Naked men, plastic-bag dresses and dildo straws not shown | Image courtesy Hector Le Roux
WARNING: Some of the content of this article is salty, and perhaps even NSFW. Proceed with caution.
Some things you lose and never get back. Usually.
In the 1980s, a group of 30 Yellowknife women challenged that notion with the very first Born-Again Virgin party. It was August, 1983, and Karen Tratt set out to celebrate her good friend Raymonde Carpenter’s upcoming nuptials on a shoestring – she had very little money in those days, Tratt says.
The invitations she made proclaimed that the party would be “a night to reflect over past indiscretions; over past sins and debauchery; over what it is to be single; and to get shit-faced.”
It continued: “In honour of her impending matrimony, please arrive dressed in white and bring your own bottle of white death.”
That was the first invite, but it certainly wasn’t the last. Every year, a theme dictated which colour or fabric (white, black, pink, red, plaid, plastic or polyester) would swathe that year’s crop of Born Again Virgins, or BAVs. And every year, a hand-delivered invitation crafted by Tratt would let 30 to 40 partygoers know what was in store.
Yellowknife in the 1980s was inclusive. Particularly in Old Town, says Amanda Mallon, one of the founding BAVs. “Interspersed with the aboriginal people that were born here in Old Town, there was very much the culture of what made it the Old Town,” said Mallon.
“In the middle of all of these young people moving up to discover the place, there were people in the ’70s and ’80s that were the old-time prospectors and woodcutters, and they were all part of everything. Everything we did, we had our Yellowknife historians in among us. We were really aware. We had people whose traditional lands it was. It really felt like a very honest time.”
Gold mining was still active in town and Old Town, it seemed at the time, was the centre of the universe. Many of the character-filled old shacks had survived and there was a small community of house-boaters starting to grow on the bay.
“I really felt that that was the best of times. We were at the perfect age, it was so open and anybody new and exciting and interesting that came to town we all met them. We were connected to everyone,” said Mallon.
“It was incredibly safe; we really felt that we had the freedom to do whatever we wanted.”
An undated invite from the early days | Courtesy Karen Tratt
The first party was held in a cabin, formerly the Pentecostal Mission, next to the Wildcat Café, according to Mallon:
Raymonde and Bob Carpenter were getting married. They had lived together for a long time and the irony was that Raymonde was going to be married in white. So, the idea was that it was going to grow back after this party, she was born again – it was the whole virginal thing.
We were all invited down to this little shack, and I know there were white drinks and white party tokens.
At some point, we got bored of being in the little shack, so we all piled in various vehicles and we all went up to the strip club – the “Hall of Shame” as we called it, where there was a male stripper.
Raymonde, who was the bride, she got on the stage and that poor guy – I remember she came towards him and he was just terrified.
Carpenter says it was a wild one, involving Bloody Caesars – her favourite drink – as well as a variety of “white” beverages. It also involved some arm wrestling, she recalls, before the trek downtown to visit the male stripper.
I remember going to the strippers, because the guy wouldn’t do it. Could you imagine it? You were all ready to take your clothes off, and 30 women come in.
The fellow would not, whatsoever. Actually, we got kicked out because we were too wild for the whole place. There was so many of us that it was overwhelming for everybody. We were very intimidating; we were quite a wild bunch.
Then we went back to the biker shop, which was in Old Town, by Hak’s Autobody. That’s where the stag was for the boys. We partied all night.
The land of the midnight sun, right? We were full of piss and vinegar.
Full of piss and vinegar: party attendees Donna Smith, Suzanne Morphet, Melody Burnstad, Margo Schick (Hopkins) and Amanda Mallon | Courtesy Karen Tratt
Whatever the theme, the women took to it with gusto. Carpenter says there were no limitations to what the women would show up wearing.
One year we wore plastic. Plastic outfits. Imagination. Just imagine it, we wore it. Dressed up to perfection. We all got very seriously involved in it. They wore bags to make a skirt, vinyl, silly stuff.
Even the black and white party, you’d be amazed what people could come up with.
I think the polyester was hilarious myself because of the old clothing, like your grandfather would wear.
The plastic party was hosted at Carol Nychka’s house. She remembers one party-goer arriving in plastic bags from the Super A down the street, and later passing out on a bench by the fire.
