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Miss Toto at Bushwig
Miss TotoPhotography AJ Jordan / Witch House PR

Bushwig: the debauched New York drag festival set to take over the world

With the OG event birthed in Brooklyn as an end of summer celebration for drag obsessives in 2012, editions have now sprung up in Brazil, Berlin, LA, and more

It was the last weekend of summer in New York City, and, as seemingly every straight person left town for their sorority sister’s wedding, the queers attempted yet another impossible pile-on of parties. In Manhattan, gay assistants and party boys dressed in the all-black garb mandated by the cult of New York Fashion Week. And, past Port Authority and Times Square, thousands of teen girls, their moms and throngs of gay men with expendable income swarmed the Javits Center for RuPaul’s DragCon.

Meanwhile, 4,000 strange little queers came together deep in Brooklyn for Bushwig, the drag festival and utopian disco-kibbutz, where the faggots on the dancefloor are often as interesting as the queens on stage. Bushwig has become an annual holiday for those disenchanted by the monolithic corporatisation of Pride and the straight-girl shenanigans of Halloween – two days of beaded, sequined bliss we can look forward to all year.

“I’ve been trying to conceptualise something for a good chunk of the year,” said Panthera Lush, a player in the rising drag auter scene, which features fellow subversives like West Dakota and Harajuku. “I think it’s on everyone’s mind, every year. ‘What am I going to do for Bushwig this year?’ Probably around the time that summer starts, it’s when people are starting to think very seriously about it. I have to start planning looks, I have to start planning numbers. ‘Am I going to have backup dancers?’”

Here’s how it works: Over two days, more than 300 drag artists from around the country take the stage at the Knockdown Center in Ridgewood. The audience arrives nearly entirely wardrobed in mesh, chiffon, or severed doll heads, to scream for their local queens or head to the backyard and dance in their heels. As each night progresses, bigger names take the stage. This year’s bill featured local legends like the trans warrior diva Charlene and art-house empress Untitled Queen; Drag Race favorites like AJA and Nina West; and crossover pop innovators like Mykki Blanco and Slayyyter.

“It’s always gotten bigger and better. It’s never lost its backyard charm. It never lost the spirit of what it’s always been, which is this celebration of local heroes, and heroes you’ve never heard of” – Untitled

But essential to Bushwig’s ethos is its marathon performance format, which allows for any performer to gain visibility. “The platform that it gives to lesser-known queens is really important,” Lush said. There’s a certain democracy to performing and attending Bushwig: If you’re tripping on mushrooms at 5pm, what difference does it make if the queen onstage, stripping to “Disco Tits”, has made it to Drag Race? Are they giving you life?

In 2012, Horrorchata and Babes Trust threw the first Bushwig at Secret Project Robot. It was a day party, where members of the burgeoning DIY drag scene could get messy and stomp around with their friends. “When it first started, almost everyone who wanted to could go on,” Untitled Queen, an original of the scene, said. “It tried to be really wide-ranging. That spirit was not only amazing for the performers, but anyone who was coming, it was open doors for them.” Now, seven years on, Bushwig is something of a brand, with satellite editions in Berlin, Los Angeles, Mexico City, New Orleans, and Brazil. But, perhaps due to Horrorchata’s unassuming nature, or in response to the hyper-capitalist consumerism of DragCon, the festival hasn’t seemed to sell out.

“When it got really big, when it got to Knockdown Center, I was like: ‘Wow. This is definitely different,’” Untitled says. “But I never thought it was better when it was smaller. It’s always gotten bigger and better. It’s never lost its backyard charm. It never lost the spirit of what it’s always been, which is this celebration of local heroes, and heroes you’ve never heard of. It’s still run by a very small group of very dedicated, mostly POC people that know what the T is. They know these artists, they’re really big party planners, they really work hard, and they have a connection to these communities, and it’s not just kind of a put-on.”

How to describe the scene at this year’s festival: Let’s go with Sunday, at about 7pm, when the collective contact high was surging. On the mainstage, Erika Klash performed a bloody, goth-rock set as the Pokemon Marowak. The crowd went ballistic. Outside, DJ Hannah Lou and Horrorchata, resplendent in a muppet-green taffeta confection, played “La Macarena” and Madonna’s “I Love New York” for a packed gravel dancefloor. Charlene and Tyler Ashley, known as the ‘Dauphine of Bushwick’, held court with cigarettes and twinks at a picnic table. “Happy Bushwig!” Ashley said, giving side-cheek kisses to his constituents. The femmebot DJ Amber Valentine danced alone, with circles of gay boys waiting for a chance to say hello. Every cute boy you’d flirted with on Scruff a year ago and lost touch with somehow re-emerged, in mesh and pink lace, smiling and adjusting their best friend’s single earring.

