Lady Bunny’s New York Stories (interview)
“In Times Square guys used to hawk weed and other drugs. Now the ‘dealers’ walk by and whisper ‘Gucci, Prada, Louis’. America’s new drug of choice: fake status symbols?”
Chatting to Skrufff this week to promote her new self-written single Take Me Up, New York drag icon Lady Bunny admits she’s ambivalent about the changes Manhattan’s experienced since she first moved to the city with fellow Atlanta future drag star Ru Paul in the early 80s.
Last month, Mark Carson was shot dead in a homophobic otherwise random attack in the heart of the City’s gay quarter Greenwich Village, an incident Bunny attributed partially to the changing face of the City’s population.
“I don’t perceive increased hostility personally but I know of the attacks. And the Village has become much straighter,” Bunny points out.
“Let’s face it, outside of Catholic priests, gays aren’t usually attacking straights. Straight men attack us, women and different ethnic groups and they need to fucking evolve already! I think it’s proven that every time we get closer to equality, dark forces who resent that progress erupt with incidents like these. I guess it’s an occasional, unfortunate price you pay for a move towards equality,” she suggests.
Though New York City’s Anti-Violence Project reported recently that homophobic violence is not so occasional in recent years, Bunny said her own experiences differ.
“In some cases, I think straight men may be less likely to attack a transvestite like me who is clearly going to a party of some sort. These latest bashings and the murder have occurred to gay men, often publicly displaying same-sex attraction. This threatens some brutes–possibly because they despise their own feelings of same-sex attraction so much,” she said.
Moving to Manhattan in the early 80s alongside fellow Atlanta queer scene stars Larry Tee and Ru Paul, Bunny found underground fame rapidly, through hosting riotous loosely drag themed parties at Avenue A dive bar Pyramid.
Located close to Tompkins Square Park (then a genuinely dangerous no-go zone for regular citizens at risk from packs of crazies, smack addicts and/ or the local skinhead gang who made 8th stret and Avenue A their home) the tiny Lower East Side club would later become a drag institution aided by Bunny’s other great 80s invention- Wigstock.
Launched ‘spontaneously in 1984 after Bunny and a group of drag queens (along with Wendy Wild and a couple of Fleshtones) became inebriated at the nearby Pyramid Club and decided to put on a show in Tompkins Square Park’ (wiki) the drag queen festival lasted until 2005 (in several locations with several breaks) helping to put drag on the map in mainstream Manhattan.
Fast forwarding to the new millennium, Bunny found greater fame as a comedian and TV star, notably appearing as a judge on Ru Paul’s TV show Drag U and even snagging a cameo in Sex & The City at the peak of the show’s popularity. Also a long term DJ, she’s now returned to making music after a ten-year hiatus, with Take Me Up (which comes with a bunch of remixes by Paul Goodyear, Klubjumpers, Edson Pride, Timmy Loop and True2Life.) So why such a long gap in recording?
“To be honest, the first few things I put out weren’t too successful! So one wonders if one is on the right track,” she confesses.
“The record industry then went into a tailspin due to illegal downloads and meanwhile other my pursuits like comedy, DJing and television gigs were paying my rent. But at the end of the day, you return to that which are most passionate about. Cock! I mean…writing music,” she laughs.
“Antony from Antony and the Johnsons was very encouraging to me and constantly chided me for having 3 albums worth of demos and never releasing it. I am the mistress of indecision and procrastination. So the most helpful thing was being approached by Wayne Numan (Lybra Records) with a release date.”
Skrufff (Jonty Skrufff); How did you select the remixers?
Lady Bunny: “The remixers fell into place through Wayne’s efforts and I like a lot of them. The one by Richard Pring aka True2Life really sums up what I’d like my sound to be. He’s from Bristol, and the English have always had a flair for soul. His mix is reminiscent of underground classic house but with layered, imaginative production that makes it sound fresh. It’s a slightly slower tempo as well, which I hear/hope may be on it’s way back in. A few people have told me that his mix sounds like 90s house and disco. I think that’s because they aren’t accustomed to hearing piano in dance music in quite a while.”
