Michael J. Cohen, one of the most prominent figures in New York’s gay nightlife scene, has long reigned as a gatekeeper for young queer men looking to attend exclusive parties and clubs. He now faces a range of sexual misconduct allegations — including accusations that he groped or pressured men to have sex or send nude photos, as well as a claim of sexual assault — from members of that same community, according to nine people who told NBC News about their experiences over the past decade.
In 2015, Charles Battersby, then 19, was elated when Cohen offered to introduce him to other gay college students at the weekly parties Cohen hosted at the nightclub Goldbar, Battersby said. But once Battersby was inside, he said, Cohen repeatedly groped his genitals and buttocks throughout the evening. Cohen continued to touch Battersby without his consent at future parties, Battersby alleged, but he eventually decided to endure this behavior because he saw it as the price of admission.
In 2017, Stephen Carlstrom, then 21 and working as a model while in college, said that Cohen, who was 40 at the time, promised him a lucrative gig attending parties and then pressured him to perform oral sex. The job opportunity never transpired, Carlstrom said.
“It just felt extremely predatory and manipulative afterward,” Carlstrom said. “I definitely wouldn’t have done that if he didn’t talk me into it.”
And in 2021, a man who was under 21 at the time said that Cohen poured him two to three drinks at Motel 23, the popular gay bar Cohen owns in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood with other investors. The man said that he soon had trouble keeping his eyes open and his head up, and Cohen led him to a private space in the bar. “I don’t want to,” the man said he told Cohen, but he said Cohen unbuttoned his pants and touched his genitals.
Swatting Cohen’s hands away is the last thing the man remembers before waking up the next morning alone on the curb of a Manhattan street, lying between two parked cars, he said.
Along with other men interviewed by NBC News, he spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear that there would be consequences from accusing someone of Cohen’s stature. In this case and in others, NBC News withheld some specifics of the allegations to protect anonymity.
Since July, when an anonymous Instagram account began posting allegations about Motel 23, NBC News has spoken to 45 people who said they knew or interacted with Cohen in New York or Los Angeles over the past two decades. Nine of the men accused Cohen, 45, of unwanted sexual conduct. This included five who said that when they were in their late teens or early 20s and yearning for a sense of gay community, Cohen grabbed their genitals or buttocks at parties he hosted or at Motel 23.
Six of the nine accusers said that because they were newly out of the closet and didn’t know many queer people when the encounters occurred, they presumed that the incidents were normal within the gay community, even though they were upset by them at the time.
Many of Cohen’s accusers added that having access to New York’s gay bars and parties meant so much to them, especially for those who were under 21, that they were willing to put up with Cohen’s advances. The five men who said Cohen groped them said that while they were dismayed and tried to maneuver away from him, they did not tell him to stop, because they didn’t want to lose their connection to gay nightlife. It wasn’t just about experiencing fun nights out with their friends — it was about the sense of freedom and acceptance they felt when surrounded by other gay people, in some cases for the first time in their lives, they said. And Cohen held the keys to that world, his accusers said.
Cohen declined NBC News’ requests for an interview. In a written response to emailed questions, his spokesperson Alafair Hall wrote: “Mr. Cohen absolutely denies allegations that he groped, sexually assaulted, forcibly kissed or demanded sex from anyone.” Hall added: “In his years of hosting parties, Mr. Cohen has never engaged in any sexual activity that was not unmistakably consensual. He takes these allegations seriously.”
In seven of the nine cases, NBC News talked to witnesses, partners or friends who said the men had told them of the encounters afterward. Three of the nine men provided screenshots of private conversations they had on social media with Cohen in which Cohen repeatedly asked the men to have sex with him or asked for explicit photos, the screenshots show.
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None of Cohen’s accusers, who were all in their late teens to mid-20s at the time of the incidents, went to the police. Nearly all said that they did not grasp the gravity of the alleged encounters until months, and in some cases years, later.
Hall described Cohen as “a proud gay man with no shame about his activity on social media, where he has asked adult men to send him sexual pictures, including those of their genitals. But he has never pressured men to have sex.”
Cohen, the majority owner of Motel 23, has connections to high-profile members of the LGBTQ community in New York and beyond. He opened the bar with financial support from four influential investors: Bryan Singer, the blockbuster filmmaker who separately has been accused of decades of sexual misconduct, which he denies; Jeff Davis, the Hollywood writer and producer who is best known for creating the television series “Criminal Minds” and “Teen Wolf”; Anthony Watson, a banking executive and a former board member of the LGBTQ media advocacy group GLAAD; and the financier Adam Press, a former board member of the queer advocacy organization Freedom to Marry.
