Thotyssey sure loves to throw the “Legend” label around, but who can debate it’s proper usage when it comes to this queen? The City Island native practically invented a style of drag performance that’s part standup, part storytelling, and she’s appeared in some truly classic camp films, from a lead in the drag farce “Girls Will Be Girls” to a hugely memorable cameo in “Trick.” And she’ll be back in New York this weekend, alongside an army of equally hilarious queens. It’s the incomparable Miss Coco Peru!
Thotyssey: Thank you for talking to us today, Miss Coco! Do I see correctly that you’re in Seattle right now?
You’re a very well-traveled queen—you just performed a bunch of sold out UK gigs in April. Where in the world are your favorite audiences?
The audiences in the UK were amazing, and really diverse! It’s impossible to pick a favorite. But I love performing in my hometown, NYC.
So, you became well-known in New York for creating a style of drag performing that centers around telling stories about your life, kind of like what Sandra Bernhard or (your doppelganger, I think) Kathy Griffin do for standup. What first motivated you to explore this type of performing?
I wanted to be an openly gay performer and embrace exactly what I had tried to hide my whole life. I had been bullied and called a girl, and I finally got to a place in my life where I thought, “You think I act like a girl? Well, you haven’t seen anything yet! I’m gonna show just how much of a girl I can be!”
Also, AIDS at the time was so scary, and when you see friends around you so sick and dying, it made me want to be an activist. But it also was a huge reminder that we have one life, so you better be as fabulous and loud as you can be. Drag gave me back my voice.
When something crazy happens in your life, do you automatically start thinking about how it would make a great bit for a future show, or do you need a lot of time and distance from a life event to use it as material?
It depends! For instance, the line in Trick where I say, “It’s big, it’s beautiful and you’re gonna love it!” was actually something some young, hot guy said to me. And as soon as he said it I thought, “Someday I’m gonna use that in a monologue.”
Other times, I’ll tell a story I haven’t thought of in years and it’ll get a reaction over dinner with friends, and that inspires me to think about using it in a show.
Did you ever try the more common “lip syncing in a bar” school of drag? What do you think of that genre?
No, I always enjoyed watching those queens but I never saw that as anything that I could do. It was seeing Charles Busch in The Lady in Question that inspired me to do drag, because I had been trained in the theatre and his performance showed me that drag could be theatrical.
Lady Bunny has had a long-running stage show here at Stonewall called Trans-Jester, where she addresses how she believes that P.C. culture has become toxic for comedy and art. What do you think about that point of view?
I do a monologue about that very same issue in my show A Gentle Reminder, and it always gets a huge round of applause… and some people even give me a standing ovation mid-show because it resonates so strongly with them.
You have had the same style wig and overall look for over 20 years now, which is very unusual for a drag queen. When did you realize that this was “The Look,” and did you model Coco’s appearance after a specific person?
No, I was always drawn to silhouettes. At the time I created Coco, I was in love Klaus Nomi, and I loved his silhouette. I’ve never been very good with hair and makeup, so I knew I had to keep it simple. So once I tried that flip, which I had seen as a child in the TV show That Girl (again, a silhouette), I knew it was for me.
On some level, even back then, I understood the importance of branding and creating a look. Also, in the early 90’s, drag was very big, and I wanted to be the opposite.
In addition to your hilarious “queen on the street” YouTube videos, you have certainly made some high profile film and TV appearances over the years. For example, there’s the camp classic Girls Will Be Girls, where Evie Harris, Varla Jean Merman and yourself play Hollywood women. Do you have any interest at this point in pursuing non-drag acting roles?
I think that would be great. In fact, Coco was only supposed to be one of the characters I created, but she became the one. Earlier in my career I thought about stopping Coco, but my mom reminded me, “You better be good to Coco, because she has been very good to you.” It was great advice from my mom!
