Lady Bunny is queen of the heap. After decades atop the Manhattan nightlife scene, the larger-than-life drag queen has come a long way from her roots in Chattanooga, Tenn. She's worked as a DJ, a go-go dancer, and a model for a phone-sex line ad, and she has done her comedy, dancing, and singing act all over the U.S. and the world. Until recently, she was arguably best known for co-founding, co-producing, and emceeing Wigstock, an annual, all-day, outdoor variety show that brought the uproarious creativity of New York's nightlife community into the sunlight. But now her national profile has reached new heights with her featured-judge spot on RuPaul's Drag U, a makeover competition with the unlikely goal of helping put-upon, real-life women learn to boost their confidence and conquer their demons by looking and acting like drag queens. Bunny also runs a popular blog at ladybunny.net that reflects her broad range of interests by including everything from the Internet's worst gross-outs to her own fiery political bromides. (Bunny's political writing has also appeared on The Huffington Post.) And this month, New Yorkers are celebrating as Bunny makes her first local cabaret appearance in more than a decade, presenting "That Ain't No Lady" every Tuesday through November at Escuelita. The outrageous evening is beyond vulgar, in Bunny's time-honored way, and pits a new Peggy Lee cover and a devastating "tribute" to Amy Winehouse against classic Bunny numbers such as her extraordinary rendition of Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights" and her gut-busting medley of song parodies, which has evolved over the years but always concludes with Bunny channeling Whitney Houston, flicking at a crack pipe with a faulty lighter while pitifully crooning "I will always smoke you." Lady Bunny spoke to me by phone from her home in downtown Manhattan.
John Sanchez: Let's start with Drag U. On the show, you teach style tips to the middle American contestants, but what do you learn from them?
Lady Bunny: I was in tears a couple of times during the taping of Drag U. It's that bad! No, just kidding. When you get to hear the women's stories, you realize that these women sacrifice everything: their dreams, their income, everything, for their children, sometimes a no-good man, and that is why they're on Drag U, to get back in touch with their inner diva -- because they sacrificed so much. I don't think that average gay men know what that's like. We may have relationships, but many of us live alone, and we're not worrying about putting anyone else through school. I realize that these women sacrifice so much, and sometimes their stories were very touching.
My only request to these ladies is that they return the favor and realize we can't give them any drag tips or redecorate their homes or choose their bridal gown if these women's menfolk, husbands and sons beat us and kill us. We can't give you tips from the grave. Value the homosexual and drag queen, and teach your men that!
JS: What's it like working for RuPaul, someone you've now known for decades?
LB: You know, I have never seen Ru happier. Clearly he's enjoying a great deal of success, and this was after a couple darker years where he lost his mom and had back surgery. So working with him is an absolute joy. Whether he likes to admit it or not, he is my drag mother. He is only one year older than me, but he'll always be that one year older! And he did encourage me in Atlanta when we were roommates in 1982. So it was great to reconnect; we reunited under the banner of twisted humor, and I think Ru likes to have me on the show because Ru's role is kind of like a Dr. Phil meets Urkel, and my role is to be the zany, dishy, nutcase grand professor. Ru isn't even in drag on Drag U, so he wants me to provide the nuttiness. It's a great working relationship.
JS: Have you seen the cover of Martha Stewart's Halloween issue this year that everyone says looks like you?
LB: [Cackles.] Everyone is saying that! It's only because she's got those big butterfly lashes on. Honey, Martha Stewart was exquisite in her youth and is still a fine-looking woman, so I do not have problem with that comparison.
JS: A lot of people on the Internet also say that Adele looks like you.
LB: It's true! I'm flattered by that, too. She's extremely talented, too, and has a lovely, gentle look. She is heavy, which is probably the main reason people see the resemblance. I thought maybe I might go as Adele for Halloween.
JS: If someone wants to go as you for Halloween, what tips do you have for them?
LB: A pillow in the stomach! Well, it's all about lashes, isn't it, and hair height and mini dresses.
JS: How did you develop your signature look? You seem to have honed it to perfection.
LB: Well, it's actually all corrective. I show my legs because it's not like I can show my boobs or waist -- I don't have any! The loads of lash help add oomph to eyes, which aren't the largest or the most wide-set. We're tying to escape the inbred, white-trash look that I was born with. I'm just kidding.
JS: Why has it been so long since your last New York cabaret run?
LB: I fell into a rut of just going to gay pride events around the country and nightclubs, and it's easy to just go out, do your sure-fire material and throw out a few lines that you know are going to be crowd-pleasers. But it was time for me to develop some new stuff, and it's also a lot more... it's a lot more fun for me to do an involved show, which has lighting cues and sound cues of when the curtain opens and the spotlight comes on. Because when you walk into a typical gay bar, they don't even have a monitor for you to sing life to. You're there with a mic and a CD. You're basically just dealing with what you've got. And that's still my bread and butter, but I just wanted to try doing another show like this. It's been 10 years, and it's the Year of the Rabbit!
JS: One of the highlights of your new act is the Amy Winehouse number, which killed me.
