Back in 2018, photographer Seth Caplan began to photograph friends and acquaintances who are queer nightlife creators. What emerged was a celebration of New York’s queer nightlife in all of its messy glory. Over the next few months, we’ll be featuring each subject from this project in their own words, along with a portrait of them at home.
Who: Amber Alert
What: Artist, stylist, and drag queen
Can you talk about an early time going out to a queer nightlife space?
The first time I went to a gay bar was probably in New York City, summer of 2010 when I had my fake ID. It was probably somewhere in Hell’s Kitchen. Not very memorable to be completely honest. I was like, we can do better than this.
More memorable was the first time I went to Rocky Horror when I was 14. I was in a space with all these wild people and there was so much potential here for connecting and creating and performing. Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where I grew up, had one of the longest continuously running casts of Rocky Horror in the world. It’s been going on for over 30 years and it’s in this amazing old landmarked theater called The Oriental, which has all these gilded Buddhas and elephants. That’s where the Rocky cast was, and it was also three blocks from my dad’s house. So at 14, I was able to convince my mother to let me go. It was during my spooky phase. I was in middle school, and I wanted to be spooky so I wouldn’t be bullied. I was trying to lean into the Hot Topic look, so I decided to wear a black sheath dress that I’m pretty sure was part of a nun costume, and some black-feathered angel wings that strapped on my back. I had on black lipstick and I took black eyeliner and made a swirl out of the corner of my eye. I went by myself. I remember feeling a lot of anxiety being in public dressed that way. Ultimately it was a successful experiment because nothing bad happened and the people I met there were very silly and encouraging. I was one of the youngest people there and probably stood out a little bit. On subsequent screenings I wound up getting to know the cast members. I started entering the costume contests that they would have before the show and I started winning, obviously, and joined the cast. As a youth in Milwaukee, it was the closest approximation to a queer nightlife space that I could find. There was a youth nightclub called The Lady Bug Club, but it was not queer at all. I do have fond memories of drinking Smirnoff ice, and going to the Lady Bug Club and making out with a boy named Kyle Williams.
How did you get to New York and start going out in queer nightlife spaces here?
I was talking to my friend recently about what form of media introduced you to New York. For her, it was Lady Gaga. For me, it was Party Monster. That film about Michael Alig that came out around 2003 about the club kid murders in the 90s. It’s very dark, but also fabulous. It’s with Macaulay Culkin, Seth Green and Chloe Sevigny. I saw it when I was 14 and I was like, “I don’t want to do all those spooky drugs and kill people, but if it’s an option to dress up like a fucking clown and be fabulous with my friends, obviously that’s what I’m going to do.”
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where I grew up, had one of the longest continuously running casts of Rocky Horror in the world. It’s been going on for over 30 years.
From Party Monster, I started doing early research into club kids on the internet and I found out who I liked, because it’s based on true stories. That’s how I found out who James Saint James and Amanda Lepore are, and I started a Facebook group called The Club Kids that was full of pictures of club kids in the 90s. Thousands of people joined it and I had to remove myself as admin because it was embarrassing, but Party Monster was my entry point.
I went to school at Wesleyan in Connecticut, so the summer of 2010 was the first summer I spent in New York between school years. I was working at Cosmopolitan, feeling very shi-shi about myself. I started going out with a fake ID, but I didn’t go to a lot of queer spaces. The next summer I was interning for a photographer who was working on a photo project featuring drag queens. It was my job to go on Facebook and reach out to drag queens and say, hey, will you come to our photo studio and meet with my boss, Kimberly Butler. I was on Facebook all day messaging drag queens and then I would go out to their shows to say, come meet with my boss. So I started going to the Ritz and Vlada, when that was a thing.
I was working at Cosmopolitan, feeling very shi-shi about myself. I started going out with a fake ID, but I didn’t go to a lot of queer spaces.
I graduated in 2010, came home to New York, and was working as a waiter, cocktail server, and photo assistant. I worked a lot at Vlada for a while! They had us wear pants, no shirt, and suspenders to serve drinks upstairs at their cabaret nights.
That’s amazing. I saw some good shows at Vlada, some great shows at the Ritz. That’s where I saw Thorgie Thor for the first time and fell in love with her immediately. It wasn’t until I moved here in 2012 that I started performing. I was very lucky.
A friend of mine brought me to Bath Salts, which was Macy Rodman’s Monday night show at Don Pedro in East Williamsburg. This is when “Drag Race” was still on Monday nights and it was the de facto party that happened after the screening. Over the course of three years, it evolved into this massive, beautiful thing. Macy introduced a talk show segment that happened before it called Salty Talk. Every show had a different theme every fucking week. I don’t know what weird recesses of her brain she pulled all these ideas out of, but it was unbelievable and it was free. Macy, no longer a drag queen, now, an incredibly fantastic trans entertainer and musician, has such incredible performance energy. She’s one of those people who isn’t afraid to be ugly or unhinged. Also, Don Pedro wasn’t a gay bar, it was a punk rock bar, so you could make a mess. There was so much food and weird things being poured on people’s bodies. It was really gross and fun.
