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All Aboard the
Pink Flight

All Aboard the
Pink Flight

Kathy_griffin

Advocate film critic Kyle Buchanan braves the Kathy Griffin-hosted Pink Flight on Air New Zealand and lives to tell a few tales.

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 bete 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 cliched 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

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Kyle Buchanan