A legend of nightlife who has truly crossed over into the mainstream (without sacrificing her sharp and unapologetically colorful wit), Lady Bunny is a hilarious force of nature and a presence that shimmers with star power. Her much-celebrated one woman show “Trans-Jester” received tons of press during its extended run at Stonewall, and was the hottest ticket in town for the Average Jane and the Hollywood celebrity alike. Bunny and her heaven-high hair have thrived among the freaks and geeks of society, and she’s loved every minute of it. But do not try her with your cloyingly P.C. rants about your personal category of victimhood, or else she might make you material for the NEXT show. Thotyssey is truly humbled and honored today to bow before the Bunny.
Thotyssey: I am beyond delighted to speak with you today, Lady Bunny! So, how did you enjoy hosting the Wigstock cruise this past Sunday? I see there were a lot of Brooklyn queens present.
Lady Bunny: I was delighted to see a Bushwig posse on board. I’m thrilled that there is a sister festival to Wigstock, and I’m performing at Bushwig this year again. I literally passed a torch to Horrorchata last year. My generation just isn’t going out like they used to, so we have to give kudos to events like Bushwig, which add funky flavor to the increasingly slick, corporate NYC landscape.
The first year I went, I did not hear any Britney or Rihanna, and that’s a plus for jaded scenesters like me, looking for something which is outside the mainstream. Why would you pay to go out to hear only what’s on the radio?
Do you feel that today’s Brooklyn style of drag more closely represents the punk-flavored aesthetic that lots of your sisters were doing in the 70s/80s/90s, as opposed to what the polished Hell’s Kitchen bar queens do now?
Sure. Hell’s Kitchen queens are more likely to stick with top 40 divas, showtunes and Disney. Bushwig performers are so experimental that I can’t always figure out quite what they are doing! So they do recall early Wigstock festivals. But thought-provoking makes a nice change from predictable. I like every kind of drag, and traditional lip-synch drag done well can be electrifying. But after that fourth Beyonce song in a row… ya know.
I went to one group show out of town, and the same Rihanna song was in all six performers’ mixes. Overkill! There’s room for all kinds of drag, but can we at least vary the playlist more than that?
Cher sang the praises of Hillary, and that’s what that audience wanted to hear. I was confused to hear Cher talk about Hillary’s concern for victims of tainted water in Flint, Michigan, when in fact, Clinton has sold fracking all over the world as Secretary Of State. Inconvenient fact: fracking can poison water supplies. Where was Hillary’s concern then? As Cher might say, “If I Could Turn Back Time. ”
I haven’t actually been to Fire Island in years, so I had a great crowd mixed with all ages. Although I must admit, I am terrified of ticks bearing Lyme disease, which also populate Provincetown. But even the ticks on Fire Island are on prEP!
So, Trans-Jester had a hugely successful extended run at Stonewall this past spring and much of the summer. It was the talk of the town, and even attracted some big name celebrities like Susan Sarandon! Did you know it was going to be that successful?
I had hoped it would go well, but it exceeded my expectations and was extended twice. Which is why I’m bringing it back. I stopped it because I had out-of-town gigs on weekends all summer. I could have continued Mon-Wed shows, but “Miss Graceful” broke her little toe and was banished to flats for a month or so. Its hard to read anyone in flats! I’m known for having nice legs–and that’s all I’ve got. Ain’t got no titties, waistline or neck!
As a fan of Susan Sarandon, I was thrilled she came and said the show was “so smart.” Of course, there are plenty of fart jokes and lowbrow humor, but this show stands out because there is a bit of a message mixed in. And dare I suggest, a little heart as well? Rupert Everett came and wrote me a very sweet letter. And I was happy to see my neighbor Andy Cohen and trans stars like Anohni (formerly Antony and The Johnsons) and trans power couple Laith Ashley and Arisce Wanzer from Whoopi Goldberg’s new trans modeling agency show Strut there. They told me they enjoyed it, and were laughing about it with me afterwards.
