The agony, ecstasy and hedonism of NYC’s early drag scene

Photography by Linda Simpson. Liz ruling at the Pyramid Club 1992

Drag queen Linda Simpson was front and centre during the mid-’80s nightlife boom, snapping away at subversive figures like RuPaul, Leigh Bowery and Keith Haring. Now, these photographs have been immortalised in her debut book, The Drag Explosion.

In the mid-1980s, New York City was set alight with the ferocious energy of its drag sisters, fearlessly emerging from the dark corners of underground haunts in the East Village and Meatpacking District. Amongst them was Linda Simpson, debuting on the scene after moving from sleepy Minnesota. She would go on to publish the revolutionary queer magazine, My Comrade – the transgressive, self-proclaimed court jester of queer press”, and land her own night, Channel 69, at the Pyramid Club – a small but electrifying antidote to the then-dominating mega-clubs like Studio 54.

Brushing shoulders with renowned queens like Lady Bunny, RuPaul, and Tabboo!, Simpson developed a sisterhood bond to help battle the city’s demons, then at the peak of the AIDS epidemic. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I needed that armour to get through it,” she says. It was escapism.”

Photo evidence of these hedonistic, table-top dancing days is rare, and those that exist are often preened and polished, detracting from the underground edge that gave NYC its heady reputation. But thanks to Linda, who would often bring her point-and-shoot camera along for the ride, those riotous years have now been unearthed. Initially snapping away to shrug off her shyness, Linda took tonnes” of photographs between 1986 and 1996; RuPaul tucking bills into a go-go dancer’s waistband, Leigh Bowery ready to give birth on-stage at Wigstock, and the otherworldly parties at Michael Alig’s notorious club night, Disco 2000. Documented alongside these household names are also the queer activists and lesser-known faces of the scene, all who helped fan drag’s momentous flame.

I knew 99 per cent of the people in my photos,” Linda says. That’s why they have an intimacy about them, because it wasn’t just a stranger; it was me.”

Now published in a 250-page book, The Drag Explosion charts the drag her-storian’s journey through those seminal years, a compelling insight into an era which laid the foundations of a cultural phenomenon. It’s a book of photos of people who just wanted to have fun,” she says. Below, Linda talks us through the people and the places of some of her favourite photographs.

Kabuki Starshine and Keda at the Limelight Entering the club kid bash Disco 2000 was like being swept away to a far away galaxy 1993

The most exciting club was the Limelight – the headquarters of the club kids. Ecstasy was the drug, and it was very charged. On Wednesday night, Michael Alig’s party, Disco 2000, was very decadent and very fun. There was this wild, pounding music and you would run into people like Kabuki and Kede, who Michael hired to host and look fabulous and attract people to come. Everyone in costume was elevated to god-like status. It was like space aliens had landed on Earth, and everyone was in awe of them.”

Page at my apartment 1991

Page was transgender and a performance artist. She was always wildly attired, and many people referred to her as the White Grace Jones.’

This photo was taken in my apartment in 1991 when our friendship was blossoming. Because Page was trans, she stuck out from our Pyramid scene. There were trans clubs too, and she introduced me to that scene. I learned a lot about the particularities of being trans, at least in that era. There were a lot of joys, but it was a very harsh life for many, too. It was common that people started as drag queens and realised that trans was their true being. Page was different because she had already done that and then entered the drag scene. But for many, the clubs were a springboard to a more self-fulfilled identity.”

Leigh Bowery at the short lived Parallel club On his visits from London the famed eccentric would cause a major splash as he raced from club to club 1991

Leigh was big, but he was fast, and he would tear from club to club. I think he liked coming over [from London] and causing a scene. [This night] Page was co-hosting a party, and Leigh was on the dance floor.

I saw Leigh perform once, at Wigstock in 1993 when he pretended to give birth. To everyone’s surprise, he had a full-grown woman strapped to his belly, who burst out covered with blood and gripping an umbilical cord. I screamed in shock, along with the rest of the audience.”

Keith Haring attending Andy Warhols memorial at St Patricks Cathedral 1987

I was absolutely fascinated by Warhol and his world; it’s one of the reasons I moved to New York City. Warhol was a visible presence in the city, so it was a huge blow to underground avant-garde glamorous New York when he died. I went to his memorial service, which was open to the public at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.”

RuPaul and Willi Ninja at Coffee Shop restaurant across from Union Square park where Wigstock was held that year Both performed later that day 1991

Ru and I travelled in the same circle. I don’t think Ru and Willie knew each other well; they were coincidentally sitting at the same booth. As history would have it, both went on to become extremely iconic. This photo captures a meeting of greats. Ru hadn’t yet broken through with Supermodel – this was just when she was starting to glam up her look. Ru was always very driven to get ahead, but I don’t know if I would have bet on her reaching such heights. Willie performed that day, and I remember Lady Bunny being ridiculous and chanting along with his vogueing.”

Adam Matt and George at Wigstock in Tompkins Square Park 1988

This photo is indicative of just how interactive Wigstock was. It was an introduction to the cool factor of drag and the audience was very diverse. The emphasis was on this big stage show that Lady Bunny produced, modelled after the old hippie event. This is an image of Adam, Matt, and George, back in the early days of Wigstock when it was still at Tompkins Square Park. This was at the peak of the AIDS pandemic, and you can tell by George’s shirt and the sticker on Adam’s chest that Act Up had its presence there. It was a sign of resistance, strength, and gay power.”

The Drag Explosion is available to pre-order at domain​books​.org

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