New York drag performer Lady Bunny got her start in Atlanta with RuPaul, but they have different styles and acts. While RuPaul has made drag about fashion and glamour, Lady Bunny has a more retro act, full of song parodies, sordid tales and blunt humor. Her Trans Jester show has had an extended and ongoing run at New York's Stonewall Inn, where the gay rights movement started after a police raid in 1969, She brings the show to Cafe Istanbul at 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 19. She spoke with Gambit about her career and drag performance. Gambit:You and RuPaul met in Atlanta in the early 1980s. How did you end up in Atlanta?
Lady Bunny: I lived there for two years. I was 20 or 19. I was in theory attending Georgia State, but they did not have a class in gender illusion, so I got bored fairly quickly. But I got high marks for alcholism. Atlanta was the drag mecca. All the major pageant winners were there. I met RuPaul and we both moved up to New York City at the same time.
RuPaul and I, back then, we were penniless. We got our outfits in thrift stores, and you could tell. We were club kids. We were young. We wanted to get drunk and get laid.
RuPaul's Drag Race has popularized drag. Has it changed it as well?
Lady Bunny: Before Drag Race, drag was an act. Drag Race stresses its formula as runway and fashion and de-emphasiszes performance. You have two queens lipsync to one song — not to what’s their showstopper. It would be expensive to clear everyone’s music. There are tons of extremely talented queens from Drag Race. But I’d rather see them do their act then see a black queen be forced to to lip synch to a country tune or a showtune queen like Jinkx Monsoon have to lipsynch to some black girl diva number, or have Bianca Del Rio lip synch to anything. That’s not her act. Her act is to be hilarious.
This is coming from the fans. They have this cookie-cutter image of what drag is supposed to be. How she’s supposed to contour her nose. Or how she has to pad her hips. Any time you try to tell me there are rules to drag, I am going to have to say, "F—k off. You’re stifling creativity." There are all sorts of queens.
Bianca told me a funny story about how some 15 year old kid had emailed her and said, "I think your makeup is too harsh." And she wrote back and said, "I’ve been doing drag for 18 years. You’re 15 years old. You’re from Ecuador. I am surprised you have internet in your hut." The fans, these young kids, they think they know everything about drag. They may be experts at contouring their nose, but give them a mic and see how entertaining that contour is.
To some extent, it’s a looks-oriented beauty pageant. Pearl and Miss. Fame, they’re both gorgeous but they can barely walk to a beat. The next season, Kim Chi looks incredible and is super cute, but she can barely walk in heels. What’s next RuPaul’s Wheelchair Race.
Who are some performers you like?
Lady Bunny: Kevin Aviance, kind of a Grace Jones dance artist. Jackie Beat is a fantastic comedian who’s written for Roseanne, Joan Rivers, Elvira – and can sing extremely well
Coco Peru is one of my favorites. Dina martina looks like a complete freak but is a comic genius, but I don’t think there would be much room for her on Drag Race. Varla Jean Merman is another favorite of mine. I like all kinds of drag. But it seems to have lost its edge to some degree. I am going to bring it back.
Your Trans Jester show has been a hit at Stonewall and you're traveling with it. What can audiences expect?
Lady Bunny: The message of the show — I don’t want this to sound too high minded — my act is complete raunch, filth, comedy, song parodies, pee-pee, poo-poo, penis and pussy jokes. But the message is, what are we still able to laugh at? After this toxic election, lordy do we need to laugh. Doing it from Stonewall, the birthplace of gay rights, I think it has a very powerful effect to ask where are we going with the gay rights movement? When I was young, we were fighting for medicines for AIDs, because we were scared and we were dying. Now, we’re sitting around discussing what is a zir and a ze? It’s not just sexual stuff. I talk about cultural appropriation. Just changing words. Anything we are not supposed to say. It’s a humorous discussion of what we can and cannot say any longer.
Trans-Jester was just extended at Stonewall. You don’t quit a show that sells out and gives you standing ovations. It struck a nerve with young people. They are taught to be PC. PC is in news because Donald Trump is famously un-PC. I am coming from far left. I do not understand these new words — or feel the need to. Zir Z-I-R? Hello, know what that is? Ze, know what that is? Hir? Gender fluid? Be what you want to be. I am an old fat man who calls himself Lady Bunny.
I am not going to stop anyone from experimenting with their gender. But when you expect somebody to know what you are, you might be kind of precious. If no one even knows what a air is, how do they know how to approach you? You remember that old Saturday Night Live skit with Julia Sweeny on which she plays Pat of indeterminate gender? This is what the whole country is turning into. We are stifling discussion by an insistence on these words. I don’t think that’s a good idea. It’s driving wedges between the drag community and trans community, which have always been the closest between LGBT, whatever that is today. Donald Trump referred to my community as "LGBTQ," and I was like, "Holy shit, he’s more politically correct than I am." I thought it was LGBT. I have this bit in the show about LGBTQIA. Most of the people in my audience do not know what those stand for.
Have you spent much time in New Orleans?
Lady Bunny: I have performed there for decades, but not recently. Last time was an event at casino. I’ve done Southern Decadence. A couple of alternative clubs.
New Orleans is my favorite city. As a kid, my parents took me there. It was only city to me, coming from Chattanooga, that had fancy European flair and it was in the South. It had the best food in the world and gorgeous Creole boys.
I need to go to (Court of Two Sisters) and eat that lunch buffet. I need to get some beignets. You can look at me and tell I love to eat. I love it there.