You can’t have been out on the queer scene in New York City for any length of time since the 1980s without knowing Linda Simpson. She’s the chatty, witty, flame-haired drag alter ego of Les Simpson, a Minnesota native who has given so much to downtown LGBTQ nightlife in the form of party hostessing, the seminal pre-Butt queer zine My Comrade, and, in recent years, the hilarious Drag Bingo night at Le Poisson Rouge (temporarily relocated to Zoom in our COVID era).
Another wonderful thing that Simpson did, from the late ’80s until about the mid-late ’90s, was take a camera out with her on many nights. That led to an incredible pre-internet, pre–social-media photo archive of some of the most legendary drag queens of an era when wild and creative partying and performance was how the queer community offset the misery of the AIDS epidemic, for which effective treatment did not come along until 1996.
With editor David Knowles, Simpson has compiled that archive into The Drag Explosion, a book available in December from the new imprint Domain. It features early images of such global drag legends as RuPaul, Lady Bunny, and Candis Cayne, as well as more New York City–level celebs like Mistress Formika, Tabboo!, Girlina, Hapi Phace, Ebony Jet, and Simpson herself, not to mention a bevy of hot go-go boys and outrageous club kids. It’s all here, in this celebration of an era when the annual outdoor Wigstock event in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village and nearby venues like the Pyramid Club and Boy Bar, as well as megaclubs like the Tunnel, Roxy, Limelight, and Palladium, were the stomping grounds for a truly wild cast of characters.
Plus, a live exhibit of much of the work in the book, titled “Where Love Lives” after a popular house song of the period, is viewable in Brooklyn’s Bushwick area through Nov. 15 at the gallery Tiger Strikes Asteroid, curated by Pacifico Silano.
TheBody chatted with Simpson about those heady days featured in the book, how a hard-working drag queen is surviving the COVID era, and how drag has changed since the era depicted in The Drag Explosion.
Tim Murphy: Hi, Linda! It’s so nice to chat after not seeing you out for so long. How are you surviving the COVID era?
Linda Simpson: It’s been challenging. I’ve pivoted to an online format with my bingo, and I do host some private parties, which has been helpful, but basically I’m not working as much and my income has taken a hit. I didn’t feel it at first with that $600 weekly subsidy [from the federal government, which stopped at the end of July]. Still, I’ve been incredibly busy. I’ve been working on this book quite a bit and also have the photo exhibit right now.
And I’ve been writing fiction. I also got the COVID 10 [pounds]. I’m slender, so having a belly looks insane. So now I make sure to walk at least half an hour each day and not use this pandemic as an excuse to just chow down on junk food. I’m a very healthy eater, actually, mostly fruits and vegetables, although I’m not a vegetarian. I also just recently subscribed to Netflix. But I’ve also actually rediscovered the grand old art of reading books—or rereading them. I just reread Lolita as well as I Was A White Slave in Harlem by the drag queen Margo Howard-Howard. It’s really good. It’s a memoir, but we’re not sure how much of it is true. I also read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time in my life.
Murphy: Linda, tell us about your first year or so in NYC.
Simpson: Well, I’m discreet about my age, because I’m in showbiz. But it was in the early ’80s. I came here from Minnesota to go to NYU. So it was culture shock. Back then, NYC was very much a different world from the rest of the country. I initially misinterpreted a lot of the brusqueness of New Yorkers as anger. But I was still fascinated. Back then, NYU was not quite the monster it is now—it was mostly a commuter school. I lived in the dorms and ate mostly in the cafeteria, but the Village was very lively, with a lot of clothing and shoe stores on 8th Street. I’d go to the gay bar The Ninth Circle on 10th Street. Bars back then were much cruisier because that’s where people went to pick someone up. There was much more sexual anarchy.
Murphy: How did Les transition into drag icon Linda?
Simpson: That was the late ’80s. It wasn’t overnight. I’d done drag for Halloween. Then I was publishing [the queer zine] My Comrade, so when we would do release parties, I would dress in drag. That was my foray into having a bigger presence. I didn’t even have a drag name. Someone suggested Linda for “realness,” so I took it. Most of the queens at that time had outrageous names and personalities onstage—Lady Bunny, Sister Dimension, Tabboo!—but at the same time, they were basically themselves. That’s what I liked about the scene. It’s not like you had to change your voice or way of interacting with the world, but you had that armor of drag.
