By Nicole Clausing
Full disclosure…no, “disclosure” isn’t even the word. This is an actual confession: 2016 marks my first Club Skirts Dinah Shore Weekend ever.
There’s no shame in that if you’re one of the baby dykes frolicking around the pool. In fact there’s a brisk trade at this year’s festival in “Dinah Virgin” t-shirts proudly worn by dozens of party girls.
But I’m no wee lesbian. I’m…well, never mind how old I am exactly. Let’s just say that when Lea DeLaria hits the stage wearing a t-shirt reading “I Survived Lesbian Chic,” I think to myself, “Me, too, sister,” and note that I have a closet full of 25-year-old vests to prove it.
Lately I’ve been feeling like I’m on the brink of losing my lesbian credential because I haven’t experienced this important Sapphic rite of passage, so on the last Thursday of March, I pack the car full of snacks, leave overcast Oakland behind, and head for the desert.
On the way, I stop in San Francisco to pick up two carpoolers with whom I’ve been emailing, but have never met in person. Poonam is in her mid-thirties and ready to start a family, but wants to have as much fun as she can before that happens. Her friend Tyana, roughly the same age, has just come off a 60-hour week working as a tour guide in San Francisco, and is looking to be anywhere but the Bay Area. These two have come to play. They’ve been to The Dinah before, and as they regale me with stories involving hookups and debauchery, I’m glad my job is to observe, not to keep up.
Eight hours later, we arrive in Palm Springs, by now old friends having spent 500 miles getting to know each other. We pick up some groceries and head to the house we’re renting. The place, secured through VRBO.com, is slightly further from the center of town than we realized but it’s a lifesaver in every other way. It’s big and beautiful, and more importantly has air conditioning and a swimming pool. (The temperature hits the low 90s every day of our stay.) It also has a full kitchen. We manage to eat every breakfast and dinner in, saving us a huge amount of money on meals.
The night we arrive, Thursday, is officially part of the weekend, and there is a kick-off party at Zeldas nightclub in town. (611 S. Palm Canyon Drive; 760-325-2375). After a long drive, though, we decide that our party of three is party enough for us. A few beers, a few dips in the hot tub under the bright desert stars, and we’re ready for bed. Tomorrow our weekend begins.
On Friday, at the crack of noon, The Dinah kicks off in earnest. That’s when the Hot as L Pool Party gets underway. This event is an all-day boozefest around the enormous outdoor Hilton Hotel swimming pool. (400 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way; 760-320-2126). DJs spin, go-go dancers do their thing, and hundreds of lesbians, the greatest concentration of women I’ve seen outside of San Francisco Pride’s Dyke March, drink, splash, flirt, preen, strut, and dance with almost childlike abandon.
At first the crowd’s demographics surprise me. Remember how I said I’m old enough to remember Lesbian Chic? I’m also just old enough to remember what came before it, perhaps best described as Lesbian Frump. Part of me still expects lesbian gatherings to involve Birkenstocks, softball gloves, and drum circles. But this is a thoroughly modern party. A good 70 percent of attendees look like they just walked off the set of The L Word. Long hair and sleek bikini bodies are everywhere, and there’s hardly a mullet or unshaven leg to be found.
But all types are represented here. To my relief, I’m neither the oldest nor the largest woman present. The crowd is mostly white, but far from exclusively so. All different kinds of body types and clothing styles are represented, from dapper bois in bowties to rockabilly chicks to the highest of femmes. There are even a few people who present as male. Some are transmen; some are GBFs; some, judging from the bugged-out eyes, appear to have booked their vacation at the Hilton unwittingly; and at least one strikes me as a straight cis guy who thinks he’s found a genius way to spy on women kissing. It’s all good. The Dinah is open to anyone regardless of what gender they were assigned at birth or how they identify now. And as far as I can tell, everyone co-exists peacefully all weekend.
(One other thing surprises me at the pool: There is a VIP area, shaded and supposedly stocked with drinks and snacks, for the use of partiers who have purchased a very expensive upgrade. When I first arrive, the area is well guarded, but by early Friday afternoon the staff who have been checking wristbands have gone AWOL – and so have the drinks and snacks, angering many who have splurged on the upgrade).
The pool party rocks all day and is still in full swing at 5 p.m., but I’ve got to get ready for the best part of my weekend: picking my photographer wife, Pipi, up at the airport. She had to work Thursday and has flown in today. Palm Springs International Airport is tiny and close to the center of town. (3400 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs; 760-318-3800). I leave the Hilton at 5 p.m., drop my now rum-soaked friends off at the house, and drive by the airport to scoop up Pipi from the curb.
