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Wigstock, 'An Iconic Piece of Drag History,' Lets Its Roots Show At 2018 Revival

Nashom Wooden performs onstage during Wigstock on Sept. 1 at the Pier 17 Rooftop in New York. Wigstock, a drag festival started in the 1980s, returned in 2018.
Nashom Wooden performs onstage during Wigstock on Sept. 1 at the Pier 17 Rooftop in New York. Wigstock, a drag festival started in the 1980s, returned in 2018.
Ricky Jones (left) and Orlando Herrera attend Wigstock, which returned after a 17-year hiatus and a massive rise of drag in pop culture.
/ Mengwen Cao for NPR
Ricky Jones (left) and Orlando Herrera attend Wigstock, which returned after a 17-year hiatus and a massive rise of drag in pop culture.

One late night in the spring of 1984, a group of sauced drag queens leaving Pyramid Club in Manhattan came up with an idea: a Woodstock for drag performers.

Flash-forward a year: The first official Wigstock was born in Tompkins Square Park. Over the next 16 years, the performers kept coming and crowds kept swelling, sometimes into the tens of thousands.

Eventually, a combination of inclement weather and trouble getting permits finally nixed the outdoor festival for good around the turn of the millennium.

But over Labor Day weekend, after a 17-year hiatus and a massive rise of drag in pop culture, Wigstock finally returned — reborn on a rooftop venue in the city's Seaport District, with a massive sound system and partners like Tony Award-winning actor Neil Patrick Harris and his husband, David Burtka.

But despite the new veneers, Lady Bunny — the head organizer, who has performed in the city since 1984 — is certain the spirit of the festival hasn't changed.

"If somebody says, 'Oh, Bunny, you're in this fancy new venue. Has Wigstock sold out? Has it become commercial?' " she said in her opening speech, turning slightly as if looking into an imaginary camera.

"Baby, look at me. Listen to my foul mouth. Do you think I'm ever going to go mainstream?" she said, to cheers from the audience.

Darcelle, 88, is recognized by Guinness World Records as the oldest performing drag queen.
/ Mengwen Cao for NPR
Darcelle, 88, is recognized by Guinness World Records as the oldest performing drag queen.

The revived Wigstock, throughout the night, teetered between reveling in nostalgia — almost like a drag college homecoming — and attempting to make space for an upcoming generation of drag fans.

Queens in attendance ranged from 88-year-old Darcelle — who is recognized by Guinness World Records as the oldest performing drag queen — to kids like Desmond, an 11-year-old with an Instagram following of more than 90,000.

Onstage, performances, including one by Javier, spanned the spectrum — from classic lip sync numbers to a live opera performance.
/ Mengwen Cao for NPR
Onstage, performances, including one by Javier, spanned the spectrum — from classic lip sync numbers to a live opera performance.

The roster also boasted RuPaul's Drag Raceroyalty , like Sharon Needles, Bianca del Rio, Alaska, Bob the Drag Queen and Jinkx Monsoon, as well as "a lot of us from the very beginning," said Varla Jean Merman. She started performing at Wigstock in the mid-'90s.

"Whether you're a look queen or you're bizarre, you make no sense, you're surreal, you're funny — there's really a mixture of all these parts of drag, which a lot of people don't know even exist," she said. "That's really the spirit of Wigstock."

Though it was Pixie Aventura's first time at Wigstock, she has been doing drag since 2005. She said she was the only queen to perform a Latin number at the festival.
/ Mengwen Cao for NPR
Though it was Pixie Aventura's first time at Wigstock, she has been doing drag since 2005. She said she was the only queen to perform a Latin number at the festival.

Onstage, performances spanned the spectrum — from classic lip sync numbers to a jewel-dripped Shequida Hall delivering a live opera performance.

A grungy performance by the rock band The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black featured body paint and a headstand and chanting and smashing raw eggs. Michael Lynch delivered a powerful reading dedicated to LGBTQ pioneer Marsha P. Johnson.

Emperor XX Vanity Society (left) and Elektra City attend Wigstock. The performance roster included<em> RuPaul's Drag</em> <em>Race </em>royalty<em>,</em> like Sharon Needles, Del Rio, Alaska, Bob the Drag Queen and Jinkx Monsoon.
/ Mengwen Cao for NPR
Emperor XX Vanity Society (left) and Elektra City attend Wigstock. The performance roster included<em> RuPaul's Drag</em> <em>Race </em>royalty<em>,</em> like Sharon Needles, Del Rio, Alaska, Bob the Drag Queen and Jinkx Monsoon.

Others vogued, did a sketch on competing in "the Narcissist Olympics," wheeled out a Mini Cooper-sized evening bag, impersonated actress and model Chloë Sevigny, and held storytime with a dragged-up version of Goldilocks.

"Wigstock is an iconic piece of drag history of New York City," attendee Natalie Kocsis said. "It's great to remind people of history ... So I think it's great to bring it back and kind of introduce new artists who people might not recognize from TV."

The idea of getting people together was a big part of bringing the festival back, Lady Bunny said, particularly during a time she sees as a decline in New York City's best scenes.

Attendees cheer during a performance at Wigstock. "Whether you're a look queen or you're bizarre, you make no sense, you're surreal, you're funny — there's really a mixture of all these parts of drag, which a lot of people don't know even exist," Varla Jean Merman said.
/ Mengwen Cao for NPR
Attendees cheer during a performance at Wigstock. "Whether you're a look queen or you're bizarre, you make no sense, you're surreal, you're funny — there's really a mixture of all these parts of drag, which a lot of people don't know even exist," Varla Jean Merman said.

"There didn't used to be a Starbucks, Duane Reade and Chase Bank on every corner. ... All the mom-and-pop stores are closing. New York City seems very corporate and slick and dull," Lady Bunny said after the festival. "Wigstock is something that is uniquely New York."

"I would love to try to keep it going," she continued. "Because, as I see it ... I can sit around and bitch about what New York City has lost, or I can do my best to put on a festival to add something to make it fun again."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Lynch (top, left) performs a monologue from <em>Street Theater</em> by Doric Wilson. Murray Hill (top, right) and Flloyd also took to the stage.
/ Mengwen Cao for NPR
Michael Lynch (top, left) performs a monologue from <em>Street Theater</em> by Doric Wilson. Murray Hill (top, right) and Flloyd also took to the stage.