Revisit The Drag Club Where RuPaul And Madonna Cut Their Teeth

Photographer Clayton Patterson goes back to the '80s with "Portraits from the Pyramid."

Today the East Village looks more like an upper-class enclave than the nexus of New York’s gritty underground scene. But back in the 1980s, it was home to a thriving culture of queer artists, musicians, drag queens, and club kids.

Their temple: The Pyramid Club on Avenue A.

Opening in 1979, the Pyramid was a proving ground for drag legends like John Kelly, Lady Bunny, Lypsinka, and RuPaul, whose first show there was in 1982. Both Nirvana and Red Hot Chili Peppers played their first New York gigs at the Pyramid, where Andy Warhol filmed a segment for MTV and Madonna performed her first AIDS benefit.

In 2007, a proposal was even made to give the Pyramid landmark status as the first “drag landmark.” (Alas, it didn’t gain traction.)

“Portraits from the Pyramid,” photographer Clayton Patterson’s new exhibit at downtown boutique Groupe, captures some of the club’s most outrageous habitués, including Ru, Lypsinka, Dean Johnson, Sister Dimension, Perfidia, and Tabboo (below).

Clayton Patterson

“You just had this kind of spontaneous, unraveling creativity every weekend,” says Patterson, who began shooting at the club in 1986. “It was like a crystallization of the Lower East Side. Unlike SoHo, which was more of a careerist place for artists, the Lower East Side was an expressionist place—it was more about just being an artist than being famous or rich.”


at the time, the Village was one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the world—”Chinese, Indians, Bangladeshis, blacks, Hispanics, Jews,” says Patterson, “as well as lifestyle diversity—the Hell’s Angels, skinheads, drag queens, religious zealots.” And while the various tribes weren’t holding hands around a campfire, it was an atmosphere where anything could happen.

Mr. Fashion by Clayton Patterson

“At the Pyramid Club, security would be people from the hardcore scene—which is supposedly very anti-gay,” he adds. “But all of these stereotypes didn’t apply there. It was like a free zone.”

Below, check out some highlights from “Portraits from the Pyramid,” on view at Groupe (198 Bowery) through January 17, 2018.

Sister Dimension

Clayton Patterson

Connie Girl

Clayton Patterson


Clayton Patterson

John Kelly

Clayton Patterson

Sun PK

Clayton Patterson


Clayton Patterson
Dan Avery is a writer-editor who focuses on culture, breaking news and LGBT rights. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, Time Out New York, The Advocate and elsewhere.