I lived in the first shack when you enter into the Woodyard. We put up a tarp because it was going to be raining, and the theme was plastic and polyester. Karen set up the invitations and I went out with my boyfriend and he took me out into the bush to get pussy willows.
We grabbed a bunch of them, put them in a honey bucket and hung it on the wall, trying to be something cute. I wrote something about “Come and get your pussies.”
Vulgarity was celebrated, and so was the notion of regaining (and then re-losing) virginity. One of the more notable decorations, Tratt says, was white flowers made of paper towel, spotted with flecks of red.
At midnight, the virgin is supposed to be born again.
We had an award called the Broken Head Award – after your maidenhead, your virginity.
I would go and get a mirror and a piece of broken-off wood because I didn’t have any money. I’d shellac the two-by-four and then get a mirror at Sutherland Drugs and break it up with a hammer and stick the pieces into the board.
It went to the woman most likely to lose their virginity after midnight.
Top photo: Clare Holloway, Gail Cyr, Cynthia Brown, Bonnie Logdson; Bottom: The late Kathi McKay (“Winner of the Broken Head Award almost every year” according to Tratt), Gail Cyr | Courtesy Karen Tratt
On that first night in August 1983, before leaving the strip club, the group of women in their 20s and early 30s, all dressed in white, garnered significant attention from the shocked crowd, says Mallon.
We partied up there for long enough to attract the attention of one of our Old Town friends, Mark Scott. He loved ladies and wanted to become part of the party but we said, “No. No men allowed.”
So, here we are at the birth of the most notable tradition of the BAV party.
He followed us back down to the little cabin where we were partying and someone said, “You can’t come in unless you take your clothes off.”
I was like, “Do you know who you just invited to take his clothes off?”
And that was it; like a shot, his clothes were off.
While the women dressed to perfection, the men dressed to the women’s liking. After pressure from persistent men, the organizers amended the women-only rule: men were allowed in after midnight, but if they showed up even a minute before, they had to take off their clothes.
In those days, Mallon says, there was little resistance.
Do you know how many men in the ‘80s loved taking their clothes off? A lot. Several. Repeatedly.
So we partied in this cabin with a naked Mark Scott for a while, and then decided to crash the boys party at the bikers’ club.
These guys were bikers in the early ‘80s, all good people, but they were crude and they were lewd and it was late in the evening.
All these women in white showed up at the bikers’ club with a naked Mark Scott. And Mark Scott had a really nice butt, so the bikers thought, until he turned around, and they saw he wasn’t a girl.
And, that was the first party.
In the years following, the Born-Again Virgin party moved to various locations, from shacks to trailers to the Wildcat Café – a location the women agree was the site of one of the wildest events. Also one where an unsuspecting male attendee was introduced to the naked-man tradition, without the same enthusiasm as those before him, says Kathy Arden.
There was a new guy that was in town, he was sort of my friend, and I told him I was going and he said, “Can guys come?”
I said, “You can come but you have to come naked before midnight.”
So, we got there, and it was just before midnight, maybe five minutes to. A couple girls had this wild idea because it was so close to midnight and this guy came with his clothes on, they surrounded him and started attacking him to take his clothes off. He started freaking out.
I had to go rescue him, pull him from those women’s clutches and drag him out the door.
It was already close to midnight, I thought he’d be safe.
Frequently naked “Cominco” Greg Loftus, with Cathy Arden on his lap. Linda Todd in doorway | Courtesy Karen Tratt
Other men took to the no-clothes-before-midnight rule quite happily. Kit Spence showed up, probably to the Wildcat party in a suit and tie after a city meeting – he was a councillor at the time. The suit and tie didn’t last long, Spence recalls.
I distinctly remember one party, I have no idea what year it was. I thought I was abiding by the rules; I was pretty sure it was after midnight when I arrived but there were some women who believed that it was in breach of the rules, so some women took to executing that and stripped me down.
I have a pictures of myself standing on the table in the Wildcat in the nude… I was just talking to a couple of the girls and everything was fine but there were a couple in particular that were pretty adamant that I shouldn’t be there unless I took my clothes off, and it went downhill from there.
I remember the party, I remember laughing, and I remember being on the table.
While the parties celebrated femininity, penises were feted as well, with condom balloons, phallic candles and all, says Arden.
