Drag in New York? It’s natural! And yet Wigstock, the city’s once iconic drag festival of the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s, has been out of commission for more than a decade. That changes on Sunday, when Wigstock co-creator and drag legend Lady Bunny sets sail on Wigstock: The Cruise, a four-hour boat party around Manhattan.
I caught up with Bunny (fresh from Mykonos!) over the phone on Friday to talk about Wigstock: The Cruise. We also touched on New York’s disappearing gay nightlife, Facebook slacktivism, and the legendary CeCe Peniston. And, yes—she brought photos.
Fusion: It’s been about 10 years since the last Wigstock was held, correct?
Lady Bunny: The festival left the Chelsea Piers to join the HOWL! Festival at the original Tompkins Square Park location in 2003. But we weren’t doing the full eight-hour festival, just a two-hour thing. The last actual long one was probably the year after the World Trade Center was no longer there.
Oh yeah, that would’ve basically been the backdrop when Wigstock was held on the Piers. Why did you want to bring Wigstock back?
I don’t see this as a return of Wigstock, since it’s a four-hour cruise and I see Wigstock as an outdoor festival. But this cruise is an attempt to get our feet wet, gauge people’s enthusiasm, and see how much they remember the event. We want to see if New York is the same place it was when we stopped doing Wigstock. Are creative people still here? Are funky bohemians who would throw on a wig still around? And, if they are, do they have $40 to buy a ticket? Our attitude is, “Let’s throw a party and see if the old Wigstock magic is still there!”
Another reason is that we keep getting these notifications that there’s a Wigstock in Australia, a Wigstock in South Africa, a Wigstock in Tel Aviv, a Wigstock in Scandinavia. Why is everybody else having all the fun, when we were the originals?
Speaking of all the “creative people” and “funky bohemians,” I was really into the part of the Facebook invite for this event that said: “No VIP nothing and no tired bottle service. Just a rollicking mess of a party!” What made you want to forgo the VIP stratification that’s so common in Manhattan nightlife these days?
There’s this greater feeling of acceptance that makes younger gays want to bypass gay clubs and go to straight clubs. Clubs are hurting! So, selling a $500 bottle of vodka that costs $50 dollars at the liquor store is a way clubs have tried to supplement their income. But who has $500 to buy vodka? A financier who’s trying to impress his girlfriend?
This isn’t a democratic way to party. I want everyone who comes to be treated equally as my guest. I dont care if they’re a star or have an amazing outfit on or they’re so old they have to sit down. I’m just tired of the snobbiness of the VIP everything.
Since you brought up stars, I was wondering if there are any famous faces we might see at the cruise on Sunday?
Before that, let me launch into another diatribe: Wigstock got going with The Pyramid Club. It hearkens back to a time when audiences were more intelligent and more open. I fell in love with the fact that there was everybody from socialites to Puerto Rican homeboys to transsexuals in the clubs. You didn’t need a VIP area because if you got in, you were part of something really special.
The gay clubs weren’t just gay; there was a club culture that just blended everything around an appreciation of dance music. There was music produced by Frankie Knuckles (rest in peace) and Louie Vega. They were the in-house DJs at these parties so we really felt like we were at the center of this house music movement—but don’t tell Chicago and Detroit I said that, since that’s where it really started.
Do you remember when you felt a shift in New York nightlife toward those who could pay to access it?
First of all, there are no gay clubs open every night of the week anymore. I mean, there are, what, four Disney shows on Broadway? So, New York is very hopping if you’re four years old. Even as late as the ’90s with The Roxy, there were plenty of girls and plenty of people of every ethnicity. The music after that changed from the soulful and happy groove of artists like Crystal Waters and Black Box and CeCe Peniston to circuit music, which was really, really hard.
I kind of attribute the shift to the drugs people started using. Prior to the shift, the drug of choice was ecstasy, so we were happy. But as the drugs changed to the more disorienting variety like Special K or crystal meth, the beats became harder and harder and harder and less musical. It became about what hard, tripped-out beat can permeate your drug-addled skull because you’ve been up for three days with no sleep and no food.
So, I’m guessing Wigstock: The Cruise won’t be super meth-friendly, music-wise?
That’s not to say that a meth addict couldn’t enjoy it. I tried meth once to make me lose weight, but it just made me eat faster. Womp, womp! I told the DJ to dig up stuff we haven’t heard in a while. Now, DJs are playing top 40 like a jukebox. It’s no longer a DJ’s job to educate the crowd and turn people on to music they don’t know. You would never go up to Frankie Knuckles and say, “Would you play ‘Call Me Maybe’?” You’d go up to him and say, “What is this song? I love it!” That’s why DJs were hired: They had a superior knowledge of music, and their job was to keep you dancing. Look, if I walk into a club and I hear a Taylor Swift remix, I don’t even check my coat or buy a drink because somebody there is clueless.
