RuPaul and Other Drag Pioneers Come to Life in Stunning New Photo Book

Linda Simpson's "The Drag Explosion" captures the hunty icons of New York City's drag scene in the '80s and '90s.

Before RuPaul became a household name, she was a fixture of New York City’s downtown drag scene during the 1980s and ‘90s, appearing at Wigstock and East Village clubs like Pyramid. Linda Simpson — the alter ego of writer and former Time Out New York editor Les Simpson — was there, documenting it through thousands of photos snapped with a 35mm point-and-shoot camera and her outrageous My Comrade zine. Now, more than 230 of those priceless vintage images have been collected in Simpson’s must-have new book The Drag Explosion.

Courtesy of Linda Simpson

Featuring candid shots of icons like Jackie Beat, Lypsinka, Kevin Aviance, edgy fashion trailblazer Leigh Bowery, and the late Mona Foot (Nashom Wooden), who died of COVID-19 in March, the tome includes an introduction by Lady Bunny and an afterword by Yale professor Tavia Nyong’o (author of 2018’s Afro-Fabulations: The Queer Drama of Black Life). The Drag Explosion also captures this pivotal scene’s crossover with ballroom and vogueing culture, pop art, and ‘90s “club kids.”

Simpson kikied with NewNowNext about her unheeded career advice for a young RuPaul, forgotten queens she’d love to see back in action, and the best person to gift her book to this holiday season.

How did you go about choosing these photos, and where did you store them for all these years?

I stored them in shoeboxes in my closet. Granted, some I digitized now, but they’re still taking up space. I took a lot of photos, and of course most are not extraordinary, but I whittled it down to 700 and let the art director, David Knowles, choose. He did the deciding, which made it a lot easier, because I would have had a hard time narrowing it down.

Which photos have the most personal, deep resonance?

Photos of dead friends probably hit the hardest. I chose that Mona Foot Wonder Woman photo after she died, but I would have chosen it anyway. It’s not a memorial photo, it’s a great photo, and Mona was such an integral part of that drag history. Leigh Bowery. I was very flattered when I spoke to Leigh for the first time and he knew who I was. He paid a lot of attention to the New York scene and knew the players, and although I wasn’t major he knew who had parties and who was doing what, so I was flabbergasted. I considered Leigh an idol even back then.

Courtesy of Linda Simpson

Were there any lost images you wish you could have included?

I remember one year being at the Roxy nightclub and taking lots of photos of Leigh Bowery just hanging out, and I either lost the camera that night or exposed the film. There were a lot of incidents like that. I had to change film sometimes in the middle of being drunk or high and people bumping into me, so on a lot of occasions, I lost photos. But I’m not crying over them.

There are some great shots of RuPaul. Did you contact her to get feedback on the ones you used?

I didn’t contact Ru, but as a public figure, I think you don’t need to. They’re flattering photos and I think she would be pleased with them. Ru always looked great and was ahead of the game with makeup and was stunning, and Ru back then had it on her mind she could be successful. I remember thinking, since the opportunities for drag were not as fabulous as now, Oh boy, Ru, why not pursue being a makeup artist because that’s what you’re really good at? How wrong was I?

Who are some “forgotten” ‘80s and ‘90s drag queens in the book whom you hope people will appreciate learning about or seeing again in their glory? For example, Zondra Fox.

Not so much forgotten, but maybe didn’t get as much due as they should have. Zondra’s a kook, which is to say she’s an outlier. Nobody knows much about her. She seemed to always pop up at Susanne Bartsch events or Imperial Court’s annual Night of 1000 Gowns and would have some wild costume on. She’s very abrasive in many ways. I got along with her, but there are many queens who would roll their eyes as soon as they saw her. She wasn’t part of the downtown scene, and the book mostly focuses on the below-14th Street stuff.

Courtesy of Linda Simpson

If they’re still alive, which “retired” queen from the book would you love to see back in action again?

Barbara Patterson-Lloyd. She was a hysterically funny drag queen who appeared at Wigstock several times and came out of the East Village Pyramid scene. The premise was she’s a New Jersey housewife comedian, and her jokes were notoriously horrible. Lady Bunny would actually be satisfied when the crowd would finally boo Barbara offstage, and she became a cult figure. There are a lot of people who would love to see BPL revive her career because it was so bad, it was good.

Should Drag Race do an ‘80s queens tribute episode? You could be a judge!

I don’t think they would. The drag looks have changed so much over the years. In order to do that right the queens would have to do make-unders. In the era my book focuses on, drag looked pretty naturalistic compared to drag today when it’s more about impressing everyone with your makeup skills. I don’t know if the queens would even be interested in that now! If they had to? I think it would be very interesting. A lot of those Drag Race contestants are pretty boys, and sometimes less makeup or just the right amount of makeup could accentuate the prettiness. I think some of these queens nowadays cover their looks up a little excessively, honestly. … You’re right, I would be a good judge!

Should The Drag Explosion sit on the shelf next to last year’s Club Kids by Walt Paper?

Yeah, I think there’s some overlap because the drag scene of the ‘90s was correlated with the club kid movement too. But I think a lot of the East Village scene dismissed the club kids as silly. It was a very politically charged time with the AIDS crisis, and I think some people thought the club kids were irresponsible in their escapism. Michael Alig had a bizarre sense of humor and publicly made some AIDS jokes that tarnished his reputation. Some saw it as being very superficial. That being said, a lot of those club kids were drag queens. I traveled in that world and enjoyed it and do have photos of that scene also in my book.

Courtesy of Linda Simpson

Any shot you might do a book collecting My Comrade as well?

TBD. I was going to have an exhibit of My Comrade in January in the East Village, but that had to be delayed due to COVID-19. When the exhibit is finally rescheduled, I’ll think about a kind of publication.

Since The Drag Explosion is being released during the holidays, who would be the ideal recipient of this book?

Obviously people who appreciate drag and drag history. I’m not a photographer per se, or pursued it as a career, but I got a lot of great shots. I guess I have a talent for it and was lucky, too, at the right place at the right time, and I really think people who appreciate photography will enjoy it. They were also shot on 35mm film [and not digital], which I think makes pictures richer, often, and I had access to a really incredible world.

The Drag Explosion is available for preorder now via Domain, with the exact shipment date TBA.

Main image: RuPaul photographed by Linda Simpson.

Lawrence is a New York-based travel and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Time Out New York and The New York Post.
@LawrenceFerber