Activist, ally, author, actress, influencer, explorer, enchantress, nightlife scenestress and a perfect size 8… these are just a morsel of descriptions one can attach to a true original, the Bronx-born Wendy Stuart Kaplan! As she prepares for her upcoming star-studded birthday party at Bedlam, Thotyssey gets Wendy’s insight on where she’s been and what’s happening in the world right now.
Thotyssey: Hello, Wendy! Thanks for chatting with us today! So, the Oscars were announced recently, and as usual there were snubs. As a filmmaker yourself–you directed and produced a documentary short Fragile Beauty in 2016 and produced a feature length doc Whispers and Witnesses in 2018–were you disappointed to see no women nominated as Best Director?
Wendy Stuart Kaplan: It is incomprehensible to me that no women were nominated as best director for the Academy Awards… and yet, you have to stop and consider the source. The Academy Awards voting system has long been called out for basically being a good old boys network, which rings true year after year. It’s a blessing that there are other award ceremonies like the Golden Globes and the SAG Awards. As an independent filmmaker who submits to numerous film festivals, I can honestly say there are so many women now–and men as well–making films that are not part of the Hollywood system. I’ve been in The Chelsea Film Festival three years in a row, winning best documentary for Whisperers and Witnesses, and the amount of brilliant films done in this international film festival by women is astounding. We all have to reset our thinking and start giving accolades to these festivals that feature independent films by women. The Oscars is old school. The future is out of the system.
Another topical question for you: being an activist on behalf of animals and indigenous people yourself, it must be devastating for you to see what has happened in Australia with the devastating bush fires. What do you think we should be doing to help?
One thing I have learned about being an activist: you can’t look at an entire situation like the Australian bush fires with numbers of animals dying in the billions and not be overwhelmed by it. So I believe each one of us has the power to affect a situation by looking at it on a smaller scale. There are so many organizations that have mobilized to help Australia that you can donate to. Five dollar donations add up.
My epiphany came about when I was filming Fragile Beauty [about a centuries-old tribe of people] in Southern Ethiopia. There was a child in the village who was dying of malaria, which I found out is common. So we got this child and her father into our Jeep and drove to the malaria clinic two miles away. The father had procrastinated because he could only pay for the medicine with a cow. The Karo people are pasturalists, and don’t use money. I convinced the father to let me pay. It saved the child’s life. Total cost: $10 to save one life.
The point? You can’t save all the children that have malaria, but you can save one. Find a reputable organization collecting money for the animals that are orphaned and will need medical care and foster homes. In addition, there are many organizations in Australia looking for volunteers to work in the rescue centers. If you have the time, that’s such an amazing way to help.
And now, on to you! You’re a Bronx native. What was growing up there like for you?
Growing up in the Bronx was a comfort zone for me. I had my set group of friends, a park across the street, and when we went on vacation I couldn’t wait to get back. But I always had this other side. I had dreams of going to Africa, dreams of becoming a model, how I was going to live a totally different life. But those dreams scared me because it meant I would break out of that Bronx box, which kept me safe. My parents solved that problem for me when we moved to Florida when I was 18. The rug was pulled out from underneath me: new school, new friends, no roots.That move rocked my world. And two years later, I was in Nigeria.
As a real 70’s nightlife scenester, you partied it up at Studio 54 and even met Andy Warhol there once [he offered to put you in one of his films, but being a cautious kid at the time you declined]. Has the city ever been as fun as it was back then?
Here’s the thing about Studio 54 and being “back in the day” as we call it: it was a unique time. Places like 54 allowed you to cross socioeconomic barriers. Everything was so fluid, and if you could think of it you could do it. But nothing ever stays the same, and the city has changed… certainly in the economics of it.
But let’s talk about now. In spite of the superficiality, the rudeness, the vulgar wealth… there is still art, there are still films, museums, people and a scene. Do you know that I can go to fabulous events every night because I see them on Facebook? Club nights, music, art openings, all kinds of happenings–and I can pick and chose what I want to do! I’ve socially blown through the roof with the amount of interesting people I’m able to meet on any night. I’m having a blast in a way that I couldn’t have done in the 70’s and 80’s. The internet was a massive cultural change in our society. And in many ways, because of it, the city can be fabulous–in a different way, but fabulous nonetheless.
