While we love Mama Ru, a new book shines a light on a whole city of charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent
After paging through Small Trades, Irving Penn’s portrait series depicting skilled trades people in their work clothes, New York-based fashion photographer Gregory Kramer had an epiphany. “I woke up one morning and was like – that’s it! Let’s document the New York drag scene,” he recalls.
Kramer was inspired by the classic studio photography that Penn had mastered in the early 1950s: a full-length figure set before neutral background and softly lit with gentle lighting. Each subject was portrayed with elegance and dignity so that viewers could see the person who lay beneath the uniforms they wear. This approach resonated with Kramer who understood: underneath the wigs, the make-up, and the costumes are innovative and creative performers greater than the sum of their parts: they are groundbreaking figures whose commitment to the craft of drag has redefined the art.
Kramer called the person he knew best: Linda Simpson, a fixture on New York’s drag scene since the 1980s. Simpson was Kramer’s first subject and his entrée to the scene. Over the next year, Kramer went to work, creating a series of portraits of legends including Charles Busch, Lady Bunny, Duelling Bankheads, Sherry Vine, Flotilla DeBarge, and Tobell Von Cartier. He also made a foray into the Brooklyn scene, photographing the drags who continue to push the envelope, including cover girl Sasha Velour, winner of the latest season of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
The result is Drags (KMW Studio), a sumptuous monograph with 80s black and white portraits that will leave you breathless as you take in the full glamour and glory of New York’s finest. As a way to give back to the city that he loves, Kramer is donating his author royalties to the Ali Forney Center, which assists and protects homeless LGBTQ youth. Kramer speaks with us about his experiences making a book with the city’s groundbreaking drags.
“Almost every session started off with a text or an email saying that they were running late. Drag time really does exist” – Gregory Kramer
How did you select the drags featured in the book?
Gregory Kramer: When I began, I only knew Linda Simpson on a personal level so I reached out to her and she was game. She’s a little bit older and known as the Drag Mother to a lot of the younger kids in the scene. I had a list of 17 people I wanted to initially photograph, and Linda introduced me to them via email. Out of that 17, nine people ended up in the book. The others were not in New York, uninterested, or too demanding. From there it grew organically. I would shoot someone and they would recommend their colleague.
I was pretty familiar with the Manhattan scene, but the Brooklyn scene not so much. Merrie Cherry, who is the Mother of the Brooklyn Drag scene, provided me with a list of eight people including Sasha Velour, Aja, and Raggamuffin. Towards the end of the project, I felt like I needed more people so I went on Facebook and looked at friends of friends. That’s how I found Wang Newton.
What was the portrait session process like?
Gregory Kramer: Almost every session started off with a text or an email saying that they were running late. Drag time really does exist. They would arrive in various states of drag. They would either arrive camera ready or they would come with their face on and do their hair and dress. During that time, it was great. We’d sit there and chat, and they would fill me in on their life.
We would discuss how they wanted to be photographed. We would shoot a few frames, then sit down and tweak hair, make up, and styling – whatever needed to be tweaked. Then we would go and shoot anywhere from 60 to 100 frames, then sit down and edit the photos together. Every picture in the book was approved by both myself and the performers.
Please talk about the Ali Forney Center and why you chose to donate your author royalties to it.
Gregory Kramer: I moved to New York City from a small town in Michigan, have had a successful career, and felt it was time to give back to the community. Linda introduced me to Ali Forney Center and their amazing work getting LGBTQ youth off the streets, empowering them with the tools they need to live independently. Everyone who came into the studio knew it would be a benefit for AFC. That was planned from the start.
“I think the presence of an openly transgender woman on TV can add to the ripple effect, eventually becoming a tidal wave of understanding and equality for transgender and gender variant people” – Peppermint
“Uptown girl with downtown flair, she’s a live singing sexpot and future legend”
Singer and actress Peppermint got her start performing the Tunnel, a New York City nightclub, and went on to become a fixture on the city’s nightlife scene. In 2010, she was featured on Queens of Drag: NYC, a web series running on gay.com – before hitting the big time earlier this year on RuPaul’s Drag Race, where she finished in second place after Sasha Velour. While other trans women have appeared on the show, Peppermint was the first to be out prior to airing.
Peppermint: “I can't say that I am exceptional just for doing drag, however, I do find it exceptional that my story seems to resonate with so many queer and gender-nonconforming people. I think the presence of an openly transgender woman on TV can add to the ripple effect, eventually becoming a tidal wave of understanding and equality for transgender and gender variant people.”
