community

Scene legend Jonny Woo recalls his first night in drag 20 years ago

One rainy winter's night in New York City changed everything for the East London drag star...

2019-12-06

This article first appeared in Attitude issue 315, November 2019

It’s a wet Tuesday night in New York, November 1999. “You came to NYC to be an artist. So be one!” I repeat the phrase to myself like some sort of mantra.

I’m in Lavinia’s apartment. A hot, cramped tenement — typical East Village — stuff ed with wigs, boas and drag memorabilia. Lavinia is an ephemeral, charming, wispy queen from Hackney and a new friend I met in the Boiler Room, a dark, smoky gay bar with signs reading “No Dancing, by order of the Mayor, Giuliani”.

She’s taking me to Jackie 60. I’ve borrowed a pair of kitten mules from her and a black fringed dress from a vintage store. My make-up is smudged. I’m going by the name of Satanica Pandamonia.

The front door opens. “Heyyyyyyy,” says a younger queen with a raspy tone, staring with beady sapphire blue eyes, and a big brown afro. He’s wrapped in white torn sweaters. “My name’s Braaaaaandon,” he declares. 

As soon as I step outside, my flimsy soles offer no respite against the bite of the sidewalk. I’ll need a lot of gin to get through the night. It’s the last night at Jackie 60 and, “It’s going to be legendary and you’re lucky to catch it,” Lavinia tells me.

We tumble into a dark club in the Meat Packing district, under a red neon sign saying “Mother”. It’s full of downtown freaks and I’ve managed to make it across a packed dancefloor with a full martini and a menthol fag in hand.

Brandon cackles and squawks at a show on the small stage that manages to dominate the room. “That’s Amanda Lepore, you know her?” I don’t, but I’m hypnotised by her huge breasts, pillow lips and electric Marilyn Monroe hair.

Lavinia pokes me, eyes alive, “That’s Justin Bond!” The crowd roars. Kiki is a booze-soaked doyenne with lines crudely drawn on her face and blonde hair swept high. Her sidekick Herb thrashes out a Bowie track on the piano. The crowd hangs on every word. Is it the gin or is my mind blown?

Then a dance troupe perform a full Martha Graham repertoire and I’m pulled on to the bar by a guy in military drag whose hot lips devour my mouth, smearing our faces with cheap lipstick. My dress is hitched up and he is on my crotch (or maybe I was first to go down on him) and the drag queen on stage is loving our impromptu sex show as we tumble off the bar into the bottle bins. 

As I hobble out of the club, carrying the mules, the marabou drenched in booze, the DJ calls over: “Hey, Thanks for the sex show! What’s your name?” I reply: “Satani… Jonny.” He laughs: “Me too.” Lavinia adds: “That’s Johnny Dynell.” Brandon chips in with: “He’s legendary,” adding to my new understanding of that word.

It’s a blurry taxi ride back. The room spins and I smell the mildew and dust, and I don’t know it right then, but this night is going to be the start of the rest of my life.