Lady Bunny didn't need to win a frickin' reality TV show to become one of the world's most famous and influential drag queens.
Instead, she spent the last 30-something years earning it as an emcee, singer, songwriter, actress, DJ and the founder, organizer and hostess of Wigstock, a drag festival that "delighted up to 40,000 New Yorkers every Labor Day for nearly 20 years."
On Tuesday, April 29, Bunny will debut her new cabaret show, "Clowns Syndrome," at La Escuelita in New York City, where her last sold-out show, “That Ain’t No Lady!” won her rave reviews, including one from The New York Times’ David Rooney, who wrote: “Most of Bunny’s best lines are unprintable here, but more than any performer I saw this year ‘the old pig in a wig,' as she calls herself, made we weep with laughter, often while groaning with disgust. And isn’t that what the best low comedy is all about?”
We caught up with BunBun to chat about the new show, political correctness, RuPaul and what can offend a queen who makes a living by being offensive.
The Huffington Post: I saw “That Ain’t No Lady!” three times, that’s how much I loved it.
Lady Bunny: A glutton for punishment!
I really am. I brought different people with me every time. It was fun for me to see them react to you. I really feel like there are no longer that many people doing what you do.
Well, in what way?
Because you’re so --
I don’t give a shit!
You don’t give a shit, you’re brutally honest, you’re provocative and controversial and it literally makes people gasp -- and sometimes groan. I think people miss that really "off the rails" sense of humor that’s dirty and dangerous but also smart. We don’t see that very much any more, so when people encounter that, it really takes them by surprise.
The funny thing is I was not expecting this because I’m mainly a club performer, so if I do shocking things like squirt an enema full of tomato juice between my crotch to the tune of Leona Lewis' “Bleeding Love,” it is low brow and people in nightclubs appreciate twisted stuff. And of course younger people know the newer songs that I’m parodying. But I was really shocked to get a great review in the New York Times and he really pinpointed what I think is the difference. He said drag has become kind of sanitized and here’s this fierce thing from the gutter who is raunchy and wild and I just really thought from a straight reviewer to come and get that -- because drag has become kind of sanitized.
For me, drag has this really rich history of being really political, too. Even if it’s not political in terms of it being about politics but it has confronted a lot of things in mainstream culture and it has been incredibly subversive. Do you think that in some ways it has lost that feeling?
I have a theory about this which is that when gays were really searching for acceptance in the '50s, '60s, '70s, and '80s, it was very freeing for gay men to go and see someone who was not only out of the closet but a flamboyant drag queen doing dirty material. Because there was a fearlessness to it. Now drag is more mainstream, so I’m not sure drag is as freeing for gay men and to some extent drag may have become old hat. It is so mainstream now and a lot of it is boring.
So do you feel a calling then to make sure that the other end of the spectrum is still represented and thriving?
In doing what I do, I’m going to be on the dirtier, raunchier, crazier side because that’s what I want to do. It’s not such a noble “manning the fort.” I’ve got to do what makes me happy. When you perform in clubs, people are drunk and it’s late and you’re not going to get too involved or too political or go in-depth with a monologue. A cabaret show allows me to do all that with change costumes and a few lighting cues and props and I can make it a bit more like a theatrical thing with a bit more thought to it.
You told me that there’s a segment of the show that has a rant about political correctness. But that’s not really something new for you -- you’ve always been outspoken about your problems with people being politically correct.
Oh yeah. First of all, banning words doesn’t change minds. As a black trans friend once said, PC is another word for two-faced cunt. Just because you can’t say a word in public doesn’t mean that you like that person anymore. And I think that’s very true. Beyonce is shepherding a campaign to ban the word “bossy” because it inhibits leadership qualities in little girls. Oh really, Beyonce? So shaking your ass in a blonde wig to awful music is going to take girls straight to the White House? I don’t want to inhibit little girls' leadership qualities, in fact I think we should have a female president -- we'd only have to pay her half as much [laughs]. But I just don’t think it should be Hillary [Clinton] because as 70-year-old menopausal woman whose husband has been cheating on her for 50 years with an arsenal of nuclear weapons and drones, she would take out a whole Cheesecake Factory just get Monica Lewinsky!