Skrufff: How much has the explosion in EDM affected your world, both in terms of socially and business wise?
Lady Bunny: “I get confused by the label EDM. Does that mean that classic house music made with synthesizers is not electronic dance music? If it means the current style of electronic dance music, I am not a fan of the frantic Skrillex style, but I do love Daft Punk’s Get Lucky–mainly because it sounds like an old record by Chic. But this has real instruments–so is it EDM?
I am unabashedly old-fashioned and never try to be cutting edge with music. Hot tracks of the moment are fine at the moment, but I personally prefer traditional song structure. One thing that bugs me about what I perceive as EDM is the disappearance of the chorus. (Crystal Waters complained to me recently that the bass line has also disappeared, which I agree with and which is unfortunate.)
When I hear pop EDM-influenced tracks like Nicki Minaj’s Starships, Feels So Close and Let’s Go by Ne-yo, the producer uses a mostly instrumental chorus, throwing in a quick “I’m higher than a motherfucker” or “Let’s go” because the instrumental choruses are so busy musically that only minimal vocal ideas can be written on top of them.
Or with Feels So Close, the whole hook is instrumental. I have nothing against vocally minimal or instrumental hooks, but I prefer a traditional chorus with lyrics. In Skrillex’s Bangarang, the chorus is noisy synths and they repeat the word “Bangarang.” It’s cool but I hope it’s a trend. I’m sure that you’re laughing at my “current” references as I name-check fading hits! Overall, I prefer a song with a groove you can get into as opposed to one that bangs you over the head with cold, aggressive, hard synthesizers.”
Skrufff: It seems like there are more drag queens emerging into the public eye every year: how much pressure does this put on you as a performer?
Lady Bunny: “New queens from (TV show) RuPaul’s Drag Race have dominated club bookings for several years. Many of the older, more established queens complain about the shortage of gigs as a result. Luckily, because of my appearance on Drag U, I’m lumped into the Drag Race family and haven’t suffered as much.
The sad thing is that while some Drag Race queens are mesmerizing on-screen talent on the air, they don’t all hold their own when performing. Some are amazing live, but when many are booked they’re often booked primarily because of the meet-and-greet with fans which follows the show. So it doesn’t always matter if they are show is good or not.
Their fans are mainly satisfied by getting their picture taken with someone on TV to spruce up their Facebook pages. It’s not good news for the art of drag if the show’s content no longer matters. I asked one club owner how he had liked a Drag Race queen’s act and he said ‘Horrible! But I’d book her again because she packed the place.’ It’s never a good when numbers stifle quality.’
Skrufff: How much are drag queens in New York generally friendly and supportive of each other?
Lady Bunny: “I think queens in New York City generally are supportive of each other. Of course, queens are often catty in jest but most of us feel that we’re in the same boat so there is actually some comradery. Most of my friends are drag queens and sometimes we stick together, siding with each other rather than with promoters or club owners.
I remember a time when transsexual hookers didn’t warm up to drag queens–often because drag queens give sex away and they sneered that we weren’t living as women full time–but I think they realized that drags weren’t going anywhere.
I often joked that after Wigstock ended and I wasn’t providing that platform for the queens that none of them would return my calls. That hasn’t happened. But I also think that many younger queens don’t feel as if they are in competition with me since I’m older, not thin, and not trying to be passable as a woman. See–that’s a wonderful benefit to having queens in different flavours and not all lip-synching to Beyonce and Rihanna.”
Skrufff: What advice would you have for someone thinking about dragging up? Where/ how should they start?
Lady Bunny: “I think they should start by trying to come up with something unique to them. And it should be a persona that they genuinely are attached to. If successful, they’ll be doing it a lot. And take that from a bitter Bunny whose neck is in pain after sporting gargantuan wigs all weekend.”
