The Rumpus Interview with Royal Young


We are all fame junkies. Megalomaniacal social media-philes. Whether we are Instagram-ing unattended luggage at the airport, tweeting our book launch, or cataloging our every meal on Facebook, few of us are immune to this clarion call to Internet worship—even the Jonathan Franzen’s of the world are engaged by stating they aren’t engaged. With all this technology in our greedy mitts, it just may be easy to convince someone (yourself) that you, too, are famous. With micro-networks of 1,000, 2,000, 5,000 fans, followers, and friends, each of us can feel the rush of fame at our electronic fingertips. As writers and journalists, we are able to reflect on social consciousness and point a finger. We are able to see the red tide of issues and use ourselves as cautionary examples.

Growing up on the pre-gentrified Lower East Side, a young Jewish boy named Hazak Brozgold always had that feeling. As Hazak dodged the groping hands of a fellow classmate and used needles on the street, he searched for the easy way to fame: acting classes, art school, MySpace love notes, parties with rich acquaintances. But like Cinderella at the ball when the clock struck twelve, the morning always came and young Hazak was left behind with only a heavy hangover and cigarette-covered sheets.

At twenty, Hazak recast himself as Royal Young, and now, with his debut memoir Fame Shark, Young touts concern for the hijacking of our everyday lives in the hope that we, too, could be discovered on the New York streets. Through concisely aware prose, it waves a proud warning flag at the corrupting feeling of fame.


The Rumpus: When was it that you decided to cling to this idea of fame? What was that turning point for you?

Royal Young: Fame Shark is, in many ways, a satire. If I had woken up every day of my life craving celebrity, that would be pretty psychotic. Artistic success was always something I strived for. My father was an artist, my mother had gotten her PhD, my family appreciated accomplishment and encouraged creativity. But looking back on my life, I realize that I interpreted creative success as something that I had to sacrifice myself on an altar for. I always wanted to have big problems, like the troubled psychiatric patients my parents treated. It seemed to me, from a very young age, that artists needed trouble, so I ran towards it. That became a big fucking problem in itself.

The writing of Fame Shark was when I fully realized how much celebrity had touched my life and shaped many of my decisions. Being known or recognized, more than fame, was what I clung to in my most depressed moments. I think it’s a way of not feeling alone. It’s a way of asking the world to bear witness to your pain. And it’s something I see people do now more and more publicly. Through social media and this modern mode of documenting our lives. In the documentation, in the confession and in exposing our secret insecurities, I think we get the most support and catharsis. It’s a sick but also sometimes beautiful way of feeling more alive. Does a moment become more important if we take a picture of it and share it on Instagram? Sometimes, absolutely not. Sometimes, yes.

A search for fame was also a means I used to remove myself emotionally from what I was feeling. Trying to justify my actions with a larger goal that seemed okay removed me from what I was doing in the moment. Spending days going to seedy modeling agencies that doubled as prostitution rings made me feel disgusting, dirty. But there was a higher goal, so it was okay! Right?

Rumpus: What about this fame culture is positive or complicated, not just negative?

Young: There’s just so much need. I think fame and success have come to represent, through genius PR manipulation and branding, an answer to all personal problems. I know that I personally, for so long, thought that fame would be a Band-Aid for all my problems. Modern celebrity comes with all sorts of “benefits”: money, sex, luxury, travel. In America these are equated to a certain freedom from the mundane. But we ignore the tragedy and megalomania that can come along with this. There is no freedom in making yourself a corporate commodity.

Fame SharkThere’s a tipping point—a certain amount of money, sex, luxury, and travel can be healthy, but then I think you get into hungry ghost mode where more is never enough. There’s such a spiritual emptiness to it. And I think one of the strangest and most damaging things is that you aren’t allowed to have problems with success. The public has the need to raise these people to demigod status and then tear them down. Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan went to jail. Justin Bieber acts like an asshole, absolute monarch. Amanda Bynes is mentally ill. I mean, big surprise! We feed on their tragedy. We believe that people in the public eye chose to be there and they deserve the invasion of privacy that comes along with it. That living public lives is better than living a private one.

