Certified drag legend, Wigstock creator and emcee, DJ, actress, singer-songwriter, and RuPaul’s oldest friend, Lady Bunny, helps us to celebrate this socially distant holiday season with such aptly festive numbers as Santa’s Spreadin’ Covid Around, All I Want for Christmas (Is a Vaccine), and It’s Beginning to Look Apocalyptic in her new comedy show What Child is This? filmed audience-free, live on stage at New York City’s historic Stonewall Inn, which Bunny loving refers to “a dump”. With every expense spared on decorations, the focus is on her trademark smart, irreverent, deliciously filthy and unfiltered humour. Along with co-writer Beryl Mendelbaum, the drag diva’s depraved reworkings of holiday classics also include Rudolpho The Uncut Reindeer and there’s topical version of ’Twas The Night Before Christmas which envisions Santa in the White House as its current occupants prepare for the arrival of the Biden administration.
With What Child is This? now streaming on Voss Events, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Lady Bunny about recording the holiday show, creating her parody of Cardi B’s WAP with Flotilla DeBarge, being inspired by Bianca Del Rio, her frustration with clickbait articles in LGBTQ media, pushing back against those who call RuPaul transphobic, and what she admires about the late activist and writer Larry Kramer.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Congratulations on What Child is This? It’s really fun and I liked that it was filmed on stage at the Stonewall Inn. It made me miss being in a bar, but watching this is the next best thing right now isn’t it?!
Lady Bunny: “Well, it’s funny because Stonewall is historic, and Stonewall is beloved, and Stonewall was the birthplace of gay rights, but honey it hasn’t been open for a while and it’s a dump! When I heard that they didn’t have any Christmas decorations up I thought, well, I’m not going to have time to shoot this in a couple hours and decorate the stage too. So I just put up two crooked garlands and an off-centre stocking pinned to the curtain, which is going to make anal gays go nuts trying to mentally move it, because it’s disconcerting to see, but you’ve got to just go with it! I bought some Christmas props in the drugstore and said let’s cut over to this Santa Claus or this Christmas tree and do a cheesy transition like in an old TV special, but honey, when I saw that Walgreens electric Christmas candle against a stunning backdrop of rumpled lamé, I was like, that’s my biggest laugh in the show because it is just so pitiful! The production value is like a 1980s cable access show.”
I did appreciate the tacky Christmas ornaments, that’s what gives it its charm!
“I do think that despite its incredibly cheap production values—hey, I’ve been out of work for nine months—with the specialty material in this show like All I want for Christmas (Is a Vaccine) and It’s beginning to Look Apocalyptic, that it captures the essence of a Christmas where we’re supposed to feel festive but we’re in dire straits and many people’s future is a question mark. I’m in a very big budget splashy Christmas show where I just do a short set, Drag Queen Christmas 2020, with a bunch of the Drag Race girls like Jaida Essence Hall, Nina West, Shea Couleé, and Brooklyn Heights. We taped that back in October at a large theatre in Connecticut. So if you want glitz and glamour and a big cast maybe check that one out, but if you want 45 minutes of me, check out What Child Is This?“
What would you usually be doing in the run up to Christmas?
“I often do a Christmas show, but I also do a lot of DJ gigs, whether it’s Christmas parties in a club or in a corporate environment, so usually I’m very busy. I’m an atheist so I don’t celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, whose teachings most people who consider themselves Christian have forgotten anyway. I do like Thanksgiving though, even though I think we’re supposed to call it Takesgiving now because we’re woke. But whatever you call it, I like the idea of saying, ‘We ain’t got much, but we’re alive’, which really struck home for me this year, just being thankful for even something as little as that, which you take for granted. Thanksgiving is a non-religious way to spend your time with friends and family and this year that did not happen, but that didn’t stop me from eating a lot without my family!”
Were you in a nativity play as a kid and if so who did you play?
“Oh God! That’s a good question, but you’re asking someone who’s so far from their youth! I hope it was Mary. Joseph must have been a top, so that role’s out of the question!”
Why did you decide to tape a Christmas special this year?