Skrufff; You famously appeared in Sex in the City: how much impact did that appearance have on your life?
Lady Bunny: “It was fun but the bit part with one line didn’t affect me much. I never even got the channel that it was broadcast on. It was amusing, though, because around 75-100 drag queen extras were in the scene. Many of them felt that they’d like to be movie stars. But after waiting 13 hours in July heat to finish that one scene with no drinks, drugs or dicks to chase, I think many of them may have adjusted their aspirations towards legitimate show biz that day.”
Skrufff: What kind of impact has that show had on New York long term?
Lady Bunny: “Since Magnolia Bakery in my neighbourhood was featured and Sarah Jessica Parker is a neighbour, they now give Sex And The City tours in my area. But I think a large part of the appeal of that show was from non-New Yorkers who were thrilled to see fab parties, restaurants and clubs that new Yorkers already enjoyed. The show did heighten designer labels’ profiles and my have contributed to the rise of designer knock-offs being sold. Many who buy them seem to be obsessed tourists.”
Skrufff: The common perception of New York nowadays is that it’s uber expensive and packed with banker types, with most of the alternative and poor driven out: how does it genuinely compare with say the early 90s?
Lady Bunny: “That perception is completely true. When I moved here in 1984, someone asked me to become their roommate at $250 per month. With rents so high now, club kids/artists/drag queens must be living together in large numbers in cramped spaces to afford this. It’s pushing creative types further and further away from the astronomical rents of Manhattan. Sadly, that’s where the best clubs traditionally thrived.
And the bankers don’t even go out much–they work 9-5. When they do go out, I suppose they’re the ones who summon the idiotic bottle service. Because if you can scarcely afford your rent, you aren’t going to be spending $500 on a bottle of booze that would cost $50 in a liquor store.
Blacks and latinos have also been leaving the city in droves. And it’s a pity because they added so much flavour to the mix. As the most fun people depart and cultural hotspots where artists develop dry up, it’s very important to remember that you don’t ever want to ask a banker to entertain you. It’ll be the worst karaoke ever.
Real estate agents charge higher rents citing New York City’s cultural experiences, while the higher rents are forcing venues which moulded popular artists to close. Not a healthy diagnosis for New York City as a creative centre: I wonder if kids still even crave moving here after considering the expense.”
Skrufff: On a darker note, have you ever been attacked or threatened on the street? When was the last time you felt seriously frightened?
Lady Bunny: “After 25 years I’ve had my share of anti-gay comments and sometimes felt threatened. It’s better to just walk away than tell them off, especially if you’re alone. Often you sense that these are young guys with nothing to lose who have just come from another scuffle, and possibly headed to prison. Or back to prison. What difference does it make to them if they have another violent incident on their record?
Gay-bashing is often a herd instinct that groups of straight guys engage in, particularly when drunk. I can’t understand why drinking makes some guys violent, whether harassing gays or raping women. One recent attack happened after several guys saw someone gay after a sporting event and I claimed that they were upset because their team lost. What big, overgrown babies! I don’t ever feel apprehensive when passing groups of women or other gays. But if you’ve been bashed and are in a business or some place with security, it’s important to complain and have them handle it. You have to stress that you won’t frequent an establishment that tolerates discrimination.
And while this is a strange observation, many (including me) complain about the disappearance of New York’s edge and that it’s been made so safe and sanitized for tourists now. Well, nothing is edgier than a fist in your face.
And if we truly miss the old dangerous days when we were scared to roam parts of Alphabet City, when someone gets attacked we realize that we have grown comfortable with feeling safer.
Maybe you can’t have zero gentrification and a thriving art scene with cheap rents without sacrificing some personal safety. Both would be fantastic. But when you do get the gentrification and still don’t feel safe, it’s the worst of both worlds.”
Lady Bunny’s Take Me Up is out on Lybra Records on July 1st.