What do you think might be the most important thing that today’s nightlife children should know about nightlife in the 70s and 80s?
There were no smart phones. When you went out dancing, people talked to each other on the dance floor. I’m a major dancer, and nothing pisses me off more that people breaking the flow of movement on the dance floor by texting. There were so many clubs in the 70’s and 80’s: Studio, Area, Paladium, Xenon, The Tunnel, Paradise Garage, The Saint, Moon Shadow, Save the Robots, Pyramid, Ice Palace… the choices were endless, and you did not have to haul your butt in an Uber to a deserted warehouse area in Brooklyn cause you don’t want to rely on the subway to get you out there. I love the Mega club parties in Brooklyn, but the thought of turning it out in a hairpiece, lashes, fabulous frock and riding the L train? Really?
I love that you still turn it up today in some of your same outfits from that period! Do you have any particular style icons?
Of course! My style icons–or what I call now “my influencers”–were often Madonna or Cyndi Lauper inspired, mostly because those looks suit me. As an influencer myself, I often pair a vintage Madonna / Cyndi look, a bustier with a tutu, and modernize the look with over-the-knee Marc Jacobs boots. If you look at my Facebook or Insta, you’ll see my liking for tutus, anything black lace, and hairpieces. I’m mad for hairpieces and extensions.
You often give talks and do readings, but are you also a performer in any way: a singer, dancer, actress, etc.?
So if you check out my website, you can see my huge body of work in all areas which I am still currently working in. That includes on camera host, film actress, theatre actress (just finished a reading of Glamour, Glory and Gold by the brilliant Jackie Curtis at The Gene Frankel Theatre. They tell me I look like Candy Darling). Home Shopping host. Print model. Spokesperson. Author. Panel moderator. Standup. Improvisational performer.
I don’t cook. Or do windows. I only sleep five hours a night. There’s no time for more. I dance at clubs and can go for hours. I sing to myself but not to anyone else.
You’re a longtime ally of the LGBTQ community, frequently kiki’ing with drag queens, DJs and other nightlifers. What drew you first to that community, and in what ways have you observed that it has changed over the decades?
Now we’re getting down to the nitty gritty stuff! I have always been in the LGBTQ community, from grammar school. A number of friends I had were definitely gay by middle school. I’ve been an activist–a major activist–since the epidemic. Three address books of crossed out numbers.
My husband [director Alan Kaplan] and I were a big part of POWARS (Pet Owners With AIDS Resource Service). AZT was killing everyone. Our organization started and run by Steve Kohn and Howard Green had 250 volunteers and 300 clients. We made sure that the animals were cared for when their person was in the hospital, which was all the time. AZT killed people. At that time there were doctors doing the Dallas Buyers Club concoctions, which were the early cocktails. I made personal referrals to those doctors. Most of those people are still alive.
I’ve just always been in the LGBTQ community, and so has my husband. A lot of my friends describe me as a gay man trapped in a straight girl’s body. I’m just me. What has changed majorly in the LGBTQA community is that we keep adding letters. Those letters are important for many to identify, but in some ways I’m observing more polarization due to those letters.
I’m part of TRIVERSITY, an organization based in Milford PA. We service the more rural Tri-State Area (please check us out on Facebook). I’ve been with them for eight years–I run our monthly social event First Friday, as well as other events throughout the year. Triversity is my heart. My partner and I made a film about the organization called Rainbow Ending. We followed our kids who came out, and how the organization helped them, and now our most recent group which is male to female over 50. Transitioning at that age is extremely difficult, because you lived your life one way for so long and the decision to finally live your truth is not an easy one. By hosting events like First Friday, Triversity’s Got Talent, and The Prom, to name a few, I believe it brings our community together and erases the lines between the groups.