In no way is this show an attempt to bash trans people–although I do go in on Caitlyn Jenner, who I see as a fool. What I’m trying to say in :Trans-Jester is that if you have the time to scream “Cultural Appropriation!” if Beyonce wears Bollywood-inspired jewelry, you might have too much time on your hands. Experts claim the earth will be so hot by 2085 that we won’t be able to hold summer Olympics anymore, and you’re going ballistic on your 12 Twitter accounts because of some jewelry in a pop video? It’s the Oppression Olympics, and I, like many, are sick of it.
The show played originally in Los Angeles. Who’s more likely to laugh at non-PC humor, the East Coast or the West Coast?
New York has the best audiences for me, hands down. Some people in La La Land don’t even comprehend sarcasm, but that isn’t the case at The Cavern Club Theater where I performed the first version of Trans-Jester. Their audiences have been trained by envelope-pushing acts like Jackie Beat, Drew Droege (who does those brilliant Chloe Sevigny impersonations on YouTube) and Nadya Ginsburg.
I do like to try new bits out of town to see how they land. When I have enough that work well, I do a show here at home. The funny thing is that since I’m on the road so much, many New Yorkers don’t exactly know what I do. They know I DJ, or that I organized Wigstock.
Trans-Jester is a great mix of everything I do, from raunchy song parodies to stand-up to skewering political correctness. And I think Stonewall, the birthplace of gay rights in this country, is a great place for a drag queen to be asking “What exactly does LGBTIQA mean?” Good luck to a movement which can’t even decide on its own name!
Do you have a favorite bit to perform in the show?
I’ve never been a showtune queen, but there are actually two classics in Trans-Jester: “Rose’s Turn,” which I’ve reworked with into a bitter rant, and “I’m Still Here,” the lament of the aging showgirl. In my version, I chronicle not only changes in me (like losing my waistline), but also what we are and are not allowed to still joke about. Some audience members my age and up claim they tear up a little during “I’m Still Here”–it’s that bad! No, what I think resonates is a sense of loss, and the poignancy of saying “I’m still here” to a generation who managed to live through the AIDS crisis. Like many, I always assumed I would die of AIDS, so that song takes on a special meaning for those who survived the disease when it was often a death sentence.
What do you think the baby gays (and all people today who are immersed in political correctness) aren’t understanding about the gloves-off style of drag humor from the “original” counterculture?
Many younger people (including straight girls) have come up and said they loved the message of the show. People are afraid to even talk about a lot of things now–because they’ll use the wrong term, be accused of being cisgender or having white male privilege or both. If you generally treat people with respect, then maybe you will get someone’s pronoun wrong occasionally. But it won’t be a killing crime, because you’ve already approached them with respect. It isn’t the average person’s responsibility to keep up with every gender variant and the proper word for it when they may have never even met one of them before. My old ass doesn’t even know what a zir, ze or hir is.
If you want to play with gender, a 54 year-old man in drag like me isn’t going to ever tell you not to. But to expect for everyone to play your word game by your rules is a lot to expect from people. Whatever Caitlyn Jenner is actually confuses trans friends of mine.
There are many ugly issues we desperately need to discuss as a society, like Black Lives Matter and violence against trans people. But I am seeing trans activists like Laverne Cox, who I respect, claim that calling someone the wrong pronoun or “misgendering” is violence in itself. I have to disagree. Violence is physical. Calling someone a name, no matter how much they dislike it, is not violence, in my opinion. Maybe I’m wrong, and we need to have a discussion–that’s what my show attempts to start in using humor.
One headline just screamed that a British trans pop star who was called a tranny while kissing her girlfriend in a park was a “hate crime.” It isn’t even a crime. It may be hateful, but as long as there is freedom of speech, we can call anyone anything we like. There may be repercussions, as there were when Paula Deen used the “N” word. But this is out of control. Where does it end? With Christians outlawing the use of “god damn’?
It isn’t illegal to use a word just because someone dislikes it. While I change costumes, I play a video of Joan Rivers roasting me for my 50th birthday bash. By that point in the show, I think many are agreeing with me that while we need to be more understanding about a lot of things, we also need to laugh. And sometimes, the biggest laughs come from subject matter which is shocking. Joan opens the video roast asking “Why do I have to do another roast? I’ve roasted more people than Hitler. Too soon?”
So you still use the word “tranny?”
