Out on the Piste | What Really Happens at European Gay Ski Week
A brutal homophobic attack could have marred the event, but then we dialled up the love...
As the mountaintops above the French resort of Les Menuires blush peach in the setting sun, European Gay Ski Week 2018’s daily après-ski session on the large terrace of Tex Mex pizzeria hits its stride. Around 300 LGBTQ+ men and women bounce, beers, vins chauds or champagne in hand, to the funky house basslines throbbing from the sound system. Gym-pumped go-go boys on podiums tease the crowd beneath flapping rainbow banners and kaleidoscopic drag giantesses snap into supermodel shapes on stage. And then the music stops. “I want you all to send some love today to one of our family who is recovering in hospital,” says singer Tonnic over the mic.
“There’s more to the event than just pornstar-bodied boys in precariously overloaded undercrackers”
For the first time in its ten-year history, the nomadic Alpine sports and social festival had suffered homophobic aggression - not once, but twice. The first physical attack on European Gay Ski Week (EGSW) guests resulted in swift arrests and charges - and thankfully didn’t cause any major harm. But the second left a guest - who'd been by himself after a party - with serious injuries. Meanwhile, the clutch of international drag artists serving as the event’s hostesses were subjected to repeated threatening verbal abuse.
“The people of Les Menuires are as disgusted as we are,” Tonnic continues. “They love our event and have increased police and security numbers. We will not stand for homophobia in any form, and will continue to show the small-minded they will not win, by celebrating our diversity and staying visible. Please, move around the resort in groups, look after each other, and stay safe.”
As the tunes resume, a hugging outbreak sweeps the crowd. Gay men and women hug friends and lovers old and new. Straight locals hug gay guests, then hug each other. The dancing restarts, and the après resumes its irresistible build to another night packed with performance, dinners and parties.
A veteran of four gay ski weeks (Aspen’s twice and Telluride’s, both in Colorado, and a sadly now defunct event in Åre, Sweden) and half a lifetime of Pride celebrations, I’ve never seen such a diverse crowd mixing with such ease and warmth.
“I am interviewed by a Russian woman who organises orgies for a living, to test my suitability to ghost-write her memoirs”
A 70-something straight transvestite in a Lorraine Kelly wig trades flirty banter with a pack of smooth-cheeked Dutch twinks. Ballsy British girls braving the sub zero in crop tops jostle for podium space with avuncular American bears. Guests’ straight mates in comically crap DIY demi-drag coquet their way to the front of drinks queues. In one après session, among the predominantly British crowd I meet guests from Belgium, Venezuela, Israel, Switzerland, France and Canada, and am briefly interviewed by a Russian woman who organises orgies for a living to test my suitability to ghost-write her memoirs. (I discover later that China, Azerbaijan and the Bahamas are also among the 43 countries represented here, among 750-plus EGSW guests).
“These attacks are really sad,” says Igor, a lawyer who I’ve been snowboarding with all day. “But I think I’m less shocked than many. Although I live in London now, I’m from Poland, and gay people in Central and Eastern Europe are mostly made to feel like third-class citizens, stuff like this is not unusual. To be able to be visible like this, to just be yourself with like-minded people and feel respected and celebrated… it’s amazing. It’s a refuge.”
With global LGBTQ+ travel now valued at more than $218 billion a year, the gay ski week format is an established staple of pink winter. Aspen started the trend 41 years ago and still pulls thousands of guests, as do younger annual festivals in Mammoth California, Whistler Canada and Queenstown New Zealand. But while various events followed suit in France, Switzerland, Austria and Sweden, for years no single European event managed to generate comparable momentum and scale.
“A Jägerbomb counts as a cocktail when you’re in the mountains, right?”
…until a former colleague asked promoter Kevin Millins how he’d go about it. Millins’ bodacious credits include co-running the iconic London gay club Heaven for 15 of its most successful years, being the UK’s most successful rave producer for a good chunk of the acid house era and legendarily crowning 1985’s London Gay Pride by sending Divine down the Thames singing live on top of a paddle steamer. He also loves skiing. “I thought, ooh, if I did that, I could ski for free,” he laughs. And European Gay Ski Week was born.
Take a quick scoot around europeangayskiweek.com and you could be forgiven for thinking that, skiing and snowboarding aside, the event is all panto-camp drag, boozy dance parties and pornstar-bodied boys in precariously overloaded undercrackers. These are the standard, if overworked, marketing tropes for LGBTQ+ entertainment’s highest-spending audience sector: gay men.
“It does all look a bit generic Eurogay on the surface, doesn’t it?,” says Manchester-based alternative drag artist Cheddar Gorgeous (aka Michael Atkins PhD), who has performed at the event for the last four years. “But the fact that the organisers are reaching out to artists like me tells me they are interested in pushing things forward in terms of more contemporary entertainment, and different ways of being queer.”
