Drag Queen For A Day
Lady Bunny is the energizer behind ‘Fest of Love & Wigs’
By Kiki Mason
If drag queens could choose an ambassador of good will, it would be a blonde transplanted Southerner known on the downtown scene as “The Lady Bunny.”
For the last nine years, on Labor Day she has promoted Wigstock, a one day festival of “Love and Wigs” in Tompkins Square Park. A somewhat modest happening in its early years, attended by only a few hundred people, Wigstock has grown into a major event, with more than 15,000 spectators in 1992. At least 20,000 are expected Monday.
Wigstock is basically an open-air show by female impersonators in which members of the audience participate with zeal. Think Greenwich Village Halloween parade – you’ll get the idea.
As the festival has grown in size, boosting offbeat acts like Deee-Lite, RuPaul and Lypsinka to stardom, it has also created controversy. This year, Bunny found herself in a public and not very pretty squabble with City Councilman Antonio Pagan, who wanted to limit the festival to four hours. Although she won this round, the mere mention of Pagan causes a hissing, eye-popping reaction right out of Tennessee Williams.
As the hassles grow, it’s not unreasonable to ask why this Greenwich Village resident goes to so much trouble. In other words, why isn’t Bunny out trying to get a TV commercial like the rest of them?
She doesn’t reveal her name or age, but does admit to hailing from Chattanooga, Tennessee, the son of a history professor and a nurse. Her parents, converts to Quakerism, spent a year in Ghana when Bunny was 11 and believed strongly in integration.
“We were very popular in the neighborhood,” says Bunny “as you can imagine. I was six years old when I put my first dress on, and when we came back from Africa I would wear these caftan like things. All the the kids just got used to me.”
And testament to Bunny’s organizing abilities they elected her president of her senior class, she says. “My parents never forced me to be anything, so I was lucky.”
After high school, the bright lights of Atlanta beckoned. While she was a fairly normal college student during the day, Bunny began hanging out in the city’s burgeoning club scene that produced groups like The B-52’s. She fell in with Rupaul, a Deejay named Larry Tee and Lahoma Van Zandt, a white trash-style drag queen who always seemed to have runs in her stockings. Their informal act was known as “The Now Explosion.”
One day, almost on a lark, the group rented a van and headed for New York. They landed at the Pyramid Club an Avenue A when the Pyramid Club was producing drag extravaganzas every night. Bunny had to do a stint dancing on the bar before joining the chorus onstage.
Wigstock came out of a woozy all night drinking session in the Tompkins Square Bandshell. “We thought it would be a hoot to put on a little show for Labor Day,” says Bunny. The first Wigstock featured rock bands and lip-synching drag queens. It turned to be quicker and easier (despite broken heels and lost eyelashes) to get a queen on and off the stage than rock band, and by the third year bands were phased out completely except for a band known as The French Twist who traditionally opened the festival.
“It was really easy the first couple of years. The Pyramid paid for everything in the beginning, and even when they stopped, I could still get by. Everything about Wigstock was really low-key – until the riots.”
Shortly before the festival was set to open in 1989, police squared off in Tompkins Square Park with an assortment of homeless people and neighborhood activists in what turned into three days of violence.
In the aftermath, Bunny found all she really wanted to do was throw a party. When Tompkins Square was closed for renovations in 1991, Wigstock took up temporary residence in Union Square. Next year’s festival may have to be moved because of the sheer size of the event.
“Wigstock is an alternative to the gay pride parade, which this year I found quite disturbing,” says Bunny, taking time to throw a few barbs. “The grand marshals were two people who had served in the military, which is fine, but it doesn’t represent any of the people I know.”
“End the ban? I say ban the military,” says Bunny, adding that she has no political agenda. “Wigstock is for everybody, gay or straight, old or young, as long as they’re kooky, and if you’re going to call something a parade, then it should be just that and nothing else.
Bunny basically gives up having a summer in order to put on Wigstock with partner Scott Lifshutz, who handles the business side of the event. Mapping logistics and keeping egos in check for almost forty drag acts requires a combination of patience and discipline, but somehow Bunny manages to do it without angering the participants.
“Everybody comes back for this one day,” Bunny says. “It’s like performing for your family.”
Even as she worries about things like T-shirt sales, the organizers, club benefits and the location for next year’s Wigstock, Bunny has been taking time to jump start her own career, doing a weekly sold-out show at The Duplex and laying plans for a recording project.
“Even if I do become rich and famous – here she pauses for a dramatic eye-roll – I’ll always want to be involved in some way. I’ve been a good fairy, and hopefully some of that dust from my wand will come back around and hit me.”
Village Wigs Out
Boa feathers fluttered, black polyester clung and hair was everywhere – teased up, frizzed out and curled into a Louis XIV crown.
Yesterday’s annual Wigstock – “a festival of love and wigs” – packed in the crowds in the East Village and made Tompkins Square Park look like a runway preview for Frederick’s of Hollywood.
The annual exhibition was strictly for giggles – no one was wearing politics on his sequined sleeves.
“It’s a gay celebration without the political overtones,” said David Kooy, 36, a Washington D.C. realtor with a Carol Channing wig and a tennis skirt. “I think this is a hell of a lot more fun.”
“These are people dealing with the AIDS crisis every day,” said Owen Hartley, 42, a Capital Cities executive, from beneath an 18th century French cascade 0of curls. “This is a good way to lift your spirits.”
It did just that for the stage performers, the drag dressers and the straight spectators.
Begun in the ’80 as an outgrowth of the drag scene at the Pyramid, a local club, Wigstock has grown to be one of the major entertainment events in the neighborhood. This year’s scene and stage acts – including the band Deee-Lite and drag entertainer Ru Paul – were captured by documentary filmmakers.
Cameras clicked at the throng, which included a blue-wigged Spiderwoman; a 7-foot San Diegan in fishnets, and a man called Billy Beyond who smothered himself in red greasepaint and wore an Eastern headdress while singing “Shiva, the Hindu Homegirl.”
“It’s not to self-promote. It’s having fun,” said Jon Laspinas, 23, a University of California student dressed in plaid hip huggers, a foil vest and lame. Atop his head was a Day-Glo hat of words: “Me, Me, Me.” He opened his vest, baring his chest for another photographer. “I feel like a star!” he gasped. “You are,” replied the cameraman.
“We think Labor Day needed to be shaken up a little bit,” said Jim Johnson, 45, a gay accountant who came to watch. His straight sister, visiting from Tokyo, could only gasp: “I’m still recovering.”