Episode – enormous, towering effigies of Gene Simmons standing atop a wedding cake. On the way to the airport the little screen in the cab’s backseat played a promo for the episode on endless repeat. So here in a South Beach hotel room I relent and watch roughly five hours of Gene Simmons’ Family Jewels, a show described as America’s “longest running celebrity family reality television series”. It could be because I’m exhausted that I can’t mentally cope with finding something else to watch, exhausted from the previous five days spent at sea on the inaugural KISS Kruise with 3,400 members of the KISS Army, and KISS, on a 100,000 tonne mega-cruise liner, the Carnival Destiny. It’s because I’m exhausted, I think, that I cry when Gene Simmons finally says “I do” to his long-suffering girlfriend of 30 years and mother of his two children, Shannon Tweed. Gene Simmons might be reputably one of rock and roll’s more infamous arseholes, but come on, show me a girl who doesn’t cry at weddings. Kruisers already look green but others are so lightning fast they’re already onto their first beer. Paying close attention, I soon feel confident that this vessel is seaworthy and am oddly moved to learn that “women and children first” is actually a rule, should we need to evacuate from this exact spot. Pretty much no-one is paying attention to this, though, and the hot air is heavy with impatience. The KISS fans, from every part of the world, are decked out in every kind of sleeveless KISS shirt you can imagine.

the two pools on the deck and the concentric viewing tiers are covered in deckchairs. At the top stands a waterslide, which a few kids are squealing down. The effect is of going to see a rock show at Wet ‘n’ Wild. The KISS fans are putting it all out there. Some have their faces painted, a Starchild here, a gaggle of Spacemen there. Others have painted their faces with their country’s flag, or have it draped over their shoulders. Almost everyone has stripped down to their bathing suits, bikinis and shorts. One guy is kitted out in full Gene Simmons’ regalia, despite the melting Miami heat. The more laidback Kruisers – perhaps KISS-neutral family members dragged along as companions – are sunning themselves on the chairs and ordering beers from passing waiters. As we pull out of Miami, the ship’s horn sounds and we look back to see an enormous, black storm has gathered over the city. “Look what we’re leaving behind!” screams Capi. “Now. Are you guys ready to see KIIIIIIIIIIIISS?!”

Elmo Keep joins the KISS Army for an outrageous voyage into the band’s enduring popularity.

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n Miami, I’m about to watch Gene Simmons get married. Me and however many millions of other people are watching A&E on cable right now. In the real world, Gene Simmons was married weeks ago in LA, but here on the television it hasn’t happened yet, though I just got off a four-night cruise to the Bahamas which functioned as his honeymoon and which won’t be televised for weeks, although it just happened. On Twitter, Gene Simmons is giving a running commentary of the telecast of his own wedding to his 278,000 followers. I feel as though I’m operating on dream logic; everywhere, everything is KISS. In New York on my way here there were giant billboards all over the city advertising The Wedding

We are standing in long lines six people deep to receive our safety briefing on the ship’s portside, just as soon as we’ve boarded and found our cabins. If you’re KISS, your ‘cabin’ is a plush, enormous Princess Room which guests are also welcome to purchase to the tune of roughly US$10,000. My cabin is on the bottom deck of the ten-deck ship, and at the very end of the corridor. It’s also in the ship’s interior, so there isn’t a porthole, which I decide is perfect: this will be my fortress of solitude, just big enough to fit a bed, on which lies a letter welcoming me, (“Hey, KISS Kruiser! Are you ready to party with the hottest band in the world, KISS?”) and a fresh towel adorably if weirdly origami’d into the shape of a swan. Everyone has been furnished with their room key – a swipe card adorned with an image of KISS which is also your boarding pass on and off the ship, your ticket to the KISS show and most ingeniously, your credit card. Well, it’s tethered to your credit card, to be charged on disembarkation. No actual hard cash ever changes hands on the ship. It’s the first of many logic-distending techniques employed to warp reality. Up at the briefing a couple of the

KISS, their band of 38 years now, and to whom they pledge allegiance so deeply they call themselves an ‘army’, are about 15 minutes away from playing a show on the top deck of the Destiny. As soon as the siren sounds the end of the briefing they scramble like F-16s in an effort to get there first. “You are not the person you are at your job! You are not who you are at home! For the next four days, nothing matters except being… right… HERE!” Capi, one of the onboard MCs, hollers this revelation through a microphone at the couple of thousand assembled KISS Army members on the Lido deck. They’ve just been informed they are going to be known as the ‘KISS Navy’ for nautical accuracy (and T-shirt sales) for the duration of the cruise. Capi is whipping the Kruisers into a state approaching frenzy. The stage has been built across
The KISS Kruise also served as the honeymoon for Gene Simmons and his long-term partner Shannon Tweed (top).


