After-dark inquiry: Jen Gapay

The Thirsty Girl Productions impresario teams up with Daniel Nardicio for the Glamour Ball, a drag queen--burlesque extravaganza.

Jen Gapay

Jen Gapay Photograph: Don Spiro

You've been producing burlesque shows here in New York for a while now. How did you first get involved in this line of business?
I started doing shows back in Missoula, Montana. I was just out of college. I think the first show was a benefit with bands and beer at the Union Hall. I had a good time doing that, so I was already kind of thinking, Oh, this is a pretty good thing to do. Then I was working at a paper called The Missoula Independent, and I threw my first big event; it was a block party to raise money for employees who were owed back pay. Then I started managing bands...and it kind of all went from there.

It went where, exactly?
After that, Seattle. That would have been in the late '90s; I was there for a couple of years. I worked at The Stranger, which is the alternative paper out there. While I was there, I started the Capitol Hill Block Party, which was my first Thirsty Girl event. It still happens; it's as big as the Siren Music Festival. But it started a little smaller—I got a street closed off, put a stage on the street, got some vendors, and got things like drag--queen hosts and circus performers. At the same time, I was doing a lesbian party called Soiree des Femmes at the Back Door Lounge, and there was this troupe that was made up mostly of strippers from the Lusty Lady, and they called themselves Pussy Galore. Total rip-off, I know. But they started doing these sexy dance numbers for us. I didn't really know what burlesque was at the time, but in retrospect, that was burlesque.

So that was your kind of sideways introduction to it.
Exactly. I moved to New York in 2000, and saw my first real burlesque show at the Slipper Room. I remember thinking how awesome it was, and how it was something I wanted to pursue. I got a job at the Voice as promotions director, so I was doing all kinds of events for them, and I started booking burlesque acts for those events. When I left the Voice, it seemed like burlesque was just really becoming popular. I had heard about this big burlesque festival in New Orleans, and that got me wondering why we didn't have anything like that here. So I contacted Angie Pontani, whom I had booked a few times for Voice events, and asked her if she wanted to start the New York Burlesque Festival with me. That was in 2003.

When you dove into burlesque, you dove into it in a big way.
Yeah! That was my first Thirsty Girl burlesque event in New York; everything else had been done for the Voice.

Backtracking a bit, while you were still at the Voice, you started the Siren Music Festival, right?
That was actually how I got hired there. I pitched it during my interview. I was like, "Well, I was doing this big block party in Seattle, and it seems like New York needs something like that." It all came from that. I remember suggesting doing it on some pier, but after I got the job, I fell in love with Coney Island and realized that it would be a great place for an indie-rock festival. So I did a presentation where I had my assistant, dressed as a carnival barker, coming in with hot dogs. It worked!

How did the first New York Burlesque Festival go?
It went great. We were kind of worried, but it was a lot more successful than we thought it was going to be. We booked a lot of performers, including a few out-of-towners. It was a lot smaller then—the opening party was at the Slipper Room, for instance—but we were still amazed that there was a line around the block. We had to turn tons of people away. Our big night was at the Knitting Factory, which we totally sold out. We were like, Wow! We realized there was really a need for this.

2003 was around the time that the burlesque revival was really blossoming.
Definitely. We had good timing. But I was mainly getting involved with burlesque because I enjoyed it a lot. I mean, I could be a corporate event producer and do whatever, but I really get into things that I enjoy. And I really enjoy burlesque.

What is it about burlesque that made you fall in love with it?
When I go to a show, it puts a smile on my face. I get an ear-to-ear grin, and I know something's going to happen that's inspiring to me. It's sexy, of course, but I think it's really funny as well. And it's that funny-sexy, campy element that I really like. Even the classic style of burlesque is still a little tongue-in-cheek. It's over the top, and that's what I love. In that way, it's a lot like drag.

The Glamour Ball isn't the first show that's combined the art forms of burlesque and drag, but do you find it surprising that there aren't more events like this?
A little bit. They both have this hypersexuality to them, but they're also both glamorous and glittery and tongue-in-cheek. They're, you know? And sparkly!

So why wait until now?
It seemed like drag kind of went out for a while, about the same time burlesque was coming in. But I think the drag thing has definitely had a resurgence, through RuPaul's Drag Race or whatever. It does seem like there are more drag queens out there. It seemed like the timing wasn't right until both things were popular at the same time.

You're doing this party with Daniel Nardicio, who's a big wheel of the gay party scene.
Yeah, I definitely needed to team up with a gay guy promoter, one who was more tapped in to the drag-queen world than I am. I thought together we could make it work. I think it will work. I'm really excited about it, actually.

It certainly should be a vibrant affair.
The dressing room might be a bit of a nightmare, actually, with all those burlesque people and drag queens. I'm sure there will be a couple of diva wars backstage.

What's next on your agenda? I know you have the Empire Burlesque show on a regular basis.
Empire Burlesque at Drom is the first Saturday of every month. That's more of a supper-club type of show; it's been going really well. And I'm teaming up with Daniel again, along with a few other people, later in June to present Amanda Lepore in concert. It's a release party for her debut CD—it's on Gay Pride weekend and Joey Arias is hosting, so that should be a lot of fun. And then, we have the New York Burlesque Festival from September 29th to October 2nd. It's the ninth one already—I can't believe it.

When you kicked the festival off all those years ago, did you have any clue you would still be doing it nine years later?
Well, we were hoping...but I can remember in the first couple of years, Angie and I were always wondering if this was just a fad. Would it be popular for a year or two and then go away? I mean, burlesque has disappeared before, so it wouldn't be the first time.

What do you think accounts for its staying power?
I think that part of the reason is the diversity of the performers. It's not just classical striptease; there are elements of comedy, singing, circus, tap dancing and performance art involved. There's all this great stuff that keeps it interesting. It may all end up with the performers down to their pasties, but for me, the fun part is the stuff that comes before. I think a performer taking off her G-string while juggling or standing on her head is just really funny.

is at (Le) Poisson Rouge Fri 20.

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