Being poor and gay in New York during the 90s wasn't all Paris Is Burning drag-realness. There was a darker side to all of that fabulous, fierce and ferocious stuff. Many transvestites and transsexuals worked as prostitutes and hung around the city's meatpacking district. Japanese-born New York resident and photographer Katsu Naito began shooting photos of the trans-prostitutes he saw at the time and earlier this year finally published the pics in his book West Side Rendezvous.
VICE: So most of these photos are more than 20 years old, how come you're publishing them now?
Katsu Naito: 15 years ago, images like these wouldn't have been so easily accepted, you know? But, 20 years later, all of the sex workers have moved on and there's not so much of a stigma attached to this kind of thing anymore.
What is it like to look back at the photos after all this time?
It's a huge mixture of emotions—all the feelings that you'd expect. Some of the photos are quite sexy, some mischievous, and obviously there are a couple where you can really feel the loneliness and sadness of the subject.
These were shot at the pinnacle of the whole drag ball craze, did that obsession with fashion carry through to the looks you'd see when the guys were working the streets?
Yeah, that's right. Many of the shots were taken when they were hustling and obviously the statement they made with their clothes was the first impression the Johns would get, so they were definitely using clothes to say something.
Did that same sense of competition over outfits exist while they were working?
More or less, yeah. Each one of them had their own ways of presenting themselves, which they took a lot of pride in. It was their way of showing how they wanted to be seen when they were working the streets. Again, their first impression was the key to success, so they'd do everything to self-promote—especially through their clothes.
So, what sort of stuff would they wear?
It varied.Many of them wore eye-catching outfits—stockings, pantyhose, stuff like that—and, of course, you can never go wrong with a good pair of high heels. But a lot of them would just wear something obvious like jeans and a leather jacket. You have to remember that it was very cold a lot of the time, so while they wanted to dress to attract attention, they also needed to keep warm. This was right in the middle of the AIDS crisis, but they were all still out on the streets working and staying proud, which I thought was fascinating.
Who where their style icons?
Well, I do remember a few of them saying they wanted to be models. And I heard the name Linda Evangelista talked about a lot. But she was a supermodel who wouldn't get out of her bed for less than $10,000 a day, so clearly the clothes and the labels she was wearing weren't really in the price range of the people I was photographing. But that set of supermodels in the early 90s were definitely a big influence.
Speaking of labels, were there any that were the holy grail for transvestite prostitutes?
I'm sure there were, yeah. But none of them lived a luxury lifestyle. Even if there was a label they loved, it would have been completely out of the question.
Did the transgender prostitutes have to dress more provocatively than the prostitutes who were born female?
Their staple outfits would be based around exposing themselves, sure. The thing is, they weren't only prostituting. They hung out with the same group of people in the area. They took off their clothes and showed themselves in as many different ways as they could.
Were any of the girls especially crazy?
Yeah, there were a few crazy ones. One would love to show his dick. He'd sneak it out from his stretched mini-skirt and start playing with it. Another one always looked like she'd just come straight out of an S&M club and was still playing her role wearing all leather, latex, and chains. Some were sober, but most were high on some sort of drug. So there were probably levels of craziness I blocked out.