Where Drag Queens Drop From The Rafters

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NEW ORLEANS— Late on a Saturday night a little over a week before Mardi Gras Day, a warehouse in a semi-industrial corner of downtown is thumping with bass and jammed to its damp cinderblock walls with people, with more spilling out into the gravel yard. Inside, the temperature is at least 10 degrees warmer than the balmy night outside, and the combination of body heat and lingering humidity has coalesced into a miasma of sweat and other bodily effluvia so thick you can practically scoop it out of the air. By the end of the night I feel like I have literally inhaled, in the form of that swampy, fragrant vapor, enough discarded cells to make up one or maybe two small whole human beings, who are now cavorting together in my lungs.

Despite the temperature, the two opening wrestlers, Hank Fields and Ivanka Claiborne, start their match cloaked head-to-toe in hats, beards, and capes stitched together from what looks like several dozen thick human-hair wigs apiece. As the contest heats up, they flip and bodyslam and strip, essentially depilating themselves of their costumes until they’re down to duct-tape pasties and fur underpants. They wobble along the top of the ropes and lift each other in the air, hitting the mat with hard thuds. A pre-recorded video places them in the context of a complicated backstory about a post-climate-crisis wasteland. “They’re leaders of two warring factions of the apocalypse!” the narrator shouts. Then, they kiss.

This is the New Orleans-birthed drag wrestling show Choke Hole, which took place over the last two Saturdays in February. There’s plenty of what you would think of as “traditional” drag, with the attendant contouring, padding, and towering hairdo excellence. There are also elements of the extreme athleticism of pro wrestling, with plenty of performers who are noticeably ripped and capable of WWE-worthy physical feats. But there’s also inclusion of all genders, all bodies, and all manner of major costume and character concepts for the wrestlers, including a multi-legged roach person called Raid; The Penguin, a gawky human-bird hybrid in a ski suit and flippers who gives off noticeable Amy Sedaris vibes.

The performers are startlingly committed to full-contact combat onstage. The vibe is partly theater, with all eyes directed to the ring; and partly dance floor, with sweaty, beglittered Carnival crowds moving to the music on the wet warehouse floor. But it has plenty of the thirsty, electric vibe of a high-stakes sporting event. The crowd erupts when Miss Toto springs into the air and lands in a hard split. They shout their throats raw when Bella Spree unhooks her mirror-tiled bra and climbs the ropes until she can grab a metal roof beam and swing hand-over-hand through the rafters. They squeal when Ivanka Claiborne, hair flying, spins Hank Fields (hair also flying) in a shoulder windmill, then throws them to the mat. This audience wants blood in the ring, or at least bodily fluids.

My favorite match features the sunshiny scientist, Dr. Omega, and the villainous Annie Vaxxer (say it out loud) who is dressed like a member of Jem and the Holograms’ antagonists the Misfits, in an exaggeratedly high-cut ‘80s-style bodysuit, and sprays the audience repeatedly from her nose area with snotty disease vectors of green Silly String. And there are Hank and Ivanka, who close their match with a spicy makeout session. Everyone lip-syncs a song, everyone tosses their bodies around the ring with abandon (and varying levels of expertise), and everyone is subject to the deadpan running commentary of co-producers Hugo Gyrl and Garlic Junior, who announce the show while perched in ringside thrones under a glowing neon Choke Hole sign. “That was disgusting,” Garlic Junior announces, after Hank and Ivanka close their bout with foreplay instead of a knockout.

The inaugural Choke Hole, during the city’s Pride weekend in spring 2018, attracted several hundred even though no one knew exactly what to expect, Hugo Gyrl told me, “and we knew we wanted to do it again, like almost immediately, really. So then we were like, ‘Okay, what’s a great time for it?’ And we thought Mardi Gras, because we’d show it to more people from out of town.”

I brought a visiting friend to the second weekend of Choke Hole 2019, and I preemptively apologized to her as we made our way to the venue. The previous week’s event was pretty well attended, but the storms that had been rolling on and off all afternoon would probably shrink the crowd, I explained as we picked our way carefully along the muddy edges of the street, whose massive potholes were treacherously masked by a placid lake of brownish rainwater. Almost immediately, I could tell that I had been wrong: the street was full of bikes and cars, zig-zagging beams of light reflecting from the streetlamps off of a mass of metallic fabric, glitter and sequins, pummeling bounce music from a dozen car stereos, and the loopy, crackling energy of Carnival time. Braver souls roller-skated through the mud puddles, clad in gold lamé. Hugo Gyrl estimates attendance was close to double that of the first night, which drew about 600 spectators.

