Every once in a while
there comes a moment in life
that changes the course of history,
and 27 years ago that pivotal moment happened in downtown Manhattan’s queer night scene, when Bar d’O opened its doors. Not only has Bar d’O served as a stepping stone for many of its now-legendary performers’ careers, but it served as a shining example of how something made purely out of love can become much bigger than yourself.
A Bit of History
Once upon a time, in 1992, to be precise, Jean-Marc Houmard took over Indochine restaurant with two partners. It wasn’t long before he was approached with another business proposition by one of Indochine’s managers.
“He had a space in the West Village on Bedford and Downing that was available for rent and he wanted to do just a bar,”
Jean-Marc reflects on that time.
The place was called Glowworm and it didn’t do so well (maybe because of its name?). Mr. Houmard’s partner was from Miami and a year later he decided to move back home. The pair was going to sell the lease, but then Jean-Marc decided to do the place on his own. This would be his first solo venture.
The name of the bar was promptly changed to Bar d’O, which was a subtle homage to Story of O, an erotic novel published in 1954 and written by famous French novelist Anne Desclos, who wrote it under the pseudonym Pauline Réage.
“It’s kind of an S&M novel that she wrote for her lover to try to entice him to be more adventurous,”
The original Fifty Shades of Grey, if you will.
Vintage Bar d'O flyer
“It was a bit of an S&M theme. It wasn’t an S&M bar though. It was just a slightly risqué, dark bar,”
Jean-Marc goes on.
“After a few months I went to a show downstairs at Indochine where Joey Arias was performing. I still remember it was called “Strange Fruit.” But I remember that night because it was the night that OJ Simpson was in his Bronco being chased by the cops. I remember that very well. And Madonna was in the audience that night, watching Joey. I remember that because Joey called down to her, because she was chatting with the person next to her and he said: ‘Hey you there! It’s not all about you!’ It was a vivid memory, having Madonna there and being on the night of the Bronco chase.”
“Strange Fruit” had a more than year-long run at the space right below Indochine called Astor Theater – now long gone – where Joey performed Billie Holiday songs along with a live band and two other performers, Raven O and Afrodite. Joey Arias has been a staple of New York City’s nightlife since the ‘80s, famously appearing as a backup singer to David Bowie on SNL in 1979, alongside his best friend and lover, German alternative musician Klaus Nomi.
As fate would have it, the Bronco-Madonna night also happened to be the last performance date for the show, and Jean-Marc caught Joey just in time:
“I approached him and told him I had a bar. I asked him if he wanted to do a regular thing – a once-a-week show. He loved the idea and so we started doing that and then it was so successful that we did more nights. So we started on Tuesdays and then we did Saturday and Sunday.”
“You just never knew what was going to happen. It was before the time of social media, but every Saturday there were people from all over the world. I don’t know how the word got out, but when it did, it was incredible to see so many different countries represented in one room,”
Steven Knoll, a celebrity hairstylist and long-time patron, shared during the 26th Bar d’O reunion at Indochine late last year.
According to Joey, The New York Times was the one to blame for getting the word out:
“A writer for the NY Times came in once during the beginning of our Bar d’O stint and the next thing you know, the line to get in was around the block. So to accommodate the demand we had to start doing shows three times a week.”
Joey Arias, Edward P Wagner and Flotilla Debarge waiting "backstage" by Indochine's bathrooms
The show ended up being so successful that it went on for the next 8 years. The original trio named Three Cherrys that started it all consisted of Joey Arias, Raven O, and Edwige, who was a well-known French lesbian singer in the seedy downtown scene. There were many guest performers that joined the roster throughout the years, many crediting Bar d’O as a platform of starting in NY, among them being: Jimmy James, Lady Bunny, Jackie Beat, Candis Cayne, Flotilla Debarge, Phoebe Legere, Sherry Vine, Porsche and the late Sade Pendavis, who ended up having her own show every Sunday. Jean-Marc attributes a large chunk of success to his long-time friend and business partner Yvan Cussigh,
“Yvan took over running the show the first week he moved to New York in ‘96, when I had to go to LA to open Indochine on the West Coast; from that year until its closing Yvan was instrumental in making sure the show lived on for all those years.”
“The one thing that distinguished Bar d’O was that there was never any lip-syncing, it was always a live cabaret. That’s how we separated ourselves from all the other drag bars. Well, it was not even a drag bar, it was really mixed actually. I think what worked really well is that there was no stage like in a typical bar with a show. They walked in the middle of the room and there was an island bar. The girls basically just climbed up and sat on top of it. It felt very improvised and I think that’s what people liked. It was not like a theater, it was a bar and all of a sudden the light came on and the queens did a few songs, messed with the crowd. It felt very spontaneous, I think that’s what people appreciated. There was no sitting, so people were all over the place. They sat all over the floor, on the bar. They sat everywhere – on top of each other – and the fact that it was a mixed crowd made it very interesting and fun and convivial. It was not a typical gay bar with the stage. You know, we’ve seen that setting many times. It was different.”
Sherry Vine and legs
Another thing that set Bar d’O apart is that it was inclusive before inclusivity was a discussion like it is today. It was always fluid – each performer brought something different to the table. It wasn’t just drag queens that got their spotlight, there were also cis women and gender-fluid performers.
