All Aboard the Pink Flight

By Kyle Buchanan

Originally published on Advocate.com February 29 2008 1:00 AM ET

The Arrival

Pink. It's a
color I associate with martinis, Hello Kitty, and Legally
Blonde,
but not an airplane. But then, as I step
into the pre-party for the Air New Zealand trip known as the
Pink Flight, I notice that there are a lot of things about
this flight that you don't normally associate with air
travel. After all, on what other plane ride would
comedian Kathy Griffin be my flight's host, or a
roster of drag queens serve as flight attendants?

"Air New Zealand
is used to doing things differently, as you can see by
tonight," says Jodi Miller, who handles marketing for the
airline. She gestures to the party going on around us
in what would normally be a quiet gate at the San
Francisco airport. It's the sort of scene you'd
normally see in a gay club -- a crowd of good-looking men, a
well-stocked bar, drag queens milling about -- and
that's exactly the intent. The plane's eventual
destination is gay Mardi Gras in Sydney, Australia, and
by putting on such a flamboyant flight, Air New Zealand
hopes to capture a piece of the lucrative gay travel
market.

Conceived by an
Air New Zealand crew member, the inaugural Pink Flight
took off last year from Auckland to Sydney. "We thought,
well, that was pretty good -- but what about San
Francisco to Sydney?" says Miller. Expanding on the
concept to fill a 13-hour plane ride, Miller has put
together a flight plan that could make even the characters
from Priscilla, Queen of the Desert seem butch. In
addition to Kathy and the drag queens, there are feather
boas, an in-flight movie menu that promises a full
assortment of gay classics, and a pink gift bag --
modeled after a 1950s bowling bag -- stuffed with skin
products and pom-poms (and, it must be noted, a copy of
The Advocate).

After a series of
musical performances from our flight attendants (a
group of New Zealand drag queens named Buckwheat, Miss
Ribena, Tess Tickle, and Venus Mantrapp), the
passengers gather at the far end of the gate, where
Kathy Griffin stands, ready to take their ticket. "I'm
like the fuckin' greeter at the Gap," she moans, cracking
jokes in front of a group of cameramen (some shooting
the star for the fourth season of her Bravo series
My Life on the D-list). Griffin is quick
with a quip until she's stymied by the passenger in
front of me -- one of the few straight women attempting to
board. "You're not a gay man!" she says.

The Plane

The plane is only
one half to two thirds full, but the mood is still
festive, and no one minds the extra leg room. There is one
empty seat separating me from my closest neighbor, a
blond 23-year-old journalist named Cameron who writes
for Australia's DNA magazine. Cameron is quite
intercontinental -- he names Brisbane and Madrid as
his two homes, though this will be his first trip back to
Australia since the last Mardi Gras.

Behind us is
Mark, a self-proclaimed circuit party veteran from San
Diego. "I've been to every circuit party in the U.S.," he
tells us, and I'm convinced -- especially when a
well-muscled flight attendant walks down the aisle and
does a double take in front of Mark, claiming that
they've met before. "Was it at gay Mardi Gras last year?"
asks Mark. The flight attendant thinks for a bit. "No, it
was on the Atlantis cruise ship!" That Mark gets
around. His first gay Mardi Gras in Sydney was last
year -- "It's the best in the world" -- and he said he
immediately booked his ticket back the day after. He'd
intended to fly Qantas, but the Air New Zealand tickets were
considerably less expensive and offered the fun
bonuses to boot.

I talk to
unassuming Jordan, a man sitting by himself to my right.
This will be Jordan's first gay Mardi Gras, and the
rowdy Pink Flight pre-party has already opened his
eyes. "When I first came in, I was a little
shell-shocked," he admits. He recalls Buckwheat's vivid
pre-flight performance of "One Night Only" from
Dreamgirls. "She was in this gold, shiny
mermaid dress," he says, then deadpanning: "She's not a
small woman. It was a lot of shimmer."

As the plane
takes off, the drag queens make their first sashay down the
aisle, passing out incoming passenger cards and salacious
come-ons. Even the flight's regular crew members
aren't immune to the double entendres as the drag
queens check to make sure seat belts are fastened with a
lascivious "Nice and tight. Oh, we like it tight."