The two of us head directly back to the pool. It’s barely 6 p.m. when we get back, but the scene has utterly transformed. Not a soul is in the water, and only a scattering of inebriated lesbians remain lolling around the deck. Most remarkably, I have, in the hour I was gone, completely missed an event I was really looking forward to: the last-ever performance by the Canadian band Hunter Valentine. The experience teaches me two important things about The Dinah: After throwing this party for more than a quarter century, producer Mariah Hanson has learned how to run a tight ship. And no event lasts long enough for anyone to get bored with it.
We can’t dwell on what we’ve missed; there’s too much to look forward to this evening. Back at the house, we all change outfits for the White Party and prep for the shindig’s headliner, Elle King, by streaming her catalog in its entirety. I’ve heard “Ex’s & Oh’s” enough times to be borderline sick of it, but her cover of the rapper Khia’s raunchy “My Neck, My Back” is a revelation to me, and I remark that it will bring the house down when she performs it.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen because King, pleading laryngitis, cancels her performance at the last minute. This is in theory a huge blow, as King was promoted as the headline act at a festival with a reputation for top-notch musical entertainment. (Most years provide an opportunity to see acts in smaller rooms than they will ever play again – for example, Lady Gaga performed in 2009, just after her first album came out.)
On the other hand, the cancellation is not such a big deal because with an embarrassment of riches booked, it’s not hard to find a crowd-pleasing replacement act. On this evening, celebrity DJ act X Names are called in to play a special midnight set. The duo, composed of lesbian icons Camila Grey (whose day job is performing in Uh Huh Her with Leisha Hailey) and Katherine Moennig (you know her as Shane, from The L Word), keep the party going until the wee hours, and I don’t hear any complaints.
The White Party is primarily a huge dance party with virtually everyone conforming to the all-white dress code. On this evening, the Palm Springs Convention Center (277 N. Avenida Caballeros; 760-325-6611) turns into the world’s largest lesbian nightclub with world-class DJs like Madonna’s touring DJ, Mary Mac, and just enough celebrities to make the rest of us feel lucky to have gotten past the velvet ropes.
The celesbians (well they’re all celebrities, but truthfully not all identify as lesbians) start making their appearance on a red carpet at about 10 p.m. It’s a surprisingly intimate spectacle. Pipi and I have press passes and get to be in the prime front row, but partygoers are allowed to stand right behind us, close enough to snap photos and overhear conversations. All of us get close enough to nearly touch lesbian icons such as model Madison Paige; The Real L Word’s Tracy Ryerson; Elizabeth Keener and Clementine Ford, who both had roles on The L Word; and most of the DJs working the weekend.
Saturday feels a little like Groundhog Day at first. The same thumping techno beat seems to permeate the air, and the day starts at the Hilton Pool again, this time under the name the Cabana Pool Party. The dancing and day-drinking begin at 10 a.m. and officially go until 6 p.m. That’s a long time to steep yourself in Bacardi and Bud Light, but the day is punctuated by enough events to keep anyone from slipping into a coma. For most of the afternoon, up-and-coming turntableists participate in a battle of the DJs. For the non-musical, there’s a beer pong tournament. Keener and Ford sign autographs, and in the late afternoon, X Names performs another live DJ set.
It’s a lot to keep up with, exponentially more intense than yesterday’s laid-back pool fest, both because it’s hotter today and also because the Saturday crowd is more than twice as dense as the Friday gathering. I have to leave the party before X Names finish fiddling with their gear so that I can make a reception at Mariah Hanson’s house for VIPs and media invitees – the one time the whole weekend I feel like I have to choose between two scheduled events.
Perusing the Blue Dog artwork on the walls and sipping poolside drinks in the gorgeous outdoor entertaining area, I can see that The Dinah has been good to Hanson. But she’s good to the Dinah, too, plying her guests with beverages and graciously mingling, enthusiastically telling Pipi and I, both animal lovers, about her two cattle dogs. A few of the celesbians are here, too, and I spot Paige and comedian Fortune Feimster across the pool area. Pipi and I fall into conversation with Katie and Naomi Bennet-Hall, an English couple who produce a web series called She’s in London.
I’m a bit starstruck, but this is just a warm-up for the parade of the rich and gaymous I’m about to encounter. Pipi and I just have time to stop back at the house where Tyana grills us a steak dinner – which beats the heck out of the steam-table burger I had poolside for lunch – before we head off to catch DeLaria perform at the convention center.
DeLaria, one of the first out lesbian performers, is probably best known for playing Big Boo on Orange is the New Black. But she’s a multi-talented artist, and entertains for a full hour with a combination of stand-up comedy on topics like menopause and bargain shopping that probably only she could make funny, and David Bowie cover songs performed in a jazzy style with a piano accompaniment. It’s an odd combination on paper (though not completely out-of-the-blue; DeLaria has just released an album of Bowie songs), but it works.