Putting the show in front of visitors in New Orleans for the wild holiday season was a chance to connect with people who might want to help bring a Choke Hole to their own town, Hugo Gyrl said. (“Maybe we’d drive a giant bus we could paint yellow and write ‘Choke Hole’ on the side,” they mused.) It was a good idea; two days after the event, Hugo Gyrl reported there was already interest in bringing the show to New York and Los Angeles.

But there are also elements of Choke Hole that make it a perfect fit for the annual space for permissiveness and play sewn into the social infrastructure of New Orleans. Carnival is a season of varying lengths that runs from January 6—Twelfth Night or the Feast of the Epiphany—until Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras Day, which moves around the calendar depending on the date of Easter. (This year, on March 5, it was close to the latest it can be.) The dizzying, glitter-spangled stretch of parades and parties is a period of indulgence leading to the austerity of Lent, the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. It’s also literally built on concepts of fluid reality and the suspension of rules about public presentation; it’s a season for costuming and masking, experimentation and expression.

There are layers upon layers to this tradition. Some are creepy or controversial—like the wealthy social elite who mask as royalty or gods in the century-plus-old Mardi Gras organizations, known as krewes, of Rex and Comus, or the blackface makeup worn by members of the city’s oldest African-American Carnival club, the Krewe of Zulu. Some sound surprisingly (if perhaps accidentally) progressive, like as the official loophole, from the years when cross-dressing was illegal, that on Mardi Gras Day, anyone could publicly appear in clothing associated with any gender without fear of arrest.

There is also a tradition of satire, which plays out in illustrations on Carnival parade floats that lampoon public figures and hot-button issues both local and national. In recent years, papier-mache versions of both Donald Trump and Irvin Mayfield—a jazz bandleader accused of misusing more than $100,000 intended for the New Orleans Public Library during his tenure on its foundation board—have taken up a lot of parade float real estate. At Choke Hole, a wrestler in the heel role was said to be dating controversial local real-estate developer and reality TV personality Sidney Torres IV. Her opponent, a good-guy sea creature named Deep Sea Double (lip-sync song: “Holy Diver”) shouted that she’d never succeed in gentrifying Arabi, a neighborhood that—based on the geographic trajectory of rising rents, freshly-opened art spaces, and fancy coffee shops—does appear to be next in line for that fate. Everyone at the show who wasn’t just visiting for Carnival booed appreciatively.

Carnival is a time for cloaking your identity, or revealing your truest identity, or trying out a whole new one—as well as making fun of the things that affect your life the most—that has been stitched deep into the social fabric of New Orleans for more than 150 years. It is also open-source as hell, with new parties, walking clubs, parading groups, and bands establishing traditions every year. Thus: a perfect time and place to dress up like a sea witch or a sexy plumber and try a gorilla-press powerslam on a friend in front of a thousand screaming fans. “It’s very New Orleans to me,” Hugo Gyrl said. “I don’t really imagine this could have started many other places.”

Choke Hole is a group effort among Hugo Gyrl and New Orleans theater/drag collective High Profile, which comprises Garlic Junior, Visqueen, and the fourth event producer, Jassy. Jassy and Visqueen went to high school together in New Orleans where Visqueen, according to Jassy, “was Myspace famous. I idolized her and wanted her to be my friend… I followed her and unfollowed her on Instagram a million times trying to get her to notice me.”

The overarching narrative of Choke Hole 2019 is a post-climate-apocalypse sci-fi tale, with wrestlers loosely competing over freeze-ray technology. (At a rehearsal the day of the second show, Jassy is still tweaking storylines in the ring: “What if she starts doing yoga, and her hot yoga melts the freezening ray?”) The marquee match for the first weekend’s card featured the two old classmates as the human embodiment of hot and cold brands, names slightly tweaked old-school MAD magazine-style to avoid copyright infringement. As “Tabaspo,” swathed in head-to-toe red pleather, Jassy battled Visqueen’s “Dibbin Dots,” a vision in icy pastels. Pink and turquoise plastic balls strung together flowed from the crown of her head, making for a formidable weapon as the pair battled for the prize of an official Choke Hole sponsorship and a briefcase full of money, which had been dangling from the rafters over the ring, à la Chekhov’s gun, the whole night.