We also have our
first celebrity sighting, according to Mark. "That's
Kathy Griffin's assistant! She has her own fan club," he
informs us. As Jessica walks down the aisle past us
(in a fetching zebra-print blouse), Mark flags her
down. "You're Kathy Griffin's assistant," he says.
"You have your own fan club." She assents to the former,
though she was unaware of the latter. This is her first time
traveling to Sydney. "But I've seen it on The Real
World,
" she hastens to add.

Kathy Griffin

Soon enough,
Kathy herself heads to the plane intercom to begin her
performance. "Some little girls want to grow up and get
married," she begins. "I had a dream to one day be on
a plane full of gay people." Mission accomplished,
though she jokes that you'll never see Dane Cook
attempting a gig like this. Would Nicole Kidman, the
celebrity bête noire Kathy so often measures
herself against? "No, absolutely not," Kathy laughs.
"Why would she?"

She prods the
passengers to turn her tour manager Tom gay before the
flight ends. "Some rules about the mile-high club: We
encourage it," she says. As Kathy details her upcoming
Sydney itinerary -- including a stand-up performance
in Newtown and a trip to the zoo with Lance Bass --
her assistants pass out stationery that Kathy ganked from
Bette Midler's Las Vegas show. We're to submit a question to
Kathy and she'll answer it during her routine. I
notice Logo's news anchor Jason Bellini scribbling
furiously.

Among the
queries:

Who would you
rather be friends with: Mary-Kate or Ashley?
"Mary-Kate," Kathy says. "I feel like she's more vulnerable.
Plus, Ashley's a little fat."

Who's gayer: Tom
Cruise, Ryan Seacrest, or Clay Aiken? "Seacrest,"
Kathy says without missing a beat. She thinks they
could get their nails painted together.

Is tour manager
Tom well-hung? Everyone laughs, though Tom, who's still
passing out stationery, remains unaware. Kathy demurs,
though she does add, "With one beer, he'll be on his
back singing show tunes." Jason Bellini sidles up to
me and reveals that the question he wrote down was one
of the three I listed above. But which? That, dear reader, I
will leave you to guess.

Her performance
concluded, Kathy continues to work the aisles as
cameramen film her for My Life on the D-list.
She sits on a male passenger's lap and, apropos of nothing,
rides him like a horse as he throws his hands in the
air. "Any wood?" she asks. He shakes his head. "Just
like high school."

Sleeping Hours

After Kathy exits
to business class and the drag queens pass out dinner,
things start to settle down a bit. The first in-flight movie
is sighted on someone's view screen, and it's the
obscure Amanda Bynes starrer Sydney White. Huh? Turns
out the in-flight movie menu hasn't gone all gay -- in
its promotional information, Air New Zealand was
merely spotlighting the gay movies it does program. We can
still watch The Bourne Ultimatum or Michael
Clayton
if our hearts so desire.

As most of the
passengers dim their lights and drift off to sleep (a few
take advantage of the fluffy pink face mask included in our
gift bags), I meet a reality TV producer who takes me
on a whirlwind, Ambien-assisted tour of the plane. We
tour the business class section for the first time
since the lights have gone off, and it's like walking
through a morgue: bodies are laid out on slabs,
covered in white shrouds. The only sign of life is
Kathy Griffin's tour manager, Tom, playing computer chess.

The producer is
determined to find some champagne to wash down the two
Ambien he's already imbibed. We head into the very back of
the plane, where several passengers and members of the
crew are hanging out, drinking. One of the
stewardesses is there too -- Miss Ribena, who is
sitting down, fanning herself. As I peer down at her, I
notice the chest stubble just below her neckline.

I talk more to
the intoxicated producer, who thrusts a pointed finger
into my chest and tells me he's going to give me an insight
into dating: "7's and 8's" should never go after "9's
and 10's." He informs me that since we are both 8's,
we would be great for each other, except that he
already has a boyfriend. I have one too, and I tell him
so, but he is already on an Ambien loop and is asking me my
name again. It's fascinating, this Ambien loop. It
lasts about 10 minutes, and after it's concluded, he
asks me the same questions, having forgotten their
answers. As a writer, I have free rein to answer differently
each time, and he answers differently too, depending
on his mood. How long has he been seeing his
boyfriend? Three years. One year. One and a half. How
many Ambien has he had tonight? Two. One. Two. One and a
half.

