Travel

Watch Drag Queens Smack Down at New Orleans' Wildest Event of the Year

At this drag wrestling show, the phrase "slay, queen" gets taken literally.

Photo by Stephanie Foden for Thrillist
Photo by Stephanie Foden for Thrillist
Photo by Stephanie Foden for Thrillist

At a warehouse in an industrial area of New Orleans, 400 screaming fans boo and cheer simultaneously as Jassy-an evil capitalist real estate “invest-her”-gets dragged to the wrestling ring by her gigantic fake breasts. One boob has the word ‘FREE’ written on it. The other, ‘MARKET.’ “They’re too big to fail,” taunts Gorlëënyah, the show’s goblin-green host, from her throne atop the stage.

Jassy-and her assets-proceed to get tossed around the ring by a dirty cop who’s punishing her for stealing top-secret files (they’re for tops only). But with a few well-executed roundhouse kicks and a swift somersault, Jassy turns the tide. Soon, she’s motor-boating the cop atop the turnbuckle and getting away with those files.This is Choke Hole, a raunchy, satirical drag wrestling show that’s become a tradition in New Orleans come carnival season each year-though 2022’s comeback edition, “ThE ReBoOt,” nearly got shut down by authorities.

“I’ve never felt so upset and so excited so close together,” said Jassy, a NOLA drag queen and co-founder of Choke Hole. Just days before the 2022 show, organizers announced that the beloved event-which, save for a hiatus during the past two years, has run annually since 2017-might be canceled following an unofficial warning from a Louisana commission, which stated that all wrestlers would be arrested if the show went on due to a state law mandating all boxers and wrestlers hold a special license.

But as the bright lights dimmed under the giant disco ball on the first of two back-to-back sold-out showings in the Zony Mash microbrewery on February 24, there was Jassy on the big screen declaring, “Recycling is a liberal scam,” and demanding the screaming crowd’s affection. “What about Jassy? Don’t I deserve admiration?”

Photo by Stephanie Foden for Thrillist
Photo by Stephanie Foden for Thrillist
Photo by Stephanie Foden for Thrillist

Like Jassy’s faux chest pillows, it seems that Choke Hole, too, is too big to fail. Founded in the wake of Netflix’s Glow on the floor of New Orleans’ Hi-Ho Lounge by drag collective High Profile, the show has since exploded in popularity and production value. I watched (and hooted and hollered) as costumed, bead-and-fishnet-wearing fans lost their freaking minds as drag queens jostled-and stripped-inside the ring.

In the show’s kick-off round, a pre-recorded video skit shows a bad date gone wrong (the date’s favorite authors are Ayn Rand and J.K. Rowling) leading to a “TERF war” match that involves one wrestler shaking her butt in the face of her opponent, which closely resembles WWE Hall of Fame wrestler Rikishi’s stink face. In another, a satanic lesbian daughter fights and ultimately kills her religious zealot mother with a giant upside-down cross to the butthole.

But while Choke Hole features wrestling (there’s also a couple of drag striptease segments), it isn’t meant to rival the WWE. “To me, it’s not a professional wrestling show,” Jassy says. “It’s a parody of wrestling and it’s this large stage show that incorporates wrestling or choreographed fighting as just another tool or element to express our heart.”

For Jassy, Choke Hole is a satire of pro wrestling, which has historically failed to depict queer people in a positive light despite being blatantly homoerotic. “[Wrestling] is very sexualized. It’s very drama. It’s costumes. It’s makeup and theatrics. It’s all these things the LGBT and the queer community love,” Jassy says. “And so as a kid I did not like wrestling or I did not relate to it because I thought that it was beyond me, but as an adult looking at it from a clear lens I’m like, ‘Oh, this is everything that I love.'”

Photo by Stephanie Foden for Thrillist
Photo by Stephanie Foden for Thrillist
Photo by Stephanie Foden for Thrillist

Whereas pro sports entertainment gives an illusion of reality, Choke Hole leans into outlandishness. In one round, a nearly-nude dominatrix throws her sub in a suitcase and hauls them all the way from Chicago (she says she’ll do anything for 50 bucks) to tour New Orleans, eat beignets at Cafe du Monde, and brawl in the ring. During the match, the dom uses a handheld power tool to spray fiery sparks from her chastity belt onto her sub’s butt. “No one thinks that this is real life,” Jassy explains. “We are playing up on the campiness. We are playing up the theatricality of it. The fakeness of it.”

Choke Hole also distances itself from pro wrestling by blurring the lines between villain and hero, with neither representing pure good nor evil. “My character is this evil businesswoman, capitalist, landlord, and real estate investor, and she only cares about herself and her bottom line,” Jassy said. “But she also still has some redeeming qualities [and sometimes still does] things in a way that you can, like, empathize with or can see how she got there.”

In fact, Jassy has found herself wrestling with the nationwide dilemma of gentrification in her own life as a new homeowner who rents to a long-term tenant. “It’s funny, I’ve been this evil landlord character for about four years now and over COVID, I bought a New Orleans double. So I now live in one side of my house and am renting out the other, and that’s why I’m saying that there’s good and bad to all of our characters,” she said. “I don’t think that all landlords are evil, but certainly I think that it’s an easy way to exploit people. I’m trying to learn from my character about what not to do as a new landlord.”

Photo by Stephanie Foden for Thrillist
Photo by Stephanie Foden for Thrillist
Photo by Stephanie Foden for Thrillist

Of course, satire and complexity are nothing new for Mardi Gras. Back in the early 1900s, historians say the predominantly-Black Krewe of Zulu parodied the way white New Orleanians celebrated Mardi Gras. Many of today’s krewes also riff on politics; Krewe du Vieux, for example, handed out fake syringes labeled “ivermectin” during their 2022 parade to poke fun at the COVID conspiracy theories that have run wild during the last two years. “Choke Hole is all about the same ethos that Mardi Gras is,” Jassy says.

In the wake of this year’s near-cancellation, Choke Hole is hoping for more stability in the future. They’re pining for a TV show à la RuPaul’s Drag Race or Queer as Folk, a campy reboot being shot in New Orleans that inspired Choke Hole’s 2022 reboot theme.

But if Hollywood doesn’t come calling, Choke Hole hopes to do more shows in and outside of Louisiana. They already performed last summer at Lady Land in New York ahead of headliner Christina Aguilera, as well as in Hamburg and Berlin, thanks to a grant. “We’re talking about maybe bringing the show to Chicago in the summer and we also are thinking about trying to put together a domestic tour,” Jassy said.

For Jassy and Choke Hole, the show is more than the controversy it has faced. And it’s more than a satire of how queer wrestling is. It’s also about showing the many facets of humanity and femininity. “It’s just great to be able to fucking show how powerful you are,” she says. “We can be really feminine and show that off and be really queer, but also really strong. The two aren’t separate, they can go hand in hand.”

And yes, it’s also about kicking ass. “Yeah, we love to beat the shit out of each other in a contained, respectful way,” Jassy laughed.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat.

Joel Balsam is a Canadian freelance journalist and guidebook author who writes for Lonely Planet, National Geographic, TIME, BBC Travel, and more. His home base is Montreal, but he can often be found tasting his way through a packed market somewhere.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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