THE DRAG EXPLOSION
New York’s momentous drag scene of the 1980s and ‘90s reigns again in this volume of photos by Linda Simpson, who spent the era in the middle of the action taking just-for-fun snapshots. The vivid images capture wild nightlife, queer activism, pop-culture moments, and colorful characters galore as they joyfully pushed the boundaries of gender expression, including Lady Bunny, RuPaul, Lypsinka and Leigh Bowery. Ultimately, her collection is a tribute to a golden age, when drag transformed from an underground art form into a mainstream sensation, and paved the path for today’s drag renaissance.
PONYBOY: Linda, we love the raw, unstaged aesthetic of your photos! They really capture that era and remind us of our youth, dressing up and running around downtown NYC. Did you study photography? And when you went out at night in drag, did you just grab a snapshot camera that would fit in your handbag?
LINDA SIMPSON: I’m so glad you like my photos! I’ve never taken a photography class and don’t know anything technical about cameras. My photo-taking back in the day was purely organic. All my photos were on 35mm film and I used simple point-and-shoot cameras that were small enough to carry around easily in my purse.
PONYBOY: Your coffee table book, The Drag Explosion, is quite the accomplishment. How did the book come about? And was it a grueling endeavor?
LINDA SIMPSON: Several years ago, I began showing my photos of New York’s drag scene of the 1980s and ‘90s in a narrated slideshow, which is also titled The Drag Explosion. I’ve presented mostly in New York, but also in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Copenhagen. It’s generated a lot of positive feedback and I thought it would work as a book. But it wasn’t until earlier this year when art director David Knowles, who I had worked with a little before, approached me about putting out a book through his new publishing company, Domain Books. We both put in a lot of work, including me writing the text, and I’m really happy with how it turned out.
PONYBOY: Your brilliant photos are not only a part of gay culture but also the downtown New York City nightlife scene. In the back of your mind when shooting, did you ever think that you would one day have your own book of photos?
LINDA SIMPSON: No, not all. My photos were just for fun. It wasn’t until a couple of decades had passed that I began to really appreciate their specialness.
PONYBOY: How did you get into doing drag?
LINDA SIMPSON: I was hanging out a lot on the East Village scene in the 1980s at clubs like the Pyramid, and eventually I became friendly with other drag queens like Tabboo!, Hapi Phace and Lady Bunny. I could see that they were having a great time so I decided to join the fun. It was a gradual process. At first I didn’t even have a drag name.
PONYBOY: Many of us lived, as you did, in the gritty East Village in New York. You wrote that the neighborhood was a “thriving queer counterculture.” When and why did you move to New York City? Most of us in the downtown scene were transplants, running away from the stifling suburbs.
LINDA SIMPSON: I’m from Minnesota and moved to New York in the early 1980s. As a child I devoured any magazine article, TV show or movie that was set in New York and I always knew I wanted to live here. In 1987 I moved to 13th Street in the East Village. Back then, the neighborhood had reasonably priced apartments so there were a lot of artists and other vagabonds. But it could be a scary place to live. Desperate crack addicts roamed the streets.
PONYBOY: When we moved to New York, we frequented the Pyramid, as it was just a few blocks from our apartment. Tell readers your perception of the Pyramid, for those not in the know of this legendary bar/haunt.
LINDA SIMPSON: By the time I started hanging out at the Pyramid in the mid ‘80s it had already been going strong for several years as the headquarters of the local kooky drag scene. The best party, on Sunday nights, was called “Whispers.” It was such a fun crew in charge, including Sister Dimension deejaying and Hapi Phace hosting shows. Other drag queens would dance on the bar and it was such a spectacle. Everywhere else in the world, drag was so dull and passé, but at the Pyramid it was fresh and modern.
PONYBOY: We actually met artist and drag performer Tabboo! at the Pyramid. His quirky 60s drag look was definitely a favorite of ours – a twisted Cher meets Peggy Moffit if you will. He is heavily featured in your photos from back in the day. Can you tell us your relationship with Tabboo!? How did the two of you meet?