LB: Killed her, too!
JS: When I read that that was going to be part of the show, I was apprehensive, because I really liked her, and it was so sad when she died. But you kind of balanced that: before you launched into your three minutes of jokes about her being dead, you gave a really great, heartfelt speech about her. It let you have it both ways, and I guess it let the audience have it both ways, too. Laughing and grieving go together sometimes.
LB: Well, Amy was someone who would punch you in the face for very little reason. I mean, if you're gonna tell me -- I never met her, but something tells me she could appreciate an evil joke, even at her expense. Of course, I'm sad that a great talent left us too soon. She was troubled; we all knew that. Unlike the rest of us, if you're rich and on drugs, your drugs don't run out, and you sometimes die.
JS: How did "Wuthering Heights" become a staple of your act? It's so left-field.
LB: I took my A-levels in England at a Quaker boarding school, believe it or not, and that's how I heard that song. It goes over a storm in the U.K., but you need to be a little alternative to know it here. It's a beautiful song, but of course my shrieking gives it a new tone.
JS: Politics are not a big part of a show, but you do bring it up just a little, as a joke. You said, "Let's all leave here right now and go down to storm Wall Street." I thought some of the people in the audience would have taken you up on it.
LB: Well, to be honest, I'm very eager to get down there myself. But when you're trying to do an hour and half of live singing and you're also traveling every weekend, you can't really shred your voice in a protest situation! I would very much like to go there. The politics, especially my extremely liberal viewpoints, turn people off. The idea of this show is to make them laugh, not preach to them. But at the same time, in the last 10 years I have become a lot more politically involved, so some of that is going to come out in the show in some way. Because if you aren't concerned about what's going on, you don't have a brain! And I'm wondering if a lot of gays aren't falling into that category.
I actually liken it to what's going on with music, that I see because I DJ. Kids are often buying what they are sold. Record companies pay to have their songs played, and it's a scientific fact that repetition sinks in and before long, we're loving that song. Now, as a DJ, I can't step out of the Rhianna, Gaga, Katy Perry, Britney mode, or people walk off the dance floor. We've lost the ability to determine, "Can I like that song? I don't know it, but this person's been hired here as a DJ, so maybe they know something that I don't." It's now if we're familiar with it, we dance to it, and that is a very sad state of affairs. The gay dance floor was where the straights would come to take cues and pick up records because of gays' excellent taste! When you lose the ability to question, then you end up in Iraq, and you stay there for 10 years. And you think you want to win the right for gay people to go over and do whatever we're doing still in Iraq. I don't understand how gays rally against the bullying that led to the rash of teen suicides yet then clamor for the right to join a military which bullies other countries so severely that we don't even give them suicide as an option; we kill them. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead, paid for by our tax dollars, for no reason. Thousands of cases of post-traumatic stress disorder for no reason. This is happening because we're not questioning.
JS: How did you find your voice politically? When Wigstock was new, you had a reputation for not letting politically themed acts into the show, and you kind of had a reputation for being apolitical.
LB: I was wary of people who wanted to say that Wigstock was an in-your-face event. The motivation behind Wigstock was never to be in your face. It was to go out and do our thing without any shame, but it was to put on a fun show. In my 20s and 30s I wanted to distance myself from politics, because my dad is a political junkie, and he watched every single day of the Watergate trials, forcing me to miss The Brady Bunch, so politics were the devil for many years. But what really triggered my interest was being up and seeing that second building fall. And, you know, seeing peoples' reactions and seeing this notion of, "Oh, what do we do?" And the answer, of course, we know now, is attack the wrong person in retaliation. Of course, you want to find the culprit, but they were never anywhere in Iraq. Instead of thinking, "What do we do?" I thought, "Oh, Lord, what have we done? What have we done to make people hate us so much that they would do this?" And the truth is we have been messing around all over the world for decades, and sometimes the U.S. helps out people who can't help themselves, but sometimes we're involved in very dirty dealings; we created Osama bin Laden.
JS: With Occupy Wall Street, do you think people are waking up?
LB: Look, we are waking up, and that's great. And I think it was the debt ceiling that really drove home how absurd our government is functioning. We need them create jobs, not bicker over a debt ceiling that they're going to raise anyway! I think people are just becoming aware of how topsy-turvy the system is and how both parties are geared toward keeping the mega-rich wealthy and making sure that the huge corporations that put them in office still do not pay their fair share. Even the simplest person can understand, "Hey, I'm not asking the rich to pay more than their faire share, even though if they pay the same percentage, it would be more money, a larger amount. I'm just asking them to pay what I pay!" You have to be pretty dumb to ignore that. And I don't understand why, but in this country, the poor will vote as if they are rich, and for the Republican party, which helped put us into this current mess. But I need to see more from both parties to address how we get out of this mess. I've got to say that I'm very disappointed by Obama. Of course, I will vote for him over any Republican; look at that lineup of trolls. Loony trolls. But the Martin Luther King/Obama T-shirt I bought is in the rag box and will never be worn again.