When KISS finally take the stage for their “acoustic sail away show”, as it says in the brochure, they’ve all made concessions to the oppressive weather, wearing fedoras and teal blue shirts (Paul Stanley) and singlets. Except Gene Simmons. Gene Simmons will not modify his persona for anyone. He sports a black shirt, jeans and boots… and is sweating mightily for it after about three minutes.

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staaaaays on the KISS Kruise!” As the band clown, standing by the side of the stage and getting almost as much attention as the band is Gene Simmons’ wife Shannon. Their TV show has made her a goddess among the fans and seeing her in the flesh, she almost doesn’t look real – so statuesque and yellowy blonde. I remember that one episode where she and Gene got matching facelifts. She dances and takes photos of the crowd and of the band. Every couple of songs, Gene comes to her side of


The real Paul Stanley, or one of a thousand on-board lookalikes? (left); KISS Kruise merchandise – plentiful; the KISS Army comes in all races and ages (below).

questions from the crowd for about two and half hours, no matter how mundane. “So, hi. Um, do you guys still work out?” “Yes”, “Yes”, “Not if I can help it”, “Yes”. Anyone with a question lines up, writes it down and then gets up on the stage to stand and awkwardly and read it out. A little Gene Simmons – about eight or nine years of age – is waiting in the line. When he gets up on the stage, his question is for his personal hero: “I want to know what I need to do to be a rock star.” Gene Simmons asks, “How old are you?” “Seven.” “Well, I can tell you, you’re standing up here in front of all these people, you’ve already got what it takes. You’ve got heart.” Gene Simmons starts the crowd applauding and the little fella looks as though he isn’t sure if that’s exactly the right advice. “Now,” Gene Simmons takes him to the edge of the stage. “I want you to show me your best rock star pose.” They strike identical demon poses, goat hands in the air, sticking out their tongues. The kid is screaming, “Yeeeeeearrrrrrrrrrrrgh!!!”, whipping around his head, totally high on this taste of adulation. He gets lifted down and carried back into the crowd and eventually the waiting arms of his father. “Proud of you buddy, that was awesome,” he tells him while trying to dole out a hug. Embarrassed, tiny Gene Simmons wriggles away, chiding, “Daaaaaaaaad!”


The fans are out of their minds with excitement. KISS haven’t played any kind of make-up free show in years and they are rocking out as hard as you possibly can rock out to acoustic versions of “Detroit Rock City”, “Shout It Loud” and “Do You Love Me?” After knocking out the hits, the band decides to play some very obscure B-sides, again as promised by the brochure. So obscure, it turns out, they don’t actually know how to play them. This happens for about five songs in a row. They try various old tunes and each time it devolves into a quick fade out, or playing over each other, or playing the wrong part or, more often, not knowing the words. Gene Simmons just stands on the edge of the stage, arms by his side shaking his head. He visibly mouths, “I DON’T KNOW THIS SONG,” until everyone cracks up laughing. Paul Stanley announces to the faithful: “I guess we should have rehearsed more! But we’re among friends, right?” He trills over the roar of the fans, “What happens on the KISS Kruise,

the stage and does a little soft shoe shuffle for her. After a while many of the Army are pushily asking to get their photo taken with her, and the yellow-shirted ring of security guards tighten around her and then decide to move her out of the crowd altogether before the set is finished. The Family Jewels camera crews jostle for position, following the newlyweds around shooting footage for the honeymoon episode. The fans – high on a heady mix of beer, sun and KISS proximity – adjudge the semi-successful acoustic show a success before KISS take

