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NYC drag queen Linda Simpson reflects on the scene that set the stage for RuPaul

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Tennessee's anti-drag law goes into effect next week. The new law threatens to put many drag clubs out of business, and many drag queens could face misdemeanor or felony charges and jail. Similar bills have been proposed in at least 14 other states. Last week, we heard from Bella DuBalle, a drag queen who's the show director and host at the largest drag club in Memphis. Today, we talk about the drag scene in New York and the period described by journalist Michael Musto as the drag boom of the 1980s and '90s when a burgeoning New York club scene was filled with drag performers who perfected the art form.

My guest, Linda Simpson, became part of that scene in the '80s. Musto, who is gay and covered New York's club scene for many years, wrote that much of that '80s and '90s drag scene would, quote, "be forgotten were it not for the drag comic who goes by the stage name Linda Simpson, who captured it all with a point-and-shoot camera she kept in her purse. Simpson took some 5,000 photographs of drag performers posing in clubs, on the street and on gay pride parade floats, unwittingly creating a time capsule of an era when drag queens were the de rigueur jesters and goddesses of the underground," unquote. Simpson collected some of those photos in her book, "The Drag Explosion." One of the people she photographed was RuPaul before he became America's most popular drag queen. Simpson was featured in the documentary "Wig" about Wigstock, the annual New York Drag festival that began in the '80s. She makes her living hosting drag shows and events, including bingo.

Linda Simpson, welcome to FRESH AIR. Just let's start with, what pronouns do you like to use?

LINDA SIMPSON: Well, when I'm in drag, I prefer she and her, and I'm in drag as we speak.

GROSS: And you're home right now, right?

SIMPSON: Well, I'm going out later, but yes.

GROSS: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: All right. So the - you know, Tennessee has this new anti-drag law affecting drag queens and drag clubs in Tennessee. And I'm wondering if you're concerned that that would be a possibility in New York, or do you think that's very unlikely to happen?

SIMPSON: Well, maybe I'm being naive, but I don't think it will happen in New York. I think what's going to happen is that more of these anti-drag laws probably will be passed and will be sort of like the abortion situation, where some states will have very liberal laws and some will have very restrictive laws. It'll just be kind of a patchwork of legalities across the United States of America.

GROSS: You know, it's ironic that this crackdown on drag culture is happening after RuPaul popularized drag culture and turned drag into an Emmy Award-winning competition series on TV.

SIMPSON: Yeah, that's why I think this whole, like, battle is kind of ridiculous because you can, you know, ban drag from libraries or parks or wherever, but all anyone has to do is turn on the TV or go to the internet. So it's sort of a ridiculous battle in many ways. It's a - I think what happened is that the Republicans or some conservative think tank was thinking, what can we do? And so they created this, like, nonexistent problem. I mean, drag queens weren't going out and breaking down doors and forcing people to, you know, see them perform or anything. It - I doubt if there were any, you know, complaints to the police or local lawmakers or whatever. It was just, you know, a nonproblem. And all of a sudden, it's become an issue because some people decided to, you know, make it a brouhaha.

GROSS: Linda, can you describe your persona as a drag queen?

SIMPSON: Well, Terry, who you're talking to now is my persona. I'm a very calm, confident and intelligent woman. And I feel like I don't put on a character necessarily when I do drag. There are some people that do that. Their voices change. Their mannerisms change. You know, they've got a whole different biography that they've thought up. I feel like my drag is just kind of an extension of my male self. So I, of course, use drag to be, you know, more confident and flamboyant and loud, et cetera. But I'm not that totally. Linda, my drag persona, is not that divorced, I think, from my male persona.

GROSS: Are you often in your male persona?

SIMPSON: Yeah. No, 99% of the time or 95% of the time, I'm, you know, just a regular guy or regular gay guy. And then I'm an entertainer, so that's when I'm in drag. I used to dress up in drag a lot more just for hanging out, going to the clubs, et cetera. But, you know, I'm a little bit more mature now, so I'm not as prone to getting into drag just to hang out. It's more a work thing for me now.