LINDA SIMPSON: Back in 1986, I joined the committee that organizes the annual LGBT parade. I thought the parade was really square and I wanted to infuse it with the kind of campy fun that was going on in the East Village. Someone gave me the phone number for Stephen Tashjian, a.k.a. Tabboo!, and I convinced him to help me get a float together. I was the producer and Tabboo! decorated the float, which was a flatbed truck, and gathered up a bunch of the Pyramid queens as passengers. It was a hoot. From there, we started hanging out and he really served as my guide as I immersed myself in the underground East Village scene.
PONYBOY: Working at Patrica Field at end of the 80s, the entire House of Field clan would get dressed up at the end of the day and run to Boy Bar to see our friends perform, as Matthew Kasten’s “Boy Bar Beauties”. Can you tell us about Boy Bar and its influence on you and the New York City drag scene?
LINDA SIMPSON: Boy Bar was a phenomenon. Back when it was at its peak, the club was only open on Thursdays, and absolutely everyone converged there. Like the Pyramid, the BB had its own stable of drag stars, but while the sensibility at the Pyramid was more experimental and anything goes, the BB featured polished shows, with lots of group numbers. Matthew hired me to host once and I was a judge for a couple of pageants, but for the most part, I was an audience member. My favorite performers included Codie Ravioli, Connie Girl and Candis Cayne. Matthew was a whiz at makeup, hair and wardrobe and he transformed many unpolished performers into really slick showgirls.
PONYBOY: Did you frequent some of the bigger downtown clubs, for example, Dean Johnson’s Rock ’n’ Roll Fag Bar, Jackie 60 or Michael Schmidt’s infamous Squeezebox parties at Don Hill’s?
LINDA SIMPSON: Oh, yeah, all of them. I loved going out and I didn’t limit myself as to where I went. Besides the downtown clubs, I spent a lot time at the mega clubs too, like the Palladium, Webster Hall, the Tunnel and the Limelight. I also enjoyed the walk-on-the-wild-side transgender clubs in Midtown. Nightlife was so vast back then with so many places to pick and choose from.
PONYBOY: Describe your go-to drag “look” during this era? It seems that so many of the performers that came out of the Pyramid scene favored a 60s-70s style look, with over-the-top big wigs worn with super long/thick lashes and mini dresses.
LINDA SIMPSON: A lot of our drag wardrobe was from thrift stores or cheap trendy clothing stores. Also, there was a sprawling store in the Meatpacking District for crossdressers called Lee’s Mardi Gras where you could buy everything from shoes to bras. Most of the queens I knew shopped for their wigs at stores on 14th Street. Back then lace front wigs were expensive and most of just wore synthetic everyday styles that could be pumped into more elaborate styles. And you’re right about colorful styles from the hippie and post-hippie era being popular. The best example of that is Lady Miss Kier of Deee-lite. Although she was a “real girl,” she had a drag sensibility.
PONYBOY: Rudy Giuliani took over as the mayor of New York City in 1994 and it appeared that the death of New York City nightlife was gradually happening, along with so many restrictions and crackdowns. How did this affect your inner circle?
LINDA SIMPSON: For those of us who worked in nightlife, there were a lot less job opportunities as the scene began to shrink. There was a feeling of being under siege. This dynamic subculture that we had created was being destroyed and treated like it was despicable.
PONYBOY: How do you see the East Village neighborhood today? Do you still live there?
LINDA SIMPSON: I moved out of the East Village to Hell’s Kitchen in 2007, but I have friends in the East Village so I’m there frequently. I still appreciate the neighborhood’s charms, but I’m glad I left. I outgrew it and the new yuppie vibe isn’t my thing.
PONYBOY: Do you still take photos when you go out at night? And, if so, has an iPhone replaced the old go-to-camera you used back then?
LINDA SIMPSON: I do take photos with my iPhone but they’re usually nothing spectacular. I tend to be a little more artsy with a small Canon camera I bring out sometimes. But I’m not nearly as prolific a photographer as I once was. There’s so many people taking photos nowadays. It’s not vital that I add to the cacophony.
PONYBOY: We fondly remember seeing My Comrade xeroxed magazines around town. Where did the name come from? How long was the zine in print and when and why did you decide to stop publishing it?
LINDA SIMPSON: I published My Comrade from 1987 to 1994, with a couple of revival issues a decade later. The name came after a lot of brainstorming. I wanted something that sounded revolutionary and defiant. It was the peek of the AIDS crisis and I wanted to portray gay people as being strong and proud despite all the horror that was going on. After several years, I got burnt out putting the magazine together. But who knows, it might surface again.
