Deep in the heart of West Hollywood, Numbers is La La
Land's must-do dining experience for upscale male prostitutes and
their admirers. The perimeter of the multilevel restaurant is lined
with one-way floor-to-ceiling windows that permit patrons to
discreetly cruise the action out on the Santa Monica Boulevard
strip. Above, on the middle tier, are glass-topped tables for two,
each "dramatically" lit with a single beam of light. The effect is
to create the illusion of romantic intimacy while the constant
distractions -- everyone is on stage -- actually make relaxed
conversation as awkward as possible.
"I'm sorry," he says, "but I'm not on the auction block anymore."
As the man slinks away, Lekakis takes a sip of coffee and another
stab at answering the question I have put to him throughout our
meal: How did he fall from his perch as international pop star with
a top-10 single -- the 1987 dance hit "Boom Boom (Let's Go Back to
My Room)" -- to a drug-addicted hooker with AIDS? And how did the
prettiest boy at the party then rise from those ashes?
Growing up in upstate New York, Lekakis wasn't the star of
Tarrytown's boys' choir and as one of five kids -- "As long as she
wasn't pulling us off each other, Mom was happy" -- he wasn't a
standout at home either. But at 15, Lekakis discovered both his
sexuality and the power of his beauty. He says he never had a
problem accepting that he was gay, but from the beginning, he found
his leading-man looks to be the inevitable blessing and curse. On
the one hand, they won him access to what he then saw as an
intoxicating world of men, money and more. On the other hand, he
quickly learned to keep his real self -- smart, ironic, direct --
under wraps. The brighter he played his visuals, and the quieter he
kept his audio, the further he could climb the gay food chain.
At 16, Lekakis got a job waiting tables at Zippers, a gay
watering hole in nearby New Rochelle, and soon dropped out of high
school to devote his full time to training in the art of being
fabulous. A year later, just after celebrating his 17th birthday
getting trashed with the Zippers crowd, he moved to New York City
and began studying to become a dancer. "I did some dance
industrials," he recalls, "and auditioned for music videos -- but I
never got cast. I got the stuff that was like the model/fashion
show/dance kinda thing."
He also played overtime at such infamous nightspots as Alex's and
The Saint. "Being a clubkid in the '80s was intense," he says.
"There was a pressure among all of us -- the scene was a career in
itself." Lekakis relied on an old formula for success: "winging it"
and putting himself into situations where he would have no choice
but to experience life.
Taking the ladder by storm, Lekakis says that he "jumped from
relationship to relationship." One bold-name paramour was a
seven-figure fashion photographer who did test shots of Lekakis
during their romance of convenience. The results clinched deals with
the Click Agency in New York City, as well as one called Fashion in
Milan, Italy. Riding high on the hype of a smooth-talking Fashion
agent, Lekakis left the photographer for Milan. "I paid for my own
ticket," he says pointedly. "When I arrived, it was total culture
shock. The agency was like boot camp for models -- there were
hundreds of guys at each call. A couple of the bookers and
photographers liked me, though. I lucked out."
One appreciative lensman was Aldo Fali, who shot him for the
first Emporio Armani ads. "The ad came out in 1986," Lekakis
recalls. "I thought, 'Wow, I came from the sticks and now my face is
in Interview magazine.'" While his stints as a model were
sporadic, Lekakis continued to perfect his skills as party boy
extraordinaire. "I went out every night," he says, "because there
was really nothing else to do. All the models went to a club called
Amnesty." It was there that a dance-record producer who was a friend
of a friend approached Lekakis and made an offer he couldn't refuse.
"He said he liked the way I moved and the energy that was coming
from me," Lekakis says.
"We did the demo in his basement," he continues. "It was really
just for fun. Then the president of the company in Italy heard it
and wanted to pursue it. I signed a horrible contract." No one was
more surprised than Lekakis when "Boom Boom" had the world kicking
up their Reeboks and soaking their Bennetons.
"It's been described as a disco ditty, but it expressed the
spirit of promiscuity of the time," Lekakis tells me with an ironic
laugh. Tame by today's standards of boy bands and teen queens
turning down the lights to rub you the right way, the
"controversial" single sold more than six million copies worldwide.
It went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts in Australia and
Japan, top 10 in Italy and Canada. Domestically, the record was
released on ZYX, a German dance label, and hit the top 40. But
Lekakis says he never saw a penny in royalties. "I was young and
stupid," he says. "I, however, thought I was fabulous."
And the fabulous encouraged the thought. In a blur of smiles and
paparazzi flashes, Lekakis fell into the habit of never picking up a
bill or balancing a checkbook. "I had all this fame but no money,"
he says. "I was like, "OK, I'd better ride this wave until it dies."
