Nikki Haskell is running late—she has a TikTok lesson scheduled for the afternoon—but she’s got just enough time for a brief tour of her Wilshire Corridor condo. It’s a lot to take in, so she moves swiftly, starting in the living room, where a huge painting of a cow hangs on one wall (it’s signed by the late Andy Warhol). Then she dashes to the bedroom, pointing to a slew of portraits by longtime pal Leroy Neiman (he painted at least 40 of her before his death in 2012). A moment later, she’s in her home office, cluttered with sketch books and other scraps of old art along with framed photos propped in a bookcase, including one of a tangerine-skinned man with a pelt-like comb-over. “I’ve known Donald for years,” she says. “Ivana is one of my closest friends.”
Haskell has made a lot of close friends over the years. Or at least close acquittances. Joan Collins, Allan Carr, Liza Minelli, Roy Cohn, Jacqueline Bisset, Michael Jackson, George Hamilton, Margaux Hemingway, Prince Egon Von Furstenberg—the list stretches on and on. In fact, a slew of them—those who are still alive, anyway—will be gathering on May 13 at the Beverly Hills Hotel to celebrate Haskell’s 80th birthday, a pre-post-pandemic event that could turn out to be more star-studded than this year’s Oscars (certainly more fun). “I know everybody,” Haskell says as she sashays through her apartment in leopard-print slacks and a black cardigan. “I have close friends who are really famous and they’ll call me and ask if by any chance I have so-and-so’s phone number and it usually turns out that I do. They’re like, ‘How do you do that? How do you know everybody?’ And my answer is, ‘I have no idea.’”
In that rarified strata of what used to be called high society, Haskell has a long, uncanny history of showing up at the right place at the most fabulous moment. Over the decades, she’s cycled through a half dozen incarnations. In the 1960s, she was one of the first female stock brokers on Wall Street. In the 1970s, she was among New York’s most ubiquitous It Girls, as much a fixture of Studio 54 as Jagger or Halston. In the 1980s, she garnered a bit of fame of her own as the host of The Nikki Haskell Show, a low-budget cable access celebrity interview program in which she rubbed elbows with everyone from Peter Allen to Imelda Marcos (two seasons are available on Amazon Prime). And in the 1990s she reinvented herself as an inventor, peddling products like the Star Cruncher exercise device and Star Cap diet pills (which ended up bankrupting her after several NFL players sued her over the ingredients, but more about that later).
Her true calling, however, has always remained the same: party girl. This is a woman who collects famous friends the way Marcos hoarded footwear (a hobby of which Haskell entirely approves; “I don’t have any respect for anybody that doesn’t have a least 300 pairs,” she notes coolly). But then these are challenging times for socialites, especially those of a certain age. Even before the pandemic, Haskell’s veneer of haute elitism was already beginning to peel. Her association with Trump cost her at least two good friends during the 2016 election. She watched other close friends, like the late Robert Evans, fall out of step in the #MeToo era. And then COVID-19 upended the party altogether. Haskell has weathered the plague better than most—she spent the first three and a half months of it ensconced in her good friend Clive Davis’s Palm Springs compound, developing yet another invention, a lighted selfie stick she calls the Star Shooterz—yet it’s clear it’s been a struggle. “You’re the first person I’ve talked to in weeks,” is her opening line when she sits down at the beginning of the interview. It’s not remotely true—she’s in regular phone contact with Ivana and other buds—but for a woman who has spent a lifetime stepping out, staying in has been rough.
“Before Coronavirus,” she says, sounding like the saddest 79-year-old disco queen in L.A., “I was still dancing every Saturday night. I was going to Giorgio’s whenever I was in town. It’s this tiny swatch of a discotheque on Sunset. But I loved it. I loved the sound. I loved the feel. I miss it so much. I do my best thinking on a dance floor.”
Haskell met her first famous person when she was just six years old. “My parents took me to nightclubs in Chicago when I was a girl,” she recalls. “And the first act I ever saw was Jimmy Durante and Carmen Miranda. I have a photo of me with Durante—do you want to see?” She taps on her iPhone and pulls up an old black-and-white picture of young Nikki sitting next to the Schnozzola. “This,” she says, “is where it all began.”
It continued when her father, a successful hat manufacturer, moved the family to Beverly Hills, where 13-year-old Haskell—then Golbus—found herself in even closer proximity to fame—and also to tragedy. On her first day at the El Rodeo school on Whittier Drive, her dad died. “He drove me that morning, dropped me off, then had a heart attack,” she remembers. Even back then, though, Haskell was resilient, not to mention good at making friends, and before long she found herself at the center of her school’s social swirl. “She was always a force of nature,” says Eleanor Pillsbury, who befriended Haskell that first week at El Rodeo and has remained close ever since. “We would hang out at the Luau on Rodeo Drive—it was a restaurant owned by Lana Turner’s husband—and then when we were a little older we’d hang out at a club called the Daisy. I don’t think there was ever a night when Nikki didn’t go out. And she’s been going out ever since, every single night of her life.”