Nick Lion and I first met at Robynne Kaamil’s Memorial at Club Cumming. It was a brief but strong intro by photographer Jason Russo. We stayed in touch on Facebook, and a few months ago he invited me to the premiere of Junk: The Musical starring the fabulous Tym Moss. We’ve been more or less inseparable since. We have the exact kind of energy that lights up a room. We can each do it by ourselves, but together it’s some powerful stuff. We set the night on fire!
You wrote a funny and telling autobiography She’s The Last Model Standing back in 2015, with the title referring to your time as a “Perfect Size 8” fit model. Is there anything in that book at this point that you are now like, “Oops, maybe I shouldn’t have written about THAT?”
I didn’t regret one incident I shared, because it was all true! I did alter the names to protect the innocent. I will say that Sweetie, who was one of my closest friends, did point out that in each and every situation I came out looking squeaky clean! I’m saving the really nasty details for the next book, which I would like to title I’m Still Standing.
And you’re a member of the very exclusive Explorer’s Club! Tell us more about that.
I’m so proud of being one of 3400 people in the world to be a member. I volunteer as a tour guide there, I love it so much. You can call and ask for me, and I will take you through this five story English Manor House filled with unusual artifacts; I love telling the many stories connected to those artifacts, and the unique people that become explorers.
Our movie Whisperers and Witnesses: Primate Rescue In Cameroon came about from three women I met at the club that were rescuing primates from poachers in Cameroon. I knew I had to tell their stories, so I impulsively used my frequent flyer miles and told them I was coming to do a movie about them. I’m very impulsive at times. They got us a letter from the government, I got visas for Alan and myself, and off we went to a country with no tourist infrastructure and a female mosquito resistant to malaria drugs. That was meaningless to me until I got there, and realized what that meant. But seeing gorillas and chimpanzees that close was extraordinary. As were these women. I am, however, permanently damaged by having no toilet in one of the places we shot. It was traumatic. A hole in the ground in the middle of the night doesn’t cut it. I actually stole some poor woman’s bucket, lined it with plastic, put it on a low table and voila! I invented a toilet! I am resourceful when pushed to the edge! Anyway, I can’t wait to take you on a tour of The Explorers Club!
Your birthday’s coming up! Is that a source of joy, dread, or both?
My birthday is amazing! I celebrate each and every day I’m on this earth! I have so much great stuff I’ve created, and now I need to bring that to fruition.
You’ll be celebrating on Friday, January 24th at Bedlam in the East Village! First on the evening’s agenda will be the return of that venue’s Reading For Filth reading series, which you will be partaking in.
I love doing “Reading For Filth!” This event–started by the amazing Hattie Hathaway (Brian Butterick), and kept going by the also amazing Eileen Dover after Brian passed–is so entertaining and diverse in what people choose to read. Michael Musto read from Suzanne Sommers’ poetry book! Who knew she wrote poetry? It was hilarious! I, of course, will read from She’s The Last Model Standing. I’m not telling which [passage]. You’ll have to come and find out!
This party is designed to be over the top. Combining the energies of Eileen Dover, Nick Lion, and moi is going to result in an explosive evening! The readings, special guests, special host Sherry Vine, Edgar Vasquez (Latin Artist of the Year), burlesque with Beardonna, Jed Ryan, Tammy Faye Starlite and the infamous DC La Rue! New comer Belle Pepper! We’ve got something for everyone! And our guests? Old friends, new friends, and maybe a few frenemies! From entertainment, music, design, celebrities, The Imperial Court, The Explorers Club… no group will be left untouched!
What else would you like the children to know?
2020 are magic numbers. This year you can change your life, and you can change the life of another person. It’s time. The “out there” you cannot control, but you can set your own life on fire!
And finally: CATS the Musical! Have you seen it–and if so, what drugs were you on?
I saw CATS a long time ago… I loved it! I am won over easy by intense makeup, costumes, and bad songs. “Midnight, not a sound from the basement, has the moon lost her memory…” I probably am a drag queen trapped in a girl’s body… and it’s time to set that bitch free!