A flurry of lawsuits. Reports of drug dealers on the premises. Trouble with the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs over the sale of worthless $150 membership cards. No, life has not been a pluperfect high lately for the harried proprietors of Manhattan’s Studio 54. Still, 54 remains the place where the action is. Bianca and Halston are regulars, the Saturday-night-feverish cluster at the doors and the cavernous 15-month-old disco has already earned owner Steve Rubell and his backers three times their initial $800,000 investment. Franchises will open soon in London and Tokyo.
What makes 54 so successful? “Because it has a feeling of movement, lots of energy,” bubbles Carmen D’Alessio, 40. “And it is the best hunting ground for both gays and straights.” If anyone understands the phenomenon, it ought to be the fiery Peruvian-born socialite. “The guest list is my list,” she announces proudly. “I gave the first party at 54, and I have given every important one since.” Known to associates as the European Connection, D’Alessio plays jet-set central for foreign visitors anxious to boogie. “Wealthy Spaniards, Italians and South Americans are flooding into New York,” she declares. “When they get to town they call me and want to know what’s happening.”
D’Alessio, of course, is only too happy to tell them. Stacked in the den of her comfortable West Side apartment are boxes filled with 8,000 color-coded cards bearing the names of the rich and the chic. “Color determines the category—wealthy, young, gay, powerful, sedate,” she explains. “When owners want a disco to be ‘in,’ I just bring my crowd, the press comes, and the place is ‘in.’ ” Though some publicists are paid on a per-celebrity basis, D’Alessio is not. She is salaried—”paid handsomely,” says a Studio 54 spokesman—and earns a percentage on each party she books.
“It is what I do naturally,” she explains, “and that is why I do it well.” The only daughter of a Peruvian landowner, D’Alessio was raised on a sprawling estate near the site of an ancient Inca burial ground. “The Peruvian trip is very Catholic,” she says, “and, being the only girl in my family, I was sheltered and spoiled.” Switching from dolls to boys at the age of 16, she announced her engagement a year later, then broke it off—to her father’s embarrassment. Furious when she took up instead with a Chilean playboy, her parents shipped her off to the Sorbonne in Paris, where she supplemented a $1,000-a-month allowance by modeling for designer Maggy Rouff. “Paris is the most beautiful place,” says D’Alessio, “but I couldn’t relate to the French mentality. Paris would be divine if inhabited by Chileans.”
Returning to Chile to be with her playboy, she drove her exasperated father to cut off her allowance. “I was scared,” she admits, “because the way I had been brought up I was afraid I couldn’t make it on my own. Everything had been done for me. At 24 I didn’t know how to boil water.” She went to work in a travel agency, then moved to New York, where she took a job as a guide at the United Nations. At 29 she married Carlos D’Alessio, an electronic music composer she had met at the late disco Cheetah. They split two years later, and soon afterward she moved to Rome, where she lived with Swiss movie producer Enrico Tucci. “Everyone came to our place,” she recalls. “I met them all—Helmut Berger, Gore Vidal, Elsa Martinelli, Countess Pilar Crespi, Prince Vittorio Emmanuelle of Savoy.” There was a summer romance with Fulgencio Batista Jr., son of the late Cuban dictator (“We are alike. We both look Indian”), but la dolce vita soured and she returned to New York.
By 1975 Carmen was throwing parties to promote the disco Tropicalia. Later she did the same for Infinity. When Rubell and Ian Schrager, his partner, went looking for someone to dramatize their Enchanted Garden disco in Queens, D’Alessio was an obvious choice—though not, at that point, a receptive one. “I didn’t want to have anything to do with it,” she says. “I said, ‘No way am I going to be on Long Island.’ ” Eventually she yielded, however, and staged a spectacular series of theme parties—including one that featured camels and elephants. Then came Studio 54. Rubell and Schrager were worried. “They were nervous because it was so big. ‘Can you fill it?’ they asked. I said, ‘I will,’ ” recalls Carmen with a smile, “and I did. We needed lots of people in the beginning. Scavullo, Warhol and Calvin Klein gave me their lists, and from my gay friends I got the Fire Island list. I tell you something, darling—the backbone of any club is the mailing list. Without that you end up with a white elephant.”
To compensate for hard nights at play, D’Alessio spends her days at the gym and shopping for health foods. “One of my biggest pleasures is to tell my age,” she declares. “There is no lifting. I am all natural.” She was married last year to actor Rick Gitlin, 23, an ex-model. “Older, wealthier men are always attracted to me, but I skip out with younger guys,” explains Carmen. “Forty-two is as old as I go with men.” She met Gitlin two years ago at one of her disco parties. They were married last year while traveling in Italy. “We never wanted a big social event because that is always connected with me,” says Carmen. “I wanted this personal.” Then came the meeting with Gitlin’s parents in Los Angeles. “My mother loved Carmen,” says Gitlin. “I’ve always gone out with older women. But my father was a little blown away because she was just too outrageous. She was someone that he probably would have fallen in love with himself. But later it was, ‘Hey, the kid is doing pretty good!’ He was impressed.”
Next month D’Alessio will fly to London to open the British edition of Studio 54 (“the same number with the same cast”). While in Europe she also will make travel arrangements for the staff of one of Rome’s finest restaurants, La Fontanella Borghese, to help her open “once and for all a good Italian restaurant in New York.” As for the Manhattan 54, she seems unconcerned by the club’s recent legal problems, by the trend toward toplessness on the dance floor (“I am not for or against it”) and by reports that 54 is a pharmaceutical carnival. “It is a big place, and you can’t tell who is who,” she observes. “No one has ever approached me, but I’m not one that they would approach.” As for competition from Xenon, a recently opened pretender to the disco world’s throne, D’Alessio claims she couldn’t care less. “Someone called it Studio 27, or half of 54,” she says. “I invented the original. I won’t deal with copies.”