I first hear Ladyfag’s voice on my cellphone at 10 p.m., as I’m rattling around in a tiny elevator on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, trying to find her hairdresser’s “studio.” “We’re in the basement!” she tells me in a distinctly feminine voice—and this is the first time it occurs to me that the phenomenon known as Ladyfag is biologically female. After all, ever since gender nuances exploded into a full Pantone spectrum—as The New Yorker reported earlier this year, a wild number of teens are having sex reassignment surgery, while the female artist Casey Legler was recently signed to Ford as a male model—one never really knows.
Ladyfag is a former vintage seller (and go-go dancer) from Toronto, who has somehow, through natural style, pluck and fabulousness, insinuated herself into New York’s nightlife spectacular, and become a club—and style—icon; so much so that BlackBook magazine suggested Nicola Formichetti lifted her style for Gaga. She considers Riccardo Tisci—Givenchy’s creative director—a brother; most recently, he dressed her for the insanely exclusive Met Gala’s insanely exclusive after-party. But despite the fact that her style is often described as “female drag queen,” she bucks at the ID. “I’m definitely a woman, and proud of being a woman,” says Lady, who is queer but has been “happily in love for years” with a man. “Drag queens are men who are women, trying to be women. Even if you invert that, it’s not who I am.” Instead, she describes her style as “constantly changing… I like things that go down the runway in insane theatrics that the average person wouldn’t wear on the day-to-day. But luckily, the parties are a platform to be creative in the way I dress.” (Her off-hours uniform is equally theatrical: “The first time Lady and I bonded was over a coffee,” says Lynn Yaeger, the New York–based fashion editor and writer. “She showed up in Russian peasant drag—a day look!”)
“I just live my life,” Lady once said. “Being Ladyfag is a full-time job.” But as I am about to witness, it isn’t just a full-time job, but a full-time adventure.
Lady stomps into the hall to fetch me—tall; long, midnight-brown hair; over-the-knee patent-leather boots; wide red smile. She is striking in the way the Pedro Almodóvar star Rossy de Palma was striking, at her peak; an unusually confident animal with an exotic, old-world, cubist beauty.
Lady’s face can pull off looks less interesting-looking women can’t; tonight she is capitalizing on this with Cleopatra cat eyes, drawn diagonally into her hairline. At 36 years of ageless, she isn’t wearing pants—her long-sleeved black Givenchy shirt, studded with gold stars, billows over high-waisted black panties and no stockings.
I had been a club kid in late-’80s San Francisco, and Ladyfag seems instantly familiar to me. However, she inhabits the new, New York iteration of this perennial underground ethos: the DIY, art-school guerrilla approach to high fashion, spontaneously propagated by creative young gay men, their girlfriends and the nightlife they create (which has always been the de facto testing ground for the fashion industry itself). Such is her style influence, I’ve heard, that idea-depleted designers turn to her parties for street inspiration.
In the basement studio, I sit on a tuffet to grill Lady (née Rayne Baron) about her origin story, while the hairstylist, Charley Brown— dressed in a yellow wrestling singlet—wrangles her hair into a tight, high ponytail.
“In Toronto, I grew up in [Thornhill], the same suburb as Peaches,” Lady begins, as if this explains nearly everything. Her most regrettable teenage fashion error? “I was a deadhead,” she chuckles. Still, this makes some kind of sense—the construction of identity through different fashion phases is (to me anyway) a familiar and respectable technique.
Her name/identity began, she explains, after she performed Ladyfag…A Love Story, an autobiographical cabaret in a group show with artist and former MuchMusic VJ Sook-Yin Lee. Years later, her place card at a Gaultier couture show read, in gorgeous caligraphy, “Madame Ladyfag.” At that point, there was no turning back.
Lady gives special credit to a close friend, the late Toronto artist/club promoter/community organizer Will Munro, for creating the scene in which she was able to give birth to herself (and her business): “[Will’s] Vazaleen parties really brought the city together. It was everyone—the dykes, the fags, the punks, the new-wave kids.”
