It’s a beautiful day outside, as I sit perched in front of my dining room table waiting for a call from musician, promoter, DJ, and drag legend Lady Bunny. This was an interview that I felt appropriately prepared for, but I was still nervous. She is, after all, a legend. Well, as much of a legend as you can be and still be living, I suppose.
When my phone eventually rang, though, I was treated to a delightful conversation with a thoughtful, well-spoken leader of the queer community. Lady Bunny will be visiting Seattle in a few weeks for an appearance at BUMP, the long running Halloween party benefit thrown annually by Gay City Health Project. Joining her, in addition to Superthreat (Nark + Amoania), Jimi Jaxon, and the Markos Sisters, will be Seattle’s very own drag superstar BenDeLaCreme.
“I met her once,” she tells me, “and that was enough. Just kidding!”
Bunny has had a long running career, and has seen much success. One of her biggest accomplishments was the organization of Wigstock, a drag festival that ran for two decades in New York. The festival grew from the hundreds of people gathered in front of the Thompkins Square Park bandshell in 1985, to tens of thousands celebrating on the Christopher Street pier in the early 2000’s. It was a celebration of drag, music, and being gay, and it was amazing. Watching Dina Martina tear through The Devil Went Down to Georgia like a drunken tornado still cracks me up every time I watch it.
“Dina is incredible,” Bunny agrees. “She’s probably the most original drag performer that I know of working today.”
“And also, probably the prettiest in Seattle,” she kids. “She has a look that pretty much represents the Northwest in my opinion.”
Dina’s performance came a little later in Wigstock’s history, though, and was part of the 1995 documentary “Wigstock: The Movie”. The festival was far different at first.
Because dirty jokes are what make me laugh the hardest, there’s a lot of that. I performed in a lot of night clubs. With an audience of drunk gay men at 2am, you don’t need to worry about being PC.”
“I started Wigstock because I wanted to showcase the talent at the Pyramid Club, where I was a resident go-go dancer. The club was incredible, but it could only hold around 250 people. The talent was so impressive that I wanted to share it with a wider audience.”
Of course, the festival grew in the years after that.
“It started off small,” she says,” but from the beginning we knew we were on to something. We’d touched a nerve. As the festival grew, there was this incredible dance music scene going on in New York at the time. As a DJ, and aspiring singer/songwriter, I liked to always work in those elements. Then, if you have Dina Martina type act, who left you scratching your head, you could come back in with someone like CeCe Penniston singing Finally.”
Indeed. In its heyday, Wigstock featuring such musical acts as Debbie Harry, Boy George, Crystal Waters, and Christine W.
“Over the years,” Bunny confirms, “the festival had grown large enough that people would come and perform their dance hits. I just love mixing it up. Here’s something insane, here’s something really polished, here’s something that’s gonna make you dance.”
While Bunny was busy showing off the talents of others, her own fame as a performer grew, as did her signature style. Every time Bunny steps out on stage, she seems to be coming off of the set of Laugh In. Her character is raunchy and irreverent. It wasn’t always like that, of course. Even Lady Bunny was young and new, once.
“I didn’t automatically know what I wanted to do when I first started doing drag,” she admits. “I think I was just kind of thrown out there to see what works. I threw a bunch of things out. Some stuck, some didn’t. Because dirty jokes are what make me laugh the hardest, there’s a lot of that. I performed in a lot of night clubs. With an audience of drunk gay men at 2am, you don’t need to worry about being PC.”
Drag has come a long way, though, since the first years of Wigstock. But it wasn’t that long ago that Lady Bunny was part of a rather short list of nationally known drag performers. Whereas, now we get new names, pretty much every year, that are supposed to be America’s Next Drag Superstar. What does she think, then, about the state of drag today versus the early days at the beginning of her career?
“Well, we’re really talking about Drag Race,” she explains, “and I would like to stress that Drag Race, in theory, is competition. But it’s not strictly a talent competition. Some of the most popular queens had a funny moment on the show that showed their personality and gave them a catchphrase that was memorable to the viewing audience. But Drag Race is not taking the best known, or best loved queens and doing their signature number to knock everyone’s eyes out.”
I have found that Drag Race has created… a lot of drag queens who do perfect nose contouring and makeup… but they don’t necessarily have too much to do once they’re in their look.”
As entertaining as the show is, it’s still reality show, of course, and is as dependent upon its ratings for its success as its competition. Looking at the show’s casting trends, over the years, speaks to the producers’ desire for drama and good TV more than good drag. Lady Bunny agrees.
“The queens on Drag Race,” she offers, “are cast, it seems, because every season needs a fat one, a club kid, a Puerto Rican one who can’t speak English, a bitch, and a couple of guys that are really cute out of drag. They’re not being cast necessarily for their talent. Sometimes they have amazing talent, but it’s never seen on the show.”
