Photography by Thomas Egan
Check out all of Thomas’ Alt Oscar photos here!
“So tonight, enjoy yourselves – because nothing can take the sting out of the world’s economic problems like watching millionaires present each other with golden statues,” quipped host Billy Crystal at the opening of this year’s Academy Awards ceremony. On that same night in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a faction of the ninety-nine percent gathered together to enjoy Oscar night in their own style: by playfully protesting it (and presenting each other with golden statues). At a moment when Time’s most recent Person of the Year was “The Protester,” what better way for the Costume Cultural Society (whose mission is “promoting costuming arts and participatory culture”) to celebrate Hollywood’s biggest night than to occupy the emblematic red carpet? CCS is the parent organization for Kostume Kult, an arts collective and Burning Man theme camp known as much for their political street theatrics and annual theme parties in New York City as for their “costuming the naked” on playa each year for the past decade. So, on the evening of February 26th, rather than sit in front of a friend’s TV to consume the Oscars with a bowl of carrots and hummus, I made my way to Tammany Hall to bear witness to the glamour and debauchery, the nudity and police brutality that was the 2012 Alt.Oscar Awards (Alt. for ‘alternative’), or, as it’s affectionately called by its participants, the Alties.
Of course, merely bearing witness to this type of happening without directly participating is anathema to Kostume Kulters, so I decided to accept KK founder Costume Jim’s invitation to be a host at the event. I didn’t host the awards show like Billy Crystal did – that honor is reserved each year for the legendary MC Christopher (Christopher Hardwick) – but rather, my assignment was to co-host the red carpet as, um… Ryan Seacrest does (to draw an unfortunate comparison). Hence, a couple of hours prior I put on a black suit and hastily fashioned together a headdress out of a plastic horse head and some faux fur, and voilà! I had my costume: War Horse. After gently bandaging up second degree burns incurred from my hot glue gun, and straightening my tie, I was ready to face the paparazzi. Indeed, a swarm of photographers and videographers surrounded the participants and documented the evening. A goal of the organizers is to eventually air the Alt.Oscars as a live internet television show concurrently with the Academy Awards.
Why would CCS want to broadcast their racy awards show live around the world? Costume Jim (Jim Glaser) is fond of using the term culture jamming when talking about what KK does.“Before Zuccotti Park, Tahrir Square and the Tea Bagger movement, there was the Alt.Oscar Awards Event… Whereas Hollywood caters to ‘Celebrity Culture,’ Alt.Oscar advocates ‘Participatory Culture’ where there are no VIP areas and where the velvet rope is open to anyone who makes an effort,” heralded the event’s invitation. In the years I’ve known him, subverting mainstream cultural institutions and commercial culture in a joyous, inclusive, and radically expressive way seems as much fun for Glaser as putting on a costume and going to a party. The truth is, at KK, the two usually go hand in hand. “We were down on Wall Street anointing the bull statue with zombie guts years before people were camping in tents at Zuccotti,” mused Glaser when we spoke before the Alties, referring to the annual Zombiecon parade, which adopted a financial crisis theme in 2008. “The Alt.Oscars, is our most message-oriented event,” he told me. As a live web show, the event would be an opportunity “to spread our message, spoof the Oscars and talk about what we do. … It’s about participatory culture.”
And participate they did! When I arrived at Tammany Hall one of the first celebrities I encountered was Lori Lollygoa dressed in flapper-wear in tones of grey while the body painter Vann Godfrey airbrushed her in black and white à la The Artist. With fine attention to detail, this year’s event producers Lina Skiba and Madeleine Claire set the night up to be a surreal experience. Claire and her beau Noodle (Kyle Miller) were dressed as the young Bella Swan and Edward Cullen of The Twilight Saga, only, by the looks of it, this version of the angsty couple had a newborn vampire on the way (or will it be a werewolf?).
I swiftly navigated the crowds and their protest signs demanding: “More Comfortable Casting Couches,” “Unionize The Help,” and “Send the Poor Straight to DVD!” arriving to join my co-hosts, Melinda Smart and Marilyn Monroe (played by Pearl Thomas), on the red carpet. Meanwhile, on the carpet of the real Academy Awards, Sacha Baron Cohen, in the guise of his character General Aladeen from his upcoming project The Dictator, “accidentally” spilled the ashes of Kim Jong-il all over Ryan Seacrest. That kind of shenanigans would have been much more at home at the Alt.Oscars. Our ridiculous interviews, captured on camera, were fed live to large monitors all over Tammany Hall. (Partygoers also had the option to check in on the real Oscars in a viewing room for that purpose). One surprise guest, among the many fabulous freaks we interviewed, was the notorious Bernie Mann, of Crazy Bernie’s FreeBurningManTickets.com, whose recent viral video earned him a personal phone call from the Burning Man organization’s lawyers. But my favorite costume was that of Eliza Lynn Spear who fashioned herself as The Tree of Life.