Morning

In the morning,
as the drag queens roam the aisles to begin a portion of
the flight titled "Party Party Wake-up," we all smell a bit
ripe from the last several hours of close quarters.
Cameron applies a cologne that attracts the attention
of Buckwheat. "Are you sure you want some?" Cameron
asks. "It's a bit manly." Buckwheat thinks it over.
"Give it to Ribena, then," she says. Venus is the next drag
queen to pass us, and Cameron tells her that she looks
stressed. She is horrified. You do not tell a drag
queen she looks stressed -- it implies some misapplied
makeup.

Eventually roused
from her business class slumber, Kathy Griffin walks
down the aisle, literally tossing out breakfast omelettes
wrapped in aluminum foil. "You can use my fake
eyelashes as a flotation device," she says in the
responsible manner of a flight attendant. Behind me,
Mark loudly asks, "Doesn't she look like Miley Cyrus?"
To me, that's as cruel a slam as telling a drag queen she
looks stressed, but Kathy rises to the occasion. "I
look like Miley Cyrus's little sister," she says.

I talk a bit to
Alan and Christopher, a happily partnered Palm Springs
couple who are celebrating their 32nd year together. "We've
never done an Atlantis cruise or an RSVP cruise
before, although we've always thought about it," says
Alan. "So we thought this might be an interesting way
to go such a long distance and endure 15 to 18 hours of
travel." When the flight crew finds out that it's the
couple's anniversary, they present both men with a
complimentary bottle of Veuve Cliquot. Though we
barely know each other, Cameron and I attempt to
convince Buckwheat that it's our anniversary too. It works,
and I tuck a free bottle of champagne into my pink
bowling bag.

In front of me is
another couple, Jen and Mik, who hail from San
Francisco (though Mik is a native Australian). Mik's been to
Sydney Mardi Gras several times. "It's like the
biggest rush ever to be walking up the street and
having hundreds of thousands of people cheering you on for
being who you are," he says. Since women are a rare sighting
on the Pink Flight, I tentatively ask Mik what his
relationship is to Jen. "We're primary partners," he
begins, "but we have other partners too," she says.
"Yeah, we both like it both ways, preferably at the
same time," he says. It is so cute when
partner-swapping bi couples finish each other's thoughts
like that.

Approaching Touchdown

It's in the
waning hours of the flight, and the passengers are roaming
around the plane, making conversation. Everyone has some
interesting stories to tell, whether it's the
18-year-old straight girl who tells me about her work
as a thoroughbred horse jumper in Canada, or Jason
Bellini, who recalls hitchhiking across Australia as a
teenager. Did he see any kangaroos, I ask? He did:
They would hop across the road and splatter on truck
drivers' windshields. That's one way to do it, I guess.

Buckwheat gets on
the intercom and announces that it's time for the "Hot
Body Contest." It's a midnight staple of sleazy gay
bars everywhere, but I'm not quite ready to see it done on
an intercontinental flight at 7 in the morning. A
dozen brave passengers doff their shirts and march
down the aisles to applause. Even Kathy gets in on the
act, stripping down to her bra. Sadly, she loses to a
hard-bodied man from Wisconsin, who also goes on to win the
"Draw a Drag Queen" art contest. Suspicious -- I
thought I drew a pretty great Buckwheat. I guess I
don't have the abs of a winner. After my defeat,
Cameron shakes his head and chuckles. "Our lives on the
Z-list, huh?" he says. "At least the Z-list gets the best
anecdotes."

Later in Sydney,
when I'm reading about the Pink Flight on the gay blog
Towleroad, I will notice all the comments slamming the idea
as a clichéd embarrassment. It's the same sort of
thing I hear about gay pride parades, and while I'm
not usually into those (too many Abercrombie shirts
and fanny packs), the Pink Flight has been far more
idiosyncratic than its stereotypical trappings might
suggest. If it were reduced to a one-minute clip on
the Fox News Channel, I might have groaned. Good thing
I flew on it instead.

For now, though,
it's time to put the wheels down on the plane, and that
means it's the end of our entertainment. Buckwheat walks
past me and sighs. "I need a shave," she says.

For extensive
photos of the flight go to AdvocateInsider