In 1972, a few dozen men gathered together in New Orleans to dress as their favorite Southern decadent belle. There was Belle Watling, the overdressed whore with a heart of gold who reluctantly sends Rhett Butler back to Scarlett O’Hara in "Gone With the Wind"; the notoriously oversexed bisexual Broadway actress Tallulah Bankhead, who casually greeted visitors to her apartment stark naked with a full-on orgy going on in back of her; and Blanche Dubois, the schoolteacher who goes mad after her "many meetings with strangers" is exposed in Tennessee Williams’ "A Streetcar Named Desire."
The party began on the afternoon before Labor Day. The next year, they decided that that those costumes were entirely too fabulous not to be enjoyed by everyone. Naturally, they did what any respectable citizen of New Orleans would do under the circumstances: They formed an impromptu parade and marched through the French Quarter.
In the 41 years since that out-and-proud group of gay men made like Lady Marmalade and went struttin’ their stuff on the street, Southern Decadence has grown to become "the gay Mardi Gras," the city’s largest gay event and one of the largest gay parties in the country. This year, 135,000 revelers are expected to turn up at one or another of parties that fill the French Quarter’s fabled bars.
As anyone who has staggered out of a Bourbon Street bar into the cruel light of day knows, New Orleans is a 24-hour town. "Let the good times roll" or "Laissez les bon temps roulez,"as they say it in the local Creole dialect. And for five days, the good times do indeed roll. And roll. And roll.
This is a party that could only take place in the "City That Care Forgot" , as it’s come to be known. Just to bring it all back to the prototypical Southern belle-gone-bad, Blanche Dubois, the official charity this year is Belle Reve, a local residence for people with HIV/AIDS -- as it happens, also the name of the plantation poor Blanche let slip out of the family’s ownership.
Hot Enough for You? Just Wait!!
All of the gay bars in the Quarter participate with parties that more than live up to their namesake.
You want decadence? Start with the "official" kickoff event Thursday, Aug. 29, at the Bourbon Pub, a light-hearted contest to test the real measure of a man (if you catch our drift). The evening’s two hosts and DJ represent different aspects of what makes Southern Decadence probably the best example of what it means to be "gay," as in "outrageous, glamorous and sexy."
Co-host Nicole DuBois’s beauty, style and fashion sense won her the title of Miss Gay America. Her co-host, Billy Francesca, on the other hand, prefers the "hybrid drag" -- a five-o-clock shadow, shaved head and Divine-ly inspired makeup -- that would get him thrown out of RuPaul’s Drag U.
Then there’s the night’s DJ, Sean Michael. His super-ripped, muscular body, every bit as hot his tribal beats, could easily make him a top contender for "Boys on Parade," the annual strip contest.
That’s Friday’s big event at the Bourbon Pub, where New York’s Drew G will be spinning all night. It’s a perfect match, since Drew G is another bodacious DJ who isn’t shy about stripping down to his underwear when the mood hits him.
Hot enough for you?
It only gets hotter on Saturday, when the Bourbon Pub hosts another contest, this one to find the ideal male derriere. Andrew Christian underwear model Johna Myers serves as co-host with Rhea Litre. The "RuPaul’s Drag Race" alumna has herself appeared in a (definitely NSFW) video amid a bevy of under-dressed studs for the Andrew Christian brand of men’s briefs.
Are you sensing a trend here? Southern Decadence might have begun life as a dragathon, but over the years, participants have been shedding their petticoats, along with their pants. Less has definitely become more. DJ Mike Bryant starts the evening Saturday at Bourbon Pub, but make sure you stay for Max Rodriguez, the New Orleans native who has become an international big-room headliner.
It all comes to a climax on Sunday with the parade that traditionally starts at 2 p.m. near the Golden Lantern, another gay bar in the Quarter, and usually ends up somewhere in the vicinity of the Bourbon Pub. In between, it will probably make some unexpected twists and turns, because, well... no one at Southern Decadence follows the rules. The best viewing spots are along Royal Street or St. Louis Street.
