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Wigstock Best Served with a Sense of Self

Even with drag’s mainstreaming, stellar vets still thrilled

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I remember seeing a flier on an East Village lamppost years ago, advertising something called Wigstock. This will be interesting, I thought. Talk about understatement — it was fascinating.

I made it a point to go every year that I could (I was at almost every one), shooting God knows how much film and marveling at the creativity and outrageousness of everyone involved — and everyone was involved. There wasn’t much separation between the performers and the audience then, it was all one big communal gathering in a perfect setting that felt like our backyard. In the very early days in Tompkins Square Park, you could probably count the attendees without much trouble. There was no real “backstage,” and, for me, the real show was the audience. People filled the park with costumes of bold inventiveness, served with a sense of humor and a sense of self. Custom-made wigs defied gravity, and so did some of the queens, tottering on heels that may have been modified from stilts.

In the days long before RuPaul was a household name, Lady Bunny and Scott Lifshutz had created a particularly unique event — one day a year when the denizens of the Pyramid’s drag scene, and anyone else, could parade about and be admired (and gawked at) in broad daylight.

Of course, it was inevitable that the event would outgrow the park, and once it did it was never really the same. It was mounted at Union Square Park and then on a pier on the West Side, losing the charm of our East Village oasis. Please do not think, however, that I am not thrilled that Lady Bunny was once again onstage at Pier 17 on September 1, showing off her wigs, her legs, and her not-exactly-PC brand of comedy. For a somewhat pricey ticket, you got stellar talent, with Wigstock veterans Joey Arias, the Toilet Böys, Lypsinka, and hardcore performance art by The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black and Kembra Pfahler, alongside “Drag Race” stars Bob the Drag Queen and Peppermint. Justin Vivian Bond was her usual riveting self, and Amanda Lepore was, well, Amanda Lepore (but that’s all she needs to be).

Neil Patrick Harris (also a producer of the event) doing a number from “Hedwig and The Angry Inch” in character was a showstopper and, in fact, the end of the show. This year, it was really all about the show. While many audience members dressed for the occasion, they were in the minority and very few showed the kind of originality that was on parade back in the day.

Comparing the latest edition of Wigstock to the original neighborhood dragfest is a bit like thinking about the way you miss your kids when they were younger. You know they had to grow up and you are glad that they are mature and healthy, but you can’t help missing how cute they were back then. “RuPaul’s Drag Race” is a major sign that this culture has entered the mainstream, and Wigstock’s success was a stepping stone along the way.

I still remember leaving Tompkins after another Wigstock, as RuPaul was standing on a bench trying to sell her T-shirts. Things have definitely changed.

Updated 11:37 pm, September 12, 2018
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