Yes I do. I learned that word on the London club scene, where it is used to refer to either transvestites or transsexuals. It was never a slur. I don’t use it everywhere, but the whole point of the show is that words mean different things to different people. For example, most people know not to use the “N” word, but it’s fine for blacks to use that word amongst themselves. Although some blacks frown on this word as well.
I have many trans friends who use the word tranny. At the height of the she-mail controversy with Drag Race, I emailed RuPaul and asked him if we should offer to do some sort of benefit for the largest trans advocacy group to diffuse the tension, and show that there was no animosity coming from the drag world to the trans world. He wrote back that it wouldn’t work, because some people are [just] looking for enemies.
To see my former roommate dragged through the mud for his playful use of tranny and she-mail, when I know only too well how we both grew up around and revered transsexuals, was bizarre. In Atlanta, we knew many of the trans hookers by name, and would often hang out with them. Hell, we weren’t that different from them, because we too were penniless and waiting around on the streets for something to happen.
The same was true after we moved to New York and lived in the Meat Market when it was a hotspot for trans hookers. In fact, we were occasionally harassed because the police thought we were hooking. Once I showed the cops the key to the door and told them “I live here!” and they still said “Keep it moving.” Now, I realize that it’s tough for you to imagine that I might be able to see MY body for sec, but please remember, this was 20 years ago. Now I’m an unemployed hooker!
But this hints at something else I touch on in Trans-Jester. As someone who wears women’s clothes a lot of the time, I feel that gives me something in common with trans people. I don’t want gender reassignment surgery any more than they want to look like a clown in five wigs, but we both play with gender. I’m not saying that drag queens are the same as trans–that is ignorant and it is misgendering. I’m simply saying that you can stress the differences or the similarities. I don’t exactly “come out” as trans in this show, but I do have enough gender dysphoria to have a foot in the world of trans. A very large foot!
If you are speaking at a GLAAD, HRC or even a Gay Pride event, you aren’t going to use the word “tranny”–or even “fag” or “dyke.” You’d say trans, gay, lesbian or whatever alphabet soup amalgamation of letters we are calling our community today. But if Bianca Del Rio is bringing a heckler up onto the stage to belittle him, she’s gonna say “Get up here, faggot. Yeah you, the faggot in the loud shirt.” No comic is going to respectfully address a noisy drunk heckler “Mr. Homosexual, sir.” By calling that audience member a slur, you put them in their place. That’s how comedy works. If you’re too precious to ever hear words you don’t like, avoid comedy clubs.
And as I mention in the show, college students are sometimes able to now give their lecturers trigger words which they are never supposed to hear. There’s a problem when students think they can set the agenda instead of their professors. Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and Bill Maher–all mainstream comedians–now refuse to perform at colleges because they are sick of coddled crybabies. I thought a college education was supposed to broaden one’s experience, not tailor it.
The Atlanta gay scene, where you started, is still thriving today. What makes cities like Atlanta, New Orleans, Athens, Austin, etc. different from other southern communities as far as tolerance and cultural diversity are concerned?
Austin is Texas’s one democratic city, and it’s also a university town. The town’s motto is “Keep Austin Weird.” I think they’ve seen it all in New Orleans and Atlanta. But even in big cities in the South or North, you’re going to get slurs yelled out at you from cars if you’re obviously gay or trans. And there are neighborhoods just outside the city, or even inside, where you wouldn’t run the streets in drag or hold hands with a same-sex lover without fear of harassment. That’s why I left the south! In the state of my birth, North Carolina, trans people aren’t even sure which bathrooms they can legally use. I was just there, and was totally freaked out about it–until I realized that my Extra-Strength Depends enabled me to crap pretty much anywhere, anytime. Snort!
You’re so damn hilarious, did you start out as a standup?
Definitely not a stand-up. I am more number-oriented, with songs as place marks and a little patter in between. And I usually have a rough script in my head, even if I forget some of it. I also do salute to Laugh-In’s cocktail party scene, in which the cast would dance, then lip-synch to a joke, then more dancing interspersed with jokes. It works well in clubs because even the drunkest audience member can realize “Pay attention now–she’s talking. Now she’s dancing, etc.” And smaller clubs can have poor quality microphones so it helps to have my own voice in the mix, so that they hear the jokes clearly. A lot of people seem to think that number is odd, but as long as they keep laughing I enjoy it. It enables me to turn my jokes into stand-up a-go-go. And burn a few calories!