PONYBOY: What other magazines did you write or shoot for?
LINDA SIMPSON: I was a columnist for HX magazine, which was the big gay nightlife rag at the time and had a huge readership. Also, I had a column in OUT magazine, which featured me interviewing celebrities like Debbie Harry and Parker Posey. I did other freelance journalism too, but I’d have to bring out my dusty press clippings to remember what they were.
PONYBOY: We read that you were a co-host of a gay cable TV show. Tell us about that.
LINDA SIMPSON: For several years I was co-host of a Manhattan Public Access TV show called Party Talk, which covered gay entertainment. I was coming from an East Village rebellious background so sometimes I resisted the format, which aspired to be mainstream. But I really enjoyed being a television personality. In retrospect, the show was ahead of its time. We wanted to expand our reach but back then most advertisers didn’t want to be associated with anything gay.
PONYBOY: Back to the Pyramid, Wigstock was born out of that place. When was your first Wigstock? And what remembrances stand out strongly from the Wigstocks you attended? Can you share any funny stories with us?
LINDA SIMPSON: After attending Wigstock a few times as a spectator, I joined the performance roster in 1990. Backstage was always incredible—dozens of performers milling around as they waited to go on and it was one big social scene. My worst memory, which is kind of funny now, is that I completely bombed in 1992. I did a stand-up comedy routine that I had kind of workshopped in front of a friendly crowd at the Pyramid. They laughed, but the Wigstock audience didn’t appreciate it at all. I was practically booed off the stage and it was a very humiliating experience.
PONYBOY: The fabulous and hilarious Lady Bunny, Wigstock’s founder, is featured in your photos as well. Tell us about your relationship with Bunny. Do you remember how and when the two of you met?
LINDA SIMPSON: I can’t remember exactly how Bunny and I met but I’m pretty sure it was at the Pyramid Club. As we became more involved with each other’s lives, we adapted an on-stage rivalry, which mostly featured her making jokes about me. It’s still the way we publicly operate, although in real life we are friends. We talk on the phone fairly often.
PONYBOY: We feel we must mention RuPaul, as he really catapulted drag into the mainstream in the early 90s with the hit song, “Supermodel”. But a year or two later the trend seemed to subside. RuPaul started his super successful hit show, Drag Race in 2009. And now drag seems like it’s here to stay. For example, RuPaul was recently on the cover of Vanity Fair, as well as in an Old Navy Christmas commercial. Give us your opinion on RuPaul and what he’s done for the drag community.
LINDA SIMPSON: How can anyone not be amazed by RuPaul? He’s an American success story who has transformed drag into a mainstream phenomenon and achieved his lifetime goal of becoming a pop-culture superstar. Some people complain about how RuPaul has dumbed down drag, but at the same time, he’s provided hundreds of people with successful careers. I don’t think it’s fair to fault him.
PONYBOY: “Linda Love’s Bingo” is New York City’s number one drag game show. Tell us the origin behind this and the updated virtual version on Zoom.
LINDA SIMPSON: Before the pandemic hit I made my living as a game show emcee, hosting weekly Bingos. I’ve had to pivot the whole operation to a Zoom event and it’s turned out to be quite popular, plus I’ve been hosting a lot of private gigs. One thing you learn as you get older is that you just have to go with the flow and constantly try to stay relevant.
PONYBOY: We’ve all suffered immensely throughout this global pandemic. Tell us how it’s affected your life. How have you spent this time?
LINDA SIMPSON: I have to say I’ve accomplished a lot during the pandemic, including putting together my book and an exhibit of some of my photos at Tiger Strikes Asteroid gallery in Brooklyn. Odd time to have a show, but it was a great experience, especially getting to see some people at the gallery. The toughest part about the pandemic is being separated from everyone. There are so many people I miss seeing in real life.
PONYBOY: What’s next for Linda Simpson?
LINDA SIMPSON: I’ve been working on a drag-themed novel for a while. And I’ve also got lots of other projects in mind. Maybe even a sequel to my “Drag Explosion” book. Considering I’m getting up there in years, I better get busy!