“Queen of the East Village freaks, nightmare in the daylight and SuperCunt!”
Gregory Kramer: “Flloyd is complete insanity – but in the best way possible. Flloyd’s been a fixture on the scene since the 1980s. He was part of the Lady Bunny, Ru Paul, Linda Simpson Pyramid Club scene.
Flloyd takes drag and performance art and puts the two together and creates an insane performance. Like the wedding dress in the book, he came out in that at the book launch at the High Line Ballroom, and he had an axe and a chair and chopped up the chair on stage and then carried the chair off and that was his performance. It was outside of what people know as traditional drag.”
“When I started no one was vomiting and lighting their hands on fire. I am the original Goth Queen” – Flloyd
Flloyd: “As a child, I was obsessed with the Surrealists. My first concept of drag was a birdcage on my head filled with live snails. Later I loved the absurd drag of Monty Python. When I discovered Leigh Bowery, I thought he was an amazing blend of the two. I try to blend these with other heroes such as Alice Cooper and KISS. I always wanted to be the Gene Simmons of drag.
In 1980, I started going to Rocky Horror and dressing up. After I was taken to the Atlanta drag bars. I was 15 at the time. In 1982 I meet RuPaul and he became my drag mother. That was when I learned how to do and ‘undo’ make-up. While I was go-go dancing with the Butthole Surfers, Gibby Haynes showed me how to light my hands on fire. When I started no one was vomiting and lighting their hands on fire. I am the original Goth Queen.”
MARTI GOULD CUMMINGS
“NYC’s most famous queen you've never heard of”
Gregory Kramer: “Marti does it all. She’s a singer. She hosts some of the most notorious drag spectaculars in the city. She’s also done Off-Broadway theater, national tours, and red carpet interviews with celebrities.
And on the flip side, she is the President of the Hell’s Kitchen Democrats club, which brings the LGBTQ issues to the community. Currently, she’s on a show called Shade: Queen of NYC on Fusion. I watched an episode where she was holding a meeting at the club and, because she had a gig later that evening, she was there in full make-up. She’s a one-of-a-kind and I can’t wait to see where she goes. She’s a force to be reckoned with.”
Marti Gould Cummings: “I am groundbreaking because I don't follow the rules. Everything I've gained in my career has been because I went out and got it through determination. Never let anyone stand in your way. When someone tells you ‘No,’ go out and make them say ‘Yes.’”
“NYC’s Award Winning Female Drag Queen, Crafting Addict, Couch Potato, Real Live Cat and full of Shenanigans”
Gregory Kramer: “Crimson Kitty is New York City’s premier female drag queen. She has raised the question, ‘Can a female be a drag queen?’ Drag is traditionally based in men dressing up as women and women dressing up as men – but there has been a whole new movement within the drag community, especially in the Brooklyn scene, that has allowed anyone to do drag, whoever you are.
“I fought and ended up cultivating a thriving scene of cis femme drag queens” – Crimson Kitty
Crimson is on the forefront that drag can be anything. It doesn’t need to be about labels or about sexuality. It’s a whole new generation, which I love. Crimson’s style is very traditional: she makes her own clothing. She experiments with her make up. She never gives you the same look over and over. She also reads Tarot cards dressed up in drag. She’s a controversial, powerhouse within the drag community.”
Crimson Kitty: "When I first started in the drag scene, there were very few queens like me and even less performance opportunities. I fought and ended up cultivating a thriving scene of cis femme drag queens, which later evolved into a collective for cis, non-binary and trans-identified drag performers called LadyQueen. Through LadyQueen's presence, we have created more performance opportunities and enabled an important conversation on gender while still maintaining a passion for drag herstory.”
“Cheeky host with a ‘Taipei’ personality. Avid curator of all things #1. Crooner of karaoke and autotune variety. Panty connoisseur”
Hailing from Taipei, Wang Newton started his act as a “life of the party” performer, making his official debut in full drag on Halloween Night 2004 in Philadelphia. Wang fully embraced the lounge lizard persona and took it to the clubs, hosting everything from karaoke nights to the Hellcat Girls’ Burlesque. Wang currently lives in New York, where he runs Wang TV on YouTube, which features everything from Drag King to interviews with the likes of Coco Rocha.