What brought you to New York originally? What did you first want to do here?
RuPaul got a show at the Pyramid Club, and cast me and several other queens. Ru has actually been doing this thing of forming an umbrella of queens which he presents, as he does on Drag Race, since the 80s. I had no clue except that I craved the bright lights of the big city. Unlike my pal Lypsinka, who knew exactly what she wanted that character to do and be, I had to find myself and my act.
Ain’t gonna lie–I got in drag for free drinks and to get dick from “straight” guys. I talk a bit in my show about a recent encounter with one of these types of guys. It’s a whole underworld of incredible sex, if you are prepared to dress up for it.
As far as the New York scene goes, which long-gone bar or club do you miss the most?
Jackie 60–fronted by Chi Chi Valenti, Hattie Hathaway and still-popular deejay Johnny Dynell–was a nightclubbers’ club. That’s where club employees all went on our nights off, because it was such a fab mix of every race, sex, age, etc. Great music and sick theme parties, with performances which were full of in-jokes and subtext.
And Michael Alig’s Disco 2000 was a proving ground for many nightlife stars like Amanda Lepore. Say what you want about Alig’s gruesome murder and subsequent jail time, you can’t deny that he had a spark which lit up NY nightlife for a decade. And kept many freaks employed.
A review of Wigstock claimed that we “Let our freak flags fly” at the recent event. This struck me as an interesting description, since whether at Jackie 60, Disco 2000, or Wigstock, we thought freaky was our goal. It meant fun and wild. The opposite of boring. Call someone a freak today, and you’ll draw back a nub.
I also miss Lips being in the West Village–even though I know their new location is thriving. Seeing the 7 foot All Beef Patty in a foot-high blue bouffant waiting in line at Starbucks always made my day.
Disco was the era of my youth, so I would remember it fondly, just as way-younger folks would fondly recall early Britney or Spice Girls. But with respect to musicality, dance music reached a peak in the disco days. Even the lowest budget disco record had horn, string and Latin percussion sections–they weren’t created by one person on a laptop as they are now. In fact, that guy on a laptop is often sampling disco records because they are so distinctive. So we danced to full orchestras back in the day. And when disco was at it’s height and making money, the best songwriters gravitated towards it.
I play at all kinds of parties from gay weddings to bar mitzvahs, and I play whatever they want. But they still love disco. It has drama and crescendos. And it also featured some of the finest vocalists like Donna Summer, Sylvester, Thelma Houston and Martha Wash.
Your gigantic wigs (or stacks of regular-sized wigs) are coveted by the drag community. Do you style them yourself?
I don’t! It would save me a fortune if I did. I can create a few styles, but my main hairdresser is Marco G. Wombat, who has really taken me to new levels.
So like we’ve mentioned, your sister RuPaul obviously changed the public’s perception of drag so much with the popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race. It’s created so many wonderful opportunities for queens, and exposed much of the world to the real art of the form. But at the same time, when something becomes mainstream it risks becoming sanitized, right?
TV will sanitize anything. Hopefully, fans will gravitate to performers they see on the show and get to know their often very raunchy and inappropriate acts which could never make it onto TV. Willam shocked even me by performing alongside a video of him fisting a guy. I’m not easily shocked, but whew!
I sometimes get tired of Drag Race fans. They’re these young kids who may not even be old enough to get into a club, yet somehow they think they’re experts on drag. And when I say experts, they think they know the rules of a very cookie-cutter drag in which everyone’s nose is contoured the same way, everyone’s hips are padded, waist is cinched, nails are worn. To me, cookie-cutter is the opposite of creative. The more kinds of drag there are, the better!
Break the rules–that’s what RuPaul did by singing live and getting a record deal. Surely his show should encourage stepping outside the box if the goal is to create the next drag superstar, a la RuPaul. Jinkx is interesting precisely because she’s ditzy and sweet. Sharon is unique because she’s the goth drag version of Elvira. If every queen tries to be “fierce” in the same way, it’s tired to me.
Do you think RuPaul intended for the show to be that impacting, or did she just wanna make a fun show?
I think she wanted to get paid! And she did!
