If you think Priscilla Queen of the Desert is the ultimate queer road trip, you couldn’t be more wrong. Take all the glitter, attitude and sass from that movie, multiple it by a factor of eleven and you’re beginning to scratch the surface of last weekend’s NYC Downlow tenth birthday celebrations.
The mad, long road to marking a decade of the first dedicated LGBT space at a UK festival started last Wednesday with a broken down bus and 33 drag queens, cabaret performers and dancers tapping their heels as they waited for a replacement ride to the Somerset fields. It was pretty much chaos from thereon in.
For the uninitiated the ‘Downlow’ is part of Block9, located in a far-flung corner of Glastonbury festival. The structure is designed as an homage to New York’s upper west side Meatpacking District. Drag queens hang from the windows and jock-strapped lads – aka the ‘Butcher Boys’ - shake their junk as endless queues of eager festival-goers wait to sample the hot, sweaty interior of what is lauded by music publications and DJs as one of the finest clubs in the world – gay or straight.
Inside, you pass the sauna-style locker room entrance to find a dancefloor packed with gay boys and girls of every look, curious straights, and those that just don’t care about labels. A whiff of poppers drifts past us as we wonder through the crowd. The Meat Rack next door offers a lighter respite from the intensity of the Downlow’s main room. And there’s even a Dark Room, too, if you want further ‘light relief’.
On the main stage, beyond a haze of smoke the strobes catch the glimmer of sequins as Jonny Woo introduces us to the UK’s finest. Lottie Croucher and Chester Hayes head up the choreography duties. Ginger Johnson, Rudi Douglas, Lucy Fizz, Bourgeoisie, John Sizzle, and more are all there in full throttle show mode. Newcomers Chamille Leon, Phoenix and Bimini Bon Boulash make a stunning debut.
On Thursday night, Jonbenet Blonde leads a tribute to George Michael, special guest Mykki Blanco tears up the stage to whoops and cheers on Friday, while Mzz Kimberley shows off her ample pipes on Sunday. Nick Grimshaw is dancing by the lounge area with Rita Ora, and there’s actor Charlie Carver with them, too. Legendary techno DJ Seth Troxler is also in the house soaking up the sounds. There aren’t many places in the world that could bring all this together.
Once the lights come on at 6am, behind the Downlow is Maceo’s, the 24hour crew bar where everyone and everything descends into lunacy. If the main stage is heels on amphetamine the backstage area is where it all goes absolutely nuts. The wigs get wonky and the makeup runs wild, and usually results in Jacqui Potato hanging from the scaffold. The scene is akin to a lunatic asylum in lipstick and stilettos. And it’s glorious.
Did anybody get round to seeing any of the main stage acts? From Katy Perry (snooze) to Jeremy Corbyn (whoop, whoop) the meticulous planning of Glastonbury’s world famous line-up takes second place to the madness that the Downlow offers up as the party rolls right into the next day/afternoon/evening. Eventually, it’s a case of survival of the fiercest as the walk of shame includes a stumble through the fields in broken heels back to the Folly camping area, where it’s finally time to collapse for a few hours sleep before it starts all over again, with fresh lippy and a new look. It’s Monday evening before the drag bus returns to London with 33 battered queens in its hold.
Ten years ago Gideon Berger and Stephen Gallagher changed the face of the UK festival scene with one simple idea: to bring a dedicated LGBT space to Glastonbury. In their wildest imaginations I don’t think even they imagined the sheer spectacle of charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent that their vision would let loose. Happy Birthday NYC Downlow!
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