“It makes me feel great to know that the fabric stores are open and I can go and buy something and have someone make a dress, it makes me feel like I’m in the game, even though it’s a gamble. I’ve put on Christmas shows over the years and obviously if you’re not performing online these days you’re not performing at all because venues are closed and will be closed for who knows how much longer. 10 months? A year? More? Who knows?! I did a comedy special in June called Cuntagious and another one with Bianca Del Rio called HHN: Hateful Hags Network where we just read recent Drag Race happenings, whether that is AJ and the Queen, Drag Race season 12, All Stars 5, or Canada’s Drag Race. ‘Fake news with fake boobs’ is what we called it and it was just a bitch fest really! Both of those were done in the studio and I do miss performing on stage, even if there’s no audience there, so I just wanted to mix it up. I did at show Stonewall years ago and have a great relationship with them and they were nice enough to let me use it when they were closed. Stonewall is not the kind of place you take a first date to impress them, but hey it’s four blocks away from where I live! The sound guy who interacts with me and reads me throughout the show was the sound guy from a show I did there four years ago called Trans-Jester about political correctness, so it does very much feel like family.”
You answer this with your material but what’s your take on comedy and political correctness?
“Well, I don’t have to be politically correct and if you don’t like my comedy then you can keep it moving. I have to enjoy what I do and I like dirty comedy. I’m not someone who is going to read at the drag queen story hours or say nice sounding but meaningless things like ‘everybody say love’, that doesn’t mean anything. I have to do what makes me laugh or why would I bother putting it out there? You know, Cardi B put out WAP one week and then the next week she was interviewing Joe Biden for Elle magazine. So first of all, whoever is trying to criticise me about vulgar or out there material, honey, I mean, Wet Ass Pussy is a fucking prostitute’s anthem which is very vulgar and explicit. So there’s obviously two kinds of people; some that love dirty stuff and sick stuff, and some that don’t. I’m afraid that the media gives a lot of ink and creates clickbait talking about “woke stuff”, I call it “asloke” because sometimes they don’t even understand how crazy they are being. I mean, The Advocate, which was the premier gay publication often with good writing over the years, published something where one of the main writer’s said he thought that Drag Race season 12 should not only ban Sherry Pie from the finale, but that they should cancel the entire season. I just think that’s unhinged! Not to mention the fact that they don’t really care about Sherry Pie, they already think that Ru is the devil and the ultimate transphobe, which is proof of how silly they are. Ru is not trying, like Trump, like Republicans, to keep trans people out of the military. Ru is not trying to limit what trans people get on health care. It is absolutely ridiculous to act like Ru is an enemy of trans people because of who he did not cast on a reality show. But the PC thing has gone wild. There was also an article in Out magazine about how fans were reacting negatively to Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman, a judge on Canada’s Drag Race. I looked at the montage that Out provided in their critique of him and in every clip he said something like, ‘You had a lot of pizzazz on the last episode, but this week you didn’t bring it’. Every time he said something like that. Meanwhile they had a clip of Brooklyn in there saying ‘this is garbage’, which is far more intense. Are we realising that some Drag Race fans aren’t terribly bright?! You are watching a competition show with judges and you get mad when they judge?! Assuming that you think that the show is good and doing the right thing, you’re going to trust their judges, right? Then that just means that you’re a baby who doesn’t like what Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman had to say. Then I saw some other person say that the fans were ragging on him because he is a person of colour. I hope Canada is not as racist as we are, but really?! I didn’t see Canada’s Drag Race, all I saw was that montage in Out magazine which was intended to prove what a devil Jeffrey is. I just think we have to realise what this is; this is clickbait, but it’s alienating a lot of the LGBT community because we’re looking at this and thinking this is not a concern of mine. This doesn’t warrant a paragraph, much less an entire article. When are you going to get back to actually fighting for stuff? When are you going to talk about the great programs that your side, especially now that the election is won, is going on to achieve now that you’ve gotten rid of Trump? All I’m seeing is people continuing to bash Trump. It’s like you won, but you’re still obsessed with Trump. I went on Facebook and saw The Advocate’s page, and they posted an article that I read about Milo Yiannopoulos with an anguished expression in the photo, saying that he can’t believe he defended that selfish clown, and that now his career is destroyed, and I just wrote, ‘Why are you giving him airtime?’ He disappeared. People like Milo disappear when you stop giving them ink. Trump is gone, or almost gone, so why would you be doing an article about someone who is your sworn enemy and giving them ink unless you just want to fester in the hate? And take away my gay card, but Bette Midler is one of the absolute worst at the non-stop pointless Trump bashing. The other day she tweeted, how did Mitch McConnell win with an 18% approval rating? He’s “utterly useless” and she said he “fucking cheated”! Hold on a second, honey, what have you just done here? You have just done something that Trump would do. You have no evidence to dispute the election results in which Mitch McConnell won, so you’re doing the exact same thing that Trump is doing in disputing the election and you’re cursing and you’re insulting. Bashing Trump—who I do not support, nor do I support any Republican—is not a policy oriented goal.”