She got married in 1962, shortly after graduating Beverly Hills High—Barry Diller was a classmate—although she did it for all the wrong reasons. “I was in love with someone else,” she explains. “I figured if I told the man who I was really in love with that I was going to marry this other man, he would save me. He would burst in and say, ‘No! Don’t marry him! Marry me!’ But he didn’t. So, I was sort of trapped.” Not surprisingly, her marriage to real estate developer Jack Haskell didn’t last long, but on the upside she did pocket $18,000 in the divorce settlement, which she invested in the stock market and turned into $2 million. “It was a fluke,” she says. “I had no idea what I was doing. I’m no financial genius.” She wasn’t much of a genius at romance, either; she remarried Jack Haskell two years later, then divorced again in less than a year. By then the couple had moved to New York, where Haskell decided to become a stock broker. “I thought, look how well I did without knowing anything,” she says. As it happened, a friend owned the brokerage firm Burnham and Company, which later became Drexel Burnham, and after taking some courses at the New York Institute of Finance she became one of the first females to trade shares on Wall Street.
It’s possible to look at Haskell as a pioneering feminist—most women on Wall Street in the late 1960s were fetching coffee, not making million-dollar trades and being named “Stockbroker of the Year”—but Haskell swats away the idea. For one thing, she says she didn’t encounter much sexism on the trading floor. “I was going with Fran Tarkenton at the time, the quarterback, so the only thing the men at the firm wanted from me were tickets to Giant games,” she says. For another, her attitudes today aren’t what one might call woke, or even semi-conscious. “We’re going through the most ridiculous times with the MeToo movement,” she says. “I think a lot of times women allow themselves to be taken advantage of because they think there’s going to be a silver lining and when there isn’t, they turn the tables.”
In any case, by the late 1970s, she’d grown bored with trading stocks and found another passion: Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager’s new club on 54th Street. “Here’s the thing about Studio 54,” she says of the disco decade’s most debauched night spot. “Yes, there were drugs. Yes, there were people jumping off of balconies. Yes, there was stuff going on in the basement. But I didn’t do drugs. I wasn’t promiscuous. I didn’t go into the basement. I don’t like going into the basements of any building — I don’t even park my car underground. To me, Studio 54 was all about the music. It was all about getting on the dance floor and dancing.”
It was also about networking. On any given evening, the place was packed with celebrities—John Belushi, Ralph Lauren, Rod Stewart, Truman Capote, Grace Jones, Debbie Harry, and scores of other bold-faced names tripped the light fantastic there. It was where Haskell first bonded with Trump and befriended Warhol (at one point, she introduced the artist and real estate developer; they couldn’t stand each other) and partied with the likes of Diane Von Furstenberg. In fact, it was Von Furstenberg’s husband, Prince Egon, who convinced Haskell to host a cable access interview show. Initially, he planned on cohosting it with her, shooting the show right at the club, but then backed out, leaving Haskell holding the mic on her own. “I ended up doing it all myself,” she says. “I produced it, I edited it, everything.”
At the time, public access was the wild west of cable TV. Its airwaves were dirt cheap and just about anything was allowed. The lead-in for The Nikki Haskell show was Midnight Blue, a half-hour raunch-fest featuring the obscene rantings of famed New York pornographer Al Goldstein. But Haskell turned out to be a savvy underground media entrepreneur; she used Studio 54 as a backdrop, combing the club’s guest lists for potential interview subjects. Even after the club closed in 1980 (when Rubell and Schrager were charged with tax evasion), she found a way to turn the show into a globe-trotting boondoggle. “There was this man at Pan Am in charge or promotions and public events,” she explains. “And he was a serious alcoholic. So, I would call him at four in the afternoon and say, ‘Do you think I could get on a 747 to Rio de Janeiro? And do you think you could put a piano in Clipper Class so I can do some interviews?’ And he’d be like, ‘OK.’”
Watching the show today is a bit like stepping through a time portal into a grainy lost world of big shoulder pads and way too much hair mousse. Haskell’s interviews aren’t exactly Dick Cavett-style dives into her subjects’ souls; they’re more drive-by chats as celebs mingle at film festivals and other glam events. But they’re revealing in their own way. One episode, for instance, features a discussion with Trump, then just 34, about the building he was about to open on Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. “It’s not a question of ambition, because the word ambition is to me a somewhat disgusting word,” Trump explains of his reasons for erecting Trump Tower. “It’s just that I get bored.”
