McQueen is a new play by James Phillips. The production…
Created to highlight excellence in homocentric dance music – vintage house, disco, soul and funk – the NYC Downlow was born at Glastonbury Festival in 2007. It’s a temporary, counter-cultural, confrontational, proudly queer phenomenon with a legendary reputation.
The NYC Downlow at Glastonbury festival on Worthy Farm offers a wild slide to the inside. Itt’s a trip that can turn you inside out, switch a light on and wurque your aura.
Pride and envy
For ten years, I’ve watched the Downlow troupe depart London like a glittering update of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. Hearing of their exploits over the years has elicited a pulse of envy, pride and awe.
When Jonny Woo called and asked me to join their 2017 circus, it was like inhaling Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket. Cinderella WAS going to the ball. Dreams COULD come true. Yes, I AM ready for my close-up.
After initial elation; anxiety wormed its way into my DNA. At nearly 50, my go-go boy heyday is a long departed and hazy memory. It’s been 20 years since Twisted was released.
The chemical abandon, cocky stupidity and self-destruction which fuelled that episode are for the most part, largely tamed flaws and dormant monsters. There’s been a lot of therapy, but relative sanity is hard-won and you can’t take it for granted.
I offered to DJ or perhaps perform a tune, but Jonny just wanted uncomplicated dancing meat for the Downlow. We were sent a list of themes to inspire our outfits for each night. They ranged from ‘sexy protest clown’ to ‘traditional drag’. This led to a fretful tour of fabric shops in Shepherd’s Bush market, catering wholesalers and an Indian shoe emporium that sold ‘large sizes for big ladies’.
Porn star wisdom
Ashley Ryder is an old friend and Downlow veteran, so I pressed him for tips and advice. Pondering rainbow dungarees and curly wig for the ‘protest clown’ look, Ashley showed me the hand.
‘You’re taking this too seriously,’ he snapped, dusting invisible crumbs from his denim hot-pants.
‘It’s slutty, not literal. You just need a jockstrap and a red nose.’
Oh. Did Ashley have any other advice?
‘Whatever you think you need, take extra, ‘he added, forcefully, sipping prosecco. ‘If you were thinking 20 sleeping pills actually, bring 40’.
Jocks and hot-pants
I’ve often found you can trust the wisdom of a self-fisting porn star and so planned accordingly. With outfits largely reduced to thongs, jocks and hot-pants, the next concern was the physical and aesthetic challenges of an abundance of near nudity. The gym beckoned, a diet descended, the mirror mocked.
As someone who’s been diagnosed and treated for an eating disorder, this area carries risks. Bulimia, since you ask. Body dysmorphia, like any addiction, is very difficult to heal and simply vanquish.
Salads and sanity
Compulsive behaviour likes to lurk out of view, ready to consume its master in a cavalier, unconscious moment. You might get better, but don’t for minute get cocky.
So, as I nibbled on salads, yawned on the bench press and seeped in the steam room, my focus was honed on avoiding a bulimic relapse while trying to look hot in a halter neck. Honey, it’s hard work.
The journey to Glasto on Wednesday morning was somewhat marred by a no-show coach. This led to a six-hour wait in the scorching sun, with little to do but drink, smoke and bitch. Some Downlow crew were forced to get the train.
I wound up on a demented mini-bus which lost its sunroof as we hurtled down the motorway. We didn’t stop. We didn’t look back; we just swooned in the roofless hurricane that consequently blew on our sweaty, boiled faces.
It was road trip to try the patience of a nun, never mind a tangle of K-fuelled, highly dramatic performing queers. ‘Que sera, sera’ was our Woo-led mantra and after much hoo-ha, we arrived at the festival in many pieces.
There was no time to vada my coffin sized, blue-hued tent that would be my home for the Downlow duration. We staggered off the bus, donned glad rags in the dark and swished to Block 9 for our first shift. The job had two dimensions. Actually, it had thousands.
We were either out the front of the Downlow mothership, ‘entertaining’ the queue of hopefuls, or on stage inside, stripping, dripping, twirling and whipping the crowd into a frenzy.
Chatting to Glasto revellers, in line for the Downlow, made perfect sense when put into practice. Punters in the enormous queue were tired, high and exhausted. Merely telling people they were ‘nearly there’ and that they’d ‘be inside soon’ was like a healing hug for the waiting waifs. They just needed assurance, gurning flattery and a splash of fun.
It was lovely to see a few smooth words melt tension from a raver’s body and watch smiles fill their glitter splashed faces. As Butcher Boys, we posed for selfies, ponced cigarettes, quipped, twerked and flirted. It was group therapy via queer revelry, to the thumping sound of a disco beat.
Eyelash glue and booze
In between working the al fresco crowd and gyrating on stage for the dancefloor massive, outfit adjustments, booze breaks and wet wipe business would occur in the backstage ‘dressing room’. This metal container was a windowless oblong of chaos.