Paperwork submitted to the state in December 2021 shows that Press is no longer an investor in Motel 23. A representative for Watson provided NBC News paperwork dated November 2021 showing that he sold his stake in Motel 23 to Cohen, though that change is not yet reflected in state documents, a representative for the State Liquor Authority said this week. Spokespeople for Watson, Press and Singer declined to comment; an agent for Davis did not respond to requests for comment.
There is no indication that they knew about the allegations of misconduct against Cohen and Motel 23 reported by NBC News.
Quiet allegations erupt into public view
Cohen has hosted gay parties at glamorous New York nightclubs — including Goldbar, PHD Rooftop Lounge at the Dream Downtown hotel and Fishbowl at the Dream Midtown hotel — with reliable crowds of attractive men and star-studded guest lists. Some of the world’s most well-known gay celebrities, including British Olympic gold medalist Tom Daley, actor Neil Patrick Harris and rapper Lil Nas X, have been photographed with Cohen or made an appearance at Motel 23. Representatives for Daley, Harris and Lil Nas X did not respond to requests for comment.
“It was known for him to be an older man that liked the younger boys,” said Brita Filter, a star of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” who has performed in New York City’s gay bars for over eight years. “If you’re a really good-looking, young white boy, Michael is going to be into you.” Filter said she has noticed that Cohen’s parties are frequented by young men; she has not observed Cohen harming anyone.
After Cohen opened Motel 23 in 2020, he was often found at the front door, hand-picking which well-dressed young men would gain entry and which would not. With its plush cocktail lounge and sizable dance floor, the dimly lit bar resembled the nightclubs of Manhattan’s Meatpacking District and their exclusive allure.
The bar, and Cohen’s parties elsewhere, were a magnet for the under-21 set — especially those who had Cohen’s approval, more than two dozen people who frequented the bar and parties said.
A representative for Goldbar declined to comment. A spokesperson for PHD Rooftop Lounge and Fishbowl did not comment.
A representative for Cohen disputed that Motel 23 is known for allowing in underage bar goers and said that it’s common for people under 21 to use fake IDs to get into parties and bars.
Allegations about Cohen’s behavior circulating among New York’s gay men erupted into public view in early July, when dozens of allegations about Motel 23 were posted on an anonymous Instagram account.
The man behind the account, “mymotel23reality,” who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he went to Motel 23 for the first time in June. At the door, the man, who said he had never met Cohen before and does not frequent New York’s gay nightlife scene, said that Cohen was going to let him in for free, but charge his friend, who is Black, $250 for admission.
“You’re going to want to let us in for free or else I will shut down your club,” the man, who is white, recalled saying to Cohen.
He recalled Cohen replying, “I’d like to see you try.”
Two weeks later, the man created “mymotel23reality.” Within days, he had received a flood of messages with allegations, he said.
The anonymous claims posted by the account collectively allege that Motel 23’s owner turned gay parties and bars, which some see as queer safe spaces, into toxic environments where young men were subjected to unwanted sexual advances. (NBC News has not verified the claims made on the anonymous Instagram account, which does not mention Cohen, or anyone else, by name.)
The account also alleged that Motel 23’s door staff at times treated some men of color and women differently from white men, including charging them more to enter.
NBC News spoke with eight people, including the Instagram account creator, who say they experienced or witnessed Cohen or other staff members doing this at Motel 23.
Joseph Lucido, 27, who is Asian American but describes himself as “white-passing,” said that he went to Motel 23 with an Asian American friend in February. His friend approached the door ahead of him, he said, and the bouncer told his friend the bar was “already full,” Lucido said. But when Lucido stepped forward a few minutes later, with his friend behind him, they were both allowed in, he said.
Brittany Bennett, 31, said that this spring, the bar’s door staff told her she would have to pay a $150 cover to enter, while the three friends who accompanied her — all gay men — could get in for free.
“It’s just so crazy that any discrimination’s happening at a gay bar,” she said. “It was very heartbreaking and confusing.”
Hall, Cohen’s spokesperson, denied that the bar treated patrons differently based on their race or gender, adding that “the allegations from the anonymous site are false.”
In a statement provided by Cohen’s representatives, African American activist and DJ Joshua Zeke Thomas said he has worked with Cohen for nearly 10 years and has “never seen any evidence of racial bias or inappropriate conduct.” Thomas declined to be interviewed by NBC News.