Everything was very improvised – for the first two years Jean-Marc used to climb on top of the bar and change the spotlights, just so they would shine on the performers. The green room was the old kitchen at the back of the bar. Bar d’O didn’t serve food, so that was the queens’ green room.
“It was always very colorful in that kitchen to see all those performers getting ready for the show, they are getting their makeup on, gossipy stories, having fights, having drama, you know, everything that people with a lot of personality would bring to a small room,”
“Every year we did a big party for each anniversary and we had a big show with 10 queens performing, we had an amazing crowd. I mean we had people like Bryan Lourd bringing his celebrities; Andre Balazs with Uma Thurman; I think there was Al Pacino with Bryan Lourd one year; Ellen Barkin. So those anniversaries were always amazing, with all these talents in that tiny room with all these fabulous people. And there was no pretense like, you know, the celebrities would sit right next to regular people and it was fine – no one paid attention. It was loose and fluid and I think that's why people remember it as a special place.”
Joey Arias and Jean-Marc Houmard
After a successful eight years, the lease on Bar d’O skyrocketed and Jean-Marc decided to close down the bar.
“People were devastated when we closed, so we thought we had to carry on the tradition.”
That’s when Bar d’O moved to Indochine and became more of a yearly reunion, assembled towards the end of each year.
Bar d'O Today
The first time I attended Bar d’O at Indochine was 12 years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. A co-worker of mine invited me to come, putting me in drag right before the show. Combine your first night out in New York City as a drag queen with Sherry Vine’s dirty remakes of popular songs and Joey’s “Love For Sale” number where he shoves a microphone into an unsuspecting attractive audience member’s pants and sings through their crotch, and you might never forget that night either.
Nowadays Bar d’O is hosted by ⅔ of the original trio, where Sherry Vine has taken over the third spot initially filled by Edwige. At last year’s Bar d’O reunion she performed a remake of Lil Nas X’s runaway hit “Old Town Road,” which broke the record for the longest-running #1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, but flirtatiously renamed it “Old Brown Hole.”
In Sherry’s naughty fashion, she started the performance off with a prelude of how the idea for the song came about:
“When I was in my 20s my butthole was pink, beautiful shimmering pink. Then when I got into my 30s my butthole turned taupe…,”
finishing up the story with the retelling of a night where she was taking a bath and she noticed that her butthole was now brown.
“It was an important time in New York – those performers were the best of the drag cabaret singers, and to not do it anymore, I think something would be lost. Year after year people come to enjoy the same, and it’s kind of my duty to continue the tradition,”
Even though not much changes from one year to the next – it’s mostly the same crowd that’s been coming to see the show since the beginning and mostly the same numbers performed year after year – it’s the improvisation and the idea that anything can happen that keeps bringing people back and keeps the show fresh.
During the late-night sets, the queens turn up the heat; the jokes get dirtier, the songs get sexier, and you can feel the energy becoming looser by the minute. People get tipsy, they start flirting with their waiters and unbuttoning their shirts. During one of the reunions, I was working as a server when I got picked up by this hunky wrestler who doubled as an opera singer. Somehow the decisions that you make during Bar d’O nights might be the book definition of wrong, but at Bar d’O anything goes, so you go with the flow and realize that it’s OK to be bad sometimes.
In 2019, the 26th reunion carried on in the usual classy, unfiltered manner, but not without a few sentimental moments. Edwige passed away in 2015 and Raven paid a tribute to her with one of his performances. At the end of the night Raven, Joey, and Sherry performed their “Sisters” anthem, a song that will probably be performed for as long as Bar d’O keeps going on. Sherry and Joey shared an intimate moment after the music stopped – they held each other’s faces up close and gazed into each other’s eyes, inevitably getting emotional.
“Whenever the 3 of us, me, Joey, and Raven, are onstage together and singing ‘Sisters’ (our theme song) I am filled with joy, love, and admiration. We have been together for over 25 years so the bond is strong!,”
Sherry shares about that touching moment.
I asked Jean-Marc if he thought Bar d'O was something that could be revived as a regular thing. He responded,
“The early mid-90s still allowed for small bars like Bar d'O to exist, when the rent was still affordable and we didn’t need to make a ton of money to be able to do that. That’s what’s missing now, to be able to do things more for the love of it rather than just to make money. Right now, I think it would be difficult. When people tell me, why don’t you do it again? I don’t know that we could anymore. Because our rent would be 3-4 times more than it used to be and then it has to be bringing in money, and that was not what it was about.”
Sherry Vine and Joey Arias share an intimate moment during "Sisters" performance
Even though these days watching performers lip sync and slaying the stage with their moves is the preferred entertainment for those who are out to see a drag show, it’s unfortunate that not a lot more people from younger LGBTQIA+ generations know about Bar d’O. The realness and the rawness of those invited to take the stage at this event are unparalleled – you laugh, you cry, you get horny, you experience a blend of emotions like on a rollercoaster (well, maybe you don’t get horny on a rollercoaster).
Raven O sums it up perfectly:
“Bar d’O was and remains the epitome of New York’s edginess, coolness, and chicness. We changed nightlife and queer culture. Music, art, fashion and filth ‘came’ together with a lot of cocaine, cock sucking, and love.”
At the end of this year Bar d'O would have celebrated its 27th reunion at Indochine, but due to COVID it's going virtual for the first time. Sherry, Joey and Raven will host a virtual show on December 20th. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased on legendarydrag.live