GROSS: Why did getting older change your attitude about how much you wanted to be in drag?

SIMPSON: Well, some of drag is uncomfortable, to tell you the truth. I mean, being in heels all night long...

GROSS: Most women could tell you that (laughter).

SIMPSON: Well, thank you. And for drag queens, it's even a little bit more exaggerated with the wigs and the waist cinchers and, you know - but also, like, you know, the nightlife scene was - you know, it was very late. And I - you know, I had a blast in my, you know, formative years when I was hanging out. But that's not necessarily my lifestyle anymore. And, you know, it takes me a little longer to recover after a big night out. I mean, I'm not saying I don't whoop it up now and then, but it is not such a normal part of my life now.

GROSS: How has your wardrobe changed, your drag wardrobe changed, over time?

SIMPSON: Well, I guess, you know, when I started, I was pretty poor, so most of my clothes were from thrift stores or kind of chain stores, you know, cheap chain stores. Now, I do work with a dressmaker who makes most of my clothes, but actually, it's easier now to be a drag queen because there's a lot more resources for drag, including makeup and wigs, et cetera. So back in, you know, the '80s, you really had to kind of, like, hunt around for, like, big shoes, for instance, or nice wigs, et cetera, or makeup that was, you know, applicable for drag. So it's easier now in many ways. There's many, many more resources.

GROSS: Can you describe your signature style?

SIMPSON: Well, this - again, it shows, you know, the generation of drag that I came up with. I started in the late '80s, early '90s. You know, those were my formative drag years. And our style back then - there was kind of a newer generation of drag that was becoming more apparent then. And our style was to look kind of more girly. I think our role models were, like, the supermodels that were reigning at that point or actresses. And so the point was to look kind of girly and, you know, sexy, et cetera.

Drag now - and I've kind of, you know, kept that same style. Drag now is much more exaggerated. I think back in our day, we wanted to look kind of girly. Now drag queens want to look like drag queens. And there's a lot of, you know, kind of, like, a list of things that you have to do. Like, you know, you've got to have the contoured face. You know, you have to have your eyebrows a certain way. You've got to have, you know, hip padding that measures up to whatever is, you know, in style right now. So drag now has become - in a way, it's become a little more uniform. To me, I have a hard time telling some of even the young drag queens apart, honestly, because there is sort of this uniform look. But a lot of good queens do it very well, too. A lot of the queens are very interesting-looking, and there's a lot of imaginative looks.

GROSS: How did you start taking pictures of drag performers, pictures that ended up having a lot of historical significance, which I don't think you were thinking about when you started doing this?

SIMPSON: No, I - back then, as mentioned, late '80s, you know, '90s, I carried around a camera, and that was kind of an unusual thing to do back then. You know, it's not like today, where people all have cell phones and we're, like, you know, documenting each and every moment. So I just - I'm not quite sure why I did it. I don't know what my motivation was other than just to take photos. I'm not a photographer. I don't know the first thing about techniques, but I just ended up taking a lot of photos.

I think part of it was because I was in such an interesting scene that I wanted to take photos of my friends and the people I was hanging out with. So I really did amass, like, this really big collection of photos, and - but it was all kind of accidental. I wasn't trying to, you know, make an archive or, you know, document a scene, necessarily. But after I was divorced from this particular scene, I started realizing that I really had kind of, you know, made an interesting time capsule.

GROSS: Divorced from this particular scene - can you expand on that?

SIMPSON: Timewise. I mean, like, about eight years ago, I realized after looking through my photos, that they were a very interesting history of when I started drag. And that was a particularly momentous time in drag, too, because drag from, like, the late '80s to the mid-'90s emerged from being kind of an underground art form into this pop sensation. It was - it became a mainstream sensation. And so I put together this slideshow, this - about eight years ago, called the Drag Explosion, and it documents this time with my photos.

GROSS: So what made the scene that you documented unique?

SIMPSON: Well, it was the first time, really, that drag was - kind of broke into showbiz, like, as a whole. Like, there had been, like, you know, individual performers like Divine or the Warhol superstars that had become, you know, pop sensations in their own ways. But what happened is that - at least according to my slideshow - is that drag was big on the New York scene, on the New York nightlife scene, and it became discovered by the media.

