Friday, February 18, 2011

Life is a Drag (or, It Takes a Lot of Money to Look This Cheap)

At the urging of my dear friend Terry Sue, following a recent Facebook comment in which I mentioned “RuPaul’s Drag Race”, I’m going to admit to having at least one guilty pleasure.

I confess it, I watch “RuPaul’s Drag Race”. It was an accident -- I thought I had stumbled on an episode of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills”. It’s understandable: the clothes were outrageous, the makeup was overdone, and by their own admission this was a group of “fierce” “bitches” whose attitude was uniformly appalling. But “Drag Race” is a different animal. For one thing, it’s a real cross-section. There are Hispanic bitches, and plus-size bitches, and Asian bitches and midwestern bitches. But they all have one thing in common: an enormous walk-in closet. Miles of duct tape. Or an outsize personality.

It’s actually all of the above, in addition to being driven to win, win, win... at any cost. Didn’t Mimi Imfurst physically upend India Ferrah as they were lip synching for their lives recently, and get her not inconsiderable rear end booted off the show? Girl, you just don’t do that!

I must hand it to these girls: they’re taking this very seriously, and all for a lifetime supply of makeup (Krylon? Isn’t that spray paint?), and the opportunity to go on a national tour of some kind on behalf of Absolut vodka. Well, and there is the $75,000.

And on the runway at the end of the end of the show, during judging, there’s the ominous music, that reverberating “whoompf!” sound when bad news is delivered, and the tears when someone is eliminated; or better, when someone who thinks she’s about to be eliminated is! “Thank you, RuPaul!” Not to mention all the backstage drama, tears, and catfighting.

Joking aside, these girls bring a lot of baggage to the Interior Illusions Lounge. The “fierce”, “I’ll-do-whatever-I-have-to-do” attitude seems to be covering up any number of fears and insecurities. It’s addictive stuff, even if it makes “Project Runway” look like a National Geographic special. 

Now, while I love RuPaul, my favorite female impersonators are still Lypsinka and Charles Pierce, though Pierce always referred to himself as an “illusionist”.

photo: Russell Maynor
I first encountered Lypsinka in Los Angeles. She was performing a one-woman show there, which had recieved a rave review in one of the LA weekly papers, and the show it described was not the standard-issue drag show. Once I saw the show, I understood how difficult it must have been to describe in print. Lypsinka had created and elevated performance art, using audio clips from old movies and TV shows and musicals, familiar and obscure, all lip-synced with split-second precision. According to The Hollywood Reporter "Lypsinka is like nothing you've seen before! Theatrical artistry that never seems to slow down.” And the New York Times has it right in saying "Lypsinka is a fascinating, funny and disturbing spectacle." As hilarious as her shows are, there’s a kind of psychotic undertone that keeps you just a little off-kilter. Check out this video: pay attention at about three minutes in, when the madness really starts. There’s another Lypsinka show called “The Passion of the Crawford”, all clips from Joan Crawford interviews, movies, and public appearances. It is, in a word... well, you’d have to see it to understand.

Charles Pierce was, as he correctly identified himself, an illusionist. He “did” the great ladies of stage and screen including Tallulah Bankhead, Carol Channing, Joan Collins and, my favorite, Bette Davis. It’s not that he was so convincing. He only marginally looked like Davis and while he matched the cadences of her speech, the odd, swooping inflections and emphases, he didn’t really sound like her. But he had the mannerisms, the popping eyes and the wild, brittle gestures – including the way she smoked a cigarette – down pat. It was an impression, a broad sketch and, more often than not, an excuse for a few bawdy jokes and some hilarious swipes at Joan Crawford.

I saw him live several times, but my favorite moment was at a little club in Greenwich Village where I went to see him by myself. I was sitting at a table right next to the stage, stage right. At one point, as Bette Davis, Pierce came to the edge of the stage and asked for a cigarette. (This was back when I smoked.) So I took two out of my pack and lit them, à la Paul Henreid in “Now Voyager”. I think she got a kick out of it.

Finally, I’ve had my own brushes with drag over the years, including a Halloween years back, again in Los Angeles, when I attended a party as Madonna Reed. (It was when Madonna was at the height of her popularity and I hoped enough people of a certain generation would remember Donna Reed well enough to get the joke.) I wore a bustier and an apron, and carried an electric mixer. There was a prize for the best costume, and while it was close, the lady in the tutti-frutti hat took home the trophy.

Don’t look for me on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” anytime soon. 

1 comment:

  1. Love it, love it, love it!!! As you know from my own BLOG..I share this same and terrible guilty pleasure. P.S. I am one degree of seperation from RuPaul. Years ago, before he was really famous his roommate stole my VCR. LONG STORY! Keep up the great writing! Your friend, Bratprince