There was one time, I had gotten a rubber dildo with a straw in it for my birthday and I took it to the vestal virgin party. I stuck it in a drink. I was drinking through it while we were all standing around the fire.
One of our friends, he showed up naked and comes strutting down the street in his work boots, buck naked.
We said, “Welcome, come on in”.
He came in and was standing there and I thought, “Oh, this is going to be good”.
He was standing on the opposite side of the fire, so I stuck this dildo in the zipper of my jeans and went over and stood beside him.
Everybody that could see me on the opposite side started laughing and he didn’t know why they were laughing.
Finally, I said, “Look here”.
So, I took my dildo out, I’m drinking through my straw and another friend of ours comes by and is like, “What the hell you got in there, Kathy?”
I said, “Oh, it’s a rubber dildo I got for my birthday, it has a straw in the middle.”
She grabbed it, she had these really beautiful, pearly-white teeth, and she grabbed it, chopped off the end of the dildo and spit it out and it went flying across the fire into the willows.
Mallon hosted two BAV parties at her shack. After four trips past “pretty-in-pink princesses” to empty the honey bucket at the second party, she stopped offering.
We had one at my place where, one of the men that used to like to take his clothes off at the drop of a hat, he heard there was a Born-Again party, and he knew the tradition. So, he thought it was a great opportunity to do what he liked best: party naked.
My house was at the end of a dead-end road. Before you got to the end of the road on the other side there were a bunch of squatters facing the lake, but on the other side there was a little Old Town house that had just been bought by new people. They decided that Saturday night to have their housewarming party.
They had a big picture window that looked out on the lake and the road, but they couldn’t see my house.
I later heard from someone else who was in their house, “We knew something was going on because we saw a trickle of people going by and then we saw this one guy go by… ” He came down the road dressed normally, came into my yard and all of the women were yelling, “You can’t be here until you take your clothes off.” That’s what he was waiting for.
He went back down the road without paying attention and he happened to stop behind a bush right in front of the picture window. The people are in there and see this guy walk down the road, come back, stop, start to take off all of his clothes, carefully fold them up, put his socks and his shoes back on and walk down the street to my house naked.
While the naked man tradition was certainly a notable one, the parties really were all about the women. After moving to town in 1985, Jewel Bailey attended her first party – the third installment of the BAVs.
I was in awe of these incredible women.
I remember one [party] at Carol Nychka’s shack. They were all so much fun, but that one I have a vivid memory of one girl just dressed from head to toe in grocery bags – the theme being plastic.
They were so much fun, these women. Anything went. Imaginations were unstoppable. Being new to Yellowknife, from Ontario, I just couldn’t believe this amazing group of women.
They were fun and uninhibited, I just thought, “Oh my lord, this is so cool”. It blew me away. There was such a freedom of everyone that was so cool. It was a wonderful entrance to Yellowknife, a wonderful time to be part of the Old Town. I just felt so lucky, so blessed to live in that era for a little bit of time.
The annual parties were an event everyone looked forward to, says Patti Garbutt. Where did they came from? Karen Tratt’s mind, she says.
These parties grew. As the years went on, they would get bigger and bigger.
The feedback was always, “ Holy shit, that was a great party”.
When we think about them, that’s all we think about, laughing because we had so much fun.
We were lucky we didn’t get busted at some of them because they were so fun and so loud. Back then, the town was different. You could get away with stuff like this.
They were just wild.
Someone fell in the fire one year. We pulled her out, dusted her and kept on partying. She was fine. Hair was a little burnt but that didn’t matter.
The parties continued into the late ‘80s – winding down after Tratt moved to Calgary. The group even gathered money together to fly her back for a final party in 1988.
Attempts were made at reviving the tradition in the 1990s, and a cabin down the Ingraham Trail became a site for some later installments. The designated driver, one of the regular men in attendance, even chauffeured the women to the site in the buff.
Eventually, people began having children, some moved away, and some have since passed on.
Looking back at the parties, Carpenter says she remembers them all – the women were just having fun.
We were all reborn, that’s for sure. Basically it was a bunch of us hanging around drinking, dancing and enjoying each other’s company and it lasted for years.
In those days, you’re in Yellowknife and you felt like a kind of pioneer.
We were a bunch of wild women with full power in our self-esteem.
We were a hard bunch. A really happy, hard bunch.
We’re still a pretty wild bunch, actually. Even though we’re in our 50s.