That was where I performed as Amber Alert for the first time. The first number I did in New York was, “You Oughta Know” by Alanis Morisette, which was a move. The theme was Monica Lewinsky’s Birthday Party. I became a regular. I met so many fantastic performers there and talented people in fashion, in art, and in nightlife, doing their own thing. It was a really special, magical three years. Macy is still my friend, we work on projects together.
What are you up to now? Where are you going out? Where are you performing?
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These days I would say I perform in drag like 0.75 times a month, which is how I like it. I’ve never made any money from doing drag. I don’t intend to ever make any money from doing drag. It’s a lifestyle choice for me. I’m a lifer. Performing 0.75 times a month means that I don’t have to repeat my looks and my numbers very often and I can do a number when I feel inspired to do so. That’s a privilege. I’m currently self-employed as a creative director and stylist. My visual art does sometimes intersect with my drag practice. I always try to seek out opportunities for that just because I think that’s exciting. Whether it’s making a video that I use as a projection for my performance or photographing drag queens, I love finding ways for those to intersect. Right now I’m mostly going out to see my friends perform. The venues I have been going to lately are The Vault, which is new, on McKibbin Street. All the kids are at Rosemont these days. Sometimes it’s fun to be surrounded by 22-year-olds. It’s kind of a shitty space to see shows because of the space itself, but the people who run it are great and they let you smoke pot in the backyard.
What about your involvement in nightlife brings you joy and keeps you coming back?
I’ve always related to this idea that art is what you can get away with. And in nightlife, a lot of people are open to letting you get away with a lot. You can get away with things that maybe you couldn’t in the daytime. New York can be sort of isolating, you’re surrounded by a million people but you’re by yourself, time can move so quickly. It can be easy to feel alienated in New York. But when you’re in a queer nightlife space and you see familiar faces and you hear familiar songs and you’re drinking a tequila soda it has this feeling of being home that is just really energizing and grounding. It’s funny because it’s a high, but it’s also grounding at the same time.
I’ve never made any money from doing drag. I don’t intend to ever make any money from doing drag. It’s a lifestyle choice for me. I’m a lifer.
At its best, it has this sort of slippery quality that you can’t capture in a photograph or in a video. It exists in that time and that space for those people who are there and that’s it. You can feel that energy, or you missed it, but it’ll happen again in a different way, somehow. Chasing that is fun, you know, to start a night and not know where you’re going to end up, but like being open to the potential of getting into trouble.
Queer nightlife is a space where you can perform, be creative and test your own waters, and see what you can get away with. You go out to support all of the other people who you’ve made relationships with, and you’re around to see what the kids are up to, finding the next thing. All of that sounds like a big circle that keeps going.
Yeah, I think so. I always tell drag queens, you should always book new performers, always book baby queens who are just starting out because if they suck, you’ll look better by comparison and hopefully they’ll learn something, and if they’re good, you can take credit for discovering them! So it’s a win-win either way!
Reflecting on the last year and a half, I’d love to hear what the start of the pandemic was like for you. Did you participate in the switch to digital gathering and nightlife?
I did a couple virtual shows in those first months. My good friends Rify Royalty and Macy Rodman did digital tracks. At the time it was really like a welcome respite. Although I love the energy and the spontaneity of a live performance, I also love video artists and occasionally I dabble. I was excited by the things you can do with video that you can’t do for a live audience. I was intrigued by the possibilities that video drag could present and what you could achieve with it. I did a couple of video performances that were really fun and it was a good way to keep busy. During those first few months, it was pretty much just a fog of smoking weed, staying inside and watching old movies. That’s pretty much what I was doing with my roommate, and going on a lot of long walks by myself. By the time June rolled around, numbers had gone down, testing was available and all my friends had already had it. There was this sense of unity and euphoria a little bit when people were able to come together last summer. It was mostly outdoor functions, but it was still really good to see people.
New York can be sort of isolating…but when you’re in a queer nightlife space and you see familiar faces and you hear familiar songs and you’re drinking a tequila soda it has this feeling of being home.
Summer 2020 had some really joyful moments at the beach that I really cherished. There have been some really successful outdoor parties in different parks. My favorite party I went to last year was a techno dance party under a bridge, it felt like I was in Vienna or something. I think the enthusiasm for digital drag shows petered out that summer too, at least in my experience. Though video does present some exciting possibilities for expanding the form, it really is about that connection between audience members and the connection between the performer and the audience. When everyone’s behind a computer screen, you don’t really have that. That magical ephemeral vibe can’t really be replicated digitally. And that’s what I think is so magical about drag.
