A Look Back at the Awesome Drag Explosion of the '90s New York Club Scene
Featuring RuPaul before she was famous.
By Linda Simpson
Who’s that ecstatic young birthday girl, perched on a throne and surrounded by admirers in the picture above? It’s me, in 1991, at the Building nightclub, a few years after joining the ranks of the NYC drag queens. (With me, from left to right, are Afrodite, Sweetie, Faux Pas and Flloyd.)
Talk about being at the right place at the right time. From the moment I first plopped on a wig I entered into an absolutely momentous era of drag history. It was a drag explosion, spanning the late 1980s to the mid-‘90s, when gender-bending transformed from an underground art form to a pop-culture phenomenon.
Throughout my draggy adventures I happened to carry around a camera, which was not a common thing to do back then. My photos were simply for fun, and it was only recently that I began to fully appreciate my fabulous time capsule — vivid and intimate portraits of the most colorful characters of their day as they joyfully pushed the boundaries of gender expression.
Many of my photos are now on display in a multi-media project that I’ve created called — ta da! — The Drag Explosion. I’ve been flattered by the positive feedback, but I can hardly take all the credit. As I gaily snapped away, something incredible happened: Drag queen magic took over. I was the vehicle, but not the ultimate power.
East Village Roots
You’re excused if you don’t immediately recognize famed drag performer Lady Bunny. The photo is from 1986, years before she adopted her signature jumbo-size hairdos.
The event was Wigstock, featuring Bunny hosting a marathon variety show in the crumbling bandshell of Tompkins Square Park. Only two years old, the daytime festival was already the East Village’s premiere drag event — a showcase for a newfangled sensibility that had been brewing in the neighborhood since the early 1980s.
The East Village’s drag community back then was very unique. Anywhere else, drag was pretty stale — old queens in boas grandly impersonating old divas. In contrast, East Village gender-bending was a hoot — punky, ironic and very kooky. The emphasis was on thrift-store outfits, cheap wigs, and letting your own personality shine bright.
As you can tell from the photo, Wigstock’s early years were not exactly crowded. The few hundred people that showed up were those in the know, thrilled to be part of an exciting and creative wiggy new scene. I was still getting to know the East Village, and as a male! I moved to the neighborhood the following year, and Linda Simpson was born soon after.
Fast forward to Wigstock two years later in 1988. It was an upbeat day during dark times. From left to right are Adam, Matt, and George, all members of the activist group ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), which had been formed to combat the government’s hideous non-response to the AIDS crisis. Gay people were being decimated, and America’s response was hysterical hate and homophobia.
Nowadays, George would probably be crucified if he carried around a toy machine guy. But I understood his tongue-in-cheek militancy. Several months earlier I had debuted my Xeroxed “revolutionary” gay magazine, My Comrade. The heroic stars were cute guys and East Village drag queens, with cover girl Tabboo! also brandishing a toy gun (alá Patty Hearst in her Symbionese Liberation Army days). The magazine was very campy, but also conveyed a message of gay love, power, and unity. The world was a scary place, and our only way of surviving was to band together.
For a little over two years, from 1990 to 1992, I was the reigning empress of one of the centers of the drag universe, the Pyramid Club on Avenue A. Pictured above is my stately courtroom (a.k.a. the dumpy dressing room) the setting for all sorts of sissy socializing. (From left to right are Lady Bunny, Mistress Formika, Sweetie, Anna Conda and Tabboo!)
Since the early 1980s, the Pyramid had been headquarters for the East Village’s underground drag scene, but it was in decline by the time I arrived. I naively assumed that I could turn things around by producing and hosting a weekly party called Channel 69. Guess what? It worked!
Channel 69’s ensemble featured some of the old Pyramid gang, but mostly first-time performers who helped usher in a new mood. Comedy still ruled, but our looks were less zany and more girly, plus the shows became more polished, with precision dancing and lip-synching skills on display. (The other neighborhood drag palace, the Boy Bar, even featured a show choreographer.) By the time Channel 69 ended, East Village drag had morphed into something a bit glamorous, trendy, and sexy.
Club Land Conquest
Francine and Thaddeus strike a pose at the Copacabana nightclub (at its former location on East 60th Street), which was one of the first venues outside of the Pyramid Club to hire me as a party promoter. The year was 1992, and downtown’s vibrant drag culture was majorly infiltrating all of NYC nightlife.
For clubs and bars, gay and straight, hiring colorful queens as go-go dancers, door people, and hosts was a fantastic new way to attract and dazzle the masses. For East Village dragsters, it was a chance to expand our horizons and make a buck. It was an era of mega clubs — Palladium, Limelight, Tunnel, Webster Hall, Roxy, etc. — and there was plenty of work to be had.
New York in the early 1990s was dirty and dangerous, but nightlife was booming — action-packed hedonism, with drag queens wearing the crown.
Drag queens weren’t the only ones in command of NYC’s nightlife in the early '90s. The photo above of Kabuki (left) and Keda is from the Limelight nightclub in Chelsea, the hub of yet another gender-fluid subculture: the club kid scene, specializing in wildly imaginative costuming and gung-ho, druggy partying to pounding techno.
Many of the club kids actually referred to themselves as drag queens, and there was a lot of overlapping between the two tribes. But unlike most drag queens, clubs kids weren’t interested in performing. Instead, they were devoted to creating an atmosphere.
Entering the Limelight for its infamous Disco 2000 party (that one that spawned Michael Alig of Party Monster fame) was like being swept away to a strange new galaxy.
