For M’s spring issue, Erik Maza found the blogger no longer quite so randy, no longer quite so arrogant and in the midst of taking his act solo.
“Have you ever heard ‘Your Funny Uncle’ by the Pet Shop Boys?”
Andrew Sullivan is standing in a room no bigger than a walk-in closet in his Greenwich Village apartment. He’s a compact lumberjack of a guy with a prodigious beer gut and a Santa beard speckled with white. He is wearing a T-shirt with a grinning cat on the front. “Space Pussy—Provincetown,” it reads, with a thought bubble poking out: “Fuck Yeah.”
The gloriously melodramatic, unapologetically gay-pop Pet Shop Boys are his favorite band ever: “It’s like someone created a pop group just for your life.” He plays “Your Funny Uncle” and sings along, hitting each word milliseconds before Neil Tennant. “Isn’t it beautiful?” he says.
This is not how I expected to find Andrew Sullivan at 49. British-born, Oxford-educated, the son of a strict Catholic family who has hung onto his faith despite his problems with the church, Sullivan has long had a sneering attitude toward the trappings of the East Coast elite, which he dismissed in the run-up to the Iraq War as “the decadent left” and “a paralyzing, pseudo-clever, morally nihilist fifth column.” Yet here he was, this fixture of MSNBC and HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher, cozy in his apartment, steps away from the Stonewall Inn, in the city he used to despise but is now getting used to. New York magazine editor in chief Adam Moss, once Sullivan’s editor at Seven Days and The New York Times Magazine, lives just down the block. There is freesia in his living room and freesia in his blogging cave—Sullivan loves flowers. “It’s my English thing,” he says.
Roaming through the apartment are two beagles, Dusty (named after Dusty Springfield) and Eddie (after Edina Monsoon, the lead in that gay British favorite, Absolutely Fabulous), who appear in the logo of his blog, The Dish. In the living room is Sullivan’s husband, Aaron Tone, a bearded fellow whose acting credits include BearCity 2: The Proposal. On the professional front, too, Sullivan has settled down. In February, he will give up his platform at The Daily Beast and take his blog solo, relying on subscribers for support.
“Two weeks before we announced it, I had a hard time sleeping,” he says. “At the same time, you only live once, and I should have been dead ten years ago, and what’s the fucking point? Why not try? If you’re lucky enough to be the generation to innovate a new medium, which might eventually be the only medium, then why the hell not try?”
The waifish babe with the Caesar cut whom Annie Leibovitz once captured in a Gap advertisement is now paunchy and balding. “I’m just so glad,” he says of his new appearance. “I hated being a twink.”
In 2011, Sullivan was one of Tina Brown’s first big poaches for the Beast. He became one of its signature writers. When Anderson Cooper came out, he gave the story to Sullivan.
At Prodigy, a nearby coffee shop that has become a Sullivan haunt since he moved to New York in September, he ogles a young, bearded ginger and discusses his blog’s humble origins in 2000. “It was me and Mickey Kaus and Matt Drudge—like, six of us,” he recalls, coffee in his beard. “I remember IM’ing Matt all the way through the Trippi-Gore-Bush recount night. It was such a little club then, and everyone in the mainstream media was just like, ‘What’s a blog?’”
Back then, Sullivan’s trademark was lobbing contrarian stink bombs that didn’t fit anyone’s party line. He saw The Dish as a way to react in real time to complex issues, even if that meant he was sometimes wrong. After September 11, he tried to make sense of the tragedy and became one of the loudest voices in the chorus to invade Iraq. “I didn’t just support the war—I basically accused everyone who was opposed to it that they were complicit with Saddam Hussein’s murderous regime,” he says.
His early support underscored what may be one of Sullivan’s blind spots but also serves as his main survival skill—a chumminess with those in power. “I don’t think I wrote anything in bad faith,” he says. “I genuinely believed there were weapons of mass destruction. I was good friends with Donald Rumsfeld—stayed at his house for Christmas, for Christ’s sakes. Knew the Cheneys well. Well, not that well.”
When the first reports of abuse at Abu Ghraib came out, he says his first reaction was, “This can’t possibly be true. It’s Rummy! He’s not authorizing this. And then you realize: Yes, he fucking was. I was in shock.” In 2008, while the blog was at The Atlantic, he recanted. And the friendships with Rummy and Dick? “After I called them both war criminals, things went a little off,” he says. “That was another lesson—don’t get too close to these people.”
He still has a good relationship with the White House, though. “[David] Axelrod told me my 2007 Atlantic piece on Obama helped crystallize the rationale for an Obama candidacy,” he says. And Sullivan reminds me that Obama name-checked his blog in an interview with Rolling Stone.
When the president fumbled the first of his debates with Mitt Romney, Sullivan went berserk on The Dish. “I got some interesting texts that night,” he says. “One thing you realize, after you’ve had a real up-close look at the White House and power from the eighties onwards, is that they’re all messed up. They’re all human. It’s a clusterfuck most of the time. The Dish evolved from, ‘I’m on my pedestal and I know everything’ to ‘I know nothing but these are my views about it based on this, am I right?’ I’m not known for not having opinions. But I learned from that searing experience.”
His personal priorities are different these days, too. When he was first diagnosed with HIV, in 1993, Sullivan couldn’t get a date. But he has been with Tone for nine years, five of them married. “We met at 3 a.m., at the Black Party in New York,” Sullivan says, referring to the annual hedonistic, drug-fueled circuit party at Roseland Ballroom. “I’m definitely mellower now than I used to be. And I absolutely know that Aaron’s had that effect on me. He’s made me much more emotionally rigid, calmer.” He adds that their idea of cheating on each other is watching The Daily Show separately.
It’s hard to believe that Sullivan, of all people, the guy who once trolled the Internet for unprotected sex under the handle “RawMuscleGlutes,” has settled down. “Look,” he says.
“A straight or a gay person is going to be lying to you if, after ten years of marriage, they say it’s all about having sex, alright? Secondly, it is an incredible joy to have someone in your life whom you love and who’s there next to you when you wake up in the morning and you go to bed at night. We always just hold hands before we go to sleep. I love him.”
Between Sullivan and his staff, The Dish (motto: “Biased and Balanced”) spews out roughly 250 posts a week, attracting about 1.2 million monthly unique visitors. When Brown was looking to save money after closing the print edition of Newsweek late last year, she asked him to cut back. At the time, he says, his budget—which includes salaries of four regular staff members—was a little over $900,000. Rather than give in to Brown, he and his two co-owners, Patrick Appel and Chris Bodenner, decided to break free. “We really felt we were already our own independent entity anyway,” Sullivan says. “We thought our strength is our readers.” By January 18, 17,000 subscribers had signed on, flushing the blog with some $475,000 in revenue. (Ed. note: By March 20, the number of subscribers grew to 23,911, which translates to a little over $648,000 in gross revenue)
For now, subscriptions are the only source of cash, although banner ads are a possibility, as are e-books, such as a treatise on Iraq, “I Was Wrong,” that Sullivan says he may write.
Still, he won’t be earning a salary after February, he says, relying on savings and his weekly column for The Times of London to keep him “solvent.” It’ll be the first time he won’t have a wealthy benefactor since Marty Peretz snatched him from obscurity at 27 to run The New Republic.
“I don’t want any clout,” he says. “I want to express myself completely freely and say whatever I want to a million people every month, with no one else ever able to say no. And if that changes the world, great. And if not, I’ve said my piece.”
Photo by Lexie Moreland.