“My drag doesn’t conform to gender binary. People don’t know if I’m a king, queen, alien, monster or drag unicorn. Which I quite like, I’m quite happy to confuse people - and the guests have really embraced me, they are really ready to celebrate all our differences, as well as our commonalities.”
“There have got to be more ways for gay people to find community than dancing around in jockstraps shoving dildos up each other, haven’t there dear?”
“One of the things I love most about this event is that everyone else in the resort gets to see, as well as flamboyant parties where we’re all celebrating our difference in very visible ways, LGBTQ+ people doing really normal stuff - like having dinner, enjoying nature, getting some healthy exercise. That in itself readjusts the way people who may never have encountered a gay person see us. It helps them understand we’re not just stereotypes and they have nothing to fear from us.”
“I mean, there’s nothing wrong with expressing togetherness by dressing up extravagantly, celebrating the hard-won battles to love who we want, and showing the world we’re not ashamed. And the events of this week show we need to keep asserting ourselves. But there have got to be more ways for gay people to find community than dancing around in jockstraps shoving dildos up each other, haven’t there dear?”
Bacchanalia, pecs, wigs, sex… all of these are indeed present and correct, and still, for much of the crowd at least, well within their sell-by date. “I guess I’m a bit of stereotype,” shrugs Lockie, a Switzerland-dwelling Australian financial project manager who has been to EGSW with his Swiss husband four years running. “Always first waving a rainbow flag at a Pride parade. And I enjoy planning all my outfits for the parties, I usually have about seven per day. Shoot me, I love it.” But as suggested by the diversity of the attendees, EGSW’s offer is far more extensive and nuanced.
Attempting to do it all is potentially ruinous – as this writer discovered to his cost, missing the week’s first perfect bluebird morning after ending an epic have-it-all day necking rainbow shots at the white-themed Snowball till chucking-out time.
Experienced guests (and some 60 percent, as repeat customers, know their shit by now) cherry-pick their own bespoke schedules from the heaving programme. Many choose to ski, catch a mellow buzz at après, then take in a cosy dinner and a cabaret set with friends before an early(ish) night. Some take a fully nocturnal route, just about managing breakfast before après, then bingeing on the dedicated club nights and after-hours sessions which run till 5AM.
“The organisers are interested in pushing things forward in terms of more contemporary entertainment, and different ways of being queer”
For those who want it, the daytime downhilling is serious. It’s a key USP that EGSW switches location every two years, and strictly between the biggest and best ski areas in the Alps. Les Menuires sits at the heart of the world’s second biggest lift-linked ski area, the 3 Valleys. Other EGSW bases have included the vast Espace Killy, Portes du Soleil and Alpe d’Huez, home to the world’s longest black run. For 2019 it touches down for the first time in Paradiski, (435km of pistes and more than 2,000m of vertical drop, stats fans).
Choosing resorts like this means there is something for every ability level. (It also, handily, generally means there’s an above-par dining and bar selection.) For learners and improvers the event provides an EGSW-exclusive ski school, with preferential rates and small class sizes to encourage strangers to bond. For the confident, there are no fewer than 15 free, full-day, guided groups. These are divided up by sporting ability, and the all important question of how much time (and money) members want to devote to lunching.
I am honoured on my last day with an invitation to dine with one of the ‘Steady Gourmet’ skiing groups - a seniorish bunch of fruitily affable old friends, whose daily pleasure is a lingering, wine-rich meal in a different spectacularly-located, high-end mountain restaurant, sandwiched between a few leisurely runs. And a cheeky cocktail stop or two.
“I love it all, but to me, the groups are the icing on the cake,” says Lockie. I joined him in ‘Gays on Trays’ (a cheesy ‘90s skier-to-snowboarder insult repurposed as team moniker by the fastest of EGSW’s snowboarding groups) to spank pretty much all of the 3 Valleys’ 600km of pistes, plus a fair few of the broadercross courses and snow parks, over the course of the week. “Skiing and snowboarding are generally 99 percent dominated by families and straight guys, so to be able to buddy up with a like-minded bunch and just go for it is a real treat. Straight away it connects you to people you then bump into at dinner, or around the resort. Or at the fetish party.”
“Straight away it connects you to people you then bump into at dinner, or around the resort. Or at the fetish party”
“Snow is the great democratiser”, Millins tells me over cocktails (a Jägerbomb counts as a cocktail when you’re in the mountains, right?). “As soon as you’re sliding down a mountain, everyone from students to CEOs are mixing on a level social playing field”, (as are they also, it turns out, when down to their Speedos at the pool party). EGSW’s flexible pricing structure reinforces this function - there are options for those who want to share a room in a no-frills, two-star, self-catering apartment, guests who want full-service five-star hotel bling, and everyone in between.