“It’s not even genderfuck. It’s human-fuck. It’s anti-species” – Pri Rajdev

No matter how it expands, the festival remains a breeding ground for aliens – gender mavericks operating far beyond the framework of feminine and masculine. “It’s not even genderfuck,” said Pri Rajdev, a dark prince in the Bushwick nightlife milieu. “It’s human-fuck. It’s anti-species.” At the most highbrow, elegant freakshow imaginable, in a sea of stilts, assless chaps and Rick and Morty wigs, what even constitutes otherness anymore? If every single person has manifested into their final form, what hierarchies can remain? Sure, there are always traditional, Fire Island-ready beauties on the dancefloor and at the marketplace, but for two days, they were ranked not by looks, but by lewks. In a rare space where a sewing machine is more essential than a gym membership, gay men were able to access a rare, convivial form of engagement. “If this were Wrecked, I’d turn my nose up to people,” said Rajdev. “But here, I’m smiling. I can be friendly!”

That spirit applies to the relationship between the performers and their crowds. Unlike its competition, which puts queens behind velvet rope and meet ‘n greets, Bushwick affirms the legacy of its borough’s basement bar shows: The queens are with their audience. The queens sustain their audience. The queens are sustained by their audience. By imagining the crowd not as a legion of mediocre cash cows but as co-creators of a new queer universe, the Bushwig braintrust encourages a higher standard of engagement, and support, among performers and crowds.

“The audience knows exactly what they’re there for,” said Vigor Mortis, the drag king and essential member of the drag/burlesque collective Switch ‘n Play. “(This audience) has come to expect certain things from the performers onstage in a certain level of consciousness, inclusivity and sensitivity. It’s important to a lot of people to put their work onstage and to be seen. I totally get that. It’s just as important to think about the work that you’re putting out for your audience. What is going to happen when an audience receives that work? You need to be in a conversation with your audience. I exercise my demons in front of people. I have to be conscious of those people and what I know they’re seeing.”

The festival gives returning queens and their fans a chance at an annual check-in. How have we glowed up? How have we come into ourselves? It was on this stage that Charlene injected herself with estrogen, binding her journey in gender confirmation to her community. As she becomes a global commodity, we can say: ‘We were there.’ And for cherished local girls like Lush, each Bushwig marks a chapter in a bildungsroman, a chance for the community to witness her live artistic evolution. Five years ago, she performed under the Bushwig tent, in Vans. This year, she triumphed on the main stage, with a high-concept, runway-ready rendition of Lady Gaga’s “Applause” that stole the show. The piece culminated with a reveal and a roar, as Lush donned a jetpack-looking device that unfurled a red backdrop as she walked. “The set up was a walking theatre curtain: No matter where I go, I have a stage.” It was a song for the DragCon masses, a look for the runways of fashion week, but it belonged only at Bushwig.

Like all the historic gambits of the Bushwig stage, Lush’s cape reveal can likely endure only in an oral history, by those who saw them. I hope that the producers of Drag Race hear about Serena Tea’s number this year, in which she literally transformed herself out of a papier-mache yellow porsche to Charli XCX’s “Vroom Vroom”. But if they don’t, it’s just as well. She did this for us – or at least that’s how it felt.

This year’s festival concluded as they all do: With queens and their queers loitering the sidewalk, sitting their padded asses on fire hydrants, lighting cigarettes, and stuffing their trashed, high-concept looks in the backs of cabs. We’d have the Instagram stories for another 24 hours, and the tales to keep us going for another year. By next fall, the drag monolith will have expanded further or totally imploded in the global discourse. But it’s likely that this scene, this perfect trash tableaux, will remain the same. It’s naive to assume that Bushwig, now a global institution, won’t change someday, finally commodifying its acts and exploiting its audiences. But as of now, this doesn’t feel like business, but family. And if there’s one principal that has plagued queer children at holidays from time immemorial, it’s this: Family never changes. Why shouldn’t that apply to our chosen family as well?