After the show ended in the late 1980s, Haskell continued jet setting, hanging out in St. Tropez, flitting back and forth between New York and L.A., and spending time in London, where, she says, deadpan, she was approached by a CIA recruitment officer. “He asked if I’d be interested in being an agent, because I knew so many people,” she says. “I went, ‘Are you kidding me?’ Everybody would know in five seconds I was a spy. I can’t keep a secret.’” Instead, she became a small business entrepreneur, developing the Star Cruncher, a wearable resistance-band exercise device that she cooked up with while dancing at Studio 54. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if I could get a work out just by dancing around and not have to go to the gym.’” The Cruncher sold well and was followed by a line of sugar-free Star Candies (“because I’ve been on a diet my whole life”), and then, fatefully, the Star Cap diet pills.
The supplements were originally marketed in the 1990s to women as “a natural blend of papaya and garlic from the higher Andes of Peru,” but they turned out to also contain bumetanide, a powerful diuretic that could be used to mask steroid use. Not surprisingly, they became popular with professional athletes. But when six NFL players tested positive for bumetanide in 2007, they pinned the blame on Haskell and her pills. New Orleans Saints offensive guard Jaman Nesbit sued her for $750,000, then five other players did the same, claiming they’d been unaware the pills contained bumetanide. Haskell was stunned —“They were taking whole bottles of it at a time, that’s not the way they were supposed to be used”—but in the end, after seven years of litigation, the players won and she was bankrupted. “I lost millions in cash,” she says. “I lost my business. It was not my favorite part of life.”
Within a few years, though, she was reinventing herself yet again, this time as an author, plugging away at a memoir she titled Overdressed When Naked. The book was never published—actually, she never got past page 70—but it may well end up finding an audience, anyway. Haskell has spent the last year working with Ben York Jones, the writer-producer behind such shows as Insecure and Boomerang, on a potential TV series loosely based on her biography. “A cross between Sex in the City and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” is how Haskell describes it, suggesting Ariana Grande for the lead role. Jones, who hopes to start pitching the project around town sometime in the next couple of months, offers a slightly more refined take: “It’s going to primarily focus on life in New York in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Nikki invented this new type of lifestyle talk show, before Entertainment Tonight or Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” he says. “It was the beginning of Reaganism and everyone was living in the material world. And Nikki was there as a kind of social glue. She connected everybody.”
One character that probably won’t make it onto the screen — at least if Jones has anything to say about it—is Haskell’s own personal Mr. Big. But Haskell’s relationship with Trump—and her politics in general—could end up being her biggest obstacle in Hollywood, anyway. Since the 2016 election, she hasn’t been shy about dropping right-wing conspiracy theories during interviews (like the one about Barack Obama secretly running a “shadow government” and Hillary Clinton “inciting people to riot on her behalf”). Haskell’s rhetoric has softened a bit since the Capitol riots in January, but not much. “I think Donald was a great president,” she says. “But I can’t imagine what he’s thinking [about the insurrection]. I think he’s destroying his legacy.” Still, even knowing what she knows now, she’d vote for Trump again. “I would never vote for Biden,” she says. “He’s not my idea of a candidate.”
Haskell was in L.A. when the pandemic hit in March 2020. “I didn’t really pay much attention to it,” she says. “I wasn’t in denial or anything — I knew I had to be careful — but I wasn’t too worried. And then my friend Clive Davis called and said he was going down to Palm Springs for two weeks to quarantine. Did I want to come down for a week?” She ended up staying 14 weeks.
Apparently, dinner conversations were lively: “I enjoy Nikki’s company because she has great stories and reminiscences that outweigh her dialogue on who she’s supporting politically,” Davis diplomatically describes their time together in an email. But it wasn’t all fun and games inside the music mogul’s Las Palmas compound. While Davis labored on a slate of projects — like a biopic of Whitney Houston — Haskell toiled on her new lighted Star Shooterz selfie stick. “I designed everything from soup to nuts,” she says, unboxing one of the gizmos to demonstrate how it works. “I invented this three-headed plug so it can charge the lights and phone at the same time — that was my idea.”
After Davis decamped Palm Springs for his Pound Ridge estate, Haskell flew back to Los Angeles, only to find herself smack in the middle of the BLM protests. She got back on a plane and hunkered down in her apartment in New York for a month, then jetted down to Miami, where she again bunked with Davis, before returning to her condo in the Wilshire Corridor, where right now she’s finishing up her apartment tour, before dashing off to her TikTok lesson, by showing off some of her own art, sketches she’s drawn over the decades of various vistas she’s visited in far flung and glamorous regions.
“People have been accusing me my entire life of over-doing it, of going to every party and going to every event,” says the socialite, running her fingers across a picture she drew years ago of a villa in St. Tropez where she once partied with Bob Evans. “Well, they’re right, I did overdo it. And I’m thrilled that I did. I’m thrilled that I did everything that I did because there’s never going to be anything like those times again. Nobody is ever going to be able to do what I did. The world,” she says, “is never going to be the same.”
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