It’s interesting that you just refereed to Ru as a she and I call him a he. Luckily, we’re from the generation where we don’t care as much what you call us, as long as you don’t hit or kill us.
That is interesting! And speaking of impact, the “Wigstock” documentary for the 10th anniversary of the drag concert that you co-founded and ran in NYC for so long is essential viewing for anyone interested in drag. So many dynamic and colorful performers, doing really imaginative and sometimes flat-out weird stuff on stage that I think a lot of baby gays would be unaccustomed to. I’m no spring chicken, and I still gasp at Floyd’s nudity and “the first Wigstock baby!” I’m guessing you probably don’t miss running around and managing that show every year too much, but do you miss that era of drag performance?
I do miss it, because performers were booked based on whether they were talented or not. Now the queens that get the highest paychecks are the ones who get the most screen time on Drag Race. And we’ve all seen queens who are fun on Drag Race, but not so hot live. Honey, some of them can’t walk to a beat! Before the days of YouTube, club owners had to do their homework and find out who was killing it in London or Miami or San Francisco. That’s how Michael Alig brought the genius Leigh Bowery, who birthed the “Wigstock baby” over to NY.
You’ve made a bunch of memorable TV appearances over the years, but I’m impartial to the scene where you hosted the gay prom in Sex & the City! Was that a fun experience for you?
It was fascinating, because it was shot in the summer and call-time was 9am. A lot of club queens thought they wanted to get into acting. By the end of the day, they had given up on that notion because there were no drugs, booze or dick to chase! I wasn’t too happy that they waited until the 13th hour for my close-up. My beard had grown back in! I was struck by Sarah Jessica Parker’s intense personal magnetism, which is far more evident in person than on screen.
And I love watching clips of you and Bianca Del Rio ribbing each other on stage. You’re both so hilariously mean, but anyone watching can see the love. Are those kind of working relationships hard to come by in drag?
No, I think these relationships are common around the country at drag clubs. But Drag Race pits queens against each other for ratings. Drama is the engine that drives all reality TV. And as we know from the Real Housewives franchise, “real” doesn’t always reflect reality.
What comes more naturally for you, writing material like you do for Trans-Jester or riffing/improv?
I write with someone I met on Facebook named Beryl Mendelbaum, who assumes the online character of a jealous, thieving Jewish retiree in Boca Raton. We hit it off and started this partnership. I’d never written with anyone, and it has definitely upped my game. Beryl aka Bruce Jope, has been around NYC since the late 70s and knew everyone from Divine to Holly Woodlawn. He has a unique ability to write in the voice of Beryl, Bunny or whoever. A very smart and funny guy who has been there.
So, Trans-Jester returns to Stonewall on August 31st! You’ll be there Wednesdays-Saturdays Sept. 8th – Oct.1st . Did you make any changes to the show since the last run? It hasn’t been that long, but with Trump still in the picture, the country has gotten much crazier!
I added a few new gags, and honed a few parts that needed it. And there’s a new joke or two about the elections. But this election has been so toxic that I think people need an escape from it. Many aren’t thrilled with either candidate, and wish the election was over. So I’d like to provide some much-needed laughter and silliness during that period.
I’m talking to a producer about bringing Trans-Jester to London in January, and I hope it works out. Until then, I’ll be at Stonewall on Mondays through Wednesday at 7pm. Except no shows on 9/8 or 9/9. Must close on October 1st. Hope to see you there!
I’m so happy it’s back and I can’t wait to see it! So in closing, as drag royalty, what advice would you give a budding comedy queen who is worried that her blue material might not play well in the current sensitive climate?
You have to adjust somewhat or you won’t get booked. If audiences are booing or not coming, you might want to make changes. Or you can build your own audience by standing out and doing your thing fearlessly.
You would know a thing or two about doing things fearlessly. Thank you so much, Lady Bunny. and welcome back!
Lady Bunny’s stage show “Trans-Jester” returns to Stonewall on August 31st (7pm), and will run Wednesday through Saturday every week through October 1st. She also spins the Disco Classics Tea Dance at Monster on the first three Sundays of each month (6-10pm), and she’ll perform for the Bushwig Festival, which begins September 10th at the Knockdown Center. Lady Bunny can be followed on Facebook, instagram, Twitter and YouTube, and has a website.