Murphy: Do you think of Linda as different from Les?
Simpson: I don’t think they’re dramatically different. However, I won’t deny that being in drag—and this isn’t just my story—gives you more confidence and boldness. I’m not completely meek and mild as a guy, but if I walk into the room as Linda, I’m much more prone to be the life of the party.
Murphy: How would you describe Linda?
Simpson: [ponders] I guess she’s a bit of a businesswoman. I’ve been a promoter for nightlife activities, produced my own magazine, and also was a journalist. [For many years, Simpson was the LGBTQ editor at Time Out New York]. These days, drag queens are expected to be ambitious—you have to have your own brand and sell it. So I feel kind of lazy compared to [the newer queens] because I didn’t get into drag to make a fortune. It was more happenstance.
Murphy: What made you think to start taking pictures when you went out back then?
Simpson: They were just plain snapshots on a basic camera—I don’t even remember what kind. I’m so not a photographer. I think I was a little shy, so taking photos was a way to interact with people. But I do have a documentarian mind, so I wanted to capture moments.
Murphy: How much did you think you were creating an archive of a moment in time?
Simpson: Zero. I didn’t give any thought to the future of these photos until many years later. I never thought, “I’m documenting this scene, and this is going to make a great archive.”
Murphy: So what year would you say was the peak of the scene you documented?
Simpson: Maybe 1992 or 1993. That was when the whole media discovery of drag took place during the success RuPaul had with the hit “Supermodel (You Better Work).” There was a vibrant nightlife scene, I had My Comrade going, and it was exciting to be recognized by the powers that be, with a lot of drag queens doing appearances on TV talk shows and being in magazine articles. I hadn’t been a drag queen for very long, and that was very fun and gratifying. I was also doing a party at the Pyramid Club called Channel 69, which was fantastic—a great group of queens, many of us just developing. We were like a little family, and it was very fun.
Murphy: How much of a presence was HIV/AIDS in that scene?
Simpson: Majorly. It was the undercurrent of everything we did. But it’s also important to remember that when AIDS hit in the 1980s, the West Village was the heart of the city’s gay community and that area was hardest hit—older guys. The East Village had a big gay scene, but it tended to be younger, so, with major exceptions like Keith Haring and John Sex, it wasn’t as affected by AIDS. There was a lot of emphasis on safe sex. But also, unfortunately, AIDS kicked up a lot of homophobia and gay-bashing. You really had to watch where you went. There weren’t many so-called straight allies then, so if someone called you a faggot on the street, nobody would come to your rescue. It was a very violent time, and it made gay people a lot more unified. We had to look out for one another.
Also, part of the reaction to AIDS was escapism. That’s why the club scene was so wild. It was a way of dancing amid the doom. You had to have some sense of fun or the horribleness of it would overwhelm you and you wouldn’t be able to do a damn thing.
Murphy: What do you think really ended that era? What was the turning point?
Simpson: One thing was [then-mayor] Rudy Giuliani, who had a real law-and-order policy, which took a couple of years into his administration [starting in 1994] but was very devastating to nightlife, which employed most drag queens. Also, after a point, the media just lost interest in drag. At that time, the media alone decided what was in and what was out. They don’t have that power now. Even if you don’t have mainstream popularity, you can still be some Midwestern drag queen with 300,000 Instagram followers.
Murphy: Can I ask how you identify gender-wise? And what was people’s understanding back then of what it meant to be transgender?
Simpson: I identify as a man who’s a drag queen. I don’t think anyone used the word transgender back then. The term for people who wanted to live their lives as women all the time was transsexual. I think there was a lot of misunderstanding of transgender issues, even in my circles, naivete about how true trans people were trying to get through life. But at the same time, there was a whole transsexual scene centered around various bars in midtown like Edelweiss, where there was also a lot of prostituting going on. But the drag-world umbrella downtown definitely had transgender girls, such as my friend Page or Connie, in the mix. But I think people thought of it as being more of a novelty as opposed to really understanding the world of trans people. If I can get on my soapbox for a moment, I think that the term “trans” is way overused right now, and there’s a lot of false representation of trans expression.