And of course as you mentioned earlier, your bathroom monologue in Trick is how most people of a certain generation came to know you. Trick was the first fun, cute, romantic gay movie that many of us saw, and in that respect it’s quite meaningful. And your scene is hilarious! Did you realize while you were filming it that it would affect so many people in such a positive way?
I wasn’t even in the original script, but I knew that it was going to get made as soon as I read it. I just had such a good feeling about it. Trick was the first script I read where the gay characters weren’t coming out. They weren’t dying, and they weren’t suicidal. They were just looking for a place to fuck, and I thought that was so refreshing!
You host a series of live talks called “Conversations With Coco,” where you interview people in the arts, often major celebrities like Jane Fonda. And you hang with legends among legends, like Liza Minelli. Do you still get start struck?
I do get star struck, but there is a part of me that looks at my life and I think, “I have survived as a drag queen for 26 years. I was openly gay and an activist when it wasn’t so popular to do so. I had people tell me that I was killing my career by choosing drag and being openly gay.”
So, a part of me feels like I have earned the right to be where I am. Also, the “Conversations” raise money for gay homeless youth and I remind myself that the evening isn’t really about egos, it’s about rescuing kids.
What are your thoughts on RuPaul’s Drag Race and how it has mainstreamed drag somewhat? You came up in a time when it was a very fringe, counterculture art. Is the shift a good thing or a bad thing?
I just attended DragCon, and seeing so many people both young and old from all over the world inspired by drag and being self-expressed is something to celebrate. I really find it all so moving, and I cannot get over how young even some of my fans are. In England, I was blown away by how many young girls were at my shows!
My concern is that sometimes a young drag queen gets famous before she’s really had a chance to perfect a craft. In society today, that doesn’t seem to matter anymore. Just being on TV is enough. Back when I started, you had to really work hard and create something special if you were going to be celebrated and noticed.
Having said that, I do think that the good outweighs any negative, and I really celebrate where drag is today. And I think Ru’s Race has been very important to millions of fans who are getting more out of the show than just entertainment. I think the show is changing the world for the better.
Yes, Bianca and I had worked together on cruises. We were instant friends, and I am thrilled to see my pal succeed. She is one of the most generous queens I know. She told me she wanted me to be on her show, and she kept her word. I remember on the cruise, people would get upset at the mean things she would say about me. But Bianca and I would work out together all the mean things to say to each other! Bottom-line; I love her!
Let’s talk about “The Drag Queens of Comedy,” a tour that you’re partaking in with some of the country’s absolute funniest queens, that’s coming to the PlayStation Theater for two shows on May 13th! Fellow performers include Lady Bunny, Jackie Beat, Bob the Drag Queen, Alaska, Willam Belli and Peaches Christ, among others. How did this all come together, and how’s it coming along?
Sasha Soprano, who is a San Francisco native, had this idea to put on a show at the Castro Theatre a few years ago (she also a rich bitch, which is part of her act, but it ain’t an act! Bitch is rich!) and it was such a success, it has been growing ever since. I really admire Sasha, because at a very young age she had the brains to put it all together, and she is one of the sweetest queens I know.
Are you giving us the full Coco storytelling treatment for your set?
Do you have any backstage tour drama to report, or is everyone getting along and keeping their corners of the dressing room tidy?
It’s kind of difficult to keep anything tidy when Willam is in a room, but we all get along. Even Jackie Beat! And as long as Bunny is allowed to make her animal noises in her corner, all is well.
What is else is coming up for Miss Coco?
I’ll be bringing my new show The Taming of the Tension to Birdland in October. I am really enjoying this new show, and I can’t wait to do it in NYC where my career all started!
Lastly: What is the worst thing about doing drag for you… and what is the best?
The worst part is the close shaving and then having to slap makeup onto your sore face! The best part? The fans!
Thank you so much, Coco!
Miss Coco Peru performs at the PlayStation Theater as part of “The Drag Queens of Comedy Tour” on Saturday, May 13th (6 & 10pm). Follow Coco on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, as well as her website.