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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”