“I not only genderfuck, I am a culture-fucker” – Wang Newton
Wang Newton: “On the surface, ‘Wang Newton’ is a stereotypical man of traditional Chinese heritage but take a closer look and you will discover drag artistry that actually defies all genre and expectation. I not only genderfuck, I am a culture-fucker. As one of the few Asian-American drag kings around, I step beyond queer spaces and into the streets to film his WANG TV skits in diverse locations and all around the world.”
SUGGA PIE KOKO
“Crazy, silly and petite styles of the heavyweight champion of comedy”
Sugga Pie Koko proves that genuine talent is key if you want to make it in this world – well that and charisma, uniqueness, and nerve. She started her act after a drag pageant didn’t go as planned; when the plus-sized lovely stepped on stage, people laughed. But Sugga has the last laugh with a career that spans nearly two decades, with unforgettable performances in nightclubs and private events all around New York City.
“I don’t wear great clothes, make-up or ladies shoes – but I am making it based on TALENT” – Sugga Pie Koko
Sugga Pie Koko: “I wanted to create a character, that was uniquely memorable that made her own rules up and could work based on her being unconventional so I came up with Sugga Pie Koko, who is silly, fun, crazy, and fat, who can be judged on talent not looks, glitz, or glamour. I don’t wear great clothes, make-up or ladies shoes – but I am making it based on TALENT and a lot of casting couches.... (Laughs).”
“New York City legend, comedian, host, and international entertainer. He's the hardest working middle-aged man in show business”
Gregory Kramer: “Murray Hill’s accomplishments are way too long to list. He’s been around the East Village for decades. He’s traveled the world with Dita Von Teese, doing her burlesque show. He even ran for Mayor of New York City in 1997. There was a huge drag king scene in the 90s and it has disappeared. Murray is the last one standing from that era. Just a lovely person.”
“If you don't see yourself represented, then go out and represent yourself” – Murray Hill
Murray Hill: “I'm still here – I'm still doing this over 20 years later. I started in the nightclubs on Avenue A in the Lower East Side, and have made it around the world to the Sydney Opera House in Oz. To quote myself, ‘If you don't see yourself represented, then go out and represent yourself.’
My personality... well, it's big! It has to be because I'm only 5'4....5'4 and nothing more. People have told me I'm like that jovial uncle at holiday dinners...who never stops cracking (bad) jokes. I'm usually wearing a Dean Martin Roast 70s inspired tuxedo or a plaid suit made from my grandmother’s couch. I'd say the style is showbiz!”
“An alluring combination of supermodel, designer and performance artist rooted in downtown glamour. A Kentucky bourbon barrel beauty featuring the editorial flash of Fashion Week”
Gregory Kramer: “Scarlet Envy is one of the prettiest drag queens out there. She has the most insane body that any supermodel would die for. I would classify her as a classic beauty with a twisted performance.”
“I'm an actress. A bourbon barrel beauty queen with a Hollywood glaze” – Scarlet Envy
Scarlet Envy: “I'm an actress. A bourbon barrel beauty queen with a Hollywood glaze. I think my editorial and character work set me apart, along with my subject matter and precision lip sync. Groundbreaking is a word I reserve for my idols, not for myself.”
“Goddess. Seamstress. Socialite. Your future stepmother. Strict diet of champagne and confused straight men”
Gregory Kramer: “Kim Ono is really new to the scene. Her initial start was in the King and Queen Court of New York City and her first big performance was at the Drags book launch. She is gorgeous, super talented, makes all of her own clothes, beautiful make-up. She is new enough that she is being influenced by the RuPaul drag scene, which is interesting as well. Before Linda Simpson and Lady Bunny didn’t have that many people they looked up to. Kim has the world to look at as far as inspiration, costumes, and production value.”
“I’m proud to be a queen who still produces her own garments and visuals in the age of two-day shipping” – Kim Ono
Kim Ono: “My style is an unlikely blend of ethereal, avant-garde, and classic, with handmade garments featuring bold symmetry and exaggerated reveals. It’s a visual representation of her persona – polished, regal, and professional.
I go beyond traditional on-stage theatrics by incorporating unexpected – and, some may argue, dangerous – elements into my performances; for instance, when I lit my fingernails on fire during a recent New York show. It’s exciting to live in a time when drag is finding its home in mainstream culture, and when the very definition of drag is evolving. I’m proud to be a queen who still produces her own garments and visuals in the age of two-day shipping.”