In its early years, the central event of Southern Decadence was the Decadence parade, a drag queen extravaganza that wended its way around the French Quarter on the Sunday afternoon of Labor Day weekend. Since the festival established an Internet presence in 1996, attendance has exploded and the weekend has grown to include a massive number of official and unofficial events for gay, lesbian and transgendered people and other revelers.
"Since we started keeping records in 1996, we've had a billion-dollar total impact on the city," says Rip Naquin, a Decadence organizer and publisher of Ambush Magazine, one of event's sponsors. Combined attendance tops 1.1 million participants over the same period, Naquin adds.
There is a series of official events and some pomp and circumstance. The 41st annual Decadence has an official theme, Peace, Love & Hope = Monkey Dance, official colors (white, purple and silver), official song (Nicki Minaj's "Starships") and official charity (Belle Reve, which serves people living with HIV or AIDS and their families). Decadence is presided over by grand marshals Pat McArdle, the festival's first lesbian grand marshal, and TJ Conrad. They'll lead the parade on Sunday and toss beads from the Ambush balcony on the 800 block of Bourbon Street Saturday afternoon.
There's a list of official events on the Southerndecadence.com website, and they include a three-day block party at the Phoenix bar on Elysian Fields Avenue, as well as the annual Bourbon Street Extravaganza, a free concert at 5 p.m. Saturday at Bourbon and St. Ann streets featuring Mary Griffin, Jeanie Tracy and others.
The multitude of events includes something for just about every taste and niche of sexual identity, from pool parties to leather events to bear parties to lesbian and drag parties. The weekend also features visiting DJs, male dancers and rugby star and activist Ben Cohen, who has led the battle against gay-bashing and bullying.
The growth of Decadence has spurred the scheduling of many unaffiliated events aimed at attendees. Strut, the male burlesque show formerly called Boylesk, presents two shows at the House of Blues. The club originally reached out to Bustout Burlesque and New Orleans Burlesque Festival founder Rick Delaup to stage such a show at Decadence in 2011, but there wasn't enough time to put the show together, so the show premiered later in the fall. This year, the third installment of the show is in the middle of the Decadence calendar.
"There's a million things going on (at Decadence)," Delaup says. "But this isn't 'boys on the bar,' it's a show."
Strut features Chicago's Stage Door Johnnies, one of the only professional male burlesque troupes. Its three featured dancers, Ray Gunn, Bazuka Joe and Jett Adore, recently opened for Liza Minnelli and Alan Cumming at New York's Fire Island, and after Decadence, they will go on tour in Australia. The Strut show also features Hot Toddy, the creator of the Stage Door Johnnies, and Portland, Ore.'s Russell Bruner, who won Best Boylesk at the 2012 Burlesque Hall of Fame weekend. The event is hosted by comedian and singer Cora Vette.
"It probably is the show I am most proud of," Delaup says. "The audience responds to this more than anything else I've done. Maybe it's the women screaming — the audience is more excited."
Also scheduled to coincide with Decadence for the first time is the Virgin Queen pageant.
"It's the hardest time to get drag queens to work on the show," says creator Michael Martin. "But we got a Saturday night slot, so I wanted to do it."
The pageant features five first-time drag contestants singing and dancing for top honors. Each man is coached on makeup, fashion and performance by one of the drag queens, and they appear in the contest as well. The three rounds require a high-energy dance number on high heels, a seductive song/act and a ballad/"high diva" song.
"It's just inherently fun, whether the guys do a good job or a bad job," Martin says. "But everyone is treated respectfully. This is not 'I'm drunk on Halloween' drag."
A longtime fan of drag and female impersonation, Martin says its popularity has made it "toothless." He says it's tricky to recruit straight men who will try this but don't otherwise want to dress in drag. He's tried to find only uninitiated amateurs. Some of the contestants have asked that their identities not be revealed.
"The distance between what you are and what you try to accomplish (in drag) restores (the drama)," he says.
The first two Virgin Queen events sold out, Martin says. It's hard to imagine it won't draw well this weekend despite all the competing events.