When Choke Hole was conceived, seemingly everyone in New Orleans was creating underground performances of one kind or another, including experiments with wrestling. High Profile produced an event called F.L.O.W. in the summer of 2017 at a music venue on St. Claude Avenue called the Hi Ho Lounge. “It was parodying G.L.O.W., fake ladies of wrestling,” he said. “We had this rinky-dink padded square on the floor.”

Jassy met Garlic Junior at a recurring proto-drag wrestling event called the Jock Strap Lube Wrestling Party at the Allways, a club across the street from Hi Ho. Both of them, as well as Slenderella—a whippet-thin drag queen who served as Choke Hole’s card girl both Saturdays this year—had also taken the New Orleans Drag Workshop, a three-month intensive taught by the musician and drag queen Vinsanto DeFonte, a recent San Francisco transplant who encouraged all genders and styles. The workshops also graduated several wrestlers, including Visqueen, who says she mostly identifies as a cis woman, though “in my day-to-day life, I feel like I’m not feminine at all. It’s fun to play up femininity. I like to be a gender clown—sometimes I like to look like a pretty item, a graphic feminine thing.”

The group soon connected with Hugo Gyrl, who was producing avant-garde shows like the immersive, spooky morality tale “The Subletter’s Omen,” and they collaborated for the first time on a casino-themed New Year’s Eve 2018 event titled Qasino. As Jassy told the local alt-weekly Gambit in an interview before the first Choke Hole, the scope of Hugo Gyrl’s presentations impressed them even though doing shows with extravagant hype (courtesy of Visqueen’s graphic design and video-production skills) but tiny production values had been part of their act.

“A lot of what we were doing with High Profile was fake production values—we’d have all these promises and online content, and then the night of, we’d just be in some little bar,” Jassy told the Gambit. “When we came to [Hugo Gyrl’s] parties, it was like everything we’d actually been promising, done in the physical world. All these huge installations and crazy shit that we could never imagine. We were like, this is what we want to do!”

“Hugo Gyrl” is the moniker of a Brooklyn-born graffiti artist whose homonymic tag “You Go Girl” has been showing up in New Orleans since shortly after Hurricane Katrina. After a stint at New York’s Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, they spent some time traveling the country between different punk and D.I.Y art scenes, but kept finding themself drawn back to New Orleans. “I made friends, and when Katrina happened I wanted to come back because I felt connected to this place, and I wanted to help out the people that I had met,” they said. And like a lot of people who keep returning to New Orleans, eventually they stayed.

“There’s such an amazing community of artists, and non-artists who just do creative things because of traditions like Mardi Gras,” they said. “There’s so many creative people here, it’s just incredible. So much of it is just completely unrecognized by any greater institution, for the most part. That also keeps it really special, because people are doing it for each other, and that’s really incredible to me.”

Hugo Gyrl did a lot of volunteer work in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, paying the bills with construction and house-painting work that eventually segued into more creative ventures, like building props and painting Carnival parade floats (a dependable seasonal paycheck for many local visual artists). A side area off the main Choke Hole showroom is a showcase for their style: There’s a carnival wheel of fortune painted in lurid neon shades, and a plywood cutout where fans can take pictures surrounded by Hugo Gyrl’s plump, cartoony lines, right next to a hot dog and popcorn stand decorated with what looks like poured cement stalagmites, studded with oyster shells. The logo for the show, continuing the predominant Choke Hole color scheme of hot fuschia and antifreeze, is a muscled bicep with long, manicured candy-red nails and popping veins; a 10-foot-tall inflatable version of the arm, stitched from ripstop nylon, marked the door to the event space. The hyper-colorful comic-book monster look evokes “Big Daddy” Ed Roth’s Rat Fink character and weirdo model-car creature illustrations from the ‘60s – kinetic, exaggerated, eye-popping, vaguely sordid, cute and ugly at the same time.