Because of Internet culture and government surveillance, private citizens are now subject to the same level of intense scrutiny. We are all living in a fishbowl. On the positive side, I do think that recognition and the power that comes with it can be used as a tremendous force for good. Reaching a wide audience and being accessible to many different types of people allows an artist to bring attention to important issues both political and personal. If you can take this platform and use it for positive change, then fantastic. But too often the platform itself, [and] the attention of the audience, overwhelms. And it’s addictive.

Rumpus: Your father is a really cool artist. He works in a variety of mediums: found objects, to papier-mâché, to double-sided dildos. There seemed to be an alpha/beta struggle happening between you and your father as you were growing up. Can you speak to that?

Young: I loved and admired my dad’s work so much growing up. He has several public works around New York, so the whole city felt like he had decorated it. In so many ways he encouraged my creativity, but when your dad makes paintings of orgies and picks clothes out of the garbage to wear or use in his work, you have to go pretty far out to rebel. I had to be more outlandish than an already pretty outlandish person to find out who I was.

Also, we both [dreamt] of artistic success and renown—when those egos clashed, it was devastating. Now, we help and encourage each other. My father completely inspires me both as an artist and as a man, but it took a while to get there. Conflict can be healthy.

Rumpus: Where are some of the places we can view your father’s art? In Fame Shark you mention him being commissioned to build a mural at the Essex Street subway platform.

Young: That mural was taken down in the mid ‘90s and now Essex Street subway station is so bland. But my dad’s murals are on permanent display in the lobby of the University Settlement in the Lower East Side. Another place you can go is the Christopher Street station. The intricate, historic mosaics are his. The rest are New York City secrets.

Rumpus: What were some of the things you purposely did to rebel against your father?

Young: My biggest rebellion was into drinking. My father was a strict non-drinker and behind bars was a place neither of my parents could really follow me. “Drugs” was a language they didn’t speak.

Rumpus: In the book you mention wearing big gold chains and fur vests, but what were some of the other things you purposely did to seem more outlandish?

Young: There’s such a fine line between wanting to seem outlandish and being outlandish. In a fucked sense, I think the striving for it is crazier than the natural state of eccentricity. You have to be pretty screwed to work hard for a state of madness and it so easily overtakes you. I lost track of what I was doing because I wanted to be perceived a certain way and because I had become that insane idiot stomping down the streets in mink vests, wasted, smashing my empty bottles of Jim Beam on the concrete.

Downton Express by Lee BrozgolRumpus: You hit on a lot of aspects of queer culture in New York: the art scene, club scene, the drag/trans scene. You do things for money, also seeking fame. Yet in the book you seem to be trying to convince yourself that you are simply straight. Do you still feel this way?

Young: I grew up in a seedy downtown New York where I was exposed to all types of sexuality. My own dad made artwork that explored all sorts of sexual taboos, from incest and BDSM, to bed-wetting and polyamory. I feel like in creative fields, sexuality is so fluid. I almost felt boring being straight, like that was the wrong thing to be. It took me years to come to terms with the fact that my sexuality is pretty conservative. I basically want to fuck a hot woman I love and have a long-term monogamous relationship. How fucking dull is that?

Rumpus: How far were you really willing to go to be famous?

Young: Not very far, actually. Someone pointed out that even though I vaguely attempted to be an actor/singer/model/writer, I never really went on auditions or attempted to do the hard work one must dedicate to an artistic craft. I came of age in an era of cyber celebrity, reality TV, and Paris Hilton. This very delusional and dangerous idea that one deserved fame just for being oneself.

So many young kids now think this way. This sense of entitlement that a lot of young kids have is insane and harmful to them. That they will be plucked from YouTube to be placed on some celebrity pedestal. Fame is the most addictive drug. I even see it small-scale on social media. Our profile pics are our headshots, Instagram is paparazzi, friends and followers are our fans. This thinking is so pervasive. We are all made to feel we command a celebrity of some sort. Our lives have become commodities.

