MW: How did you settle on the name Lady Bunny?
LADY BUNNY: Lady. Well, are you familiar with Lady Chablis from Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil? Lady is a name that Southern drag queens give themselves, often to make them seem quite grand. You know, like Lady Chablis, like a classy, white wine, or whatever. Basically most drag queens, including me when I got my start, are performing in a smaller club and not making a ton of money. So when I chose the name Lady, it was kind of making fun of that tradition of giving yourself a really grand name. Especially since my early drag was so pitiful and came from a thrift store and barely fit. And I had no knowledge of makeup application, or how to sew. It was really like the joke was on me.
Bunny? I don’t know where that came from. Bunny: The Queen of the In-Crowd was a comic book about a bottle blond who wore psychedelic fashions that were quite similar to what I wear – except not in the plus sizes that I wear them in! Bunny was also the name of the girlfriend of Sergeant Carter on [the 1960s TV sitcom] Gomer Pyle. I really don’t know where I got the name. It was just a silly idea that I never knew would materialize into a career, but now it’s too late to change it.
MW: You said you didn’t really know what you were going to do as a career. But you couldn’t have expected this.
LADY BUNNY: I didn’t. I’m a good friend of Lypsinka. [John Epperson] always had a clear-cut notion of who Lypsinka was, and that Lypsinka was going to be performing on stage. And I was the opposite. I was just someone who was young, who wanted to hang out on the scene. And I just had to develop some sort of act in order to get paid in the clubs. It didn’t happen overnight. I did achieve some degree of notoriety for organizing Wigstock for 20 years. But I don’t actually think it was until the last several years of Wigstock that my own act came together. And I think I was probably known, for quite some time, more for Wigstock than I was for performing.
MW: Wigstock ended in 2005. Do you miss it?
LADY BUNNY: I don’t. Twenty-plus years was a really long run in New York. And drag has changed over the years. I loved the traditional, lip-sync queens doing Tina Turner or Melissa Manchester ballads in butterfly sequined tops. But when I moved to New York from Atlanta, I encountered this new kind of drag – not so much impersonating, but people creating their own characters. Like Lypsinka. RuPaul [also] sprang out of that scene. And Joey Arias. It just seemed to me that the drag seemed to be a bit more original. And that’s really why I wanted to showcase it in an outdoor festival at Wigstock. Because I thought that it was so unique that it could reach a wider audience. And as the festival grew and grew and grew and became a movie, I was proven right. But even though drag is quite mainstream now, I’m not seeing as much of that really crazy, inspired drag as I used to.
Another person who sprang from New York City is Hedwig, [John Cameron Mitchell‘s transsexual character] which went on to become a movie and a hit Off-Broadway musical that’s now been performed [everywhere]. That just blew me away and it made me realize that there really are no limits on drag queens. They can do anything from comedy to lip-sync to live singing to writing books to emceeing, to recording pop songs like Kevin Aviance or RuPaul. It just showed me that drag doesn’t have to be limited to lip-sync of whoever’s in the charts at the moment.
In fact, people ask me, what advice would you give to an up-and-coming drag queen? I always say you’ve got to find something that is unique, because there’s going to be dozens of Beyoncé and Rihanna impersonators in every city. So unless you are the absolute best, no one is going to fly you anywhere, if they’ve already got a dozen Beyonce impersonators in their city. You’re not going to achieve any national recognition unless you’re doing something – if you’re Derrick Barry, who not only looks exactly like Britney Spears, but can vocally re-create her. Not that Britney’s the best singer to begin with! But Derrick Barry even sounds like her live. That kind of impersonation is incredible. And that makes him unique. So if you are going to impersonate someone, you better be the best, or you’re pretty much gonna just be doing it locally.