Wigstock 1989 Press
September 4, 1989
by Rick Sugden
The crowd at Tompkins Square Park – numbering in the thousands – is silent and focused in the beautiful singer on stage. When she throws her head back her long, straight, brown fall sweeps off her shoulders revealing a finely sculpted profile. The octave swoop and the giggles are so artfully done it gives you chills down your spine. You’d swear that Joni had decided to bless us with her presence. Behind her are the musical instruments the more than 50 scheduled performers will use. On the back wall of the band shell is a mural with caricatures of some of the drag queens that will perform: Lypsinka, Hapi Phace, the Connie Girl, and the curlicue trademark letters of the artist TABOO! – Wigstock.
Just three weeks after the summer of 1988 Tompkins Square Riots, the park is alive with drag queens and their friends celebrating Peace, Love and Wigs! Flyers advertising the event read, “have a riot in Tompkins Square Park.” As Joni (performed by Dagmar Onassis, as performed by John Kelly) finishes her variation on the song “Woodstock,” the crowd rips open with applause and screams. People are flashing signs and I feel a bit embarrassed at being on the verge of tears.
The “lady” Bunny dashes up to the mike; “Let’s hear it for Joni!” She’s so sweet! I don’t know what Wig stock would be like without her. Isn’t she special?” The crowd roars with approval as much for Bunny as for Joni. Bunny has on a caftan number that resembles a tablecloth from an Indian restaurant on Sixth Street, worn so that the corners just barely cover her crotch and butt. Her nails are glittering and her make up is as always the most understated of all the LES drag queens. Her wig (or is it wigs? It looks so big) is a blonde cascade with a bubble in the back that looks like a late sixties Ann Margaret with a serious hairdo. She is waving a copy of the Wigstock program, which in an agreement with the parks department, she is forbidden to sell. “The suggested donation is one dollar and I suggest you pay it or you won’t get one.” After the next introduction she heads to the side of the stage to watch the act, check her make up and hair, make sure the next act is somewhere near prepared, and keep various rowdy types from mounting the stage. She does all this without panic because after four years of organizing and performing in Wigstock, its second nature.
One night in the spring of 1984, Bunny, Brian Butterick, Wendy Wild, Michael “kitty” Ullman and members of the as yet unformed Love Delegation were in the park when a drunken conversation turned to the idea of having a daytime concert in the band shell. Since these people were involved with the Pyramid club (started by Butterick, Sister Dimension and Bobby Bradley in 1981, and for years headquarters to the East Village queen scene), it had to have drag queens. Butterick, Ullman and Peter Zaremba being rock queens from way back hit on the idea of Woodstock. But it was Bunny who took up the idea, got the needed permits from the Parks department and the police and organized the event. Now in 1989 she’s presenting the fifth annual Wigstock with “every east village performance art type queen in the downtown scene. A Partial list of the over 40 acts includes Bunny herself, Hapi Phace, Taboo!, Sister Dimension, (all queens who made the Pyramid scene) , those Gallic grove-makers French Twist, Wendy Wild as the amphetamine “Joey Heatherock” , Phoebe Leger, dancer Michael Clark, the rocking psychedelic soul of Peter Zaremba and the Love Delegation, Joey Arias, the Boy Bar Beauties, comedian Barbara Patterson Lloyd and the wildly entertaining Suhkreet Gable.
Born in Chattanooga, Bunny came to New York in 1983 as a traveling companion for Ru Paul and Larry Tee’s band from Atlanta, The Now Explosion. They had met in college in Atlanta and knew each other when Bunny, who did a baton twirling act, was crowned “Miss 688” at a local “alternative rock” bar. Although Bunny had been in drag before, it wasn’t until she came to New York and found the Pyramid on Ave. A that she became the performer she is today.
She started dancing on the bar. (“To think that someone wanted to pay me to dress up and dance for them was so thrilling!”) Then came bit parts in Pyramid productions like “Charlie’s Angel’s.” Her first solo performance was a lip-synch to “I Will Survive.” In the middle of the song, she was blinded by the lights and fell into the audience. Having had her first taste of audience response as the crowd roared, she bounced back on stage, the song personified. She became known for her energetic renditions of Patti Labelle songs. For a long time no other drag queen dared attempt a lip synch to her tour de force, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Unlike most drag queens, the lady Bunny also sings, usually to backing tracks of famous songs. (She does the most credible cover of Bobbie Gentry’s “Fancy” I have ever seen.) With ex-main squeeze Dimitri (currently Delite) and Sister Dimension, Bunny also had a band, “Shazork!”, which made stab at disco with a Pyramid in-house live recording of an original song, “Is it up to me?” Disco survived, but the song didn’t and neither did the band.