The next morning we have magically arrived at an island after hours and hours and hours of passing by nothing but endless sea. It really is beautiful but it’s not a real island. It’s owned by the cruise company, so getting off the ship and onto the beach is essentially the same as staying on the ship: the exact same people are serving you the exact same stuff. I take the little boat to shore and see that what looked from a distance like a bar in the shape of a pirate ship is a bar in the shape of a pirate ship. It’s blaring AC/DC as I walk by, and there are hundreds of Kruisers out front lying in deck chairs pitched in the knee-deep water and throwing frisbees. Others have gone off to swim with dolphins or go parasailing. The guys from Skid Row, who are also playing on the ship, are lying on deckchairs while little kids run around them in circles. It’s a very un-metal tableau. Cruising is all about activities. And eating. But mainly activities. The planning on the attending of activities, the attending of activities, then dissecting the attended activities. Just a few one could attend on the KISS Kruise: Welcome Night Ball (dress as the country you’ve come from), KISS Halloween Ball, KISS Army Social, KISS Tattoo Social, KISS Trivia Night, KISS Movie Screenings, Putt Putt Golf with Tommy Thayer (KISS’ guitar player), a round in the Kasino with Eric Singer (their drummer), a Q&A with KISS’ manager, three KISS shows, KISS Door Decoration Contest, KISS Lookalike Contest and a KISS Wedding Vow Renewal Ceremony. In what was probably the most logistically impressive operation I’ve ever witnessed, 3,200 KISS fans have their photo taken with the band during the Kruise. Over two afternoons, 1,600 fans were split into groups of eight and were ushered through a series of ballrooms in a massively long queue which culminated in 2.5 seconds of time with the band – the time it takes to shoot a photo.

If I was going to get this holiday snap, I realised, I was going to have to make friends fast. No problem! You know who the friendliest people ever are? American KISS fans. The first few groups of people I pass are already in their bunch of eight until I come to a group I count as six. Success! I ask them if they wouldn’t mind me joining them, as I’m alone. “Oh sure! You’re on your own?” I get this reaction from everyone I meet. I shake hands with the big,

great!” “Okay, good,”) before it’s our turn. On our way in, people fresh from their two seconds with KISS are streaming out the other way, squealing and high-fiving each other, giving everyone else a contact buzz. “I am so gonna touch him!” Lisa squeaks. I ask to which KISS she is referring. “Gene! D’uh!” We’re at the front of the line now. A crew member is barking

this ‘Mmmmmm’ sound.” She is almost shaking with disbelief.

THE greatest

sandy-haired guy accommodating me, as I introduce myself. His name is Bill, and he’s a travel agent. “From Australia? Man, that’s a long way!” says Bill, introducing me to his partner Lisa. “So you’ve been on a lot of cruises then?” I ask him. “Oh yeah,” Bill says, which puts him at odds with almost everyone else I talk to. “But this one is definitely the best cruise I have ever been on. Plus it has KISS on it, so I mean, no wonder.” This line is moving improbably quick and it only takes about 10 minutes of us making small talk (“But you do actually like KISS, right?” “Yeah, I think they’re

orders to keep things moving. “This is your group? OK, let’s go!” Now we’re basically running and there’s KISS standing in the photo booth saying things like, “Well, hey there,” except Gene Simmons who is making growling noises instead of speaking. We get in a huddle and because I don’t want to ruin their photo, I crouch down in the front. The picture is taken, our 2.5 allotted seconds are up and we’re booted out of there. Travel agent Bill is ecstatic, “Oh man, that was so freaking cool!” “This is the best day of my life!” says Lisa. “I rubbed my back into Gene’s crotch,” she says dreamily. “He looked at my boobs and made

I take the next day slow as an excuse to stay in my cabin and get some work done until the KISS show later in the night. I spend the afternoon roaming the ship and taking photos of all the different iterations of fan-made KISS boots stomping around. There are dozens of KISS fans who’ve spent pretty much the entire time in costume. Here’s the thing about KISS: you’d have to be made of stone not to think they put on a great show. That night, watching them from about four feet away in the auditorium – normally the domain of lounge singers and cabaret acts – it occurs to me how close KISS come to a vaudevillian circus act, and so it’s the perfect place for them. Watching KISS ply their trade like garishly-painted warhorses, they actually make me think of Bruce Springsteen – minus the makeup. Sure, “Christine Sixteen” possibly doesn’t have quite the same pathos as “Downbound Train”, but essentially KISS write working-class anthems about escaping the everyday and take the job of playing them to their fanbase all over the world in two hour-plus shows extremely seriously. “KISS was never anything but a business, and they do take it very seriously,” their manager Doc McGhee says at a Q&A the next day. He’s also managed Bon Jovi and Motley Crue in his storied time. “Motley Crue? They were never anything but a gang. Motley went around the world terrorising people, and KISS went around the world entertaining people; that’s the difference between them.” By the end of the show I am pretty convinced that KISS are the greatest band in the whole world. I don’t know if it’s all the hours in the sun, or all the beers they kept serving at the show, or all the smiling faces of the fans young and old turned up to the ceiling as the confetti falls over us standing here inside this giant snowglobe. I don’t care what it is, or care to know, and that really, is the whole point of KISS. men’s style 135