On July 28, just over three weeks after the anonymous Instagram account launched, Motel 23 announced on its own Instagram page that it would be closing temporarily for renovations. In the weeks afterward, its website and social media accounts were taken down.
Seeking New York newcomers
Long before he opened Motel 23, Cohen had a knack for connecting with young, gay men new to New York City, reaching out to them within weeks of their arrival, five men said.
T., who spoke on the condition that he only be identified by his first initial, said he heard from Cohen even earlier. He said that Cohen first contacted him on Facebook during his senior year of high school in 2013. T., who grew up in New Jersey, was preparing to attend Pace University and said he had no mutual friends with Cohen at the time.
“I think he just looked at my Facebook photos and just had an inkling like, ‘Oh, he’s got to be gay,’” said T., who was then 17. “He knew I was gay before I knew I was gay.”
T., who no longer has a copy of the conversation, said he received Cohen’s first Facebook message while he was sitting in his high school cafeteria.
“You don’t know me yet, but you will,” T. recalled Cohen saying.
A representative for Cohen said that as a party promoter, he reached out to about 100 people he didn’t know each week to invite them to clubs, but he never sought out high school students for his parties.
More recently, the man who said Cohen touched his genitals at Motel 23 was also unfamiliar with New York when he first interacted with Cohen. He was under 21 and visiting the city in 2021 when he went to Motel 23, he said, an account confirmed by two friends who were with him that night.
Once inside, he said that Cohen approached him and offered to get him a drink.
“He told me that guys that look like me should never have to pay for their drinks in New York,” the man recalled Cohen saying.
Cohen poured what the man believed was a vodka soda, but nothing for himself, the man said. Shortly after drinking two or three of Cohen’s mixed drinks — and having had two drinks over the previous four hours — the man said he became heavily intoxicated.
“It was just like a really bizarre feeling that I had never really experienced,” the man said. “I’ve been very drunk before, but I’ve never been struggling to keep my eyes open or have my muscles feel like they’re just really tired and that I kind of just need to lay.”
Three other men who spoke to NBC News described a similarly heavy, paralyzed feeling after Cohen handed them drinks at parties he was hosting at New York bars in 2018 and 2019. All said it was unlike anything they had ever felt while drinking alcohol and they suspected they had been drugged.
The man who visited Motel 23 in 2021 said Cohen escorted him to a private space at the bar, where he lay down on a couch or small bed illuminated with red light. He struggled to stay awake as Cohen unbuttoned his pants and began fondling him, he said. He recalled saying “no” and “I don’t even want to do this,” while trying to swat Cohen’s hands away.
“It was clear that I did not want to engage in that,” the man said.
Hall, Cohen’s spokesperson, said the man’s allegations, as well as the descriptions from the other men who suspected they had been drugged, are “absolutely false.”
After he blacked out and woke up outside on the curb, the man said, he did not immediately tell anyone what had happened to him. He didn’t want to confront the gravity of it, and he wanted to give Cohen the benefit of the doubt, he said.
“I thought that if I told people, the version that they had of me in their head was as a weak kind of person who was dumb and had put themselves in this situation that this happened to them,” the man said. “For my own sake, I didn’t want to process it.”
Over the following months, the man said, Cohen messaged him repeatedly on social media, and while this made the man uncomfortable, he said he initially kept the conversation going because he saw Cohen as a powerful figure.
“I was really scared that I would be ruining a scene slash place for myself,” the man said. “To me, it was clear that he was a prominent person in New York’s gay nightlife.”
After the anonymous Instagram account launched, the man told his two friends who were with him that night about what he said Cohen had done, the friends confirmed to NBC News.
From New York to L.A.
Cohen went to high school in Marlboro, New Jersey, about an hour southwest of New York City. In 2000 he graduated from Ohio State University with a bachelor’s degree.
In 2003, he launched MJC Entertainment, a talent management company, in New York. The business’s most prominent client was the actor and comedian Daniel Franzese, who is best known for his role as Damian in the film “Mean Girls.”
A representative for Cohen said he and Franzese had been friends but their relationship had soured, and Franzese told NBC News, “I don’t recommend working with him,” and declined to comment further.
In 2005, Cohen moved his talent management business to Los Angeles to be closer to Hollywood, according to two people who were familiar with his operations at the time. Records show that Cohen obtained his California real estate license that December.
At a party in Los Angeles in 2006, an actor then in his early 20s who had worked with Cohen alleges that Cohen took him into a bedroom, jumped on top of him and “tried to stick his tongue down my throat,” the actor said. The actor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he was able to push Cohen off of him and leave the room.