Post-après, there’s a nightly cabaret show - generally an amiably knockabout session of karaoke, comedy, a game show or a pub quiz. It’s hosted by the EGSW drag hostesses, one of whom, Brazilian Abby OMG, deserves a special mention for some honey badger-fierce voguing in a metallic, Barbarella cage-dress on the poky, low-ceilinged stage of Le Skilt restaurant. Some guests tell me they’d prefer a little more of the corporate polish and pizazz of the big North American events across EGSW as a whole. But personally, I love the slightly DIY, post-punk production vibe, which is never more apparent than at these chaotic cabaret turns.
A more finessed act is LaDiva, whose totally WTF vocal range and beyond-potty-mouthed stage banter transcends the inevitable Celine/Whitney/Elsa-from-Frozen belters. The live-singing Belgian drag queen also brings jaw-dropping new dimensions to quirkier choices, like Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights. British singer songwriter Nicolette Street’s soulful troubadour stylings meanwhile, prove a refreshing gear-change, often providing a particular focus for female guests.
“Abby OMG deserves a special mention for some honey badger-fierce voguing in a metallic, Barbarella cage-dress on the poky, low-ceilinged stage”
“Yeah, there are way more men than women,” says Street. “But it’s amazingly inclusive. Kevin and the team are working pretty hard at making the event welcoming to women, who traditionally haven’t been targeted by big LGBTQ+ events the way gay men are. This year women have their own dedicated website that shows what the week looks like from a female point of view. I have straight friends who’ve come too, loved it, and will definitely be back.”
With après and cabaret out the way, it’s party time. Registering somewhere between frisky and balls-out wild, each night’s dance blowout is hosted by a different high-profile gay club night from around the world. 2018’s line-up includes Tel Aviv’s Tintoros, Amsterdam’s Bear Necessity and the European debut by LA behemoth Masterbeat. The erotic party, hosted by Las Vegas’ infamous hornfest HustlaBall is, I’m told, the week’s hottest night (although I unfortunately miss it when my post-dinner disco nap turns into me crashing out for the night).
All top-drawer Alpine resorts also have elaborate swimming/sauna/steam complexes, and the pool party, with sounds in 2018 from London’s Sexshooters, is a reliable highlight. “Where else do you get five drag queens in full make-up ruling the room from floating inflatable unicorns?” says Carmen, a pansexual environmental law enforcement officer from East London. “And let me tell you, those saunas and steam rooms downstairs are BU-SY.”
While Millins concedes it’s always a sensitive moment in negotiations when he has to tell the host resort’s mayor he wants a dark room at the after-hours venue, the people Les Menuires could hardly be happier with the event. Tourism Director Marlène Giacometti says: “The first year, we had maybe four complaints from people who didn’t like ‘this kind of event’. I don’t care about that. I knew this was a perfect event for us, to show we are a modern, progressive and welcoming resort.
“Where else do you get five drag queens in full make-up ruling the room from floating inflatable unicorns?”
“After the first year, we had a meeting with 40 local business owners to discuss whether we wanted to host the event again. 100 percent said ‘Yes, of course’.” No doubt, it does no harm that a table of EGSW guests typically drops between two or three times a regular table spend. “Good customers? Absolutely,” says Giacometti.
She says she and colleagues felt personally outraged by the attacks earlier in the week. “We quickly identified the group responsible and the police did all they could very quickly.”
The communal horror at the attacks is palpable in the resort. Business owners rush to commiserate and reassure guests of their welcome and support, and one young resort worker, after a heroically vodka-detuned version of Crash Test Dummies’ Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm at karaoke night, makes an impassioned, impromptu speech in defence of his “brothers and sisters who have brought so much joy to Les Menuires”.
Broader affection for the event is plain to see every morning too: Families on their way to the ski lifts hoist their kids onto their shoulders to watch ‘Lunges with Lady Galore’, when the drag posse’s den mother and sidekicks – their two to four hours of make-up and outfit prep dazzlingly apparent even at 10am – lead 200 ski-ready queens in a warm-up routine to Madonna and Kylie classics. “And the après vibes spreads far beyond the venue,” says Igor. “I had to go to the medical centre after I had a fall, and you could hear the music in the surgery. The doctor was dancing and singing while he treated me.”
Personally it’s EGSW’s euphoric, easy-going sense of community that most inspires me. A generous kinship, always on the brink of laughter, that effortlessly bonds not just guests, but also locals and other visitors to Les Menuires. This is pretty unique, and far harder to create than just a mass ski trip - or a banging talent line-up.
As Carmen, a gay rights activist for more than 20 years, puts it. “[EGSW] sends a really positive message. Little kids with their parents see there’s nothing scary or wrong about men kissing men, women kissing women, or hot, flirty dancers shaking their butts in nothing but a thong, a hat and a furry tail in freezing temperatures. It’s just fun, inclusive, trouble-free good times for everyone. Life’s about love, people.”
European Gay Ski Week 2019 takes place in Les Arcs, France, from March 23-30th. Head to the European Gay Ski Week website for further info and to book packages and accommodation.
Rupert Mellor is a freelance writer based in London.