The kooky, drunken, oft-divorced showgirl Lavinia Draper is a favorite fixture of Stonewall, Excelsior and Fire Island. She’s a character inhibited by actress, singer, writer, teacher and comedienne Susan Companaro, but in many ways she’s much more than that. Susan/Lavinia chats with Thotyssey about how she got here, where’s going, and everything in between!
Thotyssey: Hi Susan! I’ll call you Susan for this interview, since you do a lot more than perform as our beloved Lavinia! You recently rang in your 50th birthday, congratulations! How did the festivities go?
Lavinia Draper/Susan Campanaro: My 50th party was amazing at the Stonewall Inn. My dear friends Kurt Kelly [the owner] and Mike Salinari [the manager], and Melissa and Chocolatina threw me a huge event with performers and piano players I have worked with over the last 25 years. So many family and friends came. I loved it. I sat like a queen, and gorgeous. And did a little singing and dancing myself, of course.
What’s your secret to looking so young?
My secret to looking so young is Botox [laughs], hot yoga, 100 push-ups a day, squats, vitamins, vitamin C oil, coco butter, cream with retinol, safe sex and laughter.
So, where are you from, and what was life like while you were growing up?
I grew up in Palm Beach, Florida. I played a lot of tennis, and lived on the ocean. As a child, we played “Red Rock” (you throw a red rock, tell your friend to find it in the ocean, then your friend throws and you fetch). This is before the internet: the Dark Ages. I was the only Italian [kid mixed in] with all blond, blue eyed kids, and flat busts. I shaved my legs in the second grade, cuz I was hairy.
So, how long have you been an actor/performer? What came first, the singing or the acting?
I was first a dancer, then actor, then singer. At 18, I was picked up by the Black Light Theater of Prague, Ta Fantastika, and I performed live animation. It was great [in that there was a lot of] traveling, and I learned how to drink straight vodka!
My High School acting teacher suggested I audition [for roles]. I won awards as a kid for my improvisational skills in a Commedia dell’arte play we created. I was always dramatic. In college–FSU–I sang (not well).
It was in my first off-Broadway show, Tony-n-Tina’s Wedding, that I started to really become a singer. I met great artists there, like Debra Barsha (conductor of Jersey Boys), Lina Kautrakaus and Nancy Timpanaro (both cabaret headliners). They saw my talent and mentored me. Than I worked at The Duplex as a piano bar waitress, and learned from great singers of Broadway how to sell a song. Those were the days! I worked on Monday night, packed with the Broadway people. Best times.
I always thought that Tony-n-Tina’s Wedding would be really fun to see, but not so fun to act in, because you have to interact with the audience and stay in character while a lot of them try to trip you up!
It changed the course of my life. I love the show, and the friendships I made there are the strongest in my life. I played all the lead female roles over 25 years, from bridesmaid, to Bride, to Mother. My favorite role–although I love them all–is my rendition of Loretta for the 25th anniversary show, the caterers wife. She is a showgirl, and that is my favorite type of role.
You’ve had a very interesting performing career! I was looking at your reel on YouTube, and I see that you had some lines in an episode of The Sopranos opposite James Gandolfini. What was it like working with him?
James Gandolfini was a gentlemen. Regular Italian guy. Just kisses me on the cheek immediately, and was like a family member.
How and when did you create Lavinia Draper?
I created Lavinia Draper for a cabaret I came up with called TYA (Theater for Young Audiences), [collaborating] with Janine Molinari (owner of Dance Molinari) and Darius Frowner (great piano player), like 16 years ago.
Lavinia was a 29 year-old drunk chorus girl.. This [was her] price [for] trying to get a Broadway job, but could only land a children’s theater show. As time went on, I made more variety shows, and Lavinia became older and drunker. And all of a sudden, she was a stand in for Betty Buckley.
When did you start performing at gay venues as Lavinia?
First was the Slide, way back in like 1999. It was a crazy speakeasy off 4th Avenue and 2nd Street, I believe, by Marion’s. Joey Talino (who passed away from HIV-related [symptoms]–it still happens. Too young to die. I loved him). created a talent show on Sunday night with a crazy queen, ShaBoomBoom, as the host. I was a resident judge, and he would have two other nightlife girls join me each week. I always performed once, in a drunken stupor: take my clothes off and hang from the rafters in my bikini singing, or run up the stairs to the street singing. DJ Aaron Elvis was our guy (love Him, he is in LA now). Micheal Musto came every Sunday; he wrote about me, and then I was Somebody [laughs].
Give us a little more insight into Lavinia’s backstory.
Lavinia married her manager, Walter Greenfield, at 17. He got her a start in Vegas at Circus Circus Casino, and than started pimping her out in LA for the stand-in jobs . First was Carrie, standing in for Betty Buckley as the gym teacher. Than she divorced him during Cats, and she went to England while Betty was in Sunset Blvd and met Nigel Wrangell, her first gay husband. Then she went Miami on a bender, and married the porter of a disco, thinking he was the owner of the club. She cane out of a blackout as a bigamist.
She’s had quite a life! By the way, is it fun being in your bikini or underwear onstage as Lavinia so often?
I love it. I think it is a byproduct of being a drunk. I loved to be naked, or almost naked!
But these days, in real life, you (Susan) are sober, right?
Yes, clean and sober for 25 years!
Good for you! A lot of keeping Lavinia alive and real onstage involves constant improv on your part. I understand you’re also an improv and method acting teacher?
I created my own style of improv based on method acting, and finding out what the actors blocks are and exercising them until the actor is open. A lot of laughter, tears, comedy, drama and fun. It is a true breakthrough class. If anyone wants to open up their instrument, I suggest you come take my class.
