After fifteen years of celebrating an anti-pageant featuring nudity, bizarre genitalia-related talent shows, and an all-night bacchanal in Manhattan, the annual Mr. Lower East Side was moved to Brooklyn this year.
The event was initially scheduled for January 31 at the Cake Shop on Ludlow Street, but was canceled due to that establishment’s concerns over potential violations for being over capacity and featuring nudity. The Cake Shop’s owners are also currently seeking new investors to keep their doors open, so Gowanus, Brooklyn’s Lucky 13 Saloon (644 Sackett Street) stepped in and offered to host Mr. LES 2015 on February 23.
Owner Jeff Blanchard agreed to entertain the misfit contest because, he says, “Keeping the old-school Lower East Side vibe alive is a beautiful thing.” Blanchard’s bar, with its horror-movie wallpapers, plastic baby devils, and dangling human vertebrae, is certainly emblematic of that desire.
In spite of the change of venue, the rules of the contest stayed the same: Contestants signed in around 8 p.m. and later took part in a one-minute talent competition, a swimsuit competition, an eveningwear competition, and a question-and-answer session. This year, organizer Reverend Jen Miller had tried to update the pageant by allowing attendees to vote electronically through a website, created by her best friend/co-organizer Kat Green, that would tabulate the votes. Things did not go as planned, though: Either people were too drunk to vote or the site didn’t load. The only eligible voters were women and gay men, says Miller: “Bi and straight men aren’t allowed to vote because they are all in competition with each other.”
Eleven people signed up to compete this year. Each of them used depraved aliases, from “Brer Bryan-Cock” to “Master Ejaculator.” One of them, Patene Vodka, 22, was the only female in the contest. She identifies as a trans-to-neutral person. “I wanted to find out how misogynistic it is,” she says of her motivation for first-time participation in the show. When told that the whole concept behind the event was to challenge the stereotypes around beauty pageants that often feature women, Vodka, in her braces, glasses, and purple hair, said, “I just want people to reconsider masculinity in the pageant that is confirmed towards men.”
The categories were more a display of lewd skill, as opposed to actual talent or intellect. Bryan-Cock performed Buddhist chants with exposed genitals. Another contestant, Johnny Bizzare, also a 2013 Mr. LES winner, exhibited his talent to Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry” — by hanging dirty laundry on a clothesline supported by his penis at one end and an offstage assistant at the other.
The most bizarre act of all was performed by contestant number eight, Claude Debris, who lifted three printer paper trays with his scrotum while standing on a chair with his mother on the phone. People yelled, “Go back to Radio Shack! It’s going to explode” during his performance. All competitors were egged on to strip by the crowd’s chant: “Show us your balls!” They only got louder when contestants delayed.
Only one performance came close to being disqualified by Miller for resembling true art: Number-nine Exzooberanté’s breakdancing and acrobatic moves were part interpretive dance, part epileptic display as he gyrated on the stage in spandex pants. A squirrel tail attached to a belt on his waist swished as he violently danced.
Some participants spat on the crowd; others attempted to crowd-surf over the audience.
“This is classic New York,” number seven, Raven, said. The 38-year-old has been runner-up four times, earning the title of “Mr. Tribeca.” “This gives you the real feel of the Bohemian. Jen gave a beauty pageant to those who society would view as not apropos. New York City will always be the wild child.”
According to Raven, the event, with all its chaos and raunchiness, reveals the city at its most “ugly” and “uncompromising.” “It’s modern art,” he said, dressed in a flowery robe, feminine red devil horns atop his head. “You should shake your shit to get ladies and gay men to approve; otherwise you are not a man. You are not masculine.”
Like most of the attendees — most of them Lower East Siders turned Brooklynites or even out-of-towners forced to leave because rents got too high — Raven laments the death of the old New York of grunge and punk. “NYC used to be dirty, disgusting, and unrepentant, and vehemently ‘I don’t give a fuck about you.’ ”
The oldest among the men was Tommy D. Naked Man, a 55-year-old poet and performance artist who was born and raised in the Bronx. He recently moved to Philadelphia — New York having become too expensive — and was the only contestant who stayed naked throughout the four hours of the event. He says he’s been a nudist since he was thirteen: “It’s fun; I like running around naked. I do everything naked.” Every year Tommy wins the Best Nutsack award. He says the event gets him publicity for his artistic work.
By the end of the event, the room had become thick with the stench of alcohol, urine (Claude Debris peed on the stage when hostess Miller attempted to light one of his farts on fire), and sweat. For his outlandish feats throughout the night, including a fireworks display during the eveningwear portion, Claude Debris, whose actual name is Kalan Sherrard, was crowned Mr. Lower East Side 2015 with a beer helmet and “the knowledge that he’s the chosen one,” Miller said.
Sherrard, 27, is a graduate of Oberlin College in Ohio, where he studied comparative literature. In NYC, he is well-known for his street performances, like the one below, in which he performs his Nihilist Anarchist Puppet Show:
On Facebook, Sherrard commented on winning and even took a subtle stab at the event’s diversity, or lack thereof:
So I’m the new “Mister Lower East Side” … or is it “Mister Brooklyn/Gowanus”? … or “Mr Gentrification Exile 3rd Wave Complicity Amalgam!”? Thanks so much to everyone who came out last night and voted for me at the Pageant. I did not think it would come to this…… [CRACKLE! STATIC! FEEDBACK! RADIO ANNOUNCER ENTERS THROUGH THE CEILING, DEUZ EX MACHINA:] And another whitey wins!
To celebrate its new venue, a new title was created, Mr. GowANUS, which the eccentric Johnny Bizarre bagged. Miller, however, doesn’t see herself ever changing the title of the event. A Wiccan and ordained minister who describes the event as “Chippendales on acid,” Miller says in spite of the change in location, the essence of Mr. LES will never change. “It’s always going to be Mr. Lower East Side,” she says. “The Lower East Side is a state of mind.”