for backstage. [Laughs] I'm sure everybody was thinking, 'Who the hell is he?' I mean everybody was there: Destiny's Child, the Backstreet Boys, Jay-Z.

But I was thrilled to see Jane Russell and Janet Leigh sitting together. I went over to introduce myself and I could see that everyone was standing up in front of them so they couldn't see. [Laughs] So I started telling people to sit down. Then I saw Elizabeth Taylor in a wheelchair, surrounded by these tired old bodyguards. I was trying to be obedient but I really wanted to meet her, so I went up to her and said hello. She kissed my hand, and I never wanted to wash my hand after that.

Katy Perry had wanted to do the Pier Dance in 2010 but it didn't work out with her schedule. So a couple months later, Aug. 27, she was in town and decided to come to Splash. I was doing the soundcheck -- because I have to do everything --†and wondering if anybody was going to come. But thanks to Twitter, the word got out that day and over three hundred people showed up and she sang a few songs. So much fun.

But the bottom line is, a mention on Page Six or in Next doesn't pay the rent.

Call Him ’Daddy’

EDGE: What is your goal when you put on an event?

Mark Nelson: I want to put on something for the guys who have been there, done that. We tied one on back in the day, trying to get past our nervousness. But now, with the Fairgrounds IX Out @ Night, the rides are the adrenaline. At Sand Blast in Asbury Park, I put guys on the trampoline. It has to be something memorable.

That first impression is more important now than ever before. You've got to be good every time or people will talk. You know, 'That party was good; but how was last night?' I don't have a target audience anymore so I try to be a chameleon when I need to be.

EDGE: You've been through a lot in life. How do you deal with such a high-pressure job?

Mark Nelson: There's no money in the work. I do it to satisfy my own ego. I saw A-Rod at my gym last week and that was really cool. I love my life. I'm living the National Enquirer as an observer. I have a lot of energy. When I see guys in their twenties, I feel just as young. [Laughs] Then they call me 'Daddy.'

Mark Nelson has recently returned with F* Word Fridays at Splash. Fairgrounds Out @ Night is on Sept. 14. For more information about Mark and upcoming events, go to his website..

Kevin Scott Hall is the author of Off the Charts! (2010, iUniverse) and the memoir, A Quarter Inch from My Heart (2014, Wisdom Moon).