This year’s theme, "Live, Laugh and Love" perfectly expresses the weekend’s spirit. Only in New Orleans would a parade have official colors, and if you want to know what to pack, this year’s hues are pink, orange and gold. Try fitting all that into a tiny pair of disco shorts!
After the parade, there’s -- what else? -- more dancing at the Bourbon Pub. Drew G and Mike Bryant will be spinning at Tea Dance, with actor, singer and activist Lance Bass hosting a live broadcast, appropriately named "Dirty Pop," for SiriusXM radio. At 10 p.m., DJ Derek Monterio takes over the turntables. "Hung Over and Broke" (talk about "appropriately named"!) is Southern Decadence’s answer to Mardi Gras’ Ash Wednesday. The Bourbon Pub party closes the weekend on Monday night, with DJ Sean Michael.
The Party That Took Over a City
The Bourbon Pub offers a weekend pass to all its events Thursday through Sunday for $60, but don’t sleep on it: All of the VIP tickets have already sold out, and only a limited number of passes remain. Most importantly, the pass guarantees you entrance -- something to consider when the streets are packed with revelers around the clock.
Packed they most certainly are. Southern Decadence has grown to the point where the crowds in the Quarter rival Mardi Gras. The corner of Bourbon Street and St. Ann Street, where the Bourbon Pub and the Southern Decadence Welcome Center are both located, is generally considered the nexus of gay New Orleans. During Decadence, you can walk around here any time of the day and night amid a rather, um, festive crowd. It only gets more so as the night goes on and just keeps going, even as the bells of St. Louis Cathedral ring in the dawn.
Although the Bourbon Pub is obviously a focal point for the action, there’s plenty to do in the Quarter’s other bars, starting with Oz, the nightclub right across the street. There are more than 20 gay bars in and around the Quarter, including Café Lafitte in Exile, the oldest continuously running gay bar in the United States, where things get rather, shall we say, lively.
Each bar has its own personality and attracts a particular clientele. As Chuck Robinson, a local veteran of many a Decadence, told EDGE, "Every nightclub has its own thing going" throughout the weekend.
Not surprisingly, considering the hordes that descend on the city, other bars are getting into the act. "Every venue is expanding this year," added Bob Revere, a spokesperson for Southern Decadence. "Venues not associated with the gay community are putting on events. Everybody sees what a big influx there is for this."
The one thing at all bars, gay, straight and in-between (in New Orleans "in-between" is on the table), is the go-cup, which lets you take the rest of your cocktail with you when you leave the bar. One of those only-in-New-Orleans customs that defines the city, it allows you to keep going.
Take Time to Explore America’s Most Beautiful City
Just because the party is nonstop, however, doesn’t mean that you should be. As Sandy Sachs, owner of the Bourbon Pub, has warned, "Pace yourself. Most places don’t party 24 hours a day, but down here in New Orleans, we do. You won’t want to miss anything, so take it easy."
Come prepared to party, but be sure to set aside plenty of time for sightseeing, because there’s a lot to see.
The best thing about Southern Decadence -- other than all that decadence -- is that it takes place in the city with the richest history and the most charm of any in the 50 states. A longtime haven for gay men, lesbians, and Southern belles of both genders, the city’s culture, from music to cuisine, architecture to industry, reflects its roots as a French colony that passed on to Spain, always informed by its large black population. This is where jazz was born; where the War of 1812 ended; and where steamboats paddled up the Mississippi River as steamers shipped cotton overseas.
It’s impossible to visit New Orleans and not be drawn into the languid, even slightly eerie, atmosphere that hangs over the city like weeping willows along the river, a city with a long tradition of embracing the spirit world. Funerals are celebrated with marching jazz bands, and the dead are buried aboveground. Voodoo, the African-inspired occult native religion, thrived alongside the Roman Catholic Church. Could Anne Rice have set her "Vampire Chronicles" anywhere else?
Above all, however, the people of New Orleans know how to live. Everything and anything is a reason to celebrate. These days, there’s a special sense of civic pride for the near-miraculous recovery the city has made after Hurricane Katrina. If anything, it’s livelier than ever.
Head down to Southern Decadence and find out for yourself. Just take two aspirins and call me in the morning.
From our media partner EDGE