We’ll be glad to see the back of him and then we need to move on. Let’s go back to your special, What Child is This?, because I wanted to ask you about the festive super spreader number that you do, Santa’s Spreadin’ Covid Around which you’ve also released as a single. It has put me off wanting to get a visit from Santa this year, but the animated video is fun!
“Well, it’s a grim idea that someone as beloved as Santa Claus would have Covid, so I tried to lighten up the video with animation. There’s a little bit of a suggestion that because Santa thinks the virus is a hoax and still wants to go out and distribute gifts, regardless of the risks, that he might be a Trump supporter who’s denying the virus.”
That red hat is a giveaway!
“Exactly! I didn’t think of that. Then there’s also a few things in the song that encourage people to stay in and wash their hands, and wear masks, which sadly is seen as a position of the left. I wish that people would see it as a position of people who don’t want to get the virus and not politicise the virus. I didn’t want it to be preachy, but I did want to have that suggestion in there. I do actually write music, and in addition to the parodies, there’s a B side called Joy & Happiness that goes in a totally different direction. A lot of people have liked it because one of the main lyrics is about leaving negativity in the past, which I think post-election, and hopefully as we turn a corner with COVID—though I don’t think it’s turning anytime soon—maybe it’s a way to give people a little boost and something to tap their toe to. Right now you’re not going to reach people on a stage, you’re not going to reach people on a dance floor, so why not reach them where you can with music?”
Do you have a favourite holiday special?
“I liked Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special where Grace Jones appeared singing Little Drummer Boy.”
Yes, I love that Grace Jones sequence too.
“Yeah, I mean it’s not exactly topical, but I’m 58!”
What about Christmas movies, is there one you like rewatching this time of year?
“I do like Christmas in Connecticut with Barbara Stanwyck. It’s just a big budget affair with a great plot, it’s delightful. I think Barbara Stanwyck was quite incredible. She was one of those actresses, like Meryl Streep, who was not beautiful but she could actually act and that is a gift. She doesn’t stand out as much as the gay fan favourites like Joan Crawford or Bette Davis, but she’s up there and should not be forgotten.”
You mentioned HHN: Hateful Hags Network which people can watch on Vimeo. Tell me a bit about Bianca Del Rio. What do you bring out in each other as performers and why do you work well together as a duo do you think?
“We’ve been thick as thieves since we met. It was during a party weekend that I was in New Orleans to perform at, and honey, they drink in New Orleans, and visitors to New Orleans drink, and here was Bianca at 4pm, when everyone’s got a hangover, just hilariously lighting everyone up during a bingo game! At that point she was working with a celebrity impersonating group in New Orleans impersonating Cher, and after seeing her do that bingo event I asked her about her drag and I said, ‘Girl, with your mouth you should really emcee all the time, because there’s Chad Michaels and other performers who will actually have surgery to look like Cher or Joan Rivers, but they don’t have your mouth.’ That’s how Bianca likes to tell the story, but we’re friends and we both like to laugh at it twisted things. Actually I think there’s no better testament to the fact that some people like twisted humour than Bianca’s amazing success. She’s toured the world since she won Drag Race 6, appearing at Wembley Arena, Carnegie Hall, selling it out. She’s a force and watching her work is incredible because she’s so quick and so polished and that does inspire me, plus I just think she’s funny and we have a good chemistry on stage.”
You mentioned Cardi B and WAP earlier, you and Flotilla DeBarge put out your own parody version of that track over the summer. How did that come about, you must’ve put it together pretty quickly?