Hairspray, sequins, eyelash glue, vodka, lip-gloss, wig maintenance, screaming, bumping, smoking and nudity were the backbone of that box. You could get stuck in there for hours if you didn’t keep your wits about you. It was also the beating heart of the Downlow.
We bonded, zipped up costumes, loaned eye-shadow and united in hysteria, before exploding back on stage again, freshly fabulous, slightly wilder and a tad higher.
The madness of Maceos
At the end of the night, mania would engulf that dressing room before most of the Downlow crew went next door for a post-work sherry at Maceos. It’s the hub of the Glasto working community, accessible to anyone with a crew pass.
Maceos is the most unhinged, debauched and fabulous after-hours I’ve had the pleasure to frequent. DJs pumped out twisted disco. The soundtrack was like musical medication to an asylum of ravers.
Drag queens danced on the bar, Jacob Love did acrobatics in golden Speedos suspended from scaffolding. Pilled-up revellers, cackled, gibbered and danced the day away. It was hard to leave, dangerous to stay.
Returning to one’s tent after a session at Maceos was an incrementally challenging experience. Bright daylight burnt the retinas, distant basslines throbbed through the earth and after twitching on an inflatable mattress, it’s a major miracle that sleep ever occurred.
Leather and love
The pace lurched a notch higher on Thursday night. It was harder, faster, bigger and longer. As I swung ‘round that stage, in a leather jockstrap and studded harness, while Norman Jay (MBE) span a classic funk set, I felt like the luckiest bitch alive.
We were all part of the blessed fabric, stitching together the best pop-up disco in the world. The enthusiasm of the crowd and the cheerleading madness of the Downlow crew proved an intoxicating and exhausting brew.
Queer as fuck
The biggest beauty of this unique pop-up bash is that it’s SO loud and proud about its queerness. The fashionable and debauched reputation of the Downlow means there’s large, straight contingent who want a slice of the action.
Of course, they’re welcome to join the party, but admission is dependent on the acquiescence of a stringent door policy that requires a £2 donation, possible humiliation and an inescapable reminder that the NYC Downlow is an LGBTQI space- and they’re damn lucky to be in it. Incidentally, since 2007 more than £63,000 has been donated to good causes as a direct result of that door charge.
High on disco
It seems overly dramatic to declare that being part of the Downlow proved a life changing experience- but it was. On the last night, all the crew did drag and while this wasn’t my first time at that rodeo, it proved a uniquely emotional and transformational cross-dressing gig.
Luke Howard span at the Downlow for the tenth time this year. I’ve known him for decades and he’s one of my favourite people on this crazy scene and undeniably, one the fiercest DJs on the planet. In my new glittery heels, I clambered onto a speaker stack next to the DJ booth and courtesy of Miss Howard, went to disco heaven in a vintage Pucci dress.
I couldn’t catalogue all the memorable moments, but here’s an edited selection; bumping into Mzz Kimberley at the Solange show & hanging out with her for the next 24 hours. Experiencing an audio-visual hallucination of people in my tent- they were discussing if I was dead or asleep.
Realising, with gobsmacked awe that Lucy Fizz is a trans woman- we were halfway to Glastonbury and until that point, I’d assumed she was a lesbian supermodel. Marvelling at the sober, consistent professionalism of Jonny Woo, as he counselled the weary, managed the mess and dazzled on stage.
Dancing onto the Downlow stage for the first time and feeling stupidly happy, deliriously high and utterly unsure of myself. Mykki Blanco. Mykki Blanco. Mykki Blanco. Having a long, deep chat with Jack Cullen in the empty Block 9 cafeteria as he got dragged up.
Watching Danny Polaris attempt to pump up his mattress, while wearing plastic booties to protect his trainers- tears of laughter spilled down my dusty face. Meeting Camillèleon and sharing a heap of random spiritual moments. Finally arriving home on Monday night, dishevelled, unhinged and relieved to walk on carpet.
In the following week after Glastonbury, I wept at everything. It’s true, there may have been a chemical dimension to my emotional fragility. However, it was definitely more than that. I’d been shook to the core by an experience that had jangled every cell in my body.
Love is in the air
After all my worries, I’d pulled it off and that was a bracing kick to my insecurities. I’d beaten some demons, made new, fabulous friends, spontaneously performed for 5 days straight and played a small part in the best disco in the world.
Yes, I wept rivers of tears for the following two weeks, due to the big assault on my delicate aura and a minor seratonin hiccup. However, I also cried for joy, because the Downlow held up a glittering mirror and showed me myself. More importantly, among other things, it made me smile back at my refection.
Big love to Jonny Woo for giving me the break and to all the Downlow family…
For more cabaret and hot mess business, head to The Glory.
Words + pics: Stewart Who?
Cover photo- Rudi Douglas by Egle Trezi