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.
Do you have a story to share with NBC Out?
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.