Once back in Manhattan, Lekakis worked up a sweat trying to secure a
U.S. recording contract. Most label execs rebuffed his calls because
he did not write his own songs, but his luck changed when he met two
music-biz legends -- no names, please -- impressed with Lekakis'
body of work. Within months, boytoy Lekakis landed a U.S. deal with
It was around this time, 1989, that Lekakis discovered that he
had HIV. He was 24. "By the time I got my album deal, I knew I was
positive," he recalls. "I was really scared people would find out.
Back then it was like a death sentence. Here I was being given the
greatest opportunity of my life, but from these people who wanted to
sleep with me," Lekakis says, the faraway memory clouding his
green-eyed gaze. "I was torn. If I didn't have sex with them, I was
fucked. And if I did, I thought I was going to kill them."
Lekakis chose safe over sorry. To this day, he regrets the effect
his decision likely had on his career. "I look back and think,
'Maybe if I had slept with this guy, things would have been
different.' He was a good friend ... " He breaks off with a shrug.
"I knew he liked me. Maybe I should have just sunk my teeth into
In 1991, Lekakis' eponymous debut album was released. His third
single, "(Come on Over) To My House," topped Billboard's
dance charts. "Warner Brothers [Sire's parent company] wanted to
market me as a teen idol," he says, "but I was, you know, gay."
Lekakis was dropped by Sire after just one album but continued to
tour the gay club circuit on the strength of his "To My House"
video. "A lot of the clubs I went to had featured strippers and
female impersonators, but I was the first singer to ever perform
there. Some club owner would put a board over the pool table, and
that's where I did my show.
"I got booked because I was gay and looked a certain way," he
continues. "There was a time when porn stars were my competition in
nightclubs. So for a couple of years, I worked my hair and carried
that look." Once again, it came down to Lekakis selling his looks
and over time, he says, the show became overtly erotic. "I started
taking more and more clothes off," he says. "I went from being a
singer who strips a little bit to a stripper who sings."
At 29, the one-hit wonder was yesterday's news, and still
petrified that his HIV secret would get out. Lekakis found that a
steady diet of cocaine, ecstasy and booze could numb it all. In
1994, he decided to try his luck in Los Angeles. "One night, I was
sitting in my apartment with a friend," he recalls. "I was thinking,
'I'm positive, promiscuous and struggling, and I do not even have
any furniture.' I only saw one way out: I had heard about this place
called Numbers and thought about turning tricks. That night, I
decided to check it out."
Lekakis' introduction to the world's oldest profession was harsh.
"I met this wacko who got me into his car, and five minutes into the
ride he started smoking crack. Here I was, this street-smart New
Yorker, but I didn't know how to pick a client. It was a disaster."
Lekakis rolls his eyes. "I had to wait to get paid -- a long,
drawn-out ordeal. I learned from that one."
Lekakis' status as a gay icon was both an asset and a liability
in his new career. "There were some who wanted to 'be with Paul
Lekakis,'" he says. "Then there were guys who would suddenly
recognize me and ask, 'What are you doing here?' What did they think
I was doing there? It bothered me, but that was because there was
part of me that really didn't belong there. But maybe every hooker
feels that way." Lekakis finishes his coffee and leans back,
reflexively flexing. "Also, there was a side of me that felt I was
helping people," he says. "There are a lot of lonely people out
there. Some are sexually dysfunctional and want to feel good."
With a rueful pride, Lekakis says that he made enough money
hooking to keep an apartment, make car payments, maintain two credit
cards and live in the style to which he had once grown accustomed.
But even as he struggled for stability, his abuse of drugs and
At the bottom of his blue period, Lekakis confesses, he had
unprotected sex with clients whom he did not inform of his HIV
status. He also admits to lying to clients about his status and then
having unprotected sex with them. "I feel remorse for lying," he
says. "I also accept the fact that I wasn't strong enough to take
responsibility at the time, and obviously neither was the other
"Today, I feel an HIV positive person should not have to carry
the full responsibility in a sexual encounter -- it's too much to
bear," Lekakis continues. "People know there is an epidemic going on
in the world and they've got to protect themselves, period. I don't
know why I lied -- if it was fear, insecurity, alcohol or drugs. I
wish I'd been stronger."
In November 1997, feeling his health slipping away, Lekakis
managed a major life change: He joined a 12-step group and quit
drinking, doing drugs and turning tricks. Ironically, just 30 days
sober, he was hit with his first HIV-related illness, PCP. "I went
on general relief at first," he says, "because I didn't have the
necessary paperwork to get disability. I had to wait on the welfare
line, which was huge for me. I used to ask myself, 'Would I rather
do this or hook?' I always decided to wait." He also got involved in
an abusive relationship with another newly recovering addict. "I had
just been diagnosed with AIDS and I thought it was my last chance at
love," he says. "I had resigned myself to the idea that, 'OK, this
is the way it's going to be. And that's that.'
"Then I began to wake up," he continues, still unsure what caused
the tide to turn. "I realized there was something wrong with the
relationship. When my ex-boyfriend went out and did drugs again, I
packed my backpack and finally started living my life."