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I’m hoping that in wandering the ship I’ll just somehow end up face to face with the band and spring them for an interview but apart from when Tommy Thayer gets into my lift, I never do. Plenty of other people have seen KISS, though, and it’s become a kind of unofficial game the fans are playing, ticking off each sighting like they’re orienteering; excitedly talking about their tallies, giving each other updates. KISS are sequestered away in their own half of the Princess suites floor, a far cry from our bolt-holes down in steerage. In fact by now, Sunday, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley are long gone, having flown out of the Bahamas by jet after last night’s show. This has caused much consternation among the fans who don’t take kindly to having been abandoned. They didn’t fork out for 3.5 days with KISS; it was for 5 days, thank you. Now we’re powering across the ocean on our way back to Miami at half-KISS. Today is the vow renewal ceremony and there are more than one hundred couples in the room. Some of them are dressed as KISS, and sometimes only one half of a couple is. They are all sitting quietly, waiting. This is very serious, I realise, and I feel as though I’ve walked in on something I don’t have a right to witness. This is somewhat dispelled once the ceremony actually begins and the ship’s mates start reciting the vows, which are evidently reappropriated KISS lyrics (“Repeat after me: I was made for loving you, baby.”) Once the recommitment is finished, everyone cheers and makes out with their betrothed and then has their photo taken on the stage in a tiny recreation of a chapel. I ask one Australian couple afterwards how long they’ve been married. “Twenty-five years,” he says. “Wow, you guys must really love KISS, coming all this way.” “Not my wife,” he says, squeezing her by the shoulders, “just me.” “Yep,” she says, with obvious forebearance. “That’s what love is.” That night the ship’s atrium is teeming with KISS-alikes, and the competition is fierce. This is the last officially scheduled activity of the Kruise, and no-one is going to miss it. There are hundreds of Paul Stanleys, hundreds of Spacemen all lining the 136 men’s style

three tiers of the atrium while we, the spectators, are gathered below in an inverse coliseum. KISS songs pump through the sound system. The best of each KISS member will again by judged by the tried and tested ‘loudest yelling’ method. Each KISS-alike comes to the top of the staircase and is introduced by the MC before theatrically doing their best impression, and we then holler for the most convincing. There is no prize other than bragging rights, which in this instance count for everything.

Because KISS have many decades, they also have many incarnations of costume and so this presents intricacies of detail that I can’t really comprehend. They all look good to me. Afterwards, riding in the lift down

This is what 2.5 seconds gets you – a photo with the real KISS (above); like a rock ‘n’ roll show at a Wet ‘n’ Wild – on board the KISS Kruise (centre).

to my cabin, a Gene Simmons gets in who looks so much like the real thing that I think for a second it might be him. “Is it time to take off the costume now?” “Yes ma’am, it is,” he says sadly. Day breaks on Monday as it dawns on the Kruisers that the honeymoon is over. They are trundling by with their luggage and carefully peeling their doors free of KISS paraphernalia. Some stagger down the corridors in a daze, and for many it’s compounded by their encounter with their bill, which had been slipped under everyone’s door while we ate breakfast. Soon we’re called to disembark and our orderly lines are snaking their way around the sparkly floors of the atrium, past all the jewellery and booze and merch stores which are now forever shut. Pushing past in front of us is poor Eric Singer. Apologetically he explains he was meant to get off early this morning, “But they forgot me.” He forces a laugh and makes his way out, parting the sea of KISS fans like Moses. “It’s been an honour, dude!” Someone yells after him, but he and his ponytail are gone. Once we’ve made our way portside in Miami, everyone is blinking like moles as they emerge from the terminal. People savour the last few minutes of communing with their brethren before being reluctantly dragged back to the real world of day jobs and bills and responsibilities. Of not laying out by the pool drinking beers and comparing tattoos. Of not parasailing and swimming with dolphins and not recommitting your marriage vows after 25 years. Of not being told by your own personal demigod that you are a rock star, aged seven. Of not being with the people who make you feel like you’re part of something bigger than yourself. Like you aren’t a freak. Like you belong. They’re shouting after each other, “Oh yeah, I’m on Facebook! Add me. I’ll send you those photos.” “I really loved your costume man, I thought you were the best Gene.” Others are vowing to start saving for next year, if it all should happen again. “Would you guys do this next year, if they do it again?” I ask one group. “Oh, hell yeah.” “Ah,” I shrug and wave as I get in the cab that will take me to my hotel room where I’ll watch an all-day marathon of Gene Simmons’ Family Jewels, just because it’s on, “I don’t know about me.” But I’m lying. Of course I would. D

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