“A lot of people don’t study their history,” bemoans New York drag pioneer Flotilla Debarge in Wig, the new documentary from Chris Moukarbel premiering tonight on HBO. The film charts the birth, ebb, and recent renaissance of the annual Wigstock drag festival, which had its heyday in New York in the 1980s and ’90s. By the time the festival disappeared in 2001—the final official Wigstock took place in early September of that year, just before the landscape and spirit of the city changed irrevocably—its attendees numbered in the thousands. It had become a scene staple. Wig is a colorful love letter to its subject matter, a suggestion that much of our contemporary drag moment remains indebted to the trailblazers of Wigstock. But in 2019, Moukarbel seems to argue, too few of us know about it.
For those who haven’t yet studied up: Wigstock was spearheaded by Lady Bunny, the New York-based queen who has remained steadily prominent in the city’s drag scene for decades. It was Bunny, among a handful of her East Village contemporaries, who in 1984 came up with the idea for a daytime drag celebration, a Woodstock for queens. The festival’s originators wanted to bring the art form out of underground clubs and into the audacious open. Lady Bunny claims she can’t remember who initially expressed the Wigstock idea, but in Wig, she recalls being among a group of queens wandering the East Village after a party at the Pyramid Club one night. They stumbled upon the Tompkins Square Park bandshell by inebriated accident; they were messing around, dancing on it as a joke, when they became inspired.
Wigstock began as a small party in the late summer of ’84, attended mostly by scene regulars. But it grew quickly. Well-loved queer nightlife figures like Flotilla, Linda Simpson, RuPaul, and Kevin Aviance all took part during the festival’s end-of-millenium peak. It went all day—eight hours of Village drag. And live music, too. John Cameron Mitchell performed there as Hedwig, and Debbie Harry sang live on the festival’s stage (Wig shows her bowing for cheering Wigstock crowds, flanked by boy backup dancers in lacy lingerie).
The East Village community at large came to know and adore Wigstock over the years. It was very of-the-people, as Wig shows us: folksy, fun, not particularly glitzy, but wacky and creative (in the early ’90s, Leigh Bowery famously “gave birth” onstage to a full adult human, who had been hidden in his gigantic costume). Longtime neighborhood residents, families with kids, and random park passersby all became part of the fabric of the festival, and many audience members returned to the Tompkins bandshell annually.
When Wigstock eventually moved to the Hudson River piers, crowds followed it there. Giuliani was cracking down on nightlife, and particularly queer nightlife, at that time. But Wigstock endured for years; in the bright light of day, it was a middle finger to that administration. And to anyone, really, who wasn’t down with a giant, inclusive, end-of-summer drag party. Moukarbel incorporates tons of incredible early festival footage—he argues, in this film, that Wigstock is one of the most important moments in our city’s queer history, and our cultural history more broadly. That’s a remarkable message for viewers to take in, especially for those of us who weren’t there.
Wig’s release on HBO feels timely, of course, because it’s Pride month, because it’s the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall, and because New York is hosting WorldPride at the end of June. There’s also general drag euphoria in the air right now, brought to us in large part by RuPaul’s VH1-backed empire. In the last couple of years, Drag Race has successfully made anything relating to drag—including docs like Wig—feel fashionable in the mainstream sense.
But Wig is positioning itself as a Drag Race corrective. Or rather, as a corrective to the Drag Race moment, in which the art form can often feel overly commercial and divorced from history (Brooklyn-based Drag Race winner Sasha Velour told me, in an interview for this site, that she believes the reality show should “just be the introduction” to drag for its viewers. But the celebratory cultural tide around the show doesn’t always place similar emphasis). Linda Simpson recalls in Wig that “drag was punk rock” back in the Wigstock days—“no one was careerist about it,” as she says. Neil Patrick Harris, who appears in the film and is also one of Wig’s producers, similarly refers to a “pulse of necessity” that ran through drag in this city in the ’80s and ’90s. When he and Lady Bunny considered collaborating on bringing Wigstock back last year, he remembers thinking: “Now drag is so embraced, I wonder…is it gonna feel like Disney?”
Lady Bunny did bring Wigstock back to New York’s piers in 2018, for an inaugural season of what she called Wigstock 2.0. “Since [Wigstock ended], like the other jaded scenesters, I sit and bitch,” Bunny says in voiceover in Wig, of her decision to bring the festival back. “‘Ooh, there’s a Duane Reade and a Chase Bank on every corner! The city’s so slick and sophisticated.’.. But you know what? I finally said [to myself], ‘You’re a lifer. You ain’t moving. So your choice is to keep bitching, or to put on a festival like you used to…and make something fun about New York.’”
Although Wigstock 2.0 was more high-tech and glam than the original Wigstocks—and was ticketed, not free, which the film did not really acknowledge—it definitely didn’t feel like Disney. The last third of Wig covers the reborn festival, and shows us (in HD this time!) a lot of its offerings: Harris performing as Hedwig, in Mitchell’s stead; Bunny bringing, or bringing back, legends like Kevin Aviance, Sherry Vine, and Amanda Lepore; Drag Race alums like Willam, Bianca del Rio, Sharon Needles, and Alaska; and contemporary staples of New York’s drag scene, too, performers like Pixie Aventura and Charlene Incarnate. Charlene is a Bushwick-based—and, in Brooklyn, well-known—trans queen who, in very un-Disney fashion, bore her body in full on the Wigstock 2.0 stage, while lip-syncing to “Just Like Jesse James.”
Wig positions Charlene as an ambassador for Wigstock’s spiritual inheritors, its next generation. “We are a community that values performance first,” Charlene says in the film. “That is Bunny’s whole fucking soap box. Everyone in this post-Drag Race era is all about face”—being camera-digestible—“but Bunny is like, it only matters what you do onstage.” Here, Charlene suggests continuity in certain pockets of New York, between its generations of drag performers. Perhaps a particular contemporary community is drawing on its local artistic roots, the film implies, even while drag elsewhere is going mainstream, reaching wide. Sometimes, Wig literalizes this intergenerational connection in delightful ways: at Wigstock 2.0, a young queen shares that she’s wearing a skirt gifted by Mistress Formika. And that Mistress Formika had worn the skirt to Wigstock in 1994, the same year this young queen was born.
Moukarbel directed Five Foot Two, the Lady Gaga doc, for Netflix in 2017. This film, like the previous one, is totally unapologetic in its adoration. But it’s also a call to arms, in a way. It asks us, whether we’re drag performers or drag hopefuls or big drag fans, to know our history, to not take context for granted. To not sanitize drag or divorce it from where it came from, particularly as it has its mainstream moment. At the reborn Wigstock, past is literally meeting present, which makes it an appropriate subject for Moukarbel to use as a reminder. A lot of people paved the way to here.