With those moon sized blonde wigs, eyelashes that arrive an hour before she does and a sewer mouth to make the late, great Joan Rivers blush in her grave, Lady Bunny is over from New York hawking her latest one woman show, Pig In A Wig. She’s in Dublin for her gig at Liberty Hall as part of a whistle stop tour of the UK and Ireland when we speak on the phone, a soft Southern voice more gentle than the visage suggests.
Born Jon Ingle in Tennessee in 1962 to a middle-class academic family, growing up gay in the seventies South wasn’t the torturous ordeal expected. “I struck people as an independent person and they didn’t seem seem to question me too often,” he says. “I’m not saying I didn’t have a few sticky situations but generally I was pretty much accepted. I went to school with kids I’d grown up with so they all knew me - they knew I was a sissy and they didn’t want me on the sports team but back then people had so little exposure to gay people. Unless you had your tongue hanging out and were being some pervert child molester then you weren’t actually gay.”
His father was posted to Ghana as a professor of History in the early seventies, converting with his wife to Quakerism and from there sent their son to Bootham, a private English red brick Quaker school in York. The good run of avoiding that decade’s endemic homophobia continued. “You know I got by ok in York,” he says. “They knew I loved to dance so for one of the school dances they cut my head out and put it on John Travolta’s body from Saturday Night Fever with speech bubble saying, ‘Come on boys!’ It was unbelievably gay.” Well, English private schools… “In my final year we did a school show where it was quite traditional to do drag, so I choreographed a rousing version of Enough Is Enough.” Yep, English private schools…
Moving to Atlanta in the early eighties he met RuPaul, Larry Tee and Lahoma Van Zandt, names that rose together on the city’s club scene before decamping en masse to New York a few years later. The city’s eighties nightlife and music has been mythologised by later generations of party people, mined and reworked endlessly by later producers and creatives. Crawling back from near bankruptcy in the seventies, it was a city of extremes where the Reagan rich rubbed shoulders with pushers and pimps and the underground spawned fantasy nightlife creatures and musical breakthroughs.
It was at the famous Pyramid club in the mid eighties that he was given his DJ first break by drag Sister Dimension. “Later I got a job playing at a party called Panty Gurdles and things went from there,” he says. “I’ve never really liked hard music so as the eighties progressed and techno really took over I would be put in the auxiliary room. I always wanted a melody, a vocal and chord changes… there was great R&B at the time and I would play across genres and decades. I’m not the world’s greatest mixer,” he adds laughing, “so I loved to go from a house track to something like Soul II Soul and just make sure every record is good.
“People’s ears were open back then and would have enough respect to give the DJ a chance - crowds now often just walk away if they don’t know it.” He pauses before adding. “I think the success of Horse Meat Disco as a party that now plays around the world indicates that the cooler kids want to open up their ear. I went to their London party one week when I wasn’t DJing and they were playing stuff that I didn’t know which meant the crowd didn’t know it which forces you to listen. To learn.”
As in London with gentrification and development leading to over half the city’s LGBT venues to close, the Giuliani years took their toll in New York. Many of the city’s major venues shut down. The frenetic energy that had pushed through nearly two decades of innovation started to wane which, according to Bunny, made a genuine underground culture difficult to thrive.
“As the clubs have closed it’s been a race to the bottom in many places and that's why you hear so much top 40 music. They dumb it down, they are not playing the rare cuts,” he says. “Speaking as an elder I remember how rejected we all felt in the eighties and when AIDS was killing us but we had our revenge because we could say our culture was better - and it was.”
Like every queen of a certain age the virus was an inescapable bleak backdrop to the disco lights and sexual conquests. The creative scenes lost so much and I ask how the crisis personally affected him.
“Oh, I loved it!” He pipes in lightening fast, laughing. “People were dropping like flies and sadly it was the never the ones you wanted to go.” We’re both cackling like two shrews but it’s the style of humour that drew criticism for his acerbic show, TransJester, in 2017. “I mean please, it was terrifying - it was a curse! I don’t know if people realise how profoundly that has influenced the people who survived. I’ll speak to friends of mine from the club world back then and a lot us will say how we didn’t plan for the future or retirement because we had no idea we’d live through the AIDS crisis. We assumed because all of our friends were dropping that we would die too. I mean I just wanted to lose the weight…” he adds with a wink from across the Irish Sea.