For almost a year, until his disability kicked in, Lekakis slept
on other people's couches, did odd jobs and stayed true to his
recovery process. Over time, a natural evolution in values and
vision took place. How he felt began to take precedence over status,
style and substances. Slowly, he started reconnecting with the boy
he'd been repressing since he was 15.
Today, Lekakis lives simply in an open, airy West Hollywood
apartment. My health is better than it's been in years," he says. "I
didn't do well on Crixivan the first year but it's a trial-and-error
thing. You learn how to work with the restrictions." In addition to
his regimen, Lekakis takes care of himself through workouts, yoga,
therapy and 12-step meetings.
He's still singing, both on a new CD in the works and on a recent
trip to Russia with the Gay Men's Chorus of LA. Lekakis recalls, "A
man came up and said in a heavy accent, 'Oh my God, you sang that
song.'" Lekakis' Russian routine is dead-on. "Then he started
singing 'Boom, boom, boom.' I thought, 'Well that pretty much covers
But Lekakis says he has found his voice in acting. "I did my
first play last summer, The Boys in the Band. I got the bug."
Lekakis says he likes it more than singing because "it's more
academic. I get to read and do homework." This work ethic -- once
channeled into the club scene -- now has Lekakis believing for the
first time that he has more to offer than shaking his groove
Since none of us is getting any younger, I ask if he has advice
for anyone making the transformation from party boy to
three-dimensional man. "Honesty," he says. "A lot of us avoid
looking at things. For me, I feel better if I'm honest. If I have
unsafe sex, I need to examine it and not hide it. It's hard, but if
you leave it as a gray area you end up feeling like shit."
When we leave Numbers, all eyes are on us. I had arranged for us
to meet at his old haunt, despite his protests, because I thought it
would help capture a made-to-order irony. But Lekakis's story has
proved bigger than these mirrored walls. Now, seeing this place
through Lekakis' eyes, I remember how much we all want to be singled
out. When you're 23, if someone does that for you and then changes
his mind, you think the world is going to end. What happens when one
is multiplied by the six million fans it takes to make a record
number one? How many of us could resist waiting by the phone for the
world to call?
Outside on the strip, I ask if he noticed the stares. "Sure,"
Lekakis says. "I still enjoy being validated by that -- that doesn't
go away. I just don't put as much weight on it." He smiles. "Not
much weight at all."
INSIDE THE DISCO INFERNO
When disco burst on the scene nearly 30 years ago, it was the
tribal beat for a new
When disco burst on the scene nearly 30 years ago, it was the
tribal beat for a new generation of gay men: liberated, fashionable
and wildly hedonistic. They converged under the pleasure domes of
Studio One in LA, The Trocadero in San Francisco, and Paradise
Garage in New York City. The nonstop party was fueled by cheap drugs
and quick sex. But when AIDS hit at the end of the '70s, the party
With many gay DJs and performers, the dance-music industry
suffered some of the first casualties, including Patrick Cowley, the
turntable wizard of Megatone Records and muse to divine disco diva
Sylvester, who died in 1981. Sylvester himself, whose classic cut
"You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" was one of disco's megahits,
succumbed to the virus in 1988. Shortly before he died, Sylvester
succinctly summed up his view on AIDS -- which was in all likelihood
shared by many of his contemporaries -- when he told the San
Francisco Examiner, "I don't need to take the AIDS antibody
test. I know what I've done. Why would I want to waste $90 when I
could go shopping?"
Throughout the 1980s, recording-industry execs were mum. "Much of
the music industry had its head up its ass," said dance-music
producer and AIDS advocate Mel Cheren. "[AIDS] was not its top
priority." As the death toll rose, other disco royalty lost to AIDS
included songwriter Paul Jabara ("Last Dance," "Enough is Enough"),
Dan Hartman ("Relight My Fire"), David Cole of C+C Music Factory
("Gonna Make You Sweat," "Pride"), Village People producer Jacques
Morali and hundreds of DJs. Most of these deaths were downplayed by
the complacent industry.
"This is an image-driven industry and people are still frightened
by the images that characterize this disease," said Tim Rosta,
executive director of Lifebeat. "Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll are
the mythology of the music industry, but [people] don't want to deal
with the side effects of that." Lifebeat, an AIDS-ed foundation and
deep pockets to people with HIV in the industry, was founded by PWA
producer-manager Bob Caviano, who penned a "J'accuse!" op-ed
in Billboard in late 1991 that sent shockwaves through the
music biz just as Queen lead singer Freddy Mercury died of the
disease. Caviano passed away a year later.
Rosta and Cheren both acknowledge that an air of secrecy still
prevails because of the need to protect career and image. As Rosta
said, in the music industry "you have to have a long shelf-life."
Cheren is now lobbying to reopen the Paradise Garage as a
shrine/performance space for AIDS benefits.
Jay Blotcher, a
New York City-based writer, is producer of the upcoming
documentary Sylvester: Mighty Real.