PRINT March 2003


1985: Wigstock

Clark Render, Jimmy Paulette, and John Kelly as Joni Mitchell, Wigstock, 1985.

IT WAS THE BEGINNING OF THE END, or the end of the beginning, depending on which denizen of the then still fabulous East Village you consult. It was also the year of the first Wigstock. Back then—late in the summer of ’85—an afternoon of drag delirium was little more than a predictably eccentric bit of neighborhood fanfare, not the mass public spectacle the celebration would soon become. Relatively more organized than the general chaos native to its Tompkins Square Park locale, the inaugural Wigstock was nonetheless pieced together from the same ragged fabric. It might not even stand out so clearly now from the many other great moments of collective absurdity endemic to that scene, except that at some point during that glorious day, we all shared an epiphanic hallucination: Somehow or other, Joni Mitchell took the stage and performed her 1970 classic, “Woodstock,” an anthem for a generation other than ours. It really happened like that—except (a) it sounded more like she was singing “Wigstock” than “Woodstock,” (b) the folk diva was clearly wearing a wig, and (c) she happened to be inhabiting the corporeal form of a certain John Kelly.

Few are left who recall the anarchic amateurism of Wigstock ’85. So many of the best, from John Sex to Wendy Wild, died much too young. Even Lady Bunny—who created Wigstock in the enthusiasm of her first year in New York, out of the wild admixture of drag and rock ’n’ roll that was the Pyramid Club—has trouble remembering the specifics. With my own recollection of events dubious at best, I thought it might help to talk to the siren himself. The performance artist (and author of personae including the Callas-spawned contralto Dagmar Onassis) Kelly admits he’s not even sure what year Wigstock began. But what he does recall is significant: Beyond the mandate of “looking pretty and having fun,” he says, drag was “a way of venting rage—a big fuck you.” That attitude is the expression of the frisson that came from rolling all those poses—hippie and punk and queer and urban—into the glorious bouffant of Wigstock. It worked, particularly in Kelly’s incarnation of Mitchell, because this generation mined the subtlety and inevitability of irony far ahead of the popular imagination. Here it was possible to do a piss-take with love, to manifest absurdity in such a way that it not only had transcendent meaning, but literally brought an audience to tears.

To celebrate any such moment past is to understand both its prescience and the impossibility of its re-creation in the present. The queens who were part of the late-night drunken brainstorm to reference the irretrievable ideal of Woodstock surely knew this in their hearts, if not their brains. What sticks out now for both Lady Bunny and Kelly is just how small that first Wigstock was: how the communal space of the events was shared with bewildered bums and a Latino population that had not yet been gentrified out of the neighborhood; and, perhaps more significant for the course of future events, how Wigstock was still the province of freaks—as yet untouched by the cloned-out banality of Chelsea queens who would shortly make the pilgrimage east an end-of-summer ritual.

My memory of John’s Joni is intermingled with a whole confluence of hilarious impersonations from around that time. Watching her that afternoon was not so very different from the pleasures of watching Mike Bidlo do Jackson Pollock, or reappreciating our old Kraftwerk records through the innovations of Afrika Bambaataa, or seeing Kelly as the Mona Lisa on the cover of Paper, which later in 1985 photographed Joey Arias as Andy Warhol and Ann Magnuson as Edie Sedgwick. You see, back then mock stardom was fabulous, and downtown publications were not yet under the tyranny of celebrity culture. We had yet to adopt words like sampling and appropriation into our vocabulary. On that day in Tompkins Square Park, at the end of a summer spent recklessly cavorting in the still luridly lowbrow East Village, it was all still just fun.

Carlo McCormick, a senior editor of Paper magazine, is organizing “Art After Dark,” an exhibition of “downtown New York art” made between 1974 and 1984, for the Grey Art Gallery and the Fales Collection, New York University.