“There was nothing, absolutely nothing mutual, absolutely nothing on my end for him to think that it was appropriate, period,” the actor said. “I would imagine that worse things happened from him, so I count myself as being fortunate.”
Hall said the actor’s allegation was “absolutely false.”
The actor said he terminated his business relationship with Cohen in the days after the encounter.
He said Cohen “didn’t even recognize that anything bad had happened. He was like, ‘I’m not even a manager anymore, don’t worry about it, I’m doing real estate now and I’m moving back to New York.’”
Exclusive access with a catch
Cohen bought a condo in Tribeca in 2007 and returned to New York. He soon began shifting his career into the nightlife scene.
He started hosting parties at Phoenix Bar, a popular gay venue in the East Village. (The owner, Brenda Breathnach, said Phoenix Bar staff managed the door and didn’t allow people under the age of 21 to enter; she declined to comment on the misconduct allegations against Cohen.) By 2014 Cohen was promoting more exclusive events at trendier, pricier places, a list that ultimately included Fishbowl, PHD Rooftop, Goldbar, Beauty & Essex and The Wu Room. Cohen’s parties were known to be a guaranteed weekly spot with a large crowd of mostly young, white men who were well-dressed and ready to dance.
Late one summer evening in 2015, Battersby was drawn into that world.
That night, a few days after he arrived in the city to attend New York University, Battersby, then 19, was walking through Little Italy. As he passed Goldbar, a lounge on Broome Street, he said Cohen called out to him.
“He was like, ‘Hey, palm tree!’ — because I was wearing a palm tree shirt — ‘You gay?’ and I said ‘Yeah,’” Battersby, now 26, recalled. “He’s like ‘Come on in.’ And he was like, ‘Let me introduce you to some kids your age.’”
Inside, Cohen, then 38, introduced Battersby to a large group of other young gay men — the type of community he said he had spent almost all of his teenage years yearning for. But throughout the evening, Battersby said Cohen repeatedly stuck his hands down Battersby’s pants without his consent, groping his genitals and buttocks.
Battersby said he didn’t stop Cohen, because he didn’t want to lose access to these bars and parties.
“In high school, I was one of the only gay kids in my school,” said Battersby, who grew up in a Philadelphia suburb. “The opportunity to establish a group of gay friends that I would go out with was really, really exciting to me.”
But it soon became clear that Cohen wanted more, said Battersby, who later told Cohen he was 21 when he was only 19.
In October, shortly after Battersby declined Cohen’s late-night request to come over to his apartment, Cohen rescinded Battersby’s invitation to a private “sex party” Cohen was hosting in an apartment, according to Facebook messages Battersby shared with NBC News.
“i dont know why you would want to go if i will be there,” Cohen said. “you made it quite clear you dont want to hook up with me.”
Batterbsy replied: “Right but there will be 89 other guys there according to you so unless I was invited solely to be your slam piece then I kinda was planning on trying my luck elsewhere.”
Cohen responded: “i only invited you to be my slam piece.”
Battersby said he grew uncomfortable with Cohen and they stopped communicating.
Hall said Battersby’s account was “absolutely false.”
In 2017, J., then 18 and a freshman at a New York City university, met Cohen at one of his nightclub parties. Months later, Cohen persistently pushed for a picture of J.’s penis, threatening that he would blacklist J. and his friends from all gay clubs in New York if he refused, J. said. J., who spoke on the condition that he be identified only by his first initial to protect his privacy, eventually sent the photo, he said.
“I thought, ‘Oh, my god, this guy has so much power, this guy has so much control — he’s really going to prevent me and my friends from going to any gay club ever again,’” J. said.
J. said he and his friends regularly attended the parties Cohen hosted at the nightclub Fishbowl that year, and he quickly learned that he had to put up with Cohen’s groping if he wanted continued access to these events.
“In the beginning, where he says he wants us to hug him before we go in, it’s so he could touch you,” J. said. “He would touch us and grope us really hard before we got to go into the club.”
J. said that in the few instances when others in line refused Cohen’s advances — or even if they didn’t smile enough or say thank you — Cohen humiliated them in front of the line of people waiting outside the club.
“You had to do what he said because otherwise it wasn’t just you getting quietly turned away at the door, you were getting publicly turned away at the door,” he said. “Everybody did what they had to do to save themselves from embarrassment.”
Hall denied J.’s allegations.
Another man, S., who spoke on the condition that he only be identified by his first initial, said he met Cohen in September 2017 just after he turned 18. They connected on Instagram through S.’s roommates.
