In an era where there was still no sign of streaming platforms nor cell phones, Linda Simpson documented with her camera one of the moments that would go down in history. We are talking about the New York drag scene of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, in which artists like RuPaul made their debut on the stage, long before starring in the acclaimed TV show now broadcast around the world. From backstage moments prior to acting, to snapshots of hectic nights at the Pyramid Club, they are all collected in Simpson's new book, The Drag Explosion.
She witnessed how the drag scene ceased to be unknown to become a revolution in which the media and society as a whole became interested. Its epicentre? The East Village, where Linda says that "a rebellious drag sensibility" could be felt in the atmosphere. The multi-faceted queen and promoter of some of the most iconic parties experienced that rise first-hand with friends like Lady Bunny or Candis Cayne, among many others, at a time when they were treated as VIPs. "We were all creatures of the night and we respected each other," she explains. Now, she shows us the ups and downs through her memories seen in her photographs, bringing us closer to an unrepeatable time. "I think it's all about making history available to people, including my book."
Linda, more and more media are referring to you as the great "drag documentarian." How do you feel about this term?
I’m perfectly fine with it. My focus is mainly the late '80s, when I started doing drag, to the mid ‘90s.
You've been doing The Drag Explosion slideshow for the past few years. A format that brings us closer to the New York drag scene from the late ‘80s to mid ‘90s through photography. At what point did you decide to collect all these images and create this initiative?
Although I had always appreciated my photos, it wasn’t until about 10 years ago that I realized they would make for a good time capsule. I put many of my shots in a slideshow format that I could present to audiences. The format has changed somewhat over the years but now it’s pretty much locked in. Besides New York, I’ve shown my photos in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Copenhagen.
To me, the most curious thing is that you never took photos with any other intentions other than having fun, as you have said before. And your friends from the drag and club kid scene appear in them, in a joyful and inspiring atmosphere. How do you remember this time?
One thing that’s important to remember is that my pictures are B.C.– before cell phones. Back then, when people went out, they weren’t concerned about always posing for the camera and trying to get a perfect shot for Instagram. The people in my photos were just out to have fun, and I think that’s why they exude a certain freshness.
The extravagant looks and edgy makeups present in your photos contrast the naturalness and complicity that we see in the expressions of those portrayed. Would you say that this moment was unique and unrepeatable? What did the irruption of the drag scene in New York mean?
The era was very momentous because drag became such a vital part of NYC’s nightlife, and then it broke into mainstream culture. It was a very exciting time to be a drag queen because we were in demand, including being offered plenty of work. A lot of the general public was discovering drag for the first time.
And more specifically in the East Village, which you have referred to as "unique compared to the rest of the world." What made it so special?
Back then, drag was not popular at gay and straight clubs alike. Drag was considered very old-fashioned and tacky. But in the East Village, there was a rebellious new drag sensibility taking place. It was about being yourself rather than impersonating Barbra Streisand or some other diva. It didn’t matter if your lip-synch skills weren’t perfect or if your wig was off-centre. It was more about embracing your creative spirit.
The Pyramid Club, which you frequented and appears in your images, is a fundamental meeting point to understand the drag scene of this time. In fact, it was there that you had your first memorable drag experience. What can you tell us about your beginnings?
Throughout the 1980s, the Pyramid Club was the headquarters of the kooky East Village drag scene. I went there often as an audience member. By the end of the decade, when I started doing drag, the place began to lose popularity. I started a party there in 1990 called Channel 69 which helped revive the place and launch a whole new generation of queens. It was a great venue to put on shows because there was a stage, as well as a roomy dressing room. I don’t have very many photos of the shows, but I have a lot of from the dressing room of performers getting ready and hanging out.
During those years, you coincided with Lady Bunny, Sophia Lamar, Candis Cayne or Kabuki, who wears huge horns in one of your photos. You all come from different backgrounds, but you shared a vital moment that would go down in history because of what it meant on a social level. What was the trigger that made drag start to create more interest?
As the East Village scene grew more popular, a few party promoters started hiring drag queens to work at the big clubs as hostesses, performers and go-go dancers. The format was a big hit with both gay and straight clubs, and suddenly every club in town wanted to hire drag queens. There was a lot of work for drag queens, plus it was fun to hang out because we were treated as VIPs. I met so many amazing people as I roamed the nightlife. Even though we were all quite different, we were all creatures of the night and had a mutual respect for each other.