And actually, it was when RuPaul became a star with her hit single "Supermodel" in 1992 that everybody wanted drag. Like, the media came running. They wanted to know about this drag scene that Ru had emerged from. And pop culture then jumped on the bandwagon, too. So every, you know, daytime talk show wanted drag. There were a million magazine and newspaper articles. Drag queens were working the runways. We were in music videos, movies, TV shows. It really was, as mentioned, a drag explosion.

This didn't last because in the mid-'90s, there were a couple of things that happened. The main one was that the powers that be just decided that drag was a trend, and they, you know, just decreed that drag was, you know, no longer popular. And that was, you know, kind of the way things went back then. And also, in New York, the Giuliani administration was really cracking down on the nightlife. And that really kind of, like, hurt the drag scene very much especially in terms of, you know, work and visibility.

So it was, you know, a glorious era that did not last. And it was only, like, when RuPaul, you know, started her show, you know, "RuPaul's Drag Race" - like, I can't remember what year, but, like, in the early 2000s - that drag really started, you know, emerging again as a powerful force.

GROSS: So what are your thoughts about RuPaul and her fame and the attention she brought to the whole drag scene?

SIMPSON: I don't - I - well, Ru, of course, is a phenomenon. And I knew Ru when she was, you know, basically homeless and was, you know, a struggling performer. So the heights of success that Ru has managed is, you know, extremely admirable and, you know, fascinating. And also, what I find really amazing, too, is that I don't think there's any other genre of showbiz that has been dominated by one person so much. I mean, as popular as drag has become, there isn't any other drag queen still that compares to RuPaul. And so Ru, for, you know, several decades, has been the shining star of her particular scene. So it's really amazing.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Linda Simpson, a drag queen in New York who performs and hosts events. She's been photographing drag queens since the late 1980s and compiled some of those thousands of photos in a book called "The Drag Explosion - New York's Drag Scene Of The '80s and '90s." We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIZZO SONG, "GRRRLS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Linda Simpson, a drag queen in New York who performs and hosts events. She's been photographing drag queens since the '80s and compiled some of those thousands of photos in a book called "The Drag Explosion - New York's Drag Scene Of The '80s and '90s."

So at the height of the drag explosion, when it was both popular among, like, people who were already involved with the drag scene, but also it became more a part of mainstream culture, how did that change your life?

SIMPSON: Well, it was very - it was kind of heady because all of a sudden, I, you know, and many other people went from, you know, working at gay bars at 1 a.m. to being on, you know, TV talk shows, nationally broadcast TV talk shows. This was the era of the TV - when TV talk shows, daytime TV talk shows, were a craze - you know, the Phil Donahue era, where you had, like, 10 million people that were trying to copy that format. So they all wanted sensational subjects.

So drag queens were brought out on these programs, and they also paid. And so we, all of a sudden, were being beamed into people's living rooms all across America. And also, it really just - there was just this general interest in drag. So there were lots of jobs especially on the nightlife. And everyone, I think - well, a lot of people at least started, like, you know, polishing their resumes because all of a sudden, there were auditions to go to and all these opportunities that really had never been afforded drag queens before.

But what also I should mention, I think, is that this drag scene that was bubbling up, like, in the '80s was very - it was mostly in the East Village. And it was really new and kind of radical compared to what had come before. At that point - like, '80s - drag was very out. It was considered kind of, like, dusty and old-fashioned. Even in the gay community, no one really wanted drag.

GROSS: Wait. Now, you're talking about the era where a lot of drag was impersonating Carol Channing or (laughter).

SIMPSON: Exactly. It was kind of old-school, and there's nothing wrong with that, you know? And that stuff can be great. But it didn't really, I think, speak to modern youth. And so what was happening in the East Village was that these, you know, performance artists and artists and, you know, just anybody was embracing this new kind - newfangled kind of drag where it wasn't polished necessarily, but it was just sort of individualistic and this, like, you know, kind of almost punk expression. And so this was, you know - like, drag was so out that it was in, in the East Village. And that was a very, you know - kind of like - nothing like that was going on anywhere else in the world. It was this new type of drag that was being invented.