Cute and ugly juxtaposed is the name of Choke Hole’s game. Hostesses and announcers Hugo Gyrl and Garlic Junior sit side by side on narrow, pointy thrones worthy of a medieval painting, delivering dry commentary in costumes that look like they came from two different movies: Garlic, in flowing blonde and minky vest, is straight out of a 1980s softcore flick shot in a ski lodge. Hugo, painted green in a severe purple suit, warty stick-on nose and acid-yellow hair, from some kind of psychedelic animated fantasy about a goblin schoolmarm. The pulsing room, equally turned out in Carnival finery, serves costume gold: horns, pasties, feathers, tulle, strings of battery-powered lights woven into hairdos. One person picks flecks of glitter out of a friend’s beard; another rubs extra glitter into their companion’s already-sparkle-encrusted facial hair.

“I think a lot of what I do is about bringing joy back into things that can get a little too serious. Like graffiti, for example,” said Hugo Gyrl. “Growing up in that culture, it’s amazing, mesmerizing, and deep, but also there’s a lot of rules. I think I have a lot of fun breaking rules, creating new ones, and having fun with the medium, whatever it is. I think this brings the joy back into drag, and I think that really an underlying element of our whole performance was just fun. And drag can be really, really fun, but it can also be very serious, and I think we have definitely the element of goofy, crazy, electric fun that you could feel in that room.”

Drag and professional wrestling share the same combined extreme expressions of body and gender performance: the tans, the muscles, the hair, the heels (both kinds of the latter, though “we do not allow actual heels in the ring,” Hugo Gyrl told me, “because we don’t want puncture marks on the mat and we do not want any broken ankles.”) There are obvious athletes at Choke Hole, like Miss Toto, a Miami bodybuilder and marine biologist whose body is a sculptural work of art; in a blue fur bikini perched on perky pecs and glutes, she performs feats of physical improbability, grinning like a beauty queen. There are fabulous fake ladies of wrestling, like Slenderella in her Bae Watch T-shirt, her tan pantyhose strategically plumped with padding, her face is contoured with elegant lines. And there are creatures like Raid and Deep Sea Double, who delightfully deploy tentacles and thoraxes and weird wigs and rubber suits and spandex, defying you to question exactly who or what is slamming it down in the spotlight.

At Choke Hole—with its flesh overflow and swollen muscles, its ocean creatures and bodybuilder acrobats, its penguins and cockroaches, its green goblins and Silly String snot—the rest of the world’s body binaries, gender-presentation standards, and requirements for glamour go out the window. “Garlic Junior, my co-host, said recently being pretty is a full-time job, and I responded on her post, ‘So is being ugly,’” said Hugo Gyrl. “I want more monsters. Humans are so boring—there’s so many of them, and they all basically look the same.”

The characters for Choke Hole 2019—humans, monsters and everything in between—were created over the course of about eight months leading up to the two Mardi Gras shows. This included casting, pairing off and character development, the shooting of Visqueen’s interstitial animations and story-propelling “backstage” video, as well as surprisingly acrobatic and athletic (and dangerous) choreography.

“People really surprised me by with how far they were willing to go,” said Hugo Gyrl. “There were drag queens dropping from the rafters.”

“It turned out that a lot of people had a dream” of flinging their friend’s bodies, or being flung, at full strength into the ropes of a homemade wrestling ring on a Mardi Gras Saturday night “that they didn’t know they had,” Visqueen added.

In a stroke of Carnival luck, the actual WWE Smackdown Live show traveled to New Orleans on February 19, in between Choke Hole weekends. Of course, the organizers took a field trip, during which they were pleased to see that elements of their own show—like Visqueen’s fast-paced video content and slick graphics advancing the storyline—existed in the formal sport. Their ideas about the connection between drag and wrestling continue to coalesce, and be validated.

“It’s cathartic, it’s goofy,” Hugo Gyrl said. “I think bringing the queer element into it, and having that be very open is very exciting for people. Wrestling has always been very queer, but never too overtly queer. For the most part, it’s almost to the point of being queer, but not quite.”

“I was amazed at the parallels that exist,” Visqueen said. “It’s the performative element of drag, so campy and cartoony. And homoerotic, too.”

Jassy agreed. “It’s so campy, nobody at this point thinks it’s real, but they’re still trying to sell the very fake idea that it’s real. It’s funny, because we associate it with a very conservative, Middle America crowd, but then you look at it through a queer gaze…”

“… so people want to see that kind of entertainment,” Visqueen finished, “but in our own community.”