In 1984, Lady Bunny assembled a group of drag queens in an East Village park in New York City for an outdoor performance show called Wigstock. The event, along with Pride, would go on to become one of the largest outdoor gay festivals in Manhattan. Every year on Labor Day weekend, attendees would gather at Tompkins Square Park, many donning wigs in celebration of the dragstravaganza. Wigstock became so popular that it eventually moved from its original location to Union Square Park and later to the Hudson River Piers to accommodate the growing audience. It’s been over ten years since the last Wigstock, and now Lady Bunny has rebooted the festival — only this time she’s putting it on a boat that will sail around Manhattan on Sunday, August 16. Her Ladyship took some time out of her busy schedule to chat with Queerty about Wigstock: The Cruise, and in true “Bunion” fashion also shared her hilarious thoughts about equality, children attending drag shows, and how she longs for the days of anonymous sex on the New York piers.
Lady Bunny: I’d lived in Atlanta from 1982-84 with RuPaul as my roommate. We idolized the reigning queens down there, but they were more glitzy and professional lip-synching pageant girls. Ru and I had absolutely no money, so we wore whatever we found in thrift stores or made ourselves. So we were quite artsy-fartsy — out of necessity. We got a gig at NYC’s Pyramid Club, which was drag-owned and operated, and I felt like I was finally home with other nuts like me. There was all kinds of insane drag, and the queens were not just lip-synching! They were fronting live bands and dance troupes, reading poetry and they were more prone to impersonate offbeat divas like Yma Sumac, Joni Mitchell or Janis Joplin. There was a large bandshell in Tompkins Square Park where grating heavy metal bands played for hours on weekends to an audience of 20. I thought, “I can put on a show at least that good.” My goal was really to showcase the many different types of drag at the tiny Pyramid club to a wider audience.
Over time the event grew larger and moved to different spots in New York City to accommodate the crowds that attended. Did you imagine during those first couple of years that it was going to catch on and becoming as popular as it did?
Never. The first festival drew a modest crowd of drag queens and Pyramid regulars to all kinds of locals — from Polish to Puerto Rican to homeless. But somehow, everyone there knew that it had a great vibe to it. Or was that just the ecstasy pills that someone seemed to slip me every year?
This is a Wigstock-themed cruise, so we don’t consider it to be an actual Wigstock as in the large outdoor festival. But depending on the response from the cruise, we’re interested in doing larger festivals again after a decade-long break. The cruise line is part of an annual summer Sea Tea series that just offered us the chance to program one week’s four-hour cruise. I’ve DJed on it before and something crazy happens to people on a boat. They run to the bar and there are many different decks to explore.
New York, and a large part of the world for that matter, is a much different place from when Wigstock began. New York is very sanitized, and our nation is basking in the glory of same-sex marriage and equality. How do you think our current climate affects gay culture?
As gays have gained rights, their culture has become mainstream. That’s why I always say, “Give me the equal rights, but please don’t make me suffer through mainstream culture.” Gays always used to have better taste, which seems to be fading. Straight DJs used to come to gay clubs to see which records were breaking because they trusted gay clubs’ taste. That doesn’t happen any more. Now we gladly buy what we’re sold or whatever they pay the radio stations to play on repeat. In most gay clubs, they now play Top 40. In the 1980s-2000s, you didn’t even know what most of the songs played in clubs were. Rather than going up and requesting a song that’s already on the radio (as people do now), you’d actually ask the DJ what song they were playing because you didn’t know it and liked it. The DJ’s job was to turn you onto underground music you didn’t know — not to be a jukebox recycling radio hits.
As far as NYC, Manhattan is now very gentrified. And expensive. It definitely isn’t a place where broke, bohemian types can afford to move to as Ru and I did. This is happening all over the world, and I often hear people from San Francisco and London griping about it. I keep waiting for the rich people to arrive who don’t have to work and have therefore cultivated the finest taste in clubbing and music. Maybe they’re going to Brooklyn, but they’re definitely not coming to Manhattan. In Greenwich Village, which is the neighborhood I live in, as well as the birthplace of Stonewall and home to beat poetry, the place now looks like a J. Crew catalogue exploded. Very corporate, very deluxe and very safe — but lacking much flavor other than that. The High Line is pretty and clean, but I miss anonymous sex on the piers! Manhattan just isn’t that crazy anymore. With surveillance cameras everywhere, I guess no place is…said another bitter old queen griping about technology!
Drag has gone from being subversive and underground to becoming part of mainstream pop culture entertainment. What would you say is the key to making sure it stays provocative and irreverent?
I see what you’re saying, but not all drag has always been subversive. From Flip Wilson to Tootsie to Dame Edna, drag always found its way into the mainstream. But I’m someone whose act is geared towards drunk, gay men at 1 a.m. where anything goes and raunchiness is encouraged. So it’s taken a little getting used to when I’ve done big events like The Drag Queens Of Comedy at the Castro Theater. We were told to keep the first of two sold-out shows cleaner because there were kids present. I love kids, but I’m not the act for them. I found that out the hard way when I performed with a dildo dangling from my crotch during one Bible Belt city’s Gay Pride festival. There was a little girl on her daddy’s shoulders in the front row and in one photo it looked like the dildo was dangling in front of her face. Some church group tried to shut down the pride event after that due to my indecency. So I try to be more careful now and save the hardcore stuff for nightclubs. But at the end of the day, I’m a twisted whore and I’ve got to do the kind of humor I enjoy. I think bears are my favorite audience.
Since Wigstock will be on a boat, does that mean you’ll be wearing a bikini?
No, more like impersonating Shelley Winters from The Poseidon Adventure! It may look like I’ve gained weight since the last Wigstock, but I really haven’t. There’s just a life preserver underneath my dress. I don’t normally perform in boats — except for the time I borrowed Latrice Royale’s shoes. I actually am expecting lots of surprises. For example, we almost had to cancel the cruise due to leaks, backed-up toilets and barnacles. But with the adult diapers, dermabrasion and the new ointments, I’m in shipshape and ready to go!
Get ready to lip-synch for your life…boat! We’re bringing back that Wigstock vibe, part of which was underground vocal house. Johnny Dynell, who was the DJ from the legendary clubs Boybar and Jackie 60, and DC’s Ed Bailey are spinning. So if you love oldies, you’re in the right place. And not just Linda Simpson and Johnny Dynell — some of the music is old, too. All of the performers I booked were working at those same clubs and are still going strong. Sister Dimension, who is a founder of the Pyramid, is creating a headdress that may not even fit on the stage. HRH Princess Diandra lip-synchs like no one else ever. Linda Simpson will present her Drag Explosion slide show with commentary and photos from the ‘80s and ‘90s of everyone from pre-fame RuPaul to some beloved scenesters we lost like the exquisite trans model Page.
The captain told me that sharks are repelled by sharp, screeching noises, so I’ll be singing a few tunes. Plus-sized divas Sweetie and Flotilla had planned a duet, but it was cancelled by Greenpeace. Flloyd will recreate his rendition of “What Makes a Man a Man” from Wigstock: The Movie. The electrifying Kevin Aviance was just added to the bill, along with the demented Sugga Pie Koko and Daivd Ilku. I’m hearing from friends that they’re concocting elaborate outfits just to participate as audience members. This really was a club family and I’m thrilled that we’re getting back together. There will be a crew of about 50 on board — which is almost as big a crew as RuPaul needs on Drag Race to make her look like a woman. But if any of you “girls” plan on attending and giving real fish, you can prove it by jumping overboard. Catch ya later!