There’s another red-carpet event immediately following, and Pipi and I scamper over to get a good spot. The A-listers are out tonight. (And so, bless their hearts, are Keener and Ford, two of a small group who appear both evenings.) DeLaria, fresh off her performance, works the crowd. Hyper-kinetic DJ Mary Mac bounds up and down the carpet, mugging and clowning for the cameras, but also stopping to chat thoughtfully with any reporter who asks. Orange is the New Black’s Taryn Manning – she plays Pennsatucky – takes a turn (though we’re told not to ask her any personal questions), and so does Amanda Bearse, America’s Clinton-era lesbian next door. Perhaps the only disappointment is the joint appearance of Moennig, Grey, and Samantha Ronson. The slouchy trio pose cooperatively for photos, but are whisked away by handlers without speaking to anyone.
Afterward, we’re all a little giddy from our encounters with celebrity, but there is more partying left to do. Pansexual rapper Angel Haze plays a thundering set. Though only 23, and having released just one full-length album, Haze has a commanding stage presence and a live show with a beat so pummeling I can feel it in my sternum and see it rattling the bleachers I’m standing on. Part of me wishes she’d stepped in for King, but I’m happy to see her now.
The Dinah lets its foot off the gas pedal slightly on Sunday, but it’s no day of rest. The pool action starts up again at 10 a.m., this time under the moniker of the Wed & Wild Pool Party.
It’s not wild yet at 11 a.m., though, when Paige takes the stage. In fact, it’s downright subdued. The model-turned-rock-star gamely goes ahead with her performance, although at first most of her sparse audience is either hung over or related to her (some might be both). Paige’s bashful, self-effacing energy and self-penned pop-punk tunes win the crowd over quickly, though, and soon the ladies are crawling out of their shady spots to mosh in the sun. Paige’s performance is a little tentative, but a huge success considering that she is a) best known for rocking the catwalk, not the concert stage, b) performing live for the first time in her life, and c) only 23 years old.
Later, there’s the conclusion of yesterday’s DJ battle, a meet & greet with some YouTube stars, one more chance to get Keener and Ford’s autographs, and a DJ performance by Manning. But Pipi and I feel like we’ve observed enough, and our friends are ready to give their livers a rest, and so we all decide to do a little afternoon sightseeing in Palm Springs. Although we enjoy our time taking the tram up to the top of 8,516-foot Mt. San Jacinto, we later find out that leaving the party was a huge mistake, as Gaga was sighted at the pool after we left, relaxing with her little monsters and possibly scouting DJs. Moral: You just never know what’s going to happen at the Dinah. Try not to miss any of it.
With our sightseeing interlude over, it’s time to head back out on the town. There’s traditionally a closing-night party, and this year’s is at Zeldas nightclub, right where the action kicked off Thursday evening. Singer JoLivi performs a set, backed not by a traditional band but by three laptop-wielding musicians performing some kind of techno magic with their computers. JoLivi reveals on Twitter that she’s under the weather, but puts on an energetic set nonetheless, setting the dance floor in motion with her new single, “Games”.
It’s now near midnight on Sunday, and only Poonam and I have made it this far. Tyana and Pipi are back at the house, respectively soaking out the toxins and poring over the already impressive photographic evidence of the weekend. A DJ takes over after JoLivi performs, but we’ve got a long drive back in the morning so we call time on our Dinah experience.
The drive home is a little less animated than the ride down. We’re not looking to the future; we’re reflecting on the weekend that just happened. Or did it? Speeding through the Grapevine, it already seems like a dream. Did I really just party with thousands of lesbians in the desert? (I think I might have – and I also think I asked Hanson how many lesbians were there and I distinctly remember her saying “A lot. Let’s just say there are a lot of women here”). Did I really shake DeLaria’s hand and ask about her favorite travel destination? (Almost positive I did – and I have a voice memo on my recorder that sure sounds like her saying “Paris”). Did I really get sunburned watching a supermodel sing, and attend the same pool party as Gaga? Already, it’s hard to believe.
One thing I am sure of: My lesbian credential is no longer in danger of being revoked. I’m a Dinah Virgin no more.
Tickets to the Club Skirts Dinah Shore Weekend usually go on sale in July for the next year’s festival; the entertainment lineup is announced in early February each year. The festival is the first weekend in April. Tickets can be purchased a la carte for events (2016 prices ranged from $60 for the pool party to $90 for the White Party), or you can purchase a pass that allows entry to every one. The 2016 weekend premium pass cost $279. VIP tickets cost $600.