If you went see TransJester you know he has little truck with political correctness, the show taking aim at what he sees as word policing by the Left. One challenge, aimed squarely at queer identifying snowflakes and that drew criticism from some of the friends I watched it with, was that his generation was fighting for their lives so why be so hung up on gender labels and pronouns. Some I spoke to questioned this, saying it wasn’t for an older gay man to question what they those who came after choose to priorities and identify with.
“What the political Left has done is bound itself to identify and weaponised that because a lot of the policies of neo-liberals have failed - and they know it,” he responds. “So they can say, ‘Oh we’re looking out for the bullied’, by having this word police but actually they’re bullying people like me within the community, and here’s a perfect example,” he says, explaining how a jokey Tweet calling his good friend Bianca Del Rio a lezza had him banned from Twitter. “So Twitter, with ties to the establishment Left, has taken it upon itself to police the gay community from itself. Bianca's not a woman, and certainly not a lesbian, we were just playing and being absurd. And yet I found the word lezza used in a Guardian headline! It’s the same with ‘tranny’, we suddenly can’t use it because it offends some trans people yet I know plenty of trans people, friends of mine, who use the word ‘tranny’.”
“My shows are always purposefully tasteless,” he continues. “Although Pig In A Wig wasn’t billed as a celebration of politically incorrect humour it was there and that caused no problem with that in England, Scotland and Ireland. These are just average kids who probably watch drag race with some older people thrown. They are not people from elite universities who sit and boo hoo over whether someone who has lived their whole life with trans people can say tranny or not.”
We speak at length across sprawling topics, and there isn’t a situation or topic that doesn’t receive it’s own Bunnyism, but it’s music, mascara and politics that we get drawn back to again and again. We have a shared sympathy for the loss of much of the individual spaces and attitudes that allowed early dance and club culture to emerge and its loss to the growing homogenisation and commercialism of cities. “New York was a dangerous place to live when I moved in the early eighties but we were young and didn’t have anything so no one was really gonna mess with us - and now it’s safe and very, very dull… I guess that’s the trade off.”
I’m sure many New Yorkers would disagree with that statement but having had a twenty year gap between visits to I comment on the changes I noticed when there a couple of years ago; how sanitised and corporate it is in many parts compared to what I remember in the mid-nineties.
“But this is what happens when we get coffee at Starbucks or we all eat at these chains like Pret a Manger or McDonald’s,” he says. “Those mom & pop sandwich shops are never coming back, they can’t afford the rent so use them or lose them. That’s what provides local flavour. Every single politician goes on about the importance of these local businesses but none of them offer any protection and most of them are on the side - and payroll - of these large corporations. Amazon makes life very convenient but that is causing the shop you used to go try your shimmer tights on at to close. When they’re gone we won’t get these ways of life back.”
It’s a short jump from shimmer tights to Wigstock, the festival he started in 1985 and the wider drag scene. “Instagram drag has shifted the focus on to the appearance rather than the performance,” he says. “I mean honey if you look great and spent hours on your make up with top of the line products then I’ll applaud when you walk out on to the stage - but what are you gonna do to hold my interest?”
There’s a broader swipe at tech culture. “I’ve been walking around London since the weather picked up and I’ve been looking at people who looked so shell shocked, like zombies or something, and then they burst into laughter and I realise they’re connected to some device - or they’re scrolling on Instagram on a beautiful day in the park when people traditionally have got together have fun - do we have a need still to be with each other?
"I DJ’d at Miami Gay Pride: the place was packed, the dance floor was jumping and there’s this guy standing outside the group with his back to the club filming himself singing along to the song with his gay tribe as the backdrop. So even in a big space of people we find ways to isolate and connect with the friends we aren’t with online often to impress them and make us look like what fun lives we have. So you’ve made yourself a not fun person to be with in real life - when are you ever going to meet these people you are trying to impress? You aren’t but you’re desperate to get more of them.”