Now, sorry to be an old woman…man…whatever you wanna call me, raising my fist and saying, “You can’t!” But to hear top 40 in the club is, you know, it’s the opposite of what used to happen. Straight DJs used to come to gay clubs because our superior tastes allowed DJs to break new records. Many of our favorite songs came from artists who couldn’t afford to put an image on the cover of their records. But if you sound like Martha Wash or Loleatta Holloway, the gays didn’t care what you looked like because we had an ear for incredible vocals.
Fast-forward to today, and we’re readily gobbling up the mainstream artists. As someone who was around when that wasn’t the case, that’s really sad when most of your top singers can’t sing. And gays used to know better before they got more right.
Do you mean “right” in the political sense? Like, gays have gone further to the “right” on the political spectrum? Or, do you mean more “right,” like, in terms of acceptance?
With the military and marriage, we’ve lost our taste because we’ve fought to be in the mainstream. There was a time when we’d single out Grace Jones and Sylvester and say, “Honey, you are amazing. Come sit with us.” Larry Kramer, the famous activist behind The Normal Heart and ACT UP, has a speech called “The Tragedy of Today’s Gays.” There’s one part where he says “I love gay people” and “I think we’re better than other people,” so it was really curious to start hearing people say that our love is equal now that we can get married, that it’s no longer less than. I kept thinking, why does that bug me? I guess it’s because I never believed the negative messages I was given that being gay was wrong.
How do you feel about that tradeoff, that gay people are becoming just like everyone else but they’re also becoming just like everyone else? There’s definitely a loss in that gain.
Gay spaces are evaporating in the West Village, where I live, and the Castro, which is filled with strollers now. It’s happening all over the world. A friend who lives in West Hollywood says that Hamburger Mary’s is filled with bachelorette parties because all the gays are on Grindr.
I’m glad that gay kids can get drunk in the straight clubs (until they come on to the straight guys and get punched), but listen—you can’t tell kids that they’ve got to appreciate their elders. I’m not so senile that I can’t remember that need to set yourself apart from the previous generation. I’m not saying you have to get on your knees in order to appreciate the generation that gave you AIDS drugs and all these other things, but at the same time I hardly see anyone fighting for gay rights.
I feel like the gay movement is being led by a very conservative agenda. I don’t have to agree with the rights that you want; I want equal rights for gays across the board. But for gays in the military to be the central focus before marriage… We’re in Iraq, where we shouldn’t have even gone, and you, as an oppressed people, want to go and oppress other people? I couldn’t understand why that would be part of a gay agenda.
You can see how drastically different the gay agenda was when Larry Kramer and ACT UP were taking on the government’s corrupt links to Big Pharma and demanding AIDS drugs. They were against the Catholic Church, not only for saying that condoms don’t prevent the spread of AIDS but because we were against the Pope’s anti-abortion stance. The gay movement was radical; it was questioning the government.
We’ve changed from ACT UP staging a die-in at St. Patrick’s Cathedral to slacktivists changing their Facebook profile to a rainbow. That made me angry. Is this your victory to celebrate? What did you actually do except change your profile picture? I’ve never felt that gays are less political than they are now; we’ve gone from throwing bricks like the fierce activists at Stonewall to throwing glitzy celebrity fundraisers.
And hey, whatever works. I’m very affected by the Black Lives Matter movement, and I can’t help thinking about how gays are getting their rights while blacks are being gunned down. Why, because they haven’t been able to do the big glitzy fundraisers and raise a ton of money? As someone who’s more concerned about income inequality than marriage equality, I’m often baffled by the gay movement.
I saw a movie called Pride…
With the British miners?
Yes. It it was a formulaic movie with an impossibly good-looking male lead, but I was interested in the way that the gay activists teamed up with other people in order to help them and gain allies. I don’t see the mainstream gay movement making allies with other oppressed peoples. Whether you want to get married or you don’t want to get gunned down in the streets, there’s essentially one oppressor: the white male establishment. Let’s join together and advance all of our goals as oppressed peoples.
I don’t know how we could top that for an outro. Is there anything else you want to add about Wigstock: The Cruise?
The cruise is really geared towards people who want something different from the kind of drag that seems to have been popularized by RuPaul’s Drag Race. Like, “Let’s watch YouTube tutorials so we can paint hieroglyphics on our noses as contours, but get us onstage and we don’t have a clue what to do!”
I’m not saying there aren’t fantastic performers from Drag Race like Bianca, Jinkx, and Latrice. But there are queens in my city who’ve never been on TV that are better performers. Some might make you scratch your head. Some may make you go insane—in a good way, hopefully, or a bad way. Some are just all around show-stoppers. The point is that Wigstock is about drag queens who are known for their performances.
I wouldn’t wear your highest heels. The boat wobbles!
By John Walker - Fusion/Aug. 16, 2015