Rumpus: I wonder how your psychiatrist mother would classify the psychology behind this type of success? It does seem like a form of addiction: fame junkies.

Young: Fame junkies! Absolutely! It is so addictive and you’re right: we all have access to it now. What’s so bizarre to me is that the reality of fame seems pretty clearly horrible. I mean, I know you, in your past, have experienced Hollywood and the worlds of modeling and acting up close and personal. They can be pretty ugly. It is no secret that celebrities are constantly falling apart, going to rehab, getting DUIs, killing themselves. Fame can be an incredibly destructive force, so why do we all crave it so badly?

Rumpus: I’m interested in this statement: “I think you need to make mistakes and fuck up to find yourself.” What where some of those mistakes? Anecdotally.

Young: Becoming friends with an older, wildly promiscuous gay poet who was the most determined alcoholic I’ve ever met. Eventually letting him suck my dick for money and pitifully small movie roles. Having an affair with a fourteen-year-old jet-setting girl when I was twenty. She was a pathological liar who told me Lou Reed sang “Perfect Day” to her when she was five to help her go to sleep. Her dad owned a record company. Making friends with drug dealers. Waking up and snorting cocaine as my morning coffee for months. Getting wasted and jumping from rooftop to rooftop over cavernous gaps when I lived in a Brooklyn ghetto. Getting so drunk I told my roommate I was going to the corner store to buy another forty oz. of Colt 45, and coming home five hours later with no idea where I had been during that time.

Boxing WeekI don’t really consider these mistakes. They were experiences, which taught me who I was. That I wanted straight sex with a woman I loved, that she shouldn’t be jailbait who pathologically lied about celebrity relationships, that I didn’t want to black out on a regular basis to the point where I was losing time or putting myself in serious danger. Pretty basic stuff. I mean, a Jewish boy raised by two smart mental health professionals should know better, right?

But I think every experience we have that we perceive as negative is an opportunity for learning. And sometimes the most elementary things about ourselves are the ones we have the hardest time coming to terms with, especially in youth. I don’t think anyone can truly know themselves, or be a positive force in the world, if they don’t understand and have embraced the darkest sides of their nature. I’m not advocating suicide missions or telling people to go shoot heroin for a few years. Of course it’s easy to get lost in our “mistakes.” But if you can find your way out of them, I think there is tremendous wisdom to be gained.

Rumpus: One of the big plot points in the book is that you changed your name from Hazak to Royal to better fit your Fame Shark persona. Who were you as Hazak?

Young: I don’t know that I changed my name to better fit my Fame Shark persona. I think Fame Shark is a persona on its own. When I looked back on my life decisions, changing my name to Royal seemed to fit this theme of celebrity, escape, and identity. I still am Hazak. I am Royal, too. They aren’t mutually exclusive identities to me. They are the same.

Rumpus: What is the big difference between Hazak and Royal?

Young: I grew up Hazak Brozgold, the son of a neuropsychologist mother and artist-turned-social worker father in the Lower East Side of the early ‘90s. Judiasim and religion was the biggest rift in my parents’ relationship growing up. They are so in love and strongly still together, but my dad is a Jew-Buddhist bohemian who makes ceramic plates featuring penises as centerpieces, while my mom is an intellectual whose dad was a rabbi and relates strongly to synagogue. Hazak isn’t a name at all; it’s a Hebrew word meaning “strength.” I never felt like I could live up to that. But culturally, I always related to being Jewish. It helped me deal with feeling like an outsider—I came from a history of outsiders.

