On Point With: Thirsty Burlington

A Provincetown institution is coming to an iconic NYC venue for one night only: diva impersonator extraordinaire, Thirsty Burlington!

Thotyssey: Hi Thirsty, thanks for chatting with us! How was your Halloween… and what did you go as?

Thirsty Burlington: Hi there, it’s a pleasure to meet you. My Halloween was great; it’s always been my favorite holiday. I actually had a show at the Crown & Anchor in Provincetown, and I put a little Halloween twist on my show Cher 1975.

You’re mostly known for your Cher, but your Judy Garland impersonation show in P-Town inspired Jinkx Monsoon to do her in that now-iconic Drag Race Legends “Snatch Game” performance!

Yes, I did Judy Garland forever in Provincetown. She’s actually one of my favorite characters. My impersonation of her is completely blown out of proportion… it’s hilarious. I did a bit with a giant martini, and used to dance around the stage. One night I slipped and broke my knee, and actually was taken to the emergency room still dressed like Judy Garland. It traumatized me so much, and I never did Judy again. Maybe the ghost of Judy didn’t like my comedy and tripped me, lol!

Right before that, my buddy Jinkx Monsoon–who I adore–started filming Drag Race, called me and asked permission to use my interpretation of Judy Garland. So of course I wished her all the best, and of course she made it her own. She blew it out of the park, she really is a pro. It actually made me miss doing Judy myself, and I may have to bring her back one day soon.

I understand you’ve been performing in Provincetown’s Crown & Anchor for over 30 years! Do you live there all year round?

Yes, I love Provincetown. I started visiting here when I was about 21, and in my early 30s moved here… and I actually have performed probably in every club there is. I’ve been here year round for about 28 years. The winters can get a little depressing for me, so you have to keep yourself busy. I usually work on my show for the upcoming summer during this time. Provincetown is a magical place; if you’ve never been, you really must.

I see that you are originally from Cambridge, MA!

Yes, I grew up in Cambridge between MIT and Harvard. I actually still have family there. When I was a child, I was a little bit like a parrot. I would hear someone’s voice and impersonate it, always trying to make people laugh.

How did Thirsty come to be?

Growing up looking as feminine and being as thin as I was, I was being bullied relentlessly. When I came out I started going to nightclubs, hiding in the corners just kind of observing, and eventually putting on makeup. I think I had every hair color.

Out of drag I am quite shy, so Thirsty allowed me to be more fearless. It’s like putting on armor. I think that can be true for a lot of entertainers in general. So when I first started in the early ’90s, my inspirations were the supermodels of that time. They were extremely thin, much like me, so I became popular quickly. I really didn’t have a drag name at first, then a friend said “well, you love Christy Turlington… why don’t you call yourself Thirsty Burlington?” I actually got to meet Christy in Provincetown a few years ago; she couldn’t have have been nicer.

There are so many layers and tics and dragworthy moments related to Cher! What drew you to her, and did you realize immediately that you could impersonate her so flawlessly?

Cher’s voice came easy for me for some reason. Being a vocal mimic, I remember coming out of the movie Mask and repeating one of the lines from the movie, my friend said “wow you sound exactly like her; you should enter a contest.” So I did, and won… and the rest is history. I try not to rely on the stereotypical flipping the hair and licking the lips. I really play Cher close to the vest; it’s a little spooky. But I mean, who doesn’t love Cher?

What’s your favorite era of Cher? (I personally love 80s big hair, leather, power ballads, dating the bagel boy and Moonstruck edition!) And do you have an overall favorite song to perform?

I think my favorite era of Cher is probably the 70s, which is why I put together my show Cher 1975. It’s when I first fell in love with her. One of my favorite albums is Stars, and the song “Stars” that was written by Janis Ian. That may be my favorite song to sing. Or it might be “The Way of Love.” I love songs that tell a story.

Have you ever had a favorite performing moment in your career, or a favorite show you’ve done?

I don’t think I have a favorite moment. Every time I perform, I try to be better than the show before. Some people can get stuck, so each time I perform I try and step out of my comfort zone. I put a lot of pressure on myself.

Some of the first drag performers to get mainstream-famous were female impersonators Charles Ludlam and Charles Pierce. Nowadays, drag queens rarely commit to this level of impersonation (as we can tell from so many bad “Snatch Game” takes in recent years, lol) and are more about refining their looks and moves. Do you see yourself as someone upholding a tradition?

I think of myself more as an actor who just happens to be in makeup, tits, and hip pads. I’m still trying to find my look, but I’m definitely more old-school. The younger drag queens nowadays are so incredibly polished… I don’t know how they do it.

Besides Cher and Judy, is there anyone else that you do?

I’ve done a Celine Dion impression. And my Michael Jackson is quite good; that make up is really fun to do. But if I study someone long enough, I could probably impersonate them.

There was an indie scripted biopic called Thirsty released in 2018, where you played yourself! How did that project come about, and what was that whole experience like?

Two filmmakers, Margo Pelletier and Lisa Thomas, were visiting Provincetown and they saw my show. We started talking; they began interviewing me about my life, and the musical Thirsty was born. It was probably the biggest thing I’ve ever done, seeing my life recreated on film. Bringing back my parents and uncle, who got me started in show business, was kind of trippy and wonderful. We got to travel all over the world, showing our film at different film festivals. It’s still definitely one of the highlights of my life. I mean, who can say they have a movie about their life? It’s pretty crazy, you should check it out.

What’s been your experience with performing in New York?

I love New York; it has everything. But to tell you the truth, New York City used to intimidate me. The energy is so electric, but I love it. I’ve really only performed there a few times when showing our film Thirsty. I did do a show at the Laurie Beechman, and it did really well! I was surprised, because I’m really not known in New York. But everyone I’ve met there has been so cool. I hope to perform there more.

Tell us about Cher 1975, the show you’re bringing to New York’s legendary Birdland Jazz Club on November 28th (8:30pm)!

Performing at Birdland is big, so I really have to bring it! I’ve already locked myself in my house, and am rehearsing every day. My show Cher 1975 may be the best work I’ve done to date. I watched every episode of The Cher Show for research picking my favorite songs and monologues, as well as her classic hits of that time. I am also re-creating the famous Bob Mackie costumes. It’s kind of like you’re watching a live taping of the actual TV show. Expect to be wowed.

What else is coming up for you?

During the winter I travel a bit. I go to Puerto Vallarta and do a few shows. I’ll do some shows in Palm Springs, wherever they’ll have me. I’ve already started working on my show for the upcoming summer.

Last question: do you know anything about air rights?

Clearly this is a reference to the film Burlesque. Air rights are the property interest in the space above the earth’s surface–generally speaking, owning or renting land or buildings includes the right to use and build in the space above the land without interference by others. I had to steal this from Wikipedia, lol!

Lol, real last question: is there someone else out there you wanna try to impersonate, but haven’t gotten to yet?

You know what I’ve always wanted to do, but haven’t done yet, is recreate “We Are the World” from the ’80s, and literally do everyone from Cyndi Lauper to Willie Nelson and everyone in between. I better get cracking!

Check Thotyssey’s calendar for Thirsty Burlington’s upcoming area appearances, and follow her on Facebook and Instagram. “Cher 1975” will be at Birdland on November 28th, 2022 (8:30pm).

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