Wigstock, 'An Iconic Piece of Drag History,' Lets Its Roots Show At 2018 Revival : The Picture Show For years, Wigstock was a staple of New York City's drag scene. And after a 17-year hiatus and a boom in drag's popularity, the outdoor festival returned.
NPR logo Wigstock, 'An Iconic Piece of Drag History,' Lets Its Roots Show At 2018 Revival

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. Mengwen Cao for NPR hide caption

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Mengwen Cao for NPR

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.

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. Mengwen Cao for NPR hide caption

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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.

Mengwen Cao for NPR

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.

Attendees fight for a wig fired from a T-shirt cannon by actors Neil Patrick Harris and David Burkta. Mengwen Cao for NPR hide caption

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Mengwen Cao for NPR

Attendees fight for a wig fired from a T-shirt cannon by actors Neil Patrick Harris and David Burkta.

Mengwen Cao for NPR

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.

Lady Bunny — the head organizer, who has performed in the city since 1984 — is quick to say the spirit of Wigstock hasn't changed. Mengwen Cao for NPR hide caption

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Lady Bunny — the head organizer, who has performed in the city since 1984 — is quick to say the spirit of Wigstock hasn't changed.

Mengwen Cao for NPR

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 hide caption

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Mengwen Cao for NPR

Darcelle, 88, is recognized by Guinness World Records as the oldest performing drag queen.

Mengwen Cao for NPR

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 hide caption

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Mengwen Cao for NPR

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

Mengwen Cao for NPR

The roster also boasted RuPaul's Drag Race royalty, 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 hide caption

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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.

Mengwen Cao for NPR

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.

Sherry Vine (from left), Jackie Beat, Lady Bunny and Bianca Del Rio open up the show. "To be here now is quite fun," Del Rio said. "I remember as a young child, I had a videotape of Wigstock." Mengwen Cao for NPR hide caption

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Sherry Vine (from left), Jackie Beat, Lady Bunny and Bianca Del Rio open up the show. "To be here now is quite fun," Del Rio said. "I remember as a young child, I had a videotape of Wigstock."

Mengwen Cao for NPR

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

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

Mengwen Cao for NPR

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."

Miss Understood was pretty in pink for Wigstock's reopening. Mengwen Cao for NPR hide caption

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Miss Understood was pretty in pink for Wigstock's reopening.

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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 hide caption

toggle caption
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.

Mengwen Cao for NPR

"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."

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

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Mengwen Cao for NPR

Michael Lynch (top, left) performs a monologue from Street Theater by Doric Wilson. Murray Hill (top, right) and Flloyd also took to the stage.

Mengwen Cao for NPR

Scarlet Envy performs for a crowd at the end of the night. "Wigstock is something that is uniquely New York," Lady Bunny said. "And I would love to try to keep it going." Mengwen Cao for NPR hide caption

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Mengwen Cao for NPR

Scarlet Envy performs for a crowd at the end of the night. "Wigstock is something that is uniquely New York," Lady Bunny said. "And I would love to try to keep it going."

Mengwen Cao for NPR