If you could pick up Detroit’s Dirty Show and plunk it down in any other city, it wouldn’t be the same. There’s something uniquely Detroit about the annual erotic art show, which has become a veritable institution in this Midwestern Rust Belt town. It’s not just the public bondage displays or the simulated sex acts that have made the exhibit, which premiered in 1999, so successful, though these are typical examples of what draws an audience from all over the planet.
No, the show is successful, founder Jerry Vile tells Pride Source, because it’s just so genuinely welcoming. “When we say all are welcome, it’s just true,” he says. “And you’ll see it all, too,” he adds with a knowing chuckle.
He doesn’t just mean the performers and exhibitionists — Dirty Show patrons come from every walk of life, from straight-laced suburban married couples to scantily-clad exhibitionists to queer throuples and quads and people who embrace any fetish you can dream up. All ages, all genders, all sizes, all races and nationalities, all gathered together to see it all.
In the beginning, Vile says, the show was a money suck. “We didn’t make money for five years,” he recalls. Early on, the show was a one-day event that fit inside a small part of Detroit’s Eastern Market and, at one point, the offices of the now-defunct, alt-culture ’90s publication Orbit Magazine, where Vile served as head editor.
The 2024 Dirty Show, set for two weekends in February (Feb. 9-10 and 16-17), will take place at the Russell Industrial Center, a former auto factory turned commercial artist complex. The facility offers plenty of room for four full days of erotic performance art, burlesque and drag performances (an eclectic mix that includes national “Drag Race” contestants and local favorites like DeAngela Show Shannon Jackson), sexy musical acts, wandering entertainers and lots and lots of bare skin on stage and off. Just about any flavor of sexual expression imaginable can be found in this feast for all senses.
Highlights of the 2024 event include a Burlesque Extravaganza with burlesque and striptease performers from all over the U.S., an artwork gallery with original pieces and prints for sale created by renowned erotic artists, the Cinerotic Film Festival, go-go-dancers, a spanking booth and much, much more.
Queer representation at the Dirty Show has become a cornerstone of the event over the years. “Are there queer artists involved? Um, yes,” Vile assures me with a chuckle, before rattling off a list of names that certainly sound inclusive. “There’s Faggedy Randy, King Molasses — he’s a drag king — Samson Night. I think these people are, but you should check, never assume. And we want to get the pronouns right, too.”
Due diligence reveals that Vile was on the right track with his suggestions. Chicago-based performer Faggedy Randy (Burlesque Hall of Fame’s Duchess of Burlesque) was happy to chat about his involvement, which includes performances with his husband P No Noire, who won the Burlesque Hall of Fame titles of Mr. Exotic World and King of Burlesque in 2022. Randy will celebrate his birthday during the first weekend and perform a special Valentine’s act with a Tom Jones soundtrack. “I love combining sexy with stupid — it’s kind of my whole personality,” he says. Randy will be performing at his second show and promises that even the “straightest of straight men can enjoy a Faggedy Randy striptease.”
Randy’s act might be on the light side, but he’s serious about the importance of queer representation. “Sexuality and gender representation is awesome,” he says. “People come to the Dirty Show to see erotic art and step away from sexual repression. Being able to see a performer representing something you identify with can be very fulfilling and inspiring and affirming.”
“Sexuality is for everyone,” he adds. “It’s human nature. So it’s important to showcase as much of the spectrum of sexuality as possible because I guarantee you, the attendees’ sexualities are also all over the place.”
Samson Night is another Dirty Show performer who focuses his act on burlesque but from a very different angle. Night (reigning Burlesque Hall of Fame Queen of Burlesque and Miss Exotic World 2023) is a well-regarded mainstream performing arts professional, but he enjoys the freedom of expression that comes with his work in burlesque. He tends to keep the two worlds separate. “Burlesque allows you the space to create your own narrative,” he says. “Many of the scripts written for people who look like me barely scratch the surface of who I am and where we are.”
Burlesque, Night says, allows him to create acts that encompass the full spectrum of his experience as a Black man, “whether that is being able to express sexuality without fear of it being weaponized or being comedic without being the butt of the joke.” Night’s act is sometimes political or a vehicle for paying homage to his ancestry. Other times, it’s just about enjoying the freedom and joy of dancing. “Having the choice to express those things is what makes burlesque special to me,” he explains.
If there’s a common denominator to be found among Dirty Show performers, it might be a lack of clothing. Skin is, after all, the sexiest suit of all. What does founder and sexy-circus leader Vile suggest attendees wear, or not wear, to the Dirty Show? “Well, you can wear jeans and a T-shirt or you can wear a suit,” Vile advises. “You can be kinky or sex-positive and gender does not apply, ever. It’s a very safe place to just... be.”
Feb. 9 and 10 and Feb. 16 and 17, 7 p.m.-2 a.m., Detroit Industrial Center (1600 Clay St., Detroit). Visit dirtydetroit.com for more information and to reserve tickets, which are also available at retailers Noir Leather in Royal Oak, Roadshow in Roseville and Found Sound in Ferndale.