GROSS: Linda, how do you think the drag explosion coincided or didn't coincide with the AIDS epidemic?

SIMPSON: Oh, well, it coincided very much. I mean, the crisis, the AIDS crisis, you know, was at its peak during the late '80s to, you know, the mid - to the early '90s at least. So this was all going kind of hand in hand. So, you know, it was very exciting for me to be involved with this drag thing, but at the same time, it was, you know, an extremely dark era because AIDS, you know, clouded everything. And then, there was this, you know, horrible homophobic wave that was going on across America, too.

GROSS: So how do you think AIDS affected the tone of performances, if at all?

SIMPSON: I think that a lot of the reason that the drag scene was so popular in the - you know, in that late '80s to mid-'90s period was that it provided an escape. And I think that's why nightlife back then was so wild, too. It was a very dark period, and people needed to be entertained. So I think of those times, the drag shows back then, as sort of being U - like, those USO shows, you know, those old-fashioned shows with, like, Bob Hope and, like - you know?

GROSS: Like during World War II.

SIMPSON: Exactly. It was kind of, like, you know, a way to rally the troops and, like, you know, just infuse some good feelings among the masses. And so I think that that was, you know, very helpful for a lot of people to have these drag queens. And also, back then, you know, it was a very closeted era. You know, there weren't many celebrities or, you know, barely any that were out. So I think drag queens kind of, like, fulfilled this role of, like, you know, visible stars that were willing to be proud and out. And so I think that was encouraging also.

GROSS: What were your performances like back then?

SIMPSON: Well, interestingly, I'm not very musically inclined, so I really don't lip-sync or sing. I'm more of an emcee or a personality. So I produced a lot of stuff, too. I was a little behind the scenes with a lot of things. I had an underground magazine called My Comrade. I threw parties. I threw events. And so I was a little bit - you know, a little more difficult to classify 'cause I wasn't, you know, your typical performer.

GROSS: My guest is Linda Simpson, who was part of New York's drag scene in the '80s and '90s, which she documented in over 5,000 photos. She now hosts drag shows and events. We'll talk more after a break. And we'll listen back to an excerpt of my interview with Frank Griswold, the Episcopal bishop who presided over the ordination and consecration of the first openly gay Episcopal bishop. Bishop Griswold died earlier this month at the age of 85. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROGER DAVIDSON'S "JOURNEY TO RIO")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Linda Simpson, who documented New York's drag scene in the '80s and '90s in over 5,000 photos. She was part of that scene and now hosts drag shows and events.

How did you start dressing in drag? And what did it mean to you when you started?

SIMPSON: Well, I started observing drag first. As I mentioned, the East Village drag scene was really vibrant at that time. So I thought it was just very amusing and very creative. And I became friendly with some of the, you know, personalities. And I just decided to join the fray also. And for me, drag was very liberating. I had been shamed, I think, for most of my life for being feminine. And all of a sudden, I was allowed to be as feminine as I wanted. And, you know, people admired me for that, too. And it just also gave me a sense of boldness that I don't think I had. All of a sudden, I was in drag. And I could, you know, walk into a room and talk to anybody and, you know, be flirty and fun and fabulous. And so I just found the whole experience very exhilarating. And I think my story is very common. I think a lot of drag queens will tell you the same thing.

GROSS: Your father was a minister. Did he have a church where he was a minister?

SIMPSON: My father, yes. Definitely. The church was a big part of my upbringing. I wasn't raised in an evangelical or a strict upbringing. But it was, you know, our life centered around the church. And honestly, to tell you the truth, in some ways, I followed my father's footsteps, because my father would wear, like, you know, kind of a garment that was sort of gown-like. And so - you know, preaching in front of congregations. And I'm kind of doing the same, you know?

GROSS: (Laughter).

SIMPSON: All dressed up in gown-ish-like outfits, preaching to whatever congregation might be in front of me.

