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Revisiting New York’s Legendary Drag Explosion of the 1990s

Revisiting New York’s Legendary Drag Explosion of the 1990s

Downtown New York nightlife icon Linda Simpson looks back at the way ‘90s drag culture transformed the way we think about gender, beauty, fashion, and glamour today.

Once relegated to the margins, drag queens came center stage in New York City in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, as a new generation of luminous beauties came of age in the downtown nightlife scene. Eschewing the female impersonator style of past performers, young artists took their cues from Warhol Superstars like Holly Woodlawn. Candy Darling, and Jackie Curtis as well as cult sensation Divine to create personality driven entertainment. Visionaries like Lady Bunny, Lypsinka, and Kevin Aviance became celebrities in their own right, transforming the way we think about gender, beauty, fashion, and glamour today. 

Lady Bunny at Webster Hall. Of all the majestic nightclubs that thrived in the early 1990s, it is one of the few still standing, 1992 © Linda Simpson

In 1992, RuPaul’s nightlife anthem “Supermodel (You Better Work)” a nightlife anthem became a global phenomenon, taking the leggy luminary to superstar heights. With his trademark blonde tresses. flawless physique, and exquisite wardrobe, RuPaul began his journey to take drag mainstream, a dream he fully realized with the smash reality TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race, which first began airing in 2009.

But back in the 1980s, drag was still underground, and slowly taking root at the Pyramid Club, a queer nightspot on Avenue A long before the East Village was gentrified. It was here that Linda Simpson — who The New York Times described as “a mother superior of the New York drag scene” — first got her start. Along the way, Simpson, an amateur photographer, amassed an archive of some 5,000 photographs, a selection of which are included in the new book, The Drag Explosion (Domain).

Jem Jender taking a shopping break from a music video shoot, 1994 © Linda Simpson

Big City of Dreams

“The only reason I wanted to move to New York was for the city itself. I wasn’t very ambitious or careerist. I was especially attracted by the thriving nightlife, the street life, and the gay scene,” says Simpson, a native of Gaylord, Minnesota, who moved to the city to attend NYU in the mid-80s. “When I told people I was moving to New York, they were like, ‘Are you crazy?’ Because their view was that it was crime-ridden and a horrible place to live — but in a way that made New York a little more special because only the people who really wanted to be here were here.”

In 1986, Simpson began frequenting the Pyramid and fell in with a dazzling cast of characters that included RuPaul, Tabboo!, Sister Dimension, Billy Beyond, and Hapi Place. It was a revelation. “When I started doing drag I didn’t even have a name, which was kind of awkward because people would call me by my real name. I was searching for a name. Tabboo! suggested, ‘Why not go for realness?’” Simpson recalls of the “flirty career girl” look that set her apart from some of the scene’s more over-the-top personas. 

Kabuki Starshine on the town, 1993  © Linda Simpson

The following year, Simpson moved from Chelsea to the East Village and got her start in the scene hosting parties for the release of My Comrade, a tongue-in-chic zine she published as a way to fight against homophobia as the AIDS epidemic began to surge. In 1990, Simpson partnered with DJ Dany Johnson to launch Channel 69, a weekly party featuring drag shows at the Pyramid. A star was born.

“All the freaks and the drag queens in the VIP room getting free drinks and free admission while the masses are beneath us!”

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 © Linda Simpson

Divas to the Dancefloor… Please

In the early 1990s, the New York nightlife scene exploded with hundreds of clubs, bars, and lounges scattered across the downtown landscape offering every permutation of music, style, and crowd imaginable. With so many locales, nightclubs brought together an extraordinary mix of people every night of the week, making rag a regular part of the scene. 

“You could certainly rely on a gay crowd for a particular night but a lot of these places were very mixed, and that was the norm back then: gays, straights, drag queens, transsexuals. You would meet people slumming it from the Upper East Side or people out on their last dime from the East Village,” Simpson remembers. 

“Peter Gatien’s clubs were bridge and tunnel attendees but a lot of Club Kids were on payroll. I remember when I was working at one of the big clubs my friend said, ‘Oh my God, this is the way it should be all the time! All the freaks and the drag queens in the VIP room getting free drinks and free admission while the masses are beneath us’ — because we were up on a balcony.”

Francine and Thadeus at the Copacabana, 1992 © Linda Simpson

If Madonna Calls, I’m Not Here

Throughout it all, Simpson carried a camera, documenting the scene as an insider creating a visual diary. “The photos always conjure up sensations of particular moments. I can hear the music that was playing back then. I remember entering the clubs and some of the franticness of the scene. People smoked all over back then and when you would come home your wig would just reek of cigarette smoke,” Simpson says with a laugh.

Once “Supermodel” hit the airwaves, the downtown drag scene began to receive its proper due from Hollywood and the mainstream media. “All of a sudden, there were a ton of magazine articles and daytime talk shows focusing on drag. Primetime TV shows that had drag themes and would hire drag extras. To Wong Foo, the movie, started filming in New York City and there was a lot of desire to have drag queens as part of the mix. We were in demand.”

Afrodite, London Broil and Ebony Jet in the Pyramid Club dressing room, 1992 © Linda Simpson

With drag finally recognized as an art in its own right, the “Gay 90s” was back and better than before, planting the seeds of a more inclusive contemporary culture that is blossoming now. But Simpson’s candid portraits remind of that which has begun to disappear, a way of life before social media created an insatiable desire for instant gratification and careerist ambitions transformed ideas of self-presentation. 

Here Simpson’s subjects are wholly in the moment, with no thought of anything but posing for a quick shot. As such we see downtown icons in moments of public splendor and private repose, wholly unconcerned with what tomorrow holds. “I’m not even sure what my motivation was,” Simpson says of her photographs. “I wasn’t constantly taking photos. In retrospect I wish I had taken more.” 

By Miss Rosen

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.

RuPaul, 1992 © Linda Simpson

The Drag Explosion
Domain Publishing 

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