Things always get interesting at the Mr. Lower East Side pageant, a raucous beauty contest for men (last year, in Brooklyn, the winner held up three computers with his penis). But they got really interesting last night, when the pageant returned to its namesake neighborhood for its 17th annual installment.
When the evening’s planned venue, The Slipper Room, canceled the show last-minute, organizer Rev Jen Miller scrambled to find a replacement space and settled on a karaoke bar on Canal Street above a Chinatown bus stop. It wasn’t entirely clear if the folks running the joint knew what they were getting into; I caught wind someone told them this was a birthday party.
When I stepped into 59 Canal, Superstar Brad was belting out some tunes while brandishing balloons and a Super Soaker—fitting, for it was a karaoke bar. He churned out a hearty rendition of “Anarchy in the U.K.” (“anarchy in Williamsburg,” he sang at one point, and I wondered if that was even still possible). Next, Chink Floyd took the stage, fronted by contestant Master Lee. While a masked man stood and several women crawled, Leee recited poetic lines, touting Bernie Sanders and asking the audience to join him in a “die, yuppie scum!” chant, which only some partook in.
However, mid-chant, the crawling figures began to behave aggressively towards Lee. One sported a mask of Lee’s face and a can of whipped cream, and there were small signs scattered about that said phrases like “toxic masculinity.” One was naked with “does not practice sexual consent” painted in blue on her back and chest. They all seemed like part of the act (performance art can get rowdy, and Mr. LES was started as a response to the objectification of women) but it soon became less clear when a fight broke out between the three of them, resulting in a part of the bar’s decor breaking loudly. The bar owners stopped the show– some people wanted to call the police, others didn’t. In the end, everyone involved in the fight ended up leaving the bar, no authorities were involved, and the show was effectively over.
One attendee, Eden, told me she thought “the fight was fake and it was building up to a big thing and he was probably going to make a statement about toxic males, but it didn’t get to happen.” Others I spoke to seemed to agree.
Steve Perozzi, who competed in Mr. LES from 2010-2012 and won the coveted title of “Best Nutsack,” felt that the night’s events were unplanned and genuine. “It seemed like they were performing alongside [Lee] but in fact they were there to protest him. Then it turned into an all-out brawl. It seemed like they were suggesting he violated a woman or something. I kinda feel bad for this venue– they didn’t really know what the fuck they were getting into. Mr. LES normally gets real wild, but there’s never been an onstage brawl.”
Street performer Kalan Sherrard, who won last year’s Mr. LES under the name Claude Debris, tells me when he was decorating the crown for this year’s winner he crafted it into a “Mr. Toxic Masculinity 2016” award, not knowing the events that would transpire. “How auspicious,” he said, “That this year’s Mr. LES would turn into a discourse around toxic masculinity.”
Clearly, this all happened so fast it led to some confusion among spectators. The duo behind this provocative moment is a performance art collective by the name of nadahada. They said their actions were not a planned part of the show, and told me via email:
We wanted to interfere in the event to problematize issues of consent and to provoke a conversation. A lot of folks there got involved so it also ended up rupturing the binary between audience and performer as well as between different “acts” because the person in the Donald Trump mask with a “Beat Up Trump” sign helped us on our way out and someone AMAZING with a big powerful voice (who are you?! we love you!) demanded that we not be held hostage by the bar people who tried to stop us.
As Master Lee recited his lines, we were interacting with inflatable dicks and planting pickles in a flower pot filled with dirt and whipped cream. Our masks were a leviathan vagina dentata and Master Lee’s face. The Master Lee impersonator wore the message “doesn’t practice sexual consent” painted across its torso, and we included keywords such as despotic phallogocentrism, reproductive heteronormativity, normative subjectivization, compulsory ableism, coercive consent, and toxic masculinity.
None of this, besides us showing up, was a planned part of Master Lee’s performance (as he may have said). And yes, one of us did have to pull him off of the other one.”
My immediate interpretation of this happening was that it was an intervention and statement about consent being performed at an event chock-full of men in a community that, in its efforts to celebrate freedom and experimentation can sometimes de-prioritize boundaries. But others seemed mystified.
Perozzi noted that the Mr. LES Pageant originally “began as an anti-chauvinist statement, and it kind of evolved from that into a general celebration of weirdness, the LES, and drunken debauchery.” As such, he said, “it is an appropriate place to protest women getting violated. I don’t know the people involved. But for someone to do something that extreme, I believe they had a strong motivation.”
It was a bit of a shame that it all happened so fast, as many left the event puzzled and confused, creating a missed opportunity for discussion about what happened. The venue’s panic and the rapidness of it all muddled the clarity the nadahada collective was probably aiming for, as some attendees couldn’t read the signs and body paint and only saw a scuffle. Master Lee and Rev Jen were unable to be reached for comment at this time.
But even getting booted from two venues didn’t stop this colorful pageant. Once the commotion had cleared, some of the remaining attendees and contestants headed to Clockwork bar on Essex. There, contestant and performance artist Fritz Donnelly (who is also a friend of mine) led a small crowd outside, where he spearheaded a small-but-mighty version of Mr. LES, featuring himself, Johnny Bizarre, and James Zamboni. The scrappy public show consisted of naked dancing, outfits made of tape and a full trash bag, a takeout container of mayonnaise placed in unmentionable places, and an extra-floppy toy penis. One female spectator seemed unamused at first, but later exclaimed with joy, “I’m finally part of something in New York!”
At the end, Bizarre was crowned runner-up and Donnelly was given the “Stupid Star Award,” a presumed riff on Rev Jen’s “Art Star” movement, made of a light-up star found on the street. It was a charming way of keeping the spirit of the show alive in the midst of all the night’s twists and turns.
“Mr. LES is a pageant that objectifies men, enfranchises women and queer people (the only ones who can vote), is a ridiculous exercise in experimental and conceptual art, and celebrates both the subjects and objects of its pageantry,” Donnelly tells me. “Plus, it’s the brainchild of a woman who wears elf ears and could shave her dog with the sharpness of her wit. The show goes on whether there are venues for it or not!”
Though this year’s Mr. Lower East Side Pageant could superficially be called a failure for its lack of completion, the unpredictable evening’s feminist interventions, creative relocations, and streetside surprises made for a night that managed to embody the wild spirit of the LES more than any planned event could.