What are your favorite songs to sing as Lavinia?
You perform with your gurl Chocolatina a lot. How did you two hook up?
She came to the Duplex and we just hit it off. I love Martin Howard (Chocolatina) so much. He is a famous chef, and I was told not to bother him because he was famous. But I never heard of him, so I was just Me, and he loves me!
We first got together when I hosted the 40th Stonewall Anniversary float on the Gay Pride Parade, and he was Miss Stonewall. That was how we bonded. Then we created shows together, and traveled a bit as Lavinia and Coco. Then we started hosting–for the last 7 years–the Oscar’s and the Tonys at Stonewall.
It was intense when I walked through the crowd to get inside Stonewall. But the feeling in the club was pure love. We raised over $4000 for our animal charities, and we rose to the occasion because that is how we roll.
You also perform at Stonewall as Lavinia every few months with your background singers, “The Four Bottoms.” Who are they?
Anthony Fett, Freddie Cosmo, Jon Barker and his husband Scruff, and Tre de Ambrosia. Kenny Holcomb is a special guest. Kenny is a nightlife icon and the other boys are winners from Stonewall Sensation, a live singing contest that I judged for many seasons with Ariel Sinclair.
When will you be at Stonewall next?
I will be hosting the back door (7th Avenue between Christopher &10th) on Gay Pride, from 12 to 7.
You’re one of Fire Island’s best known performers. You have two shows at the Ice Palace on Cherry Grove: the Lone Girl Show on Monday nights, and then Wicked Wednesdays. How long have you been performing on the Island, and what drew you to there?
I have been a headliner there for seven years. I am.proud to be part of the community. I love it. I started 10 years ago, going out to guest on Broadway at the Beach hosted by Brandon Cutrel. Lavinia always made a huge impression. Kenny Holcomb (he makes all.my posters!) told the manager to hire me, and that was it.
I think performers like you, who sing live and have an intimacy with the audience, do very well in Cherry Grove. Why do you think that might be?
I think people like it, but it is a Boys Town, and I am a regular vagina girl. So I have to work extra hard. I think I am appreciated for my warmth, humor and singing. They like to connect on Cherry Grove. They like to feel like a part of things. So, my style works with bring people into the fun.
I understand you’re bringing back a show you wrote for Lavinia at the Community House on July 23rd! Tell me about “5 Minutes Miss Draper.”
It is the story of Lavinia Draper from birth to 63. It tells all of her stories in long form, through song or dialogue, and it will make you laugh and cry. I wrote 15 original songs with Lynn Portas. The idea was conceived by my comedy, and my DJ and artistic director Richard Kennedy and Mark Nayden (owners of Excelsior bar in Brooklyn).
Speaking of Excelsior, you also frequently perform there, I guess about once a month. When will you be back?
I will be back there on June 24th, for Mark Nayden’s birthday party. I love it there. Chocolatina and I were just there for Gay Pride Brooklyn. It is a beautiful club, and I perform upstairs in what I like your call the Starlight Lounge. The venue is great because it has five different areas: outside garden, front room to chat, gorgeous copper long bar, back lounge with pillar couches, and upstairs showroom for dancing and entertainment. Great for private parties.
Does it become easier to write material for Lavinia over time, or harder?
It is easy. I just let my imagination expand. There is always something to help her grow.
I see you’re still acting, and in a movie that’s filming this summer called Barrio Boy, you’re playing Lavinia!
is the working producer on Barrio Boy. It is short film that got a lot of attention about a young Latino closeted hairdresser who falls for a young man who comes in his barrio barbershop. Lavinia plays herself in a nightclub welcoming him into the nightlife scene. Maybe some other parts as well, but those are top secret!
As Lavinia, do you consider yourself a drag queen?
I usually say I am a female drag queen. But Lavinia is just me, she is who she is!
I guess you had a drag daughter, Angel Draper, but something happened and she kind of publicly severed that tie with you. Was this a mutual thing?
Well, Angel wants to be famous, so her infamous nature is prevailing. You would have to ask her. I have no idea. I guess I have been disowned.
I will say, I have a huge family of love in my life that has stuck by me, and I by them. Longevity in career, and relationships, are what i am after. However, most people swim in and out of our lives like fish. Acceptance is the key to happiness.
As Susan, you’re in a band called Empire Beats! I understand you have a BB King’s show soon?
We will be at Lucille’s [within B.B. King’s] on August 6th at 5pm & 7pm. Two hour sets. You can eat and drink and listen to our classic R&B.
Anything else coming up?
God, more fun would always would be nice. And a hot new boyfriend!
You deserve it! Okay, last question. Let’s say a TV exec contacts you to create a weekly TV show for Lavinia. What kind of show would you do?
I would like to have a variety show. Like Laugh-In. With variety acts. And I sing and do sketches. Like Carol Burnett!
Or, I would like a show about a girl who has a day job as an elementary school teacher, and at night is a drag performer in NYC underground nightlife!
I think I might steal that last idea, Lavinia! Thanks again!
Lavinia Draper’s weekly shows at Ice Palace are The Lone Show Girl (Mondays, 7pm) & Wicked Wednesdays (9pm).She’ll perform at Excelsior on June 24th, and appear at Stonewall during the Pride parade on June 26th. She teaches an improv class at the Susan Batson Studio every Tuesday, including a monthly free session (next one is June 28th at 3:30). Look for her one woman show “5 Minutes Miss Draper” at the Cherry Grove Community House on July 23rd, and see her perform as Susan with her band the Empire Beats at B.B. King’s on August 6th. Follow Lavinia on Facebook.