A light drizzle can’t dampen a drag festival. We learned that years ago, when Wigstock would always weather the elements and keep on thriving, perhaps with a little extra makeup sealant thrown on.
Back when drag was still subversive, Wigstock was an annual outdoor drag festival that captivated crowds in the ‘80s, ultimately growing as exponentially as gender-bending host Lady Bunny’s hair. Originally held at Tompkins Square Park in New York City’s East Village, the frisky fest moved to the Hudson River piers, and started welcoming non-drag dance music acts and even some sponsors as it became a must-see event for throngs of locals and game tourists. Bunny—who co-organized the annual happening (with Scott Lifshutz)—always took the stage to banter with the crowd, change outfits, and bring on an array of other preening, shticking, lipsynching, and even singing drag queens who aimed to tickle and titillate. In 2001, Wigstock ended, but then it came back to Tompkins Square Park till 2005, and last year it returned again—as a cruise! A sort of gay Love Boat! And last night (the second such cruise), it sailed again, this time with a plethora of old-school drag queens who’ve been with Wigstock from gay one—long before RuPaul’s Drag Race became required viewing for gays and bachelorettes. The performers—who included Tabboo! (artist Stephen Tashjian, who designs clothing for Marc Jacobs)—were all giddy groundbreakers clearly relishing the chance to get into heels again.
As the gender benders took the waters on the “Sea Tea” leaving from Pier 40 near Houston Street and heading around Manhattan, they experienced minor bouts of precipitation, but it barely mattered, especially since most of the boat consisted of indoor space. By 7:30 p.m, the hairspray-filled vessel was teeming with revelers, including neo-burlesque/porn star Chris “Go Go” Harder in a blond pompadour and Broadway wig dresser Steven Kirkham (AKA drag performer Perfidia) in a black-and-pink hairdo and a jazzily tiered dress. After grabbing some chicken and salad from the buffet, revelers danced to DJ Johnny Dynell’s disco hits on the lower deck, then settled in for the energetic two-part show. As an opener, Bunny—in the world’s largest wig since Dolly Parton hit the Grand Ole Opry—sang a revised version of the Gilligan’s Island theme, ending with “A movie star, Lady Bunny, and Marianne…here on Wigstock, the cruise!” She then mocked a rival drag comic, setting the Friar’s Roast-like tone of the evening, which cohost Linda Simpson cemented by deadpanning, “We’d like to give a shoutout to our celebrity liquor sponsor. Thank you, Bill Cosby.”
The show was heavy on the old-time impressions and homages, with some performers advising the younger folk in the crowd to just “google it”. Forbidden Broadway actor Michael West was Liza Minnelli, singing “I’ve been to Betty Ford, but I’ve never been to me.” As the Dueling Bankheads, performers David Ilku and Clark Render channeled boozy stage actress Tallulah Bankhead, asking us to “Vote Bankhead” and listing their platforms as “Party till you puke! Make mine a double! Fly me to the moon!” Impressionist Jimmy James did eight different divas trading off on Duke Ellington’s “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)”, going from throaty Cher to plaintive Judy with élan. And Glamamore and Connie Fleming—who were “Boy Bar beauties” at the ‘80s St. Marks Place haunt the Boy Bar—did a rousing version of the Barbra Streisand/Donna Summer duet “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)”, complete with cartwheels, fighting, and dizzying lip work.
The San Francisco-based Glamamore did another dazzling duet in the second half. She and another drag queen, Juanita More, were attached in a single, sparkly dress to perform a conjoined twin version of a Patti Labelle song that was twitchily hilarious and letter perfect. Bunny (whose birth name is Jon Ingle) hit the stage in her fourth outfit of the night to sing a riotous rewrite of “I’m Still Here,” about changes in the city’s culture—in Times Square, for example. (“They replaced Puerto Rican beefcakes with five-dollar cupcakes, but I eat both, so I’m here.”) California transplant Ebony Jett said she missed being in New York for the taste of real pizza and bagels, “and I miss how good a man looks when he gets out of Riker’s.” And the nostalgia kept coming when saucy drag star Flotilla DeBarge grabbed the mic to bitterly demand, “Take back RuPaul’s Dog Race!”
The whole shebang ended on a bittersweet note, with John Kelly emerging in a slinky green gown as Joni Mitchell and trilling “Wigstock” to the tune of “Woodstock”—just the way all those Wigstocks used to end. On hitting land again, one sensed that the retro ride had been a revival for some, an education for others, and more rewarding than a Gilligan’s Island episode for virtually everyone.
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