Looking in the mirror and feeling a tad pale, pasty…
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. It’s a trip that can turn you inside out and take you to a higher place.
Pride and envy
For ten years, I watched the Downlow troupe depart London like a glittering update of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. Their infamous exploits prompted a pulse of envy, pride and awe.
When Jonny Woo called and asked me to join their 2017 circus, it was like injecting Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket.
Cinderella IS going to the ball. Dreams COULD come true. I AM ready for my close-up.
After initial elation; anxiety descended. My go-go boy heyday is a long departed and hazy memory.
I offered to DJ or perhaps perform a tune, but Jonny 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 prompted 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 sighed with weary sympathy.
‘You’re taking this too seriously,’ he quipped, 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, sipping prosecco.
‘If you were thinking 20 sleeping pills. Actually, bring 40’.
Jocks and hot-pants
I’ve found you can always trust the wisdom of a self-fisting porn star and 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 cracked.
As someone who’s been diagnosed and treated for an eating disorder, this area carries risks. Body dysmorphia, like any addiction, is hard to heal and simply vanquish.
Salads and sanity
As I nibbled on salads, yawned on the bench press and wept 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.
Queens on wheels
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 get trashed and bitch.
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 gurned in the roofless hurricane that consequently blew on our sweaty, hot faces.
It was a challenging road trip, working the collective nerves of our K-fuelled, high maintenance queer ensemble. 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 crowds into a frenzy.
Chatting to Glasto revellers, in line for the Downlow, made perfect sense. Punters in the huge queue were tired, high and raggedy. Telling people they looked gorgeous and were ‘nearly there’ was healing patter for the waiting waifs. They needed assurance, flattery and high octane erotic performance art.
As Butcher Boys, we posed for selfies, ponced ciggies, twerked and flirted. It was group therapy via queer revelry, to the thump of a disco beat.
In between working the al fresco crowd and gyrating on stage, outfit adjustments and wet wipe business would occur in the backstage ‘dressing room’. This metal container was a windowless rhombus of chaos.
Hairspray, sequins, lip-gloss, bumping, booze and nudity were the backbone of that box. You could get stuck in there for hours. It was the beating heart of the Downlow.
We bonded, broke down, zipped up and shared powders and paint. After a touch up, we’d bounce back on that stage; slightly wilder, fiercely weirder and possibly higher.
At the end of the night, mania engulfed the dressing room before most of the Downlow crew went next door for a post-shift sherry at Maceos.
It’s the secret jewel at the heart of the Glasto working community. It’s only accessible to those with a crew pass and a head for hedonism.
Maceos is the most unhinged, hardcore and fabulous after-hours. World class DJs pump out twisted disco and time has no meaning. The relentless soundtrack is like musical meds for an asylum of ravers.
Drag queens danced on the bar, Jacob Love did acrobatics in golden Speedos suspended from scaffolding. Pilled-up revellers and chem-wrecked casualties 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. After twitching on an inflatable mattress in a humid nylon bubble, it’s a miracle that any sleep occurred. Largely, it didn’t.
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 span a classic funk set, I felt like the luckiest bitch alive.
We were unravelling threads in a blessed fabric, stitching together the best pop-up disco in the universe. The ecstasy of the crowds and madness of the Downlow crew proved a heady and potent brew.
Queer as fuck
The beauty of this bash is its loud, unashamed queerness. The fashionable and X-rated legend of the Downlow gives it the allure of Studio 54 on steroids and stilts. Everyone wants to be there.
Non-queers are welcome to the party, but admission is dependent on understanding the door policy. NYC Downlow is an LGBTQI space- and guests are damn lucky to be in it.
Since 2007, more than £63,000 has been donated to fine causes as a result of that door charge.
High on disco
It seems dramatic to claim that being part of Downlow was a life changing experience. But it was.
On the last night, all crew did drag and while it my first time at that rodeo, it was a uniquely emotional high-heeled gig.
Luke Howard span at the Downlow for the tenth time that year. I’ve known him for decades. He’s one of my fave people ands is also one the fiercest DJs on the planet.
In my 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 some stand out.
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.
Falling in love with the inspirational phenomenon and beautiful moves of of the gorgeous Lucy Fizz
Marvelling at the sober skills 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.
Waking up to Wes Baggaley every day. His tent was 6 inches from mine. Wes kept me semi-sane and very entertained.
Meeting Camillèleon and sharing a random, stones spiritual moments.
Finally arriving home on Monday night, dishevelled, unhinged and relieved to walk on carpet.
In the week after Glastonbury, I wept at everything. There may have been a chemical dimension to my emotional fragility.
However, it was more than that. I’d been shook to the core by a trip that jangled every cell in my body.
Love is in the air
After all my worries, I’d beaten some demons, made friends, performed for 5 days straight and played a small part in the world’s best disco.
I wept for two weeks, due to a jangled aura and a seratonin deficit. However, I also cried for joy, ’cause the Downlow held up a mirror and showed me myself. 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