Some of the queens we’ve seen on television do have amazing talent, and have deservedly won. Bunny has her favorites, too.
“I think Bianca’s hilarious,” she tells me. “I’m a big fan of Jinkx. I’m a big fan of Sharon. I’m a big fan of Raja, of Shangela, Tammy Brown, and JuJu Bee.”
A good question, then, is what Bunny thinks about the way the surge in popularity for drag in general has affected this up and coming crop of queens.
“I have found,” she admits, “that drag race has created, on and off the show, a lot of drag queens who do perfect nose contouring and makeup because they watch Youtube videos about it, but they don’t necessarily have too much to do once they’re in their look.”
While she may be most well known for her drag, Bunny is also an accomplished musician and DJ. In fact, last week saw the US release of her most recent single, Lately.
“Its clubby, vocal house music,” she says, describing the song in her own words. “It’s got a lot of dubby effects, but it is an actual song with verses and chorus in a traditional song structure.”
Lyrically, it’s not groundbreaking. But it’s certainly attention getting.
“There is a breakdown that’s a little bit dirty,” she says. “just because I thought ‘What does someone in a club gonna want to hear, to kind of pierce through their altered mindset. What’s the line that a queen is gonna want to lip sync to.”
Bunny is referring to the lines “Pussy this good don’t wait around for no man. Pussy this good don’t wait for no nobody.”
The song is a follow up to “Take Me Up High”, a single she released last year that reached #17 on Billboard’s Club/Dance Chart in September of 2013. Both songs really represent a departure from her previous parody work, including a reworking of Gwen Stefani’s song Hollaback Girl, and a song to the tune of Harper Valley PTA called The Ballad of Sarah Palin. Is this, then, representative of Bunny’s musical aspirations?
“Making music doesn’t pay my bills,” she states, “comedy does. But, I would love it if something happened with the song where it becomes popular to where people are booking me to perform “Lately”. Music is something that I have in me that I need to express. Sometimes it’s actually costing me money to go in the studio, but that’s not going to stop me from pursuing that passion.”
Music is just one of the many things that Bunny is passionate about. She’s demonstrated to many interviewers that there really aren’t any topics that she doesn’t have something to say about. She was recognized in 2009 by amfAR (American Foundation for AIDS Research) as one of it’s Pride honorees, and she’s used her platform to promote a variety of causes, and always does so in her own highly acerbic style.
“I often disagree with the mainstream gay stuff,” she claims. “I’m not interested in marriage. I don’t understand the mainstream gay rights approach.”
It’s not very surprising that Bunny likes to swim in her own direction. It’s something that she’s been doing pretty much throughout her career. And it’s something that she’s frequently outspoken about.
“I find it very disturbing that the main event on the agenda before marriage was getting gays to fight in the military,” she explains. “I believe that gays should have equal rights across the board, but it strikes me as very odd that an oppressed people would want to go overseas and oppress Iraqi people, and feel that they have the right to do that when they would decry and call out when someone tries to bully them in their own community. I want gay people to be smarter than that.”
It is a miracle that I’m alive, because I was a party girl, I was a slut. If I can not get it, by being a slut but being a safe slut, I think that should be encouragement for anyone.”
Bunny hasn’t always been the verbal activist that she’s grown into, of course. She was once quoted as saying that, as a young person living in New York, she wasn’t much of an activist because she was “young and silly.” But being a club kid in the late 80’s in New York, activist or not, placed her squarely at ground zero for the rise of the AIDS epidemic, though. It wasn’t something she could avoid. But certainly, being around that must’ve still had its impact.
“It was horrible,” she recalls, “to see friends dropping like flies, and having to learn the lesson in your 20’s to go and see them in the hospital or they will die and you’ll never have another chance to. It was so difficult for me to get over my own fears that I might have the disease, that it was tough for me to visit my closest friends as they withered away to nothing.”
It’s clearly, and understandably, an issue that Bunny still takes to heart. And the lessons she’d learned from that experience where important ones.
“In a sense,” she admits, “I could’ve been patient zero because of the high risk factors of living in the East Village at that time. It is a miracle that I’m alive, because I was a party girl, I was a slut. If I can not get it, by being a slut but being a safe slut, I think that should be encouragement for anyone.”
So what, then, does Bunny feel is the best way to communicate her message?
“Well, by not shutting up about it. If, by may age, I’m put into the role of being an elder, what I want to say to anyone that’s young, or old, is: Honey, use a condom. It is a proven way to stop HIV transmission. Use it, and use it properly, and you’re going to remain disease free.”
You can catch Lady Bunny, along with the delightful BenDeLaCreme, on Thursday Oct 30 at BUMP, Gay City’s annual Halloween party benefit. Advance tickets start at $30, but VIP ticket holders will get a chance to meet Ben and Bunny in the VIP Lounge after their performances. Tickets for BUMP can be purchased online at strangertickets.com