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Did your queer nightlife communities intersect or overlap at all with how you participated in the groundswell of the Black Lives Matter movement that summer?
There was the incredible Brooklyn Liberation March for Trans Lives, which started at the Brooklyn Museum and was organized by West Dakota and other much-beloved nightlife people. The energy that day was incredible. So many people come together to uplift each other and listen to so many powerful voices and stories. I don’t mean to romanticize it because it was very serious of course, but in a way, it was crazy, because there was nothing to do. Bars were still closed other than the scant few outlaw parties. There wasn’t a way for large groups of people to come together. All of a sudden, the only thing to do is protest. That was kind of incredible. That energy could be generative. It was good to be reminded that we do have power in numbers and that the community can be unified around a goal for Black lives. There was something that was very frenetic and exciting.
That magical ephemeral vibe can’t really be replicated digitally. And that’s what I think is so magical about drag.
I think it opened up new conversations for so many people. There’s definitely a certain section of queer nightlife that has been having those conversations about centering trans people of color and making safe spaces. Now those conversations are so much more pronounced. It’s about bringing those conversations back into our own spaces.
There are certain community leaders who have really taken it upon themselves to create mutual aid for those who need it. It hasn’t quite translated to actual bars and venues, or at least I haven’t seen it yet. The primary focus of bar owners is selling drinks, and all it always will be. It’s not about the performers or creating a safe space. It’s not about making sure the audience has fun. It’s about selling drinks and making money. That’s part of the reason that I think the outdoor parties in the park or under the bridge or on the beach have been so fun. And so euphoric, because it’s divorced from the economy of selling drinks.
When everything reopened, everyone was so hungry to go out again and dance and be together and see shows, the vibe was so different. Everything’s ticketed and sells out right away. My favorite experience of going out is on a random Tuesday, there’s a drag show, the bars half empty. It’s all the girls. It feels hard to find that these days. It’s a little more difficult to be spontaneous.
What else were you up to this last year?
I’ve been working on my book, Legends of Drag, which is adjacent to nightlife. I wasn’t doing a whole lot of performing myself, but I’ve been working on this. Legends of Drag is a photography book on drag queen elders. It’s a collaboration between myself and my friend and collaborator Devin Antheus who is a floral designer. Each portrait that we do features a custom floral arrangement to compliment the queen’s look and her personal style. It will be published as a book next year. We’ve been working on this for four years and had several trips planned for the spring of 2020. We resumed traveling again in July of 2020, and we haven’t stopped since. It’s such an honor to work with all of these legendary entertainers and for them to reciprocate that feeling is just really special and humbling.
When everything reopened, everyone was so hungry to go out again and dance and be together and see shows, the vibe was so different.
What has it been like for you since nightlife started to reopen in New York after Memorial Day this summer.
Like everyone else, I’ve been really hungry for dancing. The Knockdown Center Bushwig Fam Pride party was really fun. I went to Nowadays, which was also really fun. At Nowadays now, before they let you inside, they corral 15 people into a vestibule and there’s a person who gives you this little lecture. They’re like, this is a space where we don’t tolerate racism, sexism, transphobia. If you’re about that, you can get the fuck out right now. People were cheering in support. It definitely set the tone. That felt like an actionable change as the result of the protests last year.
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I’m having to recalibrate my re-emergence into queer nightlife. A lot of the fun parties that I looked forward to haven’t restarted yet. There’s a question of priorities and also a level of uncertainty still. I think about if I go to this place, I remember liking it, am I still gonna like it because the vibe is the same, or has it changed?
What was Bushwig’s Fam Pride Party like for you?
It was really fun to get together with my friends beforehand and put our looks together. Getting ready for the function is half the fun. It was super hot that day so we dressed like sluts, which was really gratifying. It felt like the opening of the social season. You can count on Bushwig to bring people together and bring together performers with diverse perspectives. Even though we’ve been in a pandemic for the past two years, there are still somehow new drag queens emerging. It’s exciting to see them perform.
Have you performed at all recently or are thinking about doing so?
I might be doing this fundraiser on Fire Island in September, but I have not been performing myself. I have been thinking about it. It just has to be the right space and the right time. I am more interested in performing in intimate spaces than like on a huge stage. It’s a different way of connecting with your audience and present as a performer. I have been hungry to get in drag, but not necessarily to perform. I like sitting in the mirror, I like being gorgeous. I’m especially looking forward to this fall because the fall is best for all kinds of outfits.♦