Her Name Was Page
Among the many fascinating people that I met during my formative drag years was my friend Page, who entered my life in 1990. Coincidentally, I had just seen her a few weeks earlier in an HBO documentary about gender variant people called What Sex Am I?
Back then, nobody I knew used the term “transgender.” Our lingo was much more blunt. Male-to-female transsexuals were either “pre-op” or “post-op,” depending on whether she had gotten the operation (a.k.a. “the chop”). Page was pre-op, not chopped.
While it’s not uncommon for transsexuals to emerge from the drag scene, Page traveled the opposite route. Hormones and feminizing came first, then she joined the Pyramid Club queendom. She was our resident bizarre beauty who specialized in provocative shows — like cutting off her strap-on dildo with a butcher knife!
Page was very clever and sweet, but she had a lot of demons and died of a drug overdose in 2002. It was a great loss. She was a one-in-a-zillion personality who enlightened all who knew her about a brand-new way of journeying through life.
I took this photo of RuPaul in 1991, around the time she put her “black hooker” look to rest and refashioned herself as a blond glamazon. (She’s pictured with the late, great vogueing phenomenon Willie Ninja who appeared in Paris Is Burning, the documentary about the underground ball culture.)
Her strategy worked — in 1993 she became a bona fide celebrity with her smash single “Supermodel.” Her success also sparked a pop-culture frenzy for anything and everything having to do with drag. For the next several years, all of NYC’s wiggy sorority, myself included, would bask in this drag explosion as the media/entertainment complex clamored for queens. Thanks for the lift, Ru!
Two decades later, it’s a testament to RuPaul’s talent and commitment that she is still the world’s biggest drag star, with RuPaul's Drag Race a continuously-growing success. (Although one can wonder if it’s good for any entertainment genre to be dominated by one personality for so long. Surely there are other queens deserving of equal stature. Hint, hint.) Downtown’s former black hooker has achieved iconic status, supreme ruler of us all.
Drag invades Yankee Stadium! The year was 1994 and the event was a big LGBT celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Among the highlights was a performance by Cyndi Lauper and a flock of drag-queen backup dancers (including Chris Tanner, above). No longer were queens confined to clubs and bars — we were everywhere.
By now, Wigstock was a mega event on the West Side piers. Daytime TV talk shows, eager for sensational subjects, were awash with drag queens. In 1995 came the drag-themed feature film To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, co-starring scores of downtown scenesters. On the eve of its release, New York magazine commissioned a cover story from performer Charles Busch who proclaimed that it was a “Golden Era of Drag — Manhattan, at this time, is the drag capital of the world.” (I was one of the cover girls!)
Ironically, all this was happening at a time when America was still pretty hostile to queers. It was sort of like Stonewall all over again, with queens and freaks on the front lines, boldly breaking down barriers. Plus, we had to do a lot of explaining. (No, we weren’t transvestites, transsexuals, or women-haters.) I often had to remind myself that we were doing a public service. We weren’t just drag queens; we were teachers, missionaries, and ambassadresses.
End of an Era
Well, would you look at me — riding high in a fancy limo with Francine (in blue) and Flloyd in 1995. Little did we know that the almighty drag renaissance that we had enjoyed for the past several years would soon come to a close.
Was there one big moment that squashed the drag explosion? A giant meteor crash perhaps? No, nothing that dramatic. The end came about simply because when a scene is that hot, it can only last for so long. Time would have had to stand still for drag’s amazing reign to continue. But as the decade progressed, things did indeed begin to change.
After years of New York being the nightlife capital of the world, law-and-order Mayor Giuliani cracked down hard on the clubs. The after-dark scene began to shrink, the gigs dried up, and the creatures of the night had nowhere to go.
As for the love affair between drag and the media, it was over. The fickle press had decided that it was time to move on and cover some other “trend.” By 1997ish, drag had lost its cache. Even RuPaul’s star began to fade, and her career began a long hiatus.
Of course, drag didn’t disappear altogether. Even a scaled down nightlife continued to be a queenly stronghold. But everything had definitely deflated.
Paving the Path
This photo is almost exactly 20 years old. Here Bertha is strutting the Pyramid Club stage as part of a special show spoofing the then-in-progress 1994 Winter Olympics (including the Tonya Harding — Nancy Kerrigan clash).
Fast forward to 2014, and like the mighty Phoenix, drag has risen again! The Internet is saturated with queens, while RuPaul’s Drag Race churns out today’s drag royalty. Talk about full circle: a new Logo TV miniseries, Ice Queens, stars former contestant Willam Belli as skater Harding. (We did it first, but congratulations.)
New York now has two drag strongholds — Hell’s Kitchen (the city’s gay epicenter) and the outer reaches of Brooklyn, where the youthquake gender-fuck esthetic is reminiscent of the 1980s East Village. However, NYC’s influence has clearly weakened. Thanks to Drag Race, today’s top queens are likely to be from Smalltown, USA, having learned their craft from YouTube tutorials rather than drag mothers.
It’s a whole new drag world, and to all you queens enjoying the moment, my generation has something to say: You're welcome. We paved the way, boldly going where no other gender illusionists had gone before. During difficult times, we rose to the occasion and provided joy and color. It’s no exaggeration: we were the greatest drag generation.
I’ll forever cherish my youthful years of carousing and collaborating with so many wonderful people. Our bond is forever strong. We were inspired, brave, adored, and gorgeous to behold. The proof is in the photos – my photos.
Linda Simpson’s “The Drag Explosion” includes a website, TheDragExplosion.com, and live slideshow presentations. Her debut photo book, PAGES, was published last year by Peradam. Her personal website is LindaSimpson.org.