It was twenty years ago that Palagia set up her company, One Leg Up, and launched her career as a party host. “Erotic parties”, she specifies. “The guys call them Swing Parties. I hate that. So do most women.”
Such operations were and are extremely seldom run by women but One Leg Up and Palagia have been part of New York night life ever since, and Palagia felt the anniversary demanded a party.
Palagia, after all, is her party name, a Greek word, referencing the ocean, often attached to Aphrodite, the goddess of love. She declines to divulge her real name publicly. The one-word name is the requested mask of the daughter of a Greek immigrant, a successful electrical engineer who had rewired the State Department and the Bethesda Naval Hospital.
The anniversary was to be a costume party, of course, and a dozen themes including "Anonymous Masquerade," "Barbarella," "7 Deadly Sins," "Geisha Garden," and "Filthy Gorgeous" were listed on the invitation. This went on to warn that the entry door to the building would be shut tight at 11.30 p.m. but did not disclose the number of the suite in which the party would be held. No accident. The invite noted: "When you arrive to the building our gatekeeper will guide everyone up to the event."
"Suspense until the end," as the invitation read.
I have written about her parties for The Daily Beast before. This time, clutching a hand-drawn mask, I arrived on the early side at the venue, a sizeable midtown suite, dominated by an old-fashioned Brit telephone kiosk of a type that would delight fans of Dr Who.
The DJ was setting up in front of a screen upon which were projected the sexualized silhouettes of two women. Palagia was firing up the growing group of party-goers, which included a handful of men and women who had been regulars since its early years—full disclosure: I wrote about One Leg Up back then—along with some couples who would still have been in nursery school.
Then Palagia gave the word, and the revelers-to-be, most of whom had chosen the "Anonymous Masquerade" option, formed into a circle, held hands and went through a brief ceremony, which ended with us announcing our party names. The name I took was Hopeful.
Palagia grew up in Washington, DC, and describes family life as strict, repressive, wholly male-dominated, which was not to her liking at all. “So I started exploring myself,” she said. “I was diving into the unknown before I was 21.”
In her early twenties Palagia, who had been seized with the idea of becoming a criminal lawyer, lit out for Miami, which she disliked, then the Greek capital, Athens (which ditto), followed by a month back in DC, before arriving in Manhattan in 1996. “Freedom at last,” she said.
Palagia quickly located the ace performance venues, Pyramid and Jackie 60, which pre-Rudy Giuliani crackdown, were still snap, crackle and popping.
“We all wanted to dance to rhythmic music, fashion ourselves in artistic ensembles and perhaps play with a inventive stranger,” she said. “What else could anyone ask for? Not much.”
She also frequented the swingers' party scene but found it much less to her taste. “I was always pretty much disgusted with how men thought they could touch you, how they assumed just because you were in this environment that you were prey. I totally disagreed with that. When you’re in this type of environment there need to be rules and people need to respect your boundaries. They have to ask. And no doesn’t mean maybe, or she’s playing hard to get. Women are not playing some game.”
With One Leg Up she wanted to "cultivate an erotic atmosphere because I love it. I love the stories, I love the history. I wanted a theater where women could be naked, could be in their underwear, could have sex. They make the rules and they break the rules. I have always said that from day one.
"It’s their decision. And no one is going to change that decision for them or force them into something they are not comfortable with. But getting that off the ground was next to impossible. There were no cellphones, there was no email, there was no social media, no marketing, there was nothing.
“One Leg Up was built by word of mouth. And that I found quite profound. I’m very proud of that. Initially it was very difficult to get women to come to these parties because they were scared to death. One Leg Up was built on me wanting women to feel safe in a sexual environment. That’s rule number one. And the more underground I made it the more women started to pursue it.”
One Leg Up, which now has a website and a mailing list of 55,000, now finds itself in vastly changed landscape.
The above-mentioned cellphones have brought about one such depressing change. “It was getting ridiculous,” Palagia said. “People were standing, in a corner tweeting about being at a party. You’re not part of the party! You’re on your phone. We have a strict rule. You’ve got to shut your phone off at the door. I started that rule five years ago.”
She notes that some party people thought this was because she was afraid of being arrested. “They got paranoid,” she said. “But that is one of the most brilliant rules I came up with. People come up to me and they say—and this is one of my favorite comments of all time—'I haven’t been at an event where people were actually talking for years.' Years!”
A further change is equally tech-related.
“In the beginning people put a lot of energy into being creative. And being in character,” Palagia said. “I found that my events were best when you put a little work and effort into it. Dress up! But this younger generation, the ones that are glued to their phones, have repeatedly told me it’s too much work. I go: How can being imaginative be too much work? What it does is it releases serotonin and endorphins to the brain. It makes you happy to create. Or to be a character in a theatrical sexual piece. The phones are messing up their brains. I really think New York should eliminate phones.”
A third darker change arises from FOSTA-SESTA, two wholly well-intentioned bills, signed into law by President Trump, one originating from the House, the other from the Senate, both aiming to curb the third-largest international criminal enterprise after narcotics and guns, which is human sex-trafficking, with child prostitution very much included.
This is admirable work, but these bills are also removing guaranteed freedoms which have long been fundamental to the internet and there will be collateral damage to a great many non-nefarious sites, including such free-thinking, utterly voluntary enterprises as One Leg Up.
Palagia is outspoken on this matter.
“Sex-trafficking is so vile, those poor children, I can’t believe it,” she said. “But let me tell you: social media has also played a huge role in sex-trafficking. Snapchat and Instagram. Facebook changed the legal age to have an Instagram account. It’s 13 years old. I personally think it should be 18 years old.
"If this law is to stop sex-trafficking, that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. You’re not going to stop it, you are going to make it more dangerous. They are just going to go deeper and deeper into the dark web. I’m anti-slavery. But when you have two consenting adults wanting to partake in sex, you cannot prohibit that.”
Palagia, who is now 48, has never married. “I don’t want a husband, I want a paramour” she said. “I have no problems in that department."
She is now launching a further venture, www.legtalk.com, which she describes as “a secure erotic blockchain for women.”
Her next event, meanwhile, will be towards the end of the month. It is called Boudoir and the walls will be covered with now not-so-private photographs taken by the party-goers.
“Look in your closets, most of your clothes miss you,” is Palagia’s advice to potential attendees. “Design your own individual Boudoir photoshoot. We can’t wait to see what is unraveled. Or undone, untied? The choice is yours.”