Last month, New Yorkers emerged momentarily victorious in the ongoing battle for tenants’ rights—a much needed victory in a city where the average price for a one-bedroom rental has skyrocketed to an all-time high of nearly $3,000 a month. The Democrat-controlled state legislature agreed to a series of tenant protections and rent regulations that marked a clear victory for everyone who doesn’t own property in New York City—i.e., the majority of New Yorkers.
So it was surprising to hear the hundreds of people packed into Ridgewood’s Superchief Gallery for the New York debut of Choke Hole, a dragged-out wrestling extravaganza born in New Orleans, cheer for a high-powered real estate agent as she entered the ring.
Sweating side by side in the sweltering warehouse venue, the crowd yelped and howled as Jassy—a Kris Jenner-esque queen by way of Akira Toriyama, clad in pink and orange gem tones with a black latex tie—climbed through the ropes, carrying a black briefcase in one hand while lip-syncing to “Work Bitch,” the hyper-capitalist, fash-pop anthem off of Britney Spears’ objectively worst album.
“You wanna live fancy? Live in a big mansion? Party in France?” she mouthed. “You betta work, bitch.”
In the WWE-style narrative of the show—produced by Jassy and two other New Orleans artists, Hugo Gyrl and Visqueen—Jassy was playing a real estate agent, one who wouldn’t be able to sell her latest unit until she defeated its current occupant: a giant, six-armed, neon green bug named Raid.
The crowd cheered when Raid entered the ring, just like they’d cheered when Jassy got up in there. They cheered for both wrestlers in equal measure for the first couple of minutes, but that soon began to change. They still cheered when Raid “came” all over Jassy with a Silly String-shooting “cock,” but they started to boo Jassy when she ripped that figurative phallus right out of Raid’s dominant set of hands, knocking her opponent to the ground and miming shoving the can up Raid’s ass. It was as if the event-goers had all realized en masse that this wasn’t the kind of drag show they were used to seeing in Brooklyn, the kind where they go in rooting for whoever’s onstage and hope to see her do well. Choke Hole has heroes and villains—or, faces and heels, to use the classic wrestling parlance. And in a battle between a real estate agent and an unwanted tenant playing out in the southern tip of one of Queens’ many rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods—one where a one-bedroom rental can now fetch as high as $2,600 a month—the audience quickly understood which wrestler was which.
The audience members weren’t the only ones who had to adjust to the whole booing thing. A couple of Choke Hole’s headliners say that it took them a minute to get used to it, too. “It was hard to understand why people were booing me,” says Miss Toto of the first time she wrestled at Choke Hole in New Orleans last year. “I’d never been booed before in my life!” But then, she says, it all clicked. The crowd wasn’t booing her because she sucked—they were booing her because she was an out of towner from Chicago going up against a hometown hero. That’s when she realized, “These people are really invested.”
Charlene Incarnate, a Brooklyn queen who stars in the new HBO drag documentary Wig, says that she had a similar lightbulb moment when she performed at Choke Hole during Mardi Gras earlier this year. “I got my first boos ever,” she tells VICE. “I became a kind of villain figure because I knocked out one of their established favorite characters. I didn’t expect to get booed for winning, but it was so overt and cartoony, you know? A very different experience of winning than I’m used to in Brooklyn.”
Though poised for a hometown hero’s welcome at Choke Hole’s New York debut, Charlene was forced to cancel her planned match after the two other girls she was supposed to wrestle with were forced to pull out at the last minute. “They couldn’t take the heat, so I killed ‘em,” she explained, before lip-syncing to Evanescence’s “Bring Me to Life” in her signature hair-whipping, earth-shaking, divine feminine-harnessing style.
The other match-ups, however, went on as planned: faux influencers Visqueen and Annie Bacterial fought as feuding YouTubers James Charles and Tati Westbrook, frozen cavewoman Miss Toto took on hot yoga enthusiast Jocelyn Change, Dangerous Rose and Slenderella battled over who got to be the rightful ring girl hottie, troubled lesbian couple Machine and Candy Pain chose deathmatch over bed death, and co-host Hugo Gyrl opened up a can of whoop-ass on fellow co-host Laveau Contraire for daring to read books to children at one of those drag queen library events you’ve probably seen in a NowThis News Facebook video.
At many points throughout the night, it wasn’t clear whether the wrestlers were trying to fight or fuck—Candy Pain and Machine’s match ended with them resolving their problems and dancing to Whitney Houston—a distinctly queer interpretation of Choke Hole’s straight-world source material.
“There’s so much homoerotic and queer subtext there,” says Jassy of the WWE. “Makeup, fabulous outfits, dramatic storylines, and flamboyancy—queer people are the originators of these tools, but our queerness is still ostracized, so they’re packaged up and disguised in a heteronormative box, then sold to the masses. With Choke Hole we want to take wrestling and amplify that queer subtext explicitly. We want to show that queer people can be strong. They can fight, perform stunts, be good, evil, and sexy; they can win or lose, they can get hurt and persevere, but most importantly they can entertain, while wielding the tools they created.”
'Love is love' couldn’t solve everything, though. By the end of their match, Raid had brought Jassy to her knees, jumping off of one of the ring’s corners and smashing a pair of prop concrete blocks over her head, knocking her out for good.
“Welcome to New Orleans,” said co-host Laveau Contraire, “where the bugs fight back.”
All photographs by Tod Seelie. You can follow his work here.