“There’s nothing like a wig,” says Barry Shils, director of Wigstock: The Movie.
“It’s like an antenna,” agrees Joey Arias, who’s capped with long auburn tresses that were plainly not provided by nature. “When you put the wig on, it attracts people to you….You go to a club, you’re in drag, you walk in, the door opens up.”
Misstress Formika, whose own tangled braids appear to include multicolored hair extensions, nods sagely. “It’s broken down a lot of barriers for me,” s/he says. “People that wouldn’t normally talk to you…stop to listen to what you have to say when you’re in drag.”
Who’s to argue? On this May evening at the Key Theater, where Wigstock is making its Filmfest DC premiere, Formika and Arias command attention. In their gowns, glitter, high heels, and flawless pancake makeup, these veterans of New York City’s annual “Wigstock” drag festival are living advertisements for Shils’ film.
The filmmaker himself, with his close-cropped dark hair, bookish wire-rims, and understated beige-and-black ensemble, provides a counterpoint to his companions’ kitschy glamour. Yet by documenting the 1993 and ’94 Wigstocks, the less exhibitionistic Shils has allied himself with gender-bending culture. “The drag thing is not just a trend,” Shils believes. “It’s always been around. It goes back to Shakespeare and Greek times. But now there’s definitely a movement.”
Shils’ approach to Wigstock is an exuberant one; he’s far more interested in showing outré performance footage than in interviewing the divas or debating issues that trouble the gay, transvestite, and/or transsexual community. He follows the wisdom of the “Lady” Bunny, Wigstock’s organizer: “She tells everybody, “Make sure your performance is uplifting, kind of in the spirit of Woodstock.’ ”
Unsurprisingly, Shils contrasts his work with the bleak vogue scene chronicled in 1991’s Paris Is Burning. “I respect that film, but I clearly did not want to repeat what that film did,” he says. “Its point of view was slightly tragic, about the desire to be something that you can’t quite be.”
“The director of that film really wanted to show the sadness…of the transsexuals and transvestites at the balls,” Formika adds. “Paris Is Burning was hard on drag performers. People saw you walking down the street and they assumed things about you; things were said to me like, “Oh, there’s a drag queen—she must be a hooker.’ As a performer, it was frustrating, because I thought, “I finally got this far, and now I have to break down another stereotype.’ ”
Shils, Formika, and Arias relate more closely to The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, although they contend that the U.S. drag scene is “more evolved” than that of Abbaobsessed Australia. Priscilla‘s happy-go-lucky lip-syncers are what Shils had in mind when filming Wigstock (plus, Stephan Elliott’s film helped Wigstock land distributor Samuel Goldwyn). “The guiding theme is to have a good time with your life—life’s too short,” says Shils, whose film pays homage to such late, lamented drag queens as Leigh Bowery, John Sex, and Donna Giles, but otherwise only touches on homophobia and AIDS.
Wigstock also downplays the history of the yearly extravaganza: It’s primarily a concert video, alternating between 1993’s leafy, Tompkins Square Park setting and 1994’s wide-open river scenes on the Christopher Street pier. “I wanted to make a film that made you feel like you were there…watching the talented, funny, great-to-look-at people, as opposed to a whole lot about how it all evolved,” Shils explains. “Which is why it’s nice to do interviews and say, this is a festival that started out as 300 people making a fun joke on Woodstock, and 10 years later attracts 30,000 people.”
Shils says that, pending “Lady” Bunny’s approval, he hopes to shoot more footage at Wigstock ’95, to be held Labor Day weekend at an as-yet-undetermined location. He’s still infatuated with the drag mystique, which of course begs the question: Has he ever cross-dressed? “On a few rare occasions,” Shils admits, much to the amusement of Arias and Formika. “I was one of the witches in Macbeth…and then once before that I was Jackie Kennedy….
“I’m an admirer of drag—I believe that everybody should put on whatever they want to put on and look any way they want to look,” he continues, stroking his chin self-consciously. “But I feel I look best in a beard.”