Murphy: What about the racial dynamics of the scene in your book? It’s predominantly white, but there are some significant exceptions, such as RuPaul, Ebony Jet, and Flotilla DeBarge, and there were also a lot of Black and Brown go-go boys on the scene interacting with the queens.
Simpson: Well, this is coming from my white perspective, so I might have been very naive, but I think things were relatively harmonious downtown in terms of racial integration. Boy Bar and Pyramid were both pretty racially mixed. I think things sometimes got dicey at the bigger clubs because people [of color] would not be let in. There was probably much more discrimination than I was aware of, even though I had Black friends. I remember an incident or two where we were waiting for taxis that would not stop when my Black friends raised their hands.
I think we weren’t as self-conscious back then about race, which made for a more sincere and realistic way of interacting. Someone would say, “Get away from my make-up, you Black bitch!” and everyone would go “Ooooh!” and then someone would say, “What did you call me, you white bitch?” It wasn’t loaded and we didn’t have to process it. But then again, what do I know? Maybe they were hurtful comments.
Murphy: What do you think is different about this new generation of queens that have come out of Bushwig [the Bushwick-based millennial and Gen Z successor event to Wigstock] the past decade or so? I know you have spent some time out there.
Simpson: Even though the Brooklyn scene has this bohemian atmosphere, everyone’s working like crazy and is hosting 43 different nights—at least, before COVID they were. Back then, it was cheaper to live in New York. You could move here and just be fabulous. Now you have to scramble for the rent no matter where you’re living. It’s also changed aesthetically. Back then, the queens had a much more naturalistic look. Now, make-up is all about contouring, which can be great, but it can also block facial expression. Back in our day, queens wanted to look more girly, like supermodels. Now it’s more about looking like a drag queen, impressing other queens with your contouring skills. Which is all good and fine, but it’s kind of space alien. Some of these queens are pretty, but you’d never know it.
Murphy: Do you think they are more politically and socially aware, more “woke”?
Simpson: Yeah, but that’s not a bad thing. They’re products of their generation, which is more aware.
Murphy: Do you think social media has changed the scene?
Simpson: Dramatically. It’s diffused the power of NYC. In the past, you had to move to NYC, or maybe LA or San Francisco, but now you can become a fairly major drag queen just having interesting looks or doing something special online. Even middle-of-the-road drag queens can become popular online and parlay that into appearances or getting yourself onto RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Murphy: I was also going to ask you if or how you thought that RPDR had changed the scene.
Simpson: It’s catapulted drag into a very successful genre—and a highly competitive one. I don’t remember any drag queens in my day making their own clothing. RPDR has popularized a certain kind of make-up and costuming. It’s allowed drag to become really worshipped and adored, but I don’t think the kind of drag is as broad as you might think. There’s a lot of arty drag stuff that wouldn’t get included on RPDR. Another disturbing element is that there’s more and more emphasis on queens who are also cute and have twink appeal. Some of the old masters of drag were very average looking.
Murphy: You’re saying that now you have to look good in and out of drag.
Simpson: And there’s nothing wrong with that, but I don’t think it should be the norm.
Murphy: And now I would like you to get rather vulnerable and tell me what comes up for you emotionally when you look through the pictures in your collection?
Simpson: I have mixed emotions. Many of them are happy because it was a formative time for me and I made a lot of great friendships and had a lot of energy and enthusiasm. But it’s also poignant—it’s lost youth. Some people are dead, and that’s sad: Hattie Hathaway, Mona Foot, Sweetie, Page—I could go on and on. They were people who played very vital parts in my life. And there’s also a sadness that the scene itself, this very vibrant infrastructure, has disappeared.
Murphy: What would today’s Linda tell young Linda?
Simpson: Be confident about what you’re doing. Don’t second-guess yourself so much.
Murphy: Do you think you did that?
Simpson: Oh, yeah. I think I have PTSD from growing up gay. A lot of people do. I had a very low self-image. That’s one of the reasons I liked being in drag, because it made me feel better about myself. I doubted myself. I still do.