It also marked a new era in terms of aesthetics. We see it in your images, the outfits are really impressive, and I am convinced that it took a long time to think and materialize them. What was a day in your life like in the late ‘80s from the time you woke up until you went to sleep?
I often didn’t wake up until noon after having stayed out late at the clubs. I didn’t have much money and all my wardrobe was from thrift stores. I was a party promoter and a lot of my day was spent designing invites and running to the copy shop to have them Xeroxed. Also, I was on the phone quite a lot, trying to drum up people to attend. I also spent a lot of time on the phone gossiping with friends about the nightlife.
Wigstock also changed the drag scene forever. A drag outdoor festival like that had never been held before, and so it turned into an ode to freedom and a celebration of one's identity. How was this revolution lived from those who were in it? Did you feel that everything was changing forever or that the drag boom would last for a while and end at some point?
Wigstock was the drag queen highlight of the year, and for its performers and audience members alike, it was a chance to socialize and wear wigs, and be silly and celebrate. It was mostly a daytime event, so it was like a big outdoor family gathering. As drag increased in popularity, so did Wigstock, and by the mid-1990s the audience numbered in the tens of thousands. I kind of assumed Wigstock would go on forever, but it eventually ended as an annual event in 2001.
Backstage stories always hide great anecdotes, and they are the best way to understand the essence of a particular historical moment. Could you share any of them with us?
At the Pyramid Club, you had to enter the stage by climbing up a ladder from the dressing room. Back then, it was no big deal to see people shimmying up and down wearing high heels. I can’t imagine doing that now, but we were all so limber and eager to perform back then that it was no big deal.
Each photograph is unique, but if you had to keep just one, which one do you think best represents the spirit of that time? Why?
No, I can’t choose! They’re all my babies, and I love each and every one!
You now include all those images collected over a decade – and in which we see RuPaul or Amanda Lepore, among many others – in a new book titled The Drag Explosion. Why have you decided to release it now?
Last year I was approached by an art designer named David Knowles, who I’d worked with a little before on a book proposal. He wanted to put out the book through his new publishing company, which is called Domain. I eagerly said yes and since then we’ve had a great collaboration. He did a fantastic job in designing the book.
You have defined it as "a fabulous time capsule". It is as if the energy of that moment was condensed in the different images, temporarily transferring us to a hopeful universe where freedom reigns. What do you think of when you look at the photos?
It’s joyful for me to remember a really exciting time in my life, filled with great friends. But there is also a feeling of sadness for people who I have lost contact with or died. Overall, I’m proud of have been part of the era.
However, nothing lasts forever. You have said before that "The time has come for the media to take an interest in other trends." Was the disinterest towards drag something that changed progressively or was there a specific trend that shifted the media’s focus to another place?
Around 1996, the media and pop culture began to lose interest in the drag craze. Instead of treating drag as here to stay, it was dismissed as a trend. Drag became yesterday’s news, and because there was no Internet back then, so you couldn’t keep your popularity going on your own accord. Also, Mayor Giuliani started cracking down hard on the nightlife as part of his law-and-order campaign. Many of the clubs and bars had to close and there weren’t as many job for drag queens.
However, the history of drag is one of ups and downs. And it is now enjoying unprecedented success thanks to its irruption in mass media. RuPaul’s Drag Race is the best example of this. Has the drag scene changed a lot compared to the one you photographed with your camera 3 decades ago?
It’s changed tremendously. Drag has become embraced by mainstream showbiz, which means there is a lot more work and good salaries for drag queens. When it comes down to it, drag is about entertainment and so it’s great to have more opportunities to perform.
We must keep in mind that the circumstances are not the same. Is there enough recognition to those who paved the way for the young generations to walk more safely and calmly now?
I think, in general, that drag queen history is very muddled for a lot of young people, and they might not realize or appreciate those who helped pave the way. However, I’ve also met a lot of young people who are eager to find out more about drag history. I think it’s all a matter of just making the history available to people, including my book.
What message would you like to send to the world?
Even though drag is often silly and ridiculous, it’s also a beautiful and compelling art form. My photos are proof!