There’s something about the end of any modern decade that indicates a mood of reflection and transformation: The Stonewall Riots in 1969 sparked the Gay Rights movement in America; the global fight against AIDS reached a fever pitch in 1989; and 2009 brought about the most queer representation in mainstream media with Glee, the ascent of Lady Gaga, and the birth of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
This year, as we reflect on 50 years since Stonewall, the new HBO documentary Wig is teaching today’s generation about the community’s queer trailblazers who’ve been doing the work to prop up the community behind the scenes and, more importantly, not on national television. The film, out today, depicts the original mounting of Wigstock, a music festival that ran from 1984 to 2001 starring New York City drag queens who wanted to take their art and talent from dark East Village nightclubs into the daylight. At the film’s center is the festival’s fearless leader, Lady Bunny, whose sky-high blonde wigs and raunchy humor has long been (and continues to be) a staple of New York nightlife. Along with archival footage from early Wigstocks and performances from the legendary Pyramid Club, the film depicts Wigstock’s revival in 2018, staged by Bunny with the help of Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka.
“The history of Wigstock is still relatively unknown, surprisingly, considering how popular drag is now,” says Chris Moukarbel, the film’s director, who notes his first time seeing drag queens was in the 1995 Wigstock documentary by Barry Shils. “I’ve always been a part of subculture, from punk to queer underground, and nightlife is a huge part of the community. This film was very close to home in so many ways.”
For modern drag fans used to seeing the shiny perfection of RuPaul and the 150-plus queens he’s had sashay through his Emmy-winning juggernaut, it’s difficult to imagine a world where drag was exclusively “underground.” Enter Charlene Incarnate, whose expressive, often provocative performances live and thrive in New York’s current drag breeding ground in Bushwick, where she and other queens including Bobbie Hondo (also featured in the film) live together in a loft fittingly named Casa Diva. “I don’t even consider what I do to be that avant-garde or even performance art,” Incarnate says. “Those are words that have been placed upon me, but I kind of intentionally made my drag one that is not consumable by the masses.” For reference, in one of her early shows she had a friend inject her with an estrogen shot onstage.
Incarnate, who is a trans woman and, for the record, doesn’t wear wigs, is part of a subgenre of drag performers who are seldom represented in the visible drag sphere compared to their counterparts who identify as cisgender men when they’re out of drag. “[My drag is] very queer and weird and aggressive because the trans body is very aggressive—it’s the part of queerness that is still not mainstream.” This isn’t to say that Incarnate is anti–Drag Race; she credits it as part of the reason why she started doing drag. “I remember throughout my college years and early 20s the frustration of feeling like I was someone who had so much art and creativity to give the world, but I didn’t have an outlet. When I realized drag was that for me was RuPaul’s Drag Race,” she says, noting that she realizes her drag is somewhat the antithesis of the show’s established aesthetic.
Even without the fanfare and hype from the show, Incarnate’s built up a sizable following and has established herself as a leader in today’s New York drag landscape. As Moukarbel shrewdly illustrates in Wig, there are clear parallels between the subversive drag of Lady Bunny and other queens from that era (including Linda Simpson, Flotilla Debarge, Lypsinka, and, yes, RuPaul), and that of Incarnate and her cohorts, who began staging a festival, Bushwig, in the spirit of Wigstock in their local neighborhood. “You can almost follow the L train to see how the scene has spread into Brooklyn over the years,” Incarnate says.
To help celebrate this momentous year for the community as World Pride comes to New York, Barneys partnered with HBO and the film’s creatives, as well as New York’s LGBT Community Center, to bring the glorious spirit of the film to life in Barneys’ iconic windows. The display features painted illustrations of the film’s stars, including Lady Bunny, Charlene Incarnate, Kevin Aviance, and more, by multidisciplinary artist Cody Critcheloe, who notes that this film’s mass scale and the shifting mood toward queer art points toward real progress.
“For a while it was difficult to get people to talk about [my art] in a way that was legitimate. I’ve enjoyed that there’s more opportunity around it now,” says Critcheloe, who also produces music, videos, and live performance art. Barneys Creative Director Matthew Mazzucca commissioned Critcheloe’s portraits for the Barneys windows to show the film’s colorful beauty. “To be able to use these portraits and make this bespoke collage is a great way to articulate the subtext of the film.”
Could anyone have predicted 10 years ago that drag would have its seat at the table in mainstream culture the way it does now? “I think that the mainstream needs to be kept real by whatever is happening in the underground and kept interesting,” says Moukarbel. “When things become mainstream, it’s great because suddenly people have access to it who would not otherwise, but at the same time keeping a real connection to the underground is always going to be important.”
This reveals the elephant in the room: Is pop culture’s fascination with drag here for the long haul, or is it a matter of time before drag consumption is once again relegated exclusively to clubs and (hopefully) a full rebirth of an annual Wigstock? Perhaps for performers like Charlene Incarnate and her ilk, a shift would inject even more energy into their already vocal fan base. Perhaps by 2029 we’ll be on season 21 of Drag Race and queens will have No. 1 albums on the Hot 100 and be winning major awards—but wait, they’re already doing that. Whatever the future brings, we’ll be watching through a thick set of lashes.
The Wig windows are at Barneys Downtown through June 21.