I was also very dismayed when the gay community pounced on Alec Baldwin for his transgression – can I even say “trans” anything anymore? You know, calling a paparazzi photographer a "faggot" the day after he won a two year stalker case and the paparazzi almost hit his baby in the head with the lens. I mean, Alec Baldwin is a progressive liberal! That’s the only group that supports gay rights across the board. He got mad. He said something people don’t like. Here’s my other thing: you’re going to get offended in life! If you decide to come out of the closet, there’s a lot of people that hate gays! If you decide to transition into a woman, there’s a lot of people who hate trans people. That comes with the territory! You’re going to get offended. GLAAD has included on its list of taboo words the term “gender bender.” David Bowie was a gender bender! There’s no derogatory term in there! I don’t think anyone’s ever bashed a drag queen or a trans person and said “You fucking gender bender!” You know? The thing with RuPaul and the "she-mail" controversy really riled me up because first of all, there are people who would bash your head in a dark ally if you’re gay, drag or trans. Are you going to focus on some silly game on a reality show? There are well-funded organizations who seek to deny gay and trans people equal opportunities and housing. Are those your real enemies? Or is it someone doing a "shemale versus female" thing? I just really feel like it’s kind of crazy to attack RuPaul and it just seems like word police. I looked at some graphic the other day called the "Transgender Umbrella" and it included everything -- drag queen, transvestite, transgender pre-op, post-op, two spirit, berdache, questioning -- and I fall under that umbrella. So if I want to use the word "tranny," which I’ve always seen as an affectionate abbreviation for someone who is a transvestite or transsexual, that is my right.
Some people think that no matter who is saying them or when, those words are slurs and they're always hurtful and demeaning.
Look, being trans is a very difficult journey and it is very hard to understand. I’m really the wrong one to ask about the terms because I didn’t like it it when the Gay Center started calling itself the Gay and Lesbian Center because that is grammatically incorrect. Gay means you like the same sex and lesbian means you like the same sex. It’s like saying “Fruits and apples” or “bitches and Bianca Del Rio.” Then at one point they were saying the sign was like Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Two-Spirits and I’m just like -- listen! Why don’t we come together? And stop trying to divide us because, like I said, those people who are going to bash you in a dark ally are probably going to bash me and a gay man or woman who is not in drag. So I don’t understand the divisiveness and I certainly don’t understand the hatred towards RuPaul. World of Wonder has done a lot of trans content as well, so I just think whatever offends you, offends you, but I really don’t think RuPaul is your enemy when every president since Kennedy has met and spoke every year with that family association -- that conservative think tank -- which helped create the “Kill The Gays” in Uganda bill.
My issue with Ru right now –- and I say this while acknowledging that he was one of the first queer people I ever saw growing up in Wisconsin when I was 15 and he was on MTV and that was such a huge moment for me because I thought, Look at this person who is gorgeous and fearless and who is living the life he wants to live. And I didn’t know if I could ever be like that. So I give Ru so much credit –- he is a huge inspiration for me. But I am frustrated that he hasn’t spoken out about this controversy, aside from a few catty tweets, because I think that he’s brilliant and I think that if he actually talked about this it could help shed light on where he's coming from and it could really bring people together. Do you have any idea why he hasn’t talked about it?
No, and I know for a fact -- having been Ru’s roommate in my 20's and 30's -- that Ru and I both adore trans people. And we certainly do not want to see them hurt. I think Ru doesn’t understand why there is this backlash. And now we're seeing many other trans activists like Kate Bornstein and Jayne County speaking out and saying [those who are calling for these words not to be used] are off base! I think Ru and World of Wonder are very frustrated. They made an apology and they’re not used to being called out because Ru has played it very safe. In order for America to accept him, Ru has desexualized his character, much like the character in “Kinky Boots.” Because a lot of America is not ready to see a horny drag queen who is not only dressed up like a gorgeous woman but then acts upon those desires. So I know that Ru and World of Wonder are very disappointed.