In 2005, Lady bought a building in Toronto’s Kensington Market, with plans to open her own store, and headed to New York for “a last hurrah.” She never left. Though she knew only one person in the city, she regularly ventured out alone to dance in the clubs, where she encountered legendary promoter Kenny Kenny. “I was doing an impromptu go-go show on the dance floor, in a tight little leopard-print dress and these crazy stripper heels,” she says. “As I walked away, I heard Kenny say, ‘She’s this kind of glam-ah-zon woman. I liiiiiike it.’ He pulled me over and put me in a dance cage. From then on, everyone wanted to hire me.”
Eventually, Ladyfag disconnected from the Kenny Kenny scene and went solo as a promoter. (“People say, ‘Throwing parties is all you do?’ And I say, ‘Do you know how much work that is?’”) Tonight, she’s due to preside at one of her regular gatherings—a speakeasy called 11:11, held at a nearby bar.
It’s an especially busy night for 11:11, the weekend before the annual Metropolitan Museum of Art Gala. While we’re talking, she fields texts from Tisci—whom she first met at a party in New York and Alexander Wang, both of whom will be in attendance.
Lady informs me baldly that she will have to shake me at some point in the evening, because, you know, her friends are “very private people.” There is no time for further politesse—she is late, late, late. She pecks Charley Brown goodbye and throws on a black Acne over coat, and then we’re up the elevator and on the street, jogging several blocks to the bar. Lady clacks along valiantly in her six-inch heels, poking constantly at her phone.
After we arrive at the club, she leads me to the basement, then strides to the back. She pushes on what is ostensibly a wall of beer cases but swings open to reveal her private party room—a windowless black cinder-block box with striated vinyl couches like oversized licorice nibs. A makeshift DJ booth sits on a plywood stand, stapled with hand- bills written in Sanskrit; there’s an equally temporary-looking bar.
The scene is oddly familiar. A DJ I recall from the late ’80s/early ’90s—the ravishing Honey Dijon— is spinning the kind of music I have come to think of as “survivor disco.” (“You are not going to hear pop music at my parties,” says Lady.) Young dance students in Day-Glo mesh and leg warmers are openly vogue-ing. Bicycle hats are being worn in the early Spike Lee spirit.
On a bench a couple of hours later, Ladyfag is at work, conspiring to ban a scoundrel from the club. Nowadays, her business (she has a dozen employees) includes not only 11:11 and Shade—a new series of warehouse parties that she runs with her boyfriend, Seva Granik— but a semiannual designer and vintage sale, Pop Souk, held at the Standard Hotel on the Highline, and the Pacino parties she throws a few times a year during Paris fashion weeks. She’s also a promoter for-hire, recently hosting an album release party for the rapper Eve.
At 2 a.m., the club begins to teem: publicist types with expensive highlights; svelte young lads in army jackets and Tintin hairdos; and actual models, super-tall girls with tiny heads and architectural noses like art deco teapots. The Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi swans in and embraces Lady. Four seconds later, Lady abruptly turns her back on Lakshmi to lavish her full attention on one of New York’s more majestic drag queens. There are many such queens present; they all seem to adore Lady and treat her like one of their own. “Everyone is equal here,” she tells me. “We don’t do VIP sections. That’s something I got from Will.” I can vouch for her sincerity— I’ve been watching her treat all of her guests with good-natured shit and only the mildest deference all evening. As the volume lifts and the 500-strong crowd stands shoulder to shoulder—boy to boy, girl to boy, drag queen to Ladyfag, model to girlyman—I beat a hasty retreat.
The next morning, I wake up to a mild headache and a charming message in my inbox: “Last night was a little insane! I hope you had a good time… I am very unglamorously lying in bed, eating delivery, and recovering! Was lovely meeting, xx Lady.”
She’s a good egg, that Ladyfag. I come to the conclusion that she embodies an important, forgotten value—the old John Keats idea that beauty is truth, truth beauty. “That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
Well, that and a few famous designers, anyway.