I asked if he’s watched Black Mirror.
“No, I avoid mirrors.”
We discuss Pose, Ryan Murphy’s eight part series on the eighties vogue ball scene in NYC. If you watched Paris Is Burning many years ago it feels a little too late, but it is a good thing that their world is now getting recognition in the mainstream media.
“I was glad they didn’t whitewash the AIDS, the prostitution or the drugs,” he says. “I thought it was gonna be, ‘Oh, I’ll burst into song now’, and they do burst into song but when it’s Home from the Wiz - originally by Stephanie Mills - you have to smile. And I’m pleased they used real trans actresses too.” When asked if he personally knew that Paris Is Burning crowd he replies, “I was not a part of that scene but I existed alongside it at that time in New York.
“I’m not from Uptown and I didn’t compete in voguing balls although Ru, Lahoma and I are in Paris Is Burning for a split second when someone is watching a television with us three walking in the Love Ball. We were wearing Stevie Stewart Bodymap creations, the toast of London in the eighties, and we thought we were the bees knees!” He says laughing before adding. “I mean I loved that scene and we would party and hang out with them and there was cross pollination… Dorian Corey, Willie Ninja & Octavia Saint Laurent all performed at Wigstock and whenever I saw Willie, who was a real sweetheart and an amazing talent I, bombed out of my mind, would immediately give him that look like the battle is on - as if I was gonna battle Willie Ninja! I got to spend his last Thanksgiving dinner with him at his home and his house member Javier Ninja performed at Wigstock this past year.”
After trialling a few Wigstock parties on cruises around Manhattan the seminal drag festival was revived last year and filmed by HBO for a documentary called Wig out this month. As in the eighties with the shadow of AIDS and his response being to have fun, the put on a show, he feels we are again in a dark period and one reason to to it, to bring some fun and celebration to the current climate of anger and fear based politics. “Everyone thinks Trump is a monster but I don’t see him as that different from any other Republican president, and I’ve lived through several. My issue is how did my side, the Left, lose to Trump? They lost because they are also shit.”
The grievances of people left behind, growing inequality and populist politics brings us back to Jenny Livington’s 1989 documentary. “When you hear Venus Xtravaganza dreaming about a white picket fence we need to realise that while many of us have it to her it was unobtainable, something that she had to dream about or to turn tricks to get. That white picket fence represented safety, prosperity and security and so many now don’t have that,” he says before chipping in with that infectious laugh: “Now I feel guilty about killing her...”
Lady Bunny's Desert Island Discs:
Jermaine is often overlooked because of his more famous brother. But he put out several soulful disco tracks like the above and Burnin’ Hot.
Because her Got To Be Real became such a smash, Cheryl is often thought of as a one-hit wonder. Not to the disco community, who still boogie to her I’m Gettin’ Ready and the insane Star Love. Keep It Hot is a slower jam which really shows off her sizzling vocals and even an African percussion breakdown!
I first heard this as a teen sneaking into London disco Adam’s or Bang’s when it was all the rage. It’s a manic groove fully orchestrated with strings, a horn section and latin percussion. And her Karen’t voice! I still don’t know exactly what the “hot shot” she so desperately needs is. Cum? Poppers? Heroin?
I know little about this 12 inch on a small label other than it was a big song at The Saint in NYC. Strong vocal track with tangy guitar and an irresistible hook. It sounds like a precursor to High Energy.
I prefer this smash to I’m A Victim! I’m always glad to see Candi taking off more in Europe than in the States with her later tunes like You Got The Love. Her unforgettable voice has a yearning which makes it perfect for love gone wrong songs like this.
Jump and I’m So Excited with this slow, piano-driven gospel-ly masterpiece. And it’s dramatic stops make it perfect for dance floor drama, gurl! See you on June 9th at Horse Meat!
Lady Bunny plays at Horse Meat Disco, The Eagle, Sunday June 9th. Doors at 8pm. £6.