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NYC Downlow 2024: Jessie Ware and Cyndi Lauper join the queer beast of Glastonbury

The annual gay nirvana returned to Glastonbury to showcase LGBTQIA+ excellence to the world

By Cliff Joannou

NYC Downlow
Attitude returns to NYC Downlow (Image: Kamil Kustoz and Anita Zenhofer)

I’m backstage at The NYC Downlow, without question Glastonbury’s most decadently hedonistic late-night homo hangout. DJs, drag queens, leather daddies, devious queerdos, and leathered-up dykes mill around as they prepare to give the crowd another night of excess from the UK’s finest show queens.

Across the way, I spot Chester Hayes with Jane Norman and The Doll Named Dan having a natter as I chat joyful gibberish to Jacqui Potato and Alexus Deluxe. Mimi Chanel, Jacob Love, and Coco Darling saunter past towards the changing room, and I extend my arms to give each a huge hug. Already I feel their energy seeping in, giving me life. When Jonny Woo walks on stage head to toe in silver and bedecked in a resplendent headdress, we know that we have transcended to a higher place.

When Rhys’s Pieces summons over twenty queens on stage, it’s a full-on parade of pink power: Sophie Brain, Mr Teds, Joey Division, Harry Price, The Nightbus, and numerous others join gogos Kurtis, Giorgio, Egoitz, Fred Sausage.

It’s only Thursday, and there are four nights of queer underground musical abandon ahead of us, but this isn’t the kind of place that holds back – the theme tonight is ‘fetish’. With harnesses strapped on and neoprene ass-less chaps ready, we join the melee. Fuck, do I need a night of unabashed uninhibitedness.

Nobody needs updating on why this has been a challenging year on big ol’ fucked-up Planet Earth. From the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict to Trump edging closer to the US presidency, and the rise of the far right across Europe, there seems little to find glee in at the moment. Closer to home in the UK, so-called ‘conversion therapy’ is still legal, and the disregard that the outgoing government (and Labour’s unclear stance) places on trans lives is reprehensible. Finding freedom to indulge in unfiltered queer joy can be a challenge. I’m an emotional bitch at the best of times, but it’s hard not to feel the weight of it all.

Added to my personal tribulations (I won’t bore you with the details), when Glastonbury finally rolled around, this year it all felt a little… daunting. That is until I walked through the black curtains of The NYC Downlow and onto the dancefloor.

NYC Downlow
NYC Downlow (Image: Cliff Joannou)

Conceived by long-time Glastonbury reveller Gideon Berger and created alongside Stephen Gallagher, The NYC Downlow was founded in 2007 to offer gay revellers a place to gather that had previously been unserved by British festivals. It started a revolution, with other festivals gradually joining the queer action with their own stages and spaces.

The Downlow’s original construction was inspired by New York’s Lower East Side tenements. As the gentrification of the Big Apple set in – and the club’s popularity grew – the concept evolved to take the form of a vast warehouse inspired by Manhatten’s meat packing district of 1982.

Walking past the animal carcasses hanging outside, we are welcomed by the big daddy butchers and leather-clad lesbians. Putting your money where your heart is, the nominal door charge this year is raising vital funds for MAP (Medical Aid For Palestinians). Inside, the dark tented cave of beats and pulsating lights bounce off the mirrorballs. Next door is the Meatlocker – the sister club, extended this year – that is home to tougher beats.

NYC Downlow
A visitor to NYC Downlow (Image: Anita Zenhofer)

Seasoned NYC Downlow visitors will know not to miss the annual big dance number that brings all the performers out for a spectacular choreographed routine. This year’s showstopper by curator and choreographer Lottie Croucher, working alongside Jonny Woo, is cowboy stomper ‘Hold Your Horses’ by First Choice – a yee-hawing rollick of colour and crazy as only ’Downlow can do.

Horse Meat Disco co-founder James Hillard delivers the closing set before the night ends with a high camp moment as Jonny Woo shuts Friday night down. Proving why he is the drag mother of The NYC Downlow, a flawless ‘Ring Them Bells’ sends us off into the daylight, utterly delighted and recharged for the weekend.

It’s all about Saturday this year when the brakes come off. Bringing Pride to Glastonbury in spectacular style, The NYC Downlow drops a brand-new Saturday daytime House Royalty Ball with a headline set by François K, a true great of dance music history. As if the extra session wasn’t enough, Cyndi Lauper surprises the crowd, arriving on stage to perform ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ with a flotilla of dancing queens.

NYC Downlow
Cyndi Lauper (centre) and the queens of NYC Downlow (Image: Provided)

To rapturous applause, she thanks the cheering crowd. “You are everywhere, we are all somebody’s family, we are a community, we stick together. I love you,” she says in her Brooklyn drawl. “Happy Pride, guys.”

As night descends and the queue snakes around Block9, in the early hours the divas don’t stop coming. We’re gifted another star turn when Jessie Ware graces the stage in a dazzling purple ensemble. Having just blown West Holts stage away with her headline set – including a debut performance of ‘Lift You Up’, her elevating new duet with Romy – Ware serves another first with a sneak peak of her forthcoming new single that will have you riding a wave of ecstasy on a dancefloor near you soon.

But why end with two performances when you can have three? Confidence Man arrives and the crowd goes ballistic. Closing their performance by calling the crowd to crouch down to the floor as the tune builds, when the beat kicks in we all leap to the air, hands waving, taking the night to the next level.

NYC Downlow
NYC Downlow (Image: Kamil Kustoz)

As the adage goes, it ain’t over until the drag lady lipsyncs, so Jonny Woo and an army of feathered-and-fanned queens deliver a high-kicking take on Kelly Rowland’s ‘When Love Takes Over’. And by the glittering goddess above, do we feel the love.

There’s a certain magic that comes with being in this very special space that this seasoned (ahem) clubber has rarely found anywhere else. Hold that thought: has never found anywhere else. The NYC Downlow is more than just a club at Glastonbury. If you let yourself go, throw yourself into the crowd, get amongst the masses, and find a spot by the stage to soak in the shows and the sweat, you might actually find yourself again.