Though the lady is one of the most sought after entertainers in the city, she supplements her theatrical income working on the 550-9999/chicks with dicks phone line. “It gives me an independence from relying on the shyster promoters in this city.” She quickly adds, “not that they are ALL shysters.” The appeal of working the phone lines is that it is more relaxed, you don’t have to dress up and it’s an easy way to get dates. “The guys that call are gay but it is just pushed so far back in their minds that they don’t want to suck a dick unless it pops out from under skirt.” Is that what made a sweet southern boy with a sharp tongue a drag queen? “I don’t know – maybe the pressures of being a sissy in the south pushed me into being a drag queen but I think it was the theatrical part that attracted me. I mean, when I saw my first queen my eyes popped outta my head and I knew I wanted to do that. It wasn’t a sexual thing at all.”
Although Bunny’s performing passion is for the Black disco diva, especially her alter ego Patti Labelle, she is quick to point out that she is not a “female impersonator” of the Judy-Barbra-Diana school; she’s a drag queen. Female impersonators try to present a picture perfect copy of their idols whereas performers like Bunny, Hapi and TABOO! Create a spectacle that often relies on the deception being deceived by showing the cracks in the artifice. “My show that I put on has got to have a strong dose of the nutty and the ill prepared,” squeaks Bunny in her southern accent. Wigstock, and the entire mentality that personifies it, is something that requires a thinking audience. I think sophisticated people have always enjoyed [drag queens]. Bunny thinks of her self-creation as a twisted Up With People type of person. When I asked her who she thought personified the spirit of Wigstock she said Carol Channing. “She’s such a fool, I can’t believe she’s made it this far.”
After getting the permits, Bunny starts Rounding up the performers. Scott Lifshutz does an equal amount of work designing posters, t-shirts, putting the program together, etc. Tom Rubnitz, the auteur of the video Wigstock – The Movie also greatly helps in the production. To raise money for the sound system and other expenses, Bunny organizes fundraisers around town. (This year she tried getting corporate sponsors from the “hip” liquor companies, but no luck). Of course, the madness and running around takes a toll on a drag queen.
“I have to make sure I eat lots of pork.” She says. “ Pork is the meat that makes you mean, it makes you aggressive and I’m such a sweet little country girl that in this dog-eat-dog world I need it to give myself that aggressive edge that a ‘professional female impersonator’ in New York has to have dealing with these shyster promoters.” She giggles at her own outrageousness and ponders some of the problems of Wigstock. “It is difficult to use the bathroom. I’m glad the paparazzi weren’t around when I was forced to go to the bathroom behind a tree in the park.”
That was a luck break for Bunny as not only paparazzi but TV cameras too are now Wigstock staples, adding to the event’s glamour. The performers at Wigstock, in fact, work for free, their payoff being the honor – and the publicity – of being part of a LES tradition. Last week the networks CNN and MTV covered the event for reports that were shown repeatedly over the weekend. Interview had a full-page photo of a little girl wearing a wig. Reports have popped up on “Midnight Blue” the Manhattan cable porn show, in Details, and the Italian Magazine Per Lui. Al Goldstein’s Screw Magazine said, in the year of the harmonic convergence, that Wigstock was the hormonal convergence that ushered in the age of asparagus.”
What exactly makes Wigstock such a popular event? The nostalgic homage to the 1969 concert is tangential – rock bands, love beads, flowers and performers belting out a “peace and love” at the end of their set. Jesse Hultberg performs as Peter, Paul and Big Mary, A one-person trio singing Poof the Magic Drag Queen and I’m Weaving On A Hair Piece (sung to the tune of Leaving On a Jet Plane) But the appeal is not limited to the 60’s. For example, Lypsinka, the Russian defectress, does routines from her off-Broadway show. The Boy Bar Beauties’ 1988 crowd-pleasing rendition of Afternoon Delight, while nostalgic, has nothing to do with the Peace and Love generation.
Wigstock is quintessential contemporary entertainment in its references to the past. It’s an 80’s post-modern nostalgia for authenticity and innocence. But what makes it so popular is that is it the only annual community event of its kind that takes place in the park. It is a celebration not so much of the 60’s as a celebration of the renaissance of the gay sensibility that has taken place in the Lower East Side. Since the opening of The Pyramid, Avenue A and its environs have been a refuge for the rebellious funsters of the queer nation. Bunny speaks for a lot of us when she says she likes Wigstock because “it is such a sick treat to see these tramps out in broad daylight.”