When my website was created almost 20 years ago my contact information said “she-mail.” That is because I’m a drag queen and it’s a feminine silly way to make a play on e-mail communication to me. In no way was I trying to be derogatory towards the transgender community. I do understand why the transgender community is sensitive about “shemale” with a "male." Because that is mainly a porn term and it reminds trans people of “male” when they don’t want to be reminded of that. Then I thought to myself, that is a silly game and they’re probably right to stop it if it’s that offensive and not do it.
What about your gender identity? How do you identify?
Everyone including my mom calls me Bunny. I wear women’s clothes when I go to work, have had thousands of dollars of extensive and painful electrolysis because –- in the same way that some transgender people look at their bodies and think this is wrong –- I didn’t feel that hair should ever be growing out of my face. So, while I don’t have any desire to have surgery, everyone I know calls me a “she.” My trans friends all treat me as if I am one of them. If I’m talking on the cellphone in a bathroom stall in the airport, people flip out in the men’s room and some people, even when I’m out of drag, are like “you’re in the wrong restroom ma'am.” So I definitely feel somewhat in-between.
I think that’s part of, for some people, what trans is. It doesn’t always mean that you move from one end of the gender binary to the other. Some people exist in the middle -- and happily so.
Exactly. And many trans people who live as women never intend to have the operation.
It seems like people are really trying to be more sensitive about trans issues. But when you make a big deal out of a silly reality show I think it creates transphobia among the gay community, which has been the most supportive of trans people! I spoke with Calpernia Addams at length about this and she said, "Look. Every movement needs it’s militant leaders who want to ban words and then the softer, more relatable leaders who may do a better job at getting their points across." And Calpernia said I don’t like to use this word because it makes me feel a certain way. But the other thing about being offended –- people are going to get offended! And people have different sensitivity levels. I mean, Joan Rivers does a roast of me on video in my new show and the first joke is “I can’t believe I have to roast Lady Bunny! At this point I feel like I’ve done more roasts than Hitler!” But you see, she’s not saying "Hahaha! Jewish people died in the Holocaust!" She’s saying why do I have to do another roast? People have a different sensitivity level and I’d say my show is not for the politically correct.
What do you think people should be offended by? What offends you?
It offends me that people don’t know or care about the fact that we have basically two political parties, as we gear up for an election, that don’t represent working people. It offends me that people have experienced the freak weather of this past winter and still can’t wrap their heads around that we need to pressure politicians to do something now about this! Because it’s going to get worse! That kind of stuff is more offensive to me. I really think words are a tool of performers and comedians and actions speak louder than words. It offends me that GLAAD is going to use its position to tell people what to say in a free country! Another thing is once you start the word policing, where do you stop? I mean the word “hunty” is a play on “honey” and maybe that’s what’s confusing all the bees and descimating bee populations worldwide! It’s just like come on! Lighten up! And if you do want to attack someone, attack the very real challengers – not a drag queen on a reality show. For Christ's sake! Reality TV is exploitive in its nature. It offends me that "Real Housewives" are portrayed as wig-snatching, social climbing wannabes having cocktails at lunch when the great women in my life, like my mother and sister, are taking care of their kids picking them up from school and doing laundry! To me those are negative images and for some reason women are the ones who support them!
"Clown Syndrome" opens on Tuesday April 29th and runs for five consecutive Tuesdays through May 27. The price is as cheap as her humor—$19.95 with a recession-friendly 1 drink minimum. La Escuelita is at 301 West 39th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues. Clowns Syndrome is co-written by Bunny and the bitter and hysterical Facebook sensation Beryl Mendelbaum. For tickets, head here. For more information on Lady Bunny, visit her official website here.