Rare Shots of New York’s 1990s Drag Scene

Photo: Linda Simpson

Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, New York’s drag scene transformed from an underground phenomenon to a vibrant — and visible — nightlife subculture. Documenting the evolution was Linda Simpson, a longtime drag personality who moved to New York from Minnesota in the late ‘80s, and quickly became immersed in the East Village’s burgeoning drag scene, experiencing drag’s rapidly increasing popularity firsthand. “I threw myself in heels-first. I was out practically every night,” she told the Cut of her early years in the city. Simpson also, unusually for the time, brought along a camera — “just like a 35 millimeter, nothing professional” to capture the scene.

The resulting collection of photographs, spanning from 1987 to 1996, provides a rare look inside the New York drag scene on the cusp of permeating the mainstream media. Over past year, Simpson has begun presenting a slideshow of her photos, titled “The Drag Explosion,” which she exhibited last fall at the New York Art Book Fair at PS1, and more recently at the New School. She spoke with the Cut about the evolution of New York drag culture since the late ‘80s.

These photos were taken over the span of about ten years. What was your own relationship to drag during that time?
Well, I just became more and more involved, really. I was a real enthusiast, and I was sort of a chronicler of the scene even then because I was a journalist. I had a column called “Drag Update” in one of the local gay rags, and I did various other journalistic stuff — I was on a cable TV show, and I was producing my own underground magazine for a while, too. So, I was definitely in the thick of the action.

Where were these photographs taken?
Most of the earlier ones are in the East Village, especially at the Pyramid Club, which was a hotbed of drag back then. And then as drag became more popular on the nightlife scene, it expanded into a lot of clubs and nightlife in general, so a lot of my pictures are from the big clubs at the time — Limelight, Tunnel, Palladium, etc. There was a lot of media attention on the drag scene at that time, especially when RuPaul became a star, so a lot of my pictures are from the trimmings of that — at video shoots, or at movie premieres, or behind the scenes at talk shows. We were really the first drag-queen group to break through to the mainstream — we were very visible and all over the place. We familiarized a lot of people with drag.

How did you get into photography?
Well, I’m just an amateur. It’s just kind of dumb luck, or I have a bit of an innate skill. I just had my camera along back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and I was traveling in mostly a drag-centric circle, so lots of my photos are of my friends, and people I knew who were in drag. I took my photos very randomly — I wish that I had taken more of them, now. A lot of them were just when I felt like it, or was hanging around friends — I would snap them in action. I can still name 99 percent of the people in my photos. I didn’t even realize at the time that I was kind of reporting on a scene. Back then, it wasn’t very common for people to carry cameras around, especially at night, so my photos are a bit unique in that regard.

You titled the collection “The Drag Explosion.” How did the New York City drag scene change in the years you’ve chronicled?
Well, like I said, for most of the early years that I’m talking around, it was centered in the East Village — and that scene was very rare at that point. And it was a new kind of drag — people were putting an emphasis on personality, and it wasn’t so much about impersonating old divas as it was about creating new characters. And it was very kooky and avant-garde — almost punkish. And then all of the nightlife became very dazzled with the drag phenomenon, and we were hiring drag queens to be club hosts, go-go dancers, working the door. It was a great form of eye candy, and the masses really liked it, so having these colorful people onboard would bring a lot of people to the establishment. And then RuPaul became famous with her single “Supermodel” in 1992, so all of a sudden there was a massive amount of attention — there were drag-themed videos, movies, TV shows, and tons of magazine articles, you name it. The scene just got bigger and bigger.

I would say it peaked around ’95 and then started fading, because the media was onto something else by then. And also Giuliani’s “quality of life” campaign started really cracking down on the nightlife, and drag and nightlife were going hand in hand, so there were a lot fewer places that you could perform and go out.

How does it compare to the drag scene now?
Well, it’s more spread out, I think. My scene was concentrated mostly in Manhattan, and I think that it was probably a little more unified, and we knew each other better. I think it’s actually bigger now. A lot of drag revival, not just in New York but everywhere, has been sparked by the popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race, and so there are a lot of drag queens, and perhaps more opportunities for drag queens, with the internet. But to some degree there’s not the … I don’t know, the edginess that we had, because we were the first time that the mass media was really coming to terms with drag. Now we’re at a whole different stage, so it’s even hard to compare.

What kind of response have you gotten to “The Drag Explosion”?
Very positive. For people who were there, I think it’s nostalgic, and for people who weren’t there, it’s meant to be sort of educational. Even for people who were there, the history of drag is not very clear. So I think the slideshow helps people realize what, in fact, did happen. My main goal —  whether the photos are seen in a book or a slideshow or an exhibition — is just for people to be able to enjoy them and really appreciate how there was a strong, vibrant scene during that time.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Rare Shots of New York’s 1990s Drag Scene