by Meagan Dwyer
“I really want to work out before my gig tonight,” Sharif Abaz said. “But I still have to fix my costume and my makeup is going to take forever. I have no time.” He picked up his outfit for the evening — a black mesh bodysuit, tank-top and shorts that cover the groin with a thick strip of spandex — and packed everything into a backpack. As he walked out, he took a final glance in the mirror by his front door, then brushed glitter from the night before from his eyelashes and rubbed his hand through his beard to check for untamed hairs.
Abaz arrived at the downstairs bar area of The Monster, a gay bar located on Grove Street in New York City a half hour before midnight. The dim room was crowded with sweaty young men and women, murmuring and anxious for a show. When the DJ announced the next set, Sharif took the stage in the darkened room and stood, waiting, with his head down. A moment later, the lights came up, revealing Abaz as “Rify Royalty” in full Dia de los Muertos makeup, with a long black veil covering his dark hair, a black gown over the mesh bodysuit underneath, and massive sexual attitude. He slowly raised his head toward the spotlight and began with a reverent rendition of Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” as he slowly stripped away his outerwear, then ground his hips on a chair as he lip-synched to Rob Zombie’s “Living Dead Girl” before moving to the floor, where he shot his legs in the air, exposing thigh-high stockings and high-heeled platform pumps. Piece by piece, the costume came off, until he was left in a black V tank-thong bodysuit, stockings, and heels, revealing a small collection of tattoos: an umbrella with rain underneath, pin-up girls, his mother’s name, scattered across the olive skin of his slender, toned frame. After the set, which lasted about ten minutes, Rify bowed as the crowd cheered and threw dollars at the stage. He exited stage right, clutching his earnings and teetering on five-inch heels.
Abaz, as Rify Royalty, has become a steady fixture in the downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn gay nightlife scene over the last year. He co-hosts “Hot Rabbit” at The Monster and the other week, he was featured at Bushwig, Bushwick’s annual drag variety expo. “I consider myself a nightlife entrepreneur,” he told me, when we met outside the bar after his set to share a cigarette; several people passed by us outside the bar and grinned at Rify, who was shirtless and still in his makeup, though he had changed back into a pair of jeans. “Being a part of the Brooklyn scene, all the rules of burlesque are off,” he said. He explained that there are lots of “fishy queens,” which are drag performers who can pass as “real” women; their body hair is shaved, most tattoos are covered, and the pronoun “she” is preferred. “But there are more bearded queens coming out and performing,” he said, pointing to his own facial hair, and maintains that he has been widely recognized as a “bearded lady” in nightlife. “Norms are being redefined. It does feel like there is a new wave coming through.”
Rify most frequently performs “boylesque,” which is a type of performance that combines drag costuming and burlesque stripping. They’re often set to a scene from one of hs favorite movies — his go-to is the abortion clinic scene featuring Jennifer Tilly in Dancing at the Blue Iguana. “Whether my character is perceived to be spooky, weird, funny, odd, it always manages to turn out to be seductive,” he explained, as he showed me a video on his iPhone that was taken at “TBA,” a party at Bizarre Bar in Bushwick, where he co-hosts a variety show the first Thursday of every month. In the video, Rify Royalty took the spotlight as a bearded, black-bobbed, tattooed Drew Barrymore in a short red bathrobe, pantomiming and lip-synching along with most of the opening dialogue of Scream. Behind him, another burlesque dancer, a woman, donned the film’s famous mask. Right as Rify, is about to be slain, both performers took off their costumes and danced to Destiny’s Child’s “Bugaboo.”
Go-go gigs at downtown gay bars, which consists of dancing nearly nude on a bar or small stage, are different from Rify’s “boylesque” performances. There’s little room for comedy or irony, and even a smaller amount for the mere suggestion of anything other than sex. It’s stripping without the pole and/or complete nudity. “Sometimes I take home eight hundred dollars on a weekend with go-go work, then sometimes I only make ninety,” he said. “But on average I walk away with a hundred and seventy five dollars a night. Minimum.” There is less preparation for a go-go performance: show up, wear little to nothing, dance to the music, be the literal embodiment of the fantasy. Let the customers touch you, and be liberal about it: do this, and you’ll leave the job with a handful of cash in to pull from your jock strap. A few days after the show at The Monster, I tried to attend a Rify Royalty go-go gig at one of the downtown bars at which he frequently performs on a very profitable night for him. When I showed up at the door, the bouncer took one look at me and immediately made up his mind. “No women tonight,” the guy said with a raised eyebrow and a knowing look. “Sorry.” I left, but I had an idea of what was going on inside.
The following morning, Abaz confirmed my suspicions. I asked about how he, as a performance artist trying to make a statement, felt about so much public sex within the bars. He blinked, as if surprised by the question, but his voice was even and consigned. “I’ve worked Black Party Expo. It’s massive,” he said. “They book a lot of sex workers, go-go boys, drag queens, everybody comes out and displays their best fetish look. It goes on all night. I did go-go there once. I’ve seen people have sex in public and it’s very much a part of my world.” With the constant sexual energy swirling around him, Rify Royalty has long chosen to be completely sober. He doesn’t judge others for indulging — maintaining that without mind-altering substances, nightlife may not be what it is — but he has never found a reason to partake. “I just really don’t care. It’s something I don’t do, but if you want to, you should,” he said. “I have lived a life of sobriety for so long, and I’m very open about my sexual presence in nightlife. I am very comfortable with that.”
A few weeks after I tried to catch his go-go performance, I hung out with Abaz again when he took Rify Royalty to the annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade. He was dressed as a mermaid with a large curly blue wig with multi-colored flowers, precise blue and green makeup, and a sequined fin that started at his hips and ended at his ankles. His exposed, masculine beard left no one wondering about his gender, and we could barely walk four steps without someone, or a group of people, stopping him to take his picture and complimenting him on his look. “I really want to break grounds in nightlife,” he said as we left the boardwalk about an hour later and to head back to the subway. “I think people are very set on rules and very heteronormative ways that we’ve been taught. There tends to be a woman-hating ‘don’t be femme’ attitude, yet these queens compete with each other constantly on who looks the most like a ‘real’ woman. People aren’t very free.” His face softened and his eyes began searching the in front of him, like he was lost for a moment, until he found his voice. “I want to host my own show one day, with tons of diverse performers, he said. “Whatever size you are, whatever color you are, in your very sexy look. If you have a six-pack, great. If you’re full-figured, great. Let’s make a sexy party.”
Meagan Dwyer is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Resource Magazine, Thought Catalog, and Nerve. She lives in Brooklyn, where she is working on a novel.
Photos copyright Gizelle Peters, Stephanie Keith, and Maro Hagopian, used with permission