GROSS: But since he was a minister with a church, I imagine he was supposed to be a role model. Were you supposed to be, like, a role model child, like, well-behaved and very churchgoing?

SIMPSON: I didn't feel that pressure. I felt more kind of the pressure of just growing up gay in a heteronormative society in general. So it made me sort of a skeptic, a little bit of a cynic as a child. Like, I rejected religion from an early age, or at least I knew that it wasn't, you know, my cup of tea. But I think it was all kind of muddled. I just - I didn't feel - I felt like, you know, ashamed, perhaps, of being gay. But at the same time, I knew it was, you know, fine and dandy. And so I kind of, like, was skeptical of anything from authorities. So it made me sort of an independent, freethinking person, but not without its, you know, bumps and kind of pains and distancing from people.

GROSS: What was your father's reaction to you rejecting the church and being, as you described it, a feminine boy?

SIMPSON: Well, my rejection of the church wasn't dramatic. I didn't, you know, march down the - march down the streets with, you know, God is dead signs or anything. But I just kind of gradually, you know, moved away from going to church or anything like that. So I think it was probably kind of evident that I wasn't, you know, a believer. I really wasn't able to have this conversation with my dad because he got early-onset Alzheimer's in his 50s. So there were a lot of conversations with my father that I would have liked to have had. It's a big regret that I didn't kind of, like, talk to him about this stuff earlier.

GROSS: One of the things that's changed since you became a drag performer is the language that we use to describe gender-nonconforming people. And can you talk a little bit about the changes you've seen in terms of language?

SIMPSON: Well, with drag, I do remember, you know, the early days, some people referring to me as he when I was in drag. And that would kind of rile me up. I mean, I was thinking, I'm obviously presenting myself as, you know, female-ish. Why wouldn't you call me by my proper pronoun? And so I can kind of, like, be sympathetic now to people and their pronoun issues. But honestly, I'm old school. And I find a lot of the gender-nonconformity stuff a little bit overwrought and a little bit silly. I think that back in our days, there were always people that were gender fluid. We used - I think the term that we used more was androgynous. And I think people, you know, for the most part were perfectly fine with that.

I'm sure there were some people that, you know, prefer - would have wished that there was, like, better language to describe themselves. But I think a lot of the gender fluidity craze is a little bit - like I said, a little overwrought. And - but that's me speaking as an older person, too. So I don't want to sound like an old fuddy-duddy. And I'm certainly going to call somebody whatever pronouns they prefer. But I think, sometimes, people get a little bit riled up over this when it's not, you know, that an important issue as some people make it out to be.

GROSS: Describe the kind of hosting or performances you've been doing lately.

SIMPSON: Well, what has happened is, you know, for the last, gosh, about 20 years, I've really become a game show hostess. So my medium is bingo. And so I host bingos. And I have several regular gigs in New York City. And then I do parties, too. Also, during COVID, there was a kind of a silver lining for me workwise. I started doing virtual bingos. And that was - proved to be really popular. And I still do those for parties now. And so that's kind of my shtick. And it's worked out well, actually, because these are usually early evening gigs. And I, you know, don't have to be out until 4 a.m. anymore. And I enjoy it. I love it, you know? People enjoy winning prizes. And I'm making people happy. And it's a chance for me to interact with a lot of people, including a much younger audience than me in general. So it just - I feel like it keeps me fresh.

GROSS: Linda Simpson, thank you so much. It's really been a pleasure to talk with you.

SIMPSON: Terry, I've had a blast. Your probing questions have got me thinking.

GROSS: Linda Simpson hosts drag shows and events in New York. Some of her thousands of photos are collected in her book "The Drag Explosion." Tennessee's anti-drag law goes into effect April 1, which is next week.

After we take a short break, we remember Bishop Frank Griswold. During his nine-year term as head of the U.S. Episcopal Church, he consecrated and ordained the first openly gay bishop in the church. Bishop Griswold died earlier this month. He was 85. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROSSELLA COSENTINO SONG, "YOU KNOW I'M NO GOOD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.