Cohen initiated their first conversation by inviting S. to one of his weekly parties at Fishbowl, S. said. S. told him that he could not go because he was under 21, which prompted Cohen to propose a solution: Cohen would give S. an older man’s ID he had at his apartment, S. said. But when S. arrived at Cohen’s apartment, it became clear Cohen had something else in mind, S. said.
“He was like, ‘I can only give you it on one condition,’” S. said. “And he basically wanted me to hook up with him.”
They had oral sex, S. said.
“That was the deal for him giving me the ID, which was just very weird and I felt really gross after that,” S., now 23, said.
A representative for Cohen said he doesn’t remember providing a fake ID to anyone in exchange for oral sex.
Carlstrom, the former model, said he connected with Cohen in 2017, within his first year as a student at Marymount Manhattan College. A friend of Carlstrom’s told him that if he wanted to go out to gay bars before turning 21, he should follow Cohen on Instagram.
Cohen accepted Carlstrom’s follower request, and soon messaged him saying, “I wish you came to my parties,” according to screenshots Carlstrom shared with NBC News.
Several months later, after attending a few of Cohen’s weekly parties at Fishbowl, Cohen invited Carlstrom, who had turned 21, to his apartment to discuss a work opportunity, according to screenshots of Instagram messages.
Once Carlstrom arrived, he said that without asking many questions about his modeling experience, Cohen quickly offered to pay him $400 each time he attended one of Cohen’s parties and mingled with VIP guests. But the proposition, which Carlstrom described as a “dream gig” for a model, came with a catch.
“You might need to prove it to me that you’re going to be OK around these folks that might be handsy or might want more than for you to just stand around,” Carlstrom, now 25, recalled Cohen saying. “I’m not really comfortable agreeing to pay you to come to these parties unless you can kind of like show me what you’re all about.”
Cohen then walked into his bedroom and Carlstrom followed. Cohen laid down on his bed and revealed himself, Carlstrom said.
“It was pretty obvious what I was supposed to do,” Carlstrom said.
He said he performed oral sex on Cohen.
“I mean I was over 18, so I did make this choice as an adult," Carlstrom said. "I don’t feel like I was wronged — I just feel like I was taken advantage of.”
The modeling opportunity never materialized.
Carlstrom said he didn’t tell anyone what happened at the time, but a couple years ago he told the man who is now his fiancé, the man confirmed.
Hall said Carlstrom’s account was “false.”
Motel 23: Closed for ‘planned remodeling’
After promoting parties in bars and nightclubs throughout New York for about a decade, Cohen finally opened his own bar, Motel 23, in 2020.
The New York State Liquor Authority said it has not received any complaints about Motel 23, but the bar has been the subject of seven underage drinking complaints to 311 since the fall of 2021, records show. In two cases, in March and July, the NYPD responded and “took action to fix the condition,” records show, while in other cases the NYPD did not find any violations.
The NYPD declined to comment when contacted by NBC News about Motel 23. A representative for Cohen said he had not received any law enforcement notification related to underage drinking.
New York City Councilman Erik Bottcher, who represents a swath of Manhattan’s West Side, where Motel 23 is, said in a statement shared after this article published, “There must be zero tolerance for racism and sexual misconduct in our community, and these incredibly disturbing allegations must be fully investigated. No venue or proprietor who engages in this conduct should be allowed to continue operating in New York City.” Bottcher, who has been photographed attending parties Cohen has hosted, declined NBC News’ request for an interview.
On July 4, 2022, the anonymous Instagram account launched and drew hundreds of followers in a matter of days. One of them was Carlstrom.
“I was not surprised at all. I was like, ‘Finally! Someone’s saying something,’” Carlstrom said. “Then when I started reading through it, I was like, ‘Holy shit. I could have written, well, not all of those stories, but a handful of them.’”
The bar has been closed since announcing on July 28 that it would be undergoing “planned remodeling” until September, and its Instagram account and website have remained down.
On July 29, Cohen listed his Tribeca apartment for rent and leased it out several days later, according to a listing from Compass, a real estate brokerage.
After reading the claims on the anonymous Instagram account, some of the men who spoke with NBC News said they felt compelled to share their stories because they were disturbed to see that the allegations against Cohen had continued for years after they had encountered him.
Carlstrom, who now works on the corporate side of the fashion industry, said he hopes that gay nightlife gatekeepers like Cohen no longer have a place in the community.
“We can all speak out against him right now and be stronger together as a community,” Carlstrom said. “People really have had horror stories probably far worse than mine, and it’s just time. It’s just time to get him out.”