Wigstock 2003; Coming Home Again

Posted By Brie Austin In Category: Events , Reviews

Wigstock 2003“Late one night in the spring of ’84 a drunken group of friends, seeking more diversions, closed the Pyramid Club and traipsed over to Tompkins Square Park, six-packs in tow. Brian Butterick, Michael “Kitty” Ullman, Wendy Wild, The “Lady” Bunny and a few members of the Fleshtones were horsing around in the bandshell when someone (no one remembers who, it’s all such a blur) came up with the idea of putting on a show – a day-long drag festival – and calling it Wigstock. It was Bunny who was foolhardy enough to take the idea seriously, going recklessly ahead and getting the necessary permits.” (As posted on the HOWL Festival website 2003).

From the 1,000 attendees that first year, the event became the most celebrated drag extravaganza in the country, if not the world, attracting as many as 25,000 people a year – gay, trans, straight, and tourists alike. By 1991, then held at the Chelsea Pier (they outgrew the park), the event featured celebrity talent such as RuPaul, Lypsinka and other’s, and enjoyed its fabled run until closing in the summer of 2001.

Its been said that, “you can’t go home again.” But on Saturday 23rd 2003 for three hours that’s exactly what Wigstock did.  Lady Bunny, as she had done since that first year,  took center stage in Tompkins Square Park to “Emcee” a reprise of the famed event as part of the six day HOWL – a lower eastside arts festival in NYC. And they didn’t disappoint.  I arrived late – just as the Famous “Bob” took the stage and dedicated her number to the memory of International Chrysis, a cabaret performer who was a very beloved trans-pioneer, and to me a friend I remember fondly.  The crowd was so thick I had to struggle to get to the backstage gate as a Liza impersonator on stage made me do a double take, and if it wasn’t for the towering Dean Johnson, the 6’7” drag queen lead singer of the group The Velvet Mafia, I may not have found it. The show was packed with trans performers and celebrities on stage and backstage. I ran into Devotion, Linda Simpson, and Peppermint, in addition to all the performers anxiously waiting their turn to once again take the stage and do their thing, as if it were the very first time.

The show was well mixed, and the audience loved it. It was a feel-good afternoon party, beginning at 4:30pm and scheduled to end at 6:30pm (we all knew better), but actually ran until almost 7:30pm. Mother’s were there with kids, and a generally mixed crowd put their hands overhead and swayed as Sade Pendarvis sang John Lennon’s “Imagine.”  Sweetie wowed ‘em with her lip-synched rendition of Madonna’s “Like A Prayer,” and the famed and fabulous Lypsinka was, well, fabulous!  Dean Johnson had the crowd smiling as he mused that just because he might sleep with you, doesn’t mean you can be his dance partner. Miss Formika delivered a passionate version of “Aquarius,” with her flower children in tow, while Afro-dite, from Boston, demonstrated drag creativity when she pealed away layers of clothing and wigs, to continually change her persona as the song developed. Cashetta did a little magic, Flotilla sang her ass off, and then there was the Dueling Tallulahs — a pair of dressed-in-black queens who do Tallulah Bankhead, singing “Y-M-I-Gay,” to the Village People’s song YMCA. Afterwards, Randy Jones (The cowboy of the Village People) was on hand to take the stage to say hello to the crowd and give the two old broads a hug. All the time we were delighted by Bunny’s quick and edgy wit. But when you say the words Kevin Aviance, who is enjoying a #1 Billboard dance song, it’s the same as saying, “hold on to your garter strap, a tornado is coming!”  Her power on stage is overwhelming and she gives 150% in every performance, today was no exception.

With such a great show inquiring minds needed to know, so I asked Lady Bunny, “is there a chance Wigstock might return next year?” and she replied, “ I had no intention of reviving the festival annually, but it turned out so beautifully, that I really don’t know at this time. HOWL Festival did most of the work (fundraising, stage set-up, portable toilets, etc) so that I could focus on putting the show together.”  In reflecting back on the day she continued, “ Wigstock was born here, at Tompkins Square Park, so it felt like a homecoming.” Seeing all the beautiful artwork around the park, to celebrate HOWL, she said, “It was one of those NYC moments when you think – oh yeah, this is why I moved here!”

At Tompkins Square Park, the show for me (and apparently Lady Bunny) is much more endearing and intimate – like a neighborhood gathering. The trees diluted the hot rays of the sun, in contrast to the open area and sweltering heat of the Chelsea Piers. “I prefer a wide area for the audience as opposed to the long narrow one we had at the pier,” Lady Bunny said. As Maki and I were leaving the park she reunited with a friend she had lost touch with who had taken her to her first Wigstock.  As I watched the two women exchange hugs, phone numbers and the genuine good feelings of being reunited, I realized then that that same sentiment seemed to linger in the air. For Wigstock, and the people who came in droves to share the experience, it felt good to come home again!

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About Brie Austin

Co-author of I'd Do It Again, he is a columnist/reporter for a variety of magazines in the areas of music, lifestyle, nightlife, travel and business. He also writes business documents and creates copy for websites.

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