“We got together a few times, I wrote most of the lyrics and Flo wrote some. I said, ‘Honey, we’ve got to get this filmed, edited, learned, get the looks together, and we’ve got to get this out in a week because this is the moment that people want to hear a Wet Ass Pussy parody. We’re both old, so Dry Ass Pussy, it follows. I only got one comment from someone saying that it was misogynistic, but I think women’s pussies do get drier as they age, and neither Flotilla nor I have pussies, but we’re also not young, we’re dry in other areas!”
You’ve lived in New York since the early 80s, how has the queer nightlife and drag scene changed over the years?
“I arrived at the Pyramid Club, which was a hybrid of drag and rock and roll bands, so it was a mixed club that was artsy and experimental. The East Village bars like Boy Bar and even some of the bigger clubs like the World and the Palladium were all quite mixed. These days the drag scene in Brooklyn is more experimental, while the drag scene in Manhattan is somewhat Broadway oriented, there are a lot of queens that sing live or lip sync to Broadway stuff or Disney stuff. Of course there have been some dancers and people who do pop music or comedy too, but the drag scene is not nearly as raw as it was when I moved to New York.”
You’ve been friends with RuPaul for decades so you get a lot of mentions on Drag Race and you were part of Drag U. What impact do you think Drag Race has had on drag generally?
“Well, Drag Race the show does not focus on performance. If I’m correct, you perform only if you’ve lost challenges, almost as a booby prize. So we’re seeing a lot of queens who look like they may never have performed before, so I assume that they are being chosen because of their Instagram followers or because they look very polished. There are wonderful drag queens and trans performers who perform in drag who are not being featured on the show, so when I see contestants on the show who are not good at performing I think, okay, well this is a different kind of drag. Spending three hours on doing makeup with specialty products that most drag queens cannot afford is a talent in itself, but in my view your look is taken in when you walk onto the stage. If you don’t have anything to do in that look once you’re on stage that’s not going to hold my interest, I’ll still say you’re beautiful, but I think the shift has turned towards looks and I don’t think that’s very smart, but then I’m older. Even though I promote myself on social media I find Instagram itself to be sad. I usually just post and leave, but when I do scroll around it’s sad. I’m talking about people who aren’t even in show business, just like a 20 year old guy and every picture is of him. I just I find that confusing. I mean, do you not have anything to say? If you are incredibly well-dressed, or sexy, or if you’re putting clips up of your new song or something I totally understand that, but otherwise it just seems incredibly vain and shallow. We also see some really desperate pleas for attention, and honey I’m a ham, I mean I’m doing an interview about myself and my show right now, I’m not a wallflower, but when you are in your underwear and you’re holding up a picture of Aretha Franklin after she died that says RIP, you’re using her death to promote the way your body looks and that is very sad, but I think people are rewarded for this.”
What’s your favourite LGBTQ+ piece of culture or person, someone or something that’s made a big impact on you and resonated with you over the years?
“Larry Kramer who died this year. I saw a speech by him called The Tragedy of Today’s Gays in 2004 and he’s a truth teller, that’s why he rubs some people the wrong way. I wrote a positive review of the speech in a gay nightlife scene magazine and he contacted me and said, ‘Thank you, I wasn’t expecting to hear anything that positive from a magazine like this’. Then I ended up interviewing him at his home for a PBS gay show called In the Life, which is now on YouTube. I hate my wig so I don’t watch it! I actually got a couple of laughs out of him and he was super sweet to me. I’m paraphrasing, but he would say things like, ‘I wonder how many people I killed by not knowing my status and having unprotected sex’, and people don’t really want to think about that, so it rubs them the wrong way. But he was going to have a say no matter what anyone thought. I recommend anyone who hasn’t seen it watches or reads his speech The Tragedy of Today’s Gays, and I defy anyone to not tear up when he says, and again I’m paraphrasing, but he essentially says, ‘I think gay people are better, I think that they’re stronger and kinder and wittier’, but he also said, ‘We’re in a mess where we are killing ourselves with drugs, we’re killing each other when we don’t wear condoms.’ So a lot of people found him hard to take, but in his aggressiveness with ACT UP in taking on drug companies, which weren’t doing enough during the AIDS crisis, he was the catalyst for the drugs that we now have. So he has my utmost respect and getting to know him in the little bit that I did was truly a brush with greatness. On his part!”
By James Kleinmann