At twenty, wrapped up in an illict affair with this fourteen-year-old, she started calling me Royal. I had never thought about changing my name before. Identity had always been a struggle for me.  Yet, I realized there are legions of Jews who have changed their names to take on larger-than-life careers in writing, acting, as artists. Taking on an identity that encouraged success seemed like a rite of passage to join this group of my fellow tribesmen and women. Picking my own persona had less to do with disguising my heritage, and more to do with finding a shield to deal with the more unpleasant aspects of making my work public. Countless rejection, hate mail, harsh editing, scrutiny when my pieces were published—Royal took them all in stride. I’m not sure if Hazak would have been able to.

I didn’t legally change my name officially ‘til my mid-twenties. I didn’t get my passport under Royal until this year. The biggest differences have been the ones between being a child who felt lonely, often powerless, and an adult who took control of my actions.

Rumpus: How do you view the fame culture when it comes to people from different backgrounds, particularly different economic backgrounds than those who may not have grow up with this same sense of entitlement you earlier referred to?

Young: Entitlement can take different forms. I did not grow up with money. I grew up with limits. But I think growing up poor can give you a different sense of entitlement—sometimes it teaches you to take whatever you can get from the world, by any means. Growing up the only white Jew among my peers in the rough Lower East Side of the early ‘90s, I had many poorer friends who saw fame as the only way out. Or chose equally damaging routes of escape: drug addiction, drug dealing, early pregnancy. Funnily, these are patterns we see in celebrities all the time. The bottom line is a need for escape: a basic depression crosses all economic boundaries.

Of course, this plagues the rich, too. Exorbitant capitalism, the American Dream, Manifest Destiny, generations of people focused so intently on themselves, whether that be fame or money. Money can be horribly evil. I think more corrupting than fame. It all comes down to this dangerous idea of winning all the time. Sometimes it is best to lose.

Rumpus: In what ways do you still participate in this fame culture? We follow each other on Twitter and Instagram, for instance. How do you feel about that?

The Rumpus Photo BY David RosenzweigYoung: I feel conflicted. Depending on how you approach it, I think social media, or success, can be fun and have so many positive outcomes. I mean, publishing this book in itself is a way of still participating in a fame culture. But it has opened up important and heavy emotional discussions with my family, it has helped kids who are still in the throes of celebrity-seeking or substance abuse. My proudest moments are after readings, when parents come up to me and say, “My child is going through something similar. I think your story could help them come out of it.” But at the same time, I have to be careful because of my history.

Not many Americans read anymore, so it’s not like I’m on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. You know, my success is very small and that helps. I’m so glad this book wasn’t published when I was twenty-one because I do think I would have been a raging cokehead asshole—I think it could have ruined me. Instead I’ve worked eight hard years as a journalist and that delayed gratification, being poor for so long, having to survive with rejection and figuring out ways to feed myself and pay rent. That’s been humbling and huge and helped me quit hard drugs, cut back on drinking, let my family back into my life. Fall in love with girls, get my heart broken, build real friendships. A little tweeting can’t hurt, right? And I do love following your Instagram photos—you make your hometown in Florida look so incredibly exotic and lush.

In all the journalism I do for Interview Magazine and The New York Post, I refuse to cover red carpet events. When I am feeling too important by the validation even minor success brings, I try to take my life back to a more honest place. I have family dinners. I hang out with old friends who have seen me in my most embarrassing and human moments. I recently went to the South Bronx with my younger brother, who is very politically active, to watch an incredible documentary about the disgustingly medieval mass incarceration system we have in America right now. I seek out ways of shaking up my world. Feeling too comfortable or self-satisfied is never a good thing.


Featured image © by Christopher Gabello.

“Downtown Express” © by Lee Brozgold, courtesy of Royal Young.

Second image of Royal Young courtesy of Royal Young.

Third image of Royal Young © by David Rosenzweig.

Jennifer Sky is a former model and actress. Her first e-book is forthcoming from The Atavist. Her writing has been featured in a number of print and on-line publications, including The New York Times, New York magazine’s The Cut, Tin House, Salon, and The Daily Beast. She is also a Contributing Editor for One Teen Story and lives in Brooklyn. You can find her online at and Twitter at @jennifer_sky. More from this author →