Meet the freaks: We take a tour of New York City's weirdest
Get to know an immortal Manhattan wizard, a trio of creepy-as-hell drag queens and other locals doing their part to keep New York crazy.
Wed Apr 23 2014
Photograph: Jocelyn Baun
As you more than likely already know, dear New Yorker, Coney Island has reopened for the summer, now with its upgraded super-slick Luna Park. Exciting, kinda, but it makes us miss old-school, weird New York. So we discovered where and how and when to find the city's last outposts of true weirdness. Our first stop was Coney Island itself, where we met the krazy kids who make up the latest incarnation of the Coney Island Circus Sideshow—still alive, kicking and wickedly strange. From then, our tour winds to Harlem for Blackwolf the Dragonmaster (you'll recognize him when you see him), to the Dairy Queens in the East Village, and to the LES where you'll find this week's Time Out cover star, Reverend Jen—elf ears and all.
Coney Island Circus Sideshow, Coney Island, Brooklyn
Photograph: Jocelyn Baun
Its story: The Coney Island Sideshow has been going strong since Dick Zigun revived the popular early-20th-century attraction in the 1980s. Starring a mix of folks trained in sideshow arts (lying on a bed of nails, glass walking, contortion) alongside “born different” performers (like favorite Mat Fraser, who has truncated arms), the show is presented with ten acts rotating through the spotlight. But don’t dismiss these entertainers as simply bizarre. “Any idiot can appear weird; it takes no skill,” says Scott Baker, a former Broadway actor turned 19-year vet of the Sideshow. “To do something unusual with class, intelligence, style, skill and integrity takes years to learn.” All of the cast members are experts in multiple disciplines. Take Betty Bloomerz, who specializes in sword swallowing but will “be the blade-box girl, sit in the electric chair, eat fire, whatever is needed.” Or as “the most handsome man in sideshow,” Ray Valenz, puts it: “I don’t just do one thing—my work includes sideshow performances, acting, stripping or kids’ parties. Hopefully not all at once.”
So how weird are they? Calculatedly. It’s their vocation, after all—not to imply that things always go smoothly. “One night there was a cast of, like, 20 of us,” remembers Bloomerz. “The entire script was stapled on the wall and none of us had the time to read it, and we weren’t supposed to, anyway. My ex-lover was onstage wearing my fishnets from years before, and we were all scrambling around. It was perfect chaos. And it was one of the greatest shows we ever had.”
Did you know…? You can take classes from the masters at Coney’s Sideshow School. Skills taught include fire-eating and -breathing, sword swallowing, straitjacket escaping and snake charming. Just in case you’re looking for a career change.
Blackwolf the Dragonmaster (Richard Washington), 48, Harlem
Photograph: Jocelyn Baun
His story: Though he’s known by many grand aliases—Blackwolf the Dragonmaster, Duke and First Marquess of Talisker, the Sorcerer-in-Residence Unto the Mortalfolk of the City—the self-declared Unofficial Wizard of New York has only one official outfit: a forest-green cloak; a pointy brown hat; a fake, flowing Gandalf-style white beard; a stuffed dragon named Sir Aragorn; and anachronistic (yet necessary) prescription glasses. But Blackwolf, as he’s familiarly known, doesn’t just dress the part; he also sports a fake, faltering British accent and peppers his speech (and e-mails!) with Old English—meself, thine, needst. Hit any notable NYC parade, festival or Central Park’s Bethesda Terrace on a nice day and you’ll probably catch him holding court. For Blackwolf, every day is made for cosplay. (The only time you’ll catch him out of character is when he’s laundering his one costume.)
So how weird is he? Enthusiastically. Though he’s used to ridicule—“I’ve been grumbled at, had me intelligence insulted, been mistaken for both Moses and Jesus”—Blackwolf has a sense of humor about his shtick and great respect for the weirdos who came before him, citing Moondog, the Viking of Sixth Avenue, as an inspiration. “You think it’s easy doing this gig after 4,800-plus years? Adjusting to living among Manhattan’s often overwhelming preponderance of Mortals ain’t exactly what I would call a walk in the Enchanted Forest, amigo! Ye Byg Appyl, being a tough town, needst a tough Wizard. Thus, here I stand!” Take it easy, Blackwolf.
Did you know…? In a Late Night with Conan O’Brien bit, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog brilliantly mocked Blackwolf at the Star Wars: Attack of the Clones Ziegfeld premiere. “ ’Twas that fresh hound what brought me to national attention over a decade ago,” he says.
Rev. Jen, 41, Lower East Side
Photograph: Jocelyn Baun
Her story: Not even The Hobbit’s Evangeline Lilly can pull off elfin like self-described “art star” Rev. Jen, who started sporting her signature pointy ears in 1992 as a student at the School of Visual Arts. “A lot of people there were trying consciously to be odd, but their personalities were so boring. I reacted by putting on these prosthetic ears, and they stuck,” she says. Since then, she’s stayed busy: Rev. Jen’s list of creative accomplishments includes the cable-access series The Adventures of Electra Elf, a slew of short films and plays, five books and hundreds of paintings. But she truly earns out-there cred as the founder of the world’s only Troll Museum, which doubles as her apartment (e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to book a tour), and as the host of the Anti-Slam open mike at oddball go-to Old Man Hustle (39 Essex St between Grand and Hester Sts, oldmanhustle.com; Wed 8pm; free). “We’ve had an almost-naked man get onstage and pour baking soda and vinegar down his Speedo so it created a crotch volcano while he explained the philosophy of Hegel,” she says. “We’ve had a performance artist do things with produce that made me blush. At Anti-Slam, you realize you’re not as jaded a New Yorker as you think you are.”
So how weird is she? Irretrievably. “I live in a Troll Museum with a Chihuahua named after myself! Even as a child, my best friends were invisible midgets, and I spoke in old-style English that creeped out my family.” Oh, also: “I’m trying to get enough money together to have plastic surgery to get real elf ears.”
Did you know…? Actor Janeane Garofalo is a longtime friend. She’s ranted at the Anti-Slam and costarred as Satan’s assistant in Rev. Jen’s first feature film, Satan, Hold My Hand, which premiered last year.
The Dairy Queens, “drag queens never reveal their age,” East Village
Their story: Milk, Yoohoo Betch and Skim Burley are a no-holds-barred performance trio from the Leigh Bowery school of freak drag. Forget female realness, the Dairy Queens—all more than 6 feet tall before slipping on their heels—favor glitter-encrusted beards and gaps in their teeth, slather on more makeup than Bozo and never wear the same thing twice. “Standing out gets you noticed over a pretty girl in the corner,” explains Milk, whose recent elimination from season six of RuPaul’s Drag Race caused fans to have a cow. (Sorry, we couldn’t resist.) The Dairy Queens may also be the most nontraditional family ever: Milk and Yoohoo (a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre) are a real-life couple, and Skim is their drag daughter.
So how weird are they? Gleefully. Brags Milk, “I put out fires with my ass, knock people out while throwing my floppy tits around, serve milk out of my boobs and don’t tuck!” And that’s just the tip of the ice cream. “We were the art installation at Catwalk at Marquee once. We had a teenage-girl slumber party in the middle of the club: air mattress, chips, magazines, pillow fights, Twister and an iPad showing Mean Girls. By the end of the night, it was a mess and we were sexually writhing around, blaming our lost innocence on Miley Cyrus. It was odd.”
Did you know…? Skim is auditioning for the next season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, so the Dairy Queens may be able to milk more time in the national spotlight. (We just can’t help ourselves!)
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Editor: Marley Lynch (@marleyasinbob)