The Arbiters of Hip

updated 03/10/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/10/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

Four nights a week, Wednesday through Saturday, scores of disco devotees gather on a desolate block of 14th Street in Manhattan, their eyes fixed on a door. Behind the door is the Palladium, an enormously large and successful nightclub founded by the same folks who launched the legendary Studio 54 almost a decade ago. In front of the door, behind velvet ropes, stands the all-powerful doorperson, the anointed individual charged with deciding who shall, and shall not, enter. For reasons varying from capacity to the desire to create a particular atmosphere, the Palladium and numerous other New York nightspots either can't or won't admit all comers.

From opening night of the Palladium in May 1985 until her departure in January, Yeh Jong Son, 30, was one of those judges. If you were ever there, you'd remember her. She was known for her hats—she had 17 of them—her cheekbones and her elegance.

She first became a doorperson in 1977 at Studio 54 but left after two years. Today she lives in Newport, R.I. with her husband, Steven Cundy, and owns a fashionable clothing store. When Steve Rubell, a former owner of Studio 54 currently involved with the Palladium, asked her to work at the new club, she felt flattered and accepted. From May until January she commuted, spending four days a week in New York, three in Rhode Island. She quit the Palladium, she says, after a salary dispute. Rubell, however, says that he fired her because she was rude and projected an unwanted image of arrogance at the door. The days of flattery are over on both sides, as one might detect from the following account of Yeh Jong Son's career as a doorperson.

I was 21 when I went to work at Studio 54. I was shy, still lived at home with protective Korean parents, and I guess I wanted to prove that I could take care of myself. The manager wanted me to be a cocktail waitress, and when I told him I didn't drink or know anything about drinks, he said not to worry, I'd make a lot of money. On opening night people were running around like mad, tidying up, and the manager took me upstairs and handed me a waitress uniform so tiny and see-through I refused to wear it. I said to him, "I'm sorry, I wouldn't wear that in my own bathroom."

One of the owners saw that we were having problems and said, "I have another job for you, the coatroom." I told him I wouldn't work in a coatroom. He said, "Better yet, work the door." When I asked him for the job description, he said, "Check the guest list, answer phones, flirt, have a good time." I thought it sounded like a great stepping stone to authority and connections.

My job at Studio was different from what I did years later at Palladium, even though I was a doorperson at both. At Studio I worked the inner door, which meant the people were picked before they got to me. At Palladium I was out on the street picking people, although much more diplomatically than the way Studio used to operate. At Studio, people who didn't get in got no explanation. Nobody cared what they thought. It was the first time any club had been so successful and we all felt pretty untouchable. One of the bosses liked to stand out there taunting people. His pet peeve was gold chains on men, and once, in front of dozens of people, he said to this man who wanted to get in, "Yeah, well you have to take off that gold chain." The guy said, "No problem," and took it off. Then he was told, "Stick your collar inside your coat and button the coat." The poor guy literally had to recoordinate his clothes. He buttoned his coat, fixed his collar. "Take the gum out of your mouth," he was told. The guy did. Then the boss said to him, "And you're still not getting in" and walked away. I asked him why he did that. He shrugged and said, "Well, he was tacky."

Palladium is really just like the old Studio 54 as far as door policies go, only the act is a lot more humble. The differences between the clubs, in whom you see inside, has to do with the eras. When Studio was at its peak, the people who frequented it were more risqué, more decadent. Nobody worried about diseases like AIDS and herpes, and everybody worried about being at the right disco. There was more opulence, more furs, more real jewelry, more of everything. The '80s crowd is younger, more artistic and doesn't have as much money. The '70s were more Eurodollar.

Some people are just as desirable now as they were in the '70s, celebrities like Bianca, Halston and Calvin Klein. These people always get in free, and they always get free drink tickets because they create glamour for the club and draw other people. After this top level of celebrities, we graded the others at the door strictly on how they looked. The grade A's are the leaders, the trendies, the ones who only go to the newest places. They get comped too, but they usually don't get free drinks.

The next level down on the pyramid is the masses, the grade B's. You need these people for background—the grade A's won't go into a club unless the grade B's are there to admire and adore them. They look fine, just not as trendy. Maybe they're wearing last year's clothes. Their other value to the club is that they pay to get in, $15 during the week and $20 on weekends, and they pay for drinks too. The grade B's are the ones who get the real scrutiny at the door. We want to make sure they're not grade C's. Grade C's are the real masses, not fashionably aware, not that classy. They're usually out-of-towners. Not European out-of-towners, either, American out-of-towners from Staten Island and New Jersey. They're not even yupped-out lawyers and stockbrokers. They're more often middle-aged suburban businessmen, yahoos who go there to get drunk and bother people and think every well-dressed woman in the club is there to be picked up. We were also real careful about letting in young, straight men in a group, because they can be dangerously rambunctious. We'd be more inclined to let in groups of gay men, who are usually more sophisticated. But the real reason the club doesn't want C's is that the minute too many of them get in, the A's stop coming. They feel the club isn't cool anymore.

You probably think this made me feel powerful, thousands of people out there, all of them staring at me, hoping they'd be the one I'd pick. What kind of power is that? How potent is the power at a short-lived discotheque, the power to say "no" to somebody because he weighs 300 pounds? I refused a lot of nice people and had to let in all kinds of brats who didn't have any talent, just looked cool because they got up at 3 in the afternoon and spent their whole life deciding what image to appear in at the Palladium. They didn't just get in, either; they were comped. Meanwhile, some wonderful people stood there with their hands folded, smiling, for 45 minutes and didn't get in—not that everybody who didn't get in was so nice about it.

It's really very stressful being a doorperson. Some nights there are hundreds of people out there on the other side of the ropes, most of them angry at you for not picking them, some of them standing there for two or three hours, screaming insults. My job was to pace back and forth, back and forth, like a caged animal in a zoo, looking at the people out there from all angles. Whenever I'd see some people I wanted to let in, I'd go out past the ropes into the street to tell them. Even though I'd always have a security guard with me, people would completely surround me, shove their faces in mine. Sometimes I'd feel their saliva, they'd talk so loud. They'd say, "Listen, listen, I want to get in, all right, all right," pulling on me, the security guards slapping their hands away. On one of those frantic summer nights, I had to go out on the street to bring someone in and this chauffeur came up to me and said, "I have a couple of clients in the back of the limousine who want to come in." I said to him, "Sorry, it's the policy of the club that you can't speak for somebody else." Well, they got out of the limo, and they were nice enough, but they looked like they were from Florida, not the hip part. They had sort of a John Travolta disco look. I said, "I'm sorry, we're having a private party, by invitation only." That's what we were told to say. I couldn't tell the truth, that we were discriminating. The limo driver followed me around for a good 20 minutes, kept confronting me, until finally he said, "C'mon, give me a break. I could be your father for all you know. I was in Korea in the '50s." I was so insulted. I walked over to him and said, "For certain you should not be allowed to father a child."

Now that I've left, I can't say I miss it. I thought it was exciting when it had just opened and everyone was coming because it was the newest show in town. It's tough to keep that feeling going, but the Palladium will still be a success because of all the publicity it generates. I was flattered to be offered the job and dealing with all those people was certainly a learning experience. But when you stop to think about it, all I really did was stand around and reject people because they didn't have the right haircut. Now that I think about it, it was an awful thing to do for a living.

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