Host MC Christopher deftly maneuvered the often risqué and always silly awards show. As each category was announced, candidates made their case for deserving the coveted Alty Award (a plastic souvenir statuette of Lady Liberty spray-painted gold and holding a miniature disco ball). “For feats of brilliance and absurdity” runners-up received Alty Juniors (same statue, only smaller).
After the first round of competition for Best Celebrity Couple, the contest came down to a handful of notable pairs. Costume Jim, took to stage wielding a bloodied axe as “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” from the forthcoming film of the same name, joined by Nina Urban as a terrifyingly sexy vampiress. Needless to say, combat ensued. Another embattled couple was Nicki Minaj and Lady Gaga, both wearing little more than paint, followed by Kate Moss and Pete Doherty brandishing needles and large bags of white powder. Fortunately, MC Christopher had a giant golden hook for, well, giving people the hook.
Some of the contenders for Best Female Celebrity were Tina Turner (too soon?), and Hilly Holbrook, one of the Caucasian characters from The Help, who had spent the evening thrusting samples of her homemade pie on everyone. A popular nominee was a Glenn Close lookalike, portraying Close’s cross-dressing character in Albert Nobs. And once again Kate Moss made a powdery mess of herself, only to be scolded by Mr. Hardwick, “We don’t need people shooting up on stage! We’re trying to get a TV show out of this party!”
Albert Nobs was allowed to compete in the category of Best Male Celebrity as well. A woman impeccably portraying Harry Potter made for formidable competition. But the winner was Brite Lite who already looks so much like Robert Redford that merely sporting a Sundance Film Festival jacket was enough to win him the Alty (which, for the celebrated designer of electronically illuminated costumes, was his most understated outfit to date). Finally, in the spirit of participation, Yours Truly, as the War Horse, had to throw his name in the hat for this category as well. By stuffing my trousers with a horse-sized, er… sock, I was able to go home with a sparkling Alty Junior for my mantle.
Though the night was a veritable who’s who of the Kostume Kult tribe, there was a noticeable absence felt without one of its most cherished local celebrities: the one referred to adoringly by all simply as “Sexy Russian Woman.” Her present battle with cancer is well known among the community, and it was decided to honor her with the Alty for Lifetime Achievement. The guest of honor Skyped in on a large screen to receive her award, letting us know, “I love you all and I miss you,” and then we watched a video montage celebrating her charming humor and style, set to the theme song of From Russia with Love. This was followed by a Sexy Russian Woman lookalike contest, where the many impersonators, including Mr. Noodle wearing sheer panties, each performed topless to bring true authenticity to the role. The tribute was a touching reminder that, above all, KK is a supportive and loving family.
No Occupy would be complete without a ubiquitous police force in full riot gear. Nor was there a shortage of “Unwashed Hippydom and Jack-Booted Thuggery,” as the event’s announcement had promised, complete with a pop tent on the red carpet. In a delightful twist, the police turned out to be a far greater disruption to the proceedings than the Occupiers were. One of the cops, known as Guncle (short for Gay Uncle, A.K.A. Aaron Edwards), wasted no opportunity to streak shirtless through the interviews and ceremonies with the words “SOY BOMB” (a reference to Michael Portnoy’s infamous act of revolution at the ’98 Grammys) scrawled across his torso, demanding random cavity searches from attendees, which, thankfully, entailed examining their mouths for tooth decay. In a moment of hilarious inspiration, the commanding officer and his entire billy-club-brandishing brigade aimlessly pepper-sprayed the audience of elite celebrities with cans of Silly String. As the victims covered their eyes and screamed, it evoked the horrifying YouTube videos of students getting a burning faceful at UC Davis and Deputy Inspector Bologna macing young women in the streets of New York, painful images still less than six months old. Although the event organizers warned in their disclaimer “No actual political statements are intended in the making of this farce. This is a red-carpeted stage where fun shall be made,” I believe some part of the ensuing laugher surely came out of a tiny catharsis. The guests of this year’s Alties were invited to “Overthrow the old order and install art for fun’s sake in its stead. Because revolution does not mean social upheaval alone – it also means fashion, frivolity, and festival.” Thankfully, the Kostumers are here to remind us that absurd times call for absurd measures, and a revolution is nothing without participation… and costumes.