Few drag queens who first made it big in Atlanta are as well-known around the world as Lady Bunny. For decades, Bunny has brought her comedic sensibility to audiences from Atlanta to New York and beyond.
On Friday, July 26, Lady Bunny returns to Atlanta to perform at The Other Show XXXL, the first-ever expanded version of one of Atlanta’s hottest drag shows. The show teams Lady Bunny up with a gaggle of Atlanta’s hottest new drag queens, led by Edie Cheezburger.
Before her appearance, I spoke with Lady Bunny about her time here in Atlanta. As our conversation went on, though, we started discussing some trends that she finds discouraging, from the infiltration of Top 40 radio into clubs to the overabundance of Rihanna songs used by drag queens.
To this day, you’re one of the biggest names to come out of the Atlanta drag scene. Looking back, what about Atlanta’s drag scene prepared you for the bigger, broader world of drag?
Well, Atlanta is – or definitely was, maybe still is – the capital of everything gay in the Southeast. So as a cultural Mecca, when I lived there in the 80s, there was such a booming drag scene, that entertainers came through Atlanta from different states, and I got to see all of the best.
You need to understand, that all of the gays lived in Midtown; you didn’t have to drive to a bar, there was no drunk driving. All of the homes were there, all of the bars were there, and for me at age 20, it was absolute paradise.
I think my roundabout way of answering your question is…Atlanta was so important as a gay destination. I got to see every kind of drag, and I got to see the real show-stoppers from around the country because Atlanta was definitely a tour stop for them. Not only was it a big, gay city, it was also known for hit drag, whether that was campy drag or the beauty/pageant queens.
Even though you don’t live here anymore, you do come back to Atlanta periodically. Is there anything specific to Atlanta that you enjoy while you’re here?
Yes, Honey; the Barbeque Inn out by the airport with unlimited refills on your side orders. [laughs] That is one thing that I have loved about Atlanta, I do love the food in Atlanta. I love it.
I grew up in Chattanooga, but moved to Atlanta between ‘82 or ‘84. Atlanta is where I met RuPaul, became his roommate, really started to begin to figure out who I was as a performer: personality, what sort of look would I have.
It’s kind of like my college years. They say the friends you meet in college are going to be your best friends for the rest of your life, so I do look longingly look back on those years. If I hadn’t gone to Atlanta from Chattanooga, and if I hadn’t met, not just RuPaul, but all of the Now Explosion – which included Larry Tee and LaHoma Van Zandt and a few other Atlantans who had a band called Now Explosion who were very popular and actually got me my first gig in New York. I still see one of the members of the band down when I go to visit all the time in Atlanta.
Plus, my mom lives in Chattanooga, she’ll often come down from Chattanooga to visit and stay in the hotel with me so we can have some girl talk, which my father might not appreciate. The last time I did Atlanta Pride, I got a picture of him and mom with Charlie Brown, Lily White, Heather Daniels, and Bubba Dee. I have strong ties to Atlanta. Atlanta is family.
Your appearance in Atlanta on July 26 brings you to Jungle’s first-ever The Other Show XXXL, where you’ll be joining the cast of The Other Show. Have you performed with any of the members before? What do you have planned for The Other Show XXXL?
Well, I will tell you, I’d like to perform with anyone whose “XXXL,” and will bring some Magnum Condoms so that I could perform well with them – or they could perform well with me…
Oh, I thought it “XXXL” like a porn, like “XXX”. Oh, are you telling me that it’s all fat queens and that’s why they put “XL” on it? [laughs]
Well, lots of comedy, as usual. My comedy can be a little bit on the raunchy side. I’m also looking forward to performing “Take Me Up High,” which is the song I just released on July 1 on Lybra Records. It’s just a dance track that I wrote and sang. I’m best known for parody songs, changing the lyrics and making things dirty and silly, but this is actually something a bit more serious, and something new that I’m trying. I charted on some DJ chart at No. 2 in Africa, so somebody likes it.
Speaking of “Take Me Up High,” why did you decide to record something original now, and why this song? Is there more original music coming in the future?
It’s actually not the first time. I’ve dabbled in it for years. I wrote a song that was used in HBO’s Dragtime, that was just something for my act. I co-wrote a duet with RuPaul for his last album. On this album, we have another duet. I’ve written songs for other people. I have a song coming out that was recorded by a great vocalist named Annette Taylor. So, I’ve done it over the years; I’ve dabbled in it.
But, you know, comedy was what really paid my bills. And in a recession – we do what? What pays the bills, because the music industry is really in a tale-spin right now, with piracy and illegal downloads. Also… I’m getting a little bit tired of going out to nightclubs and hearing pop music. I’m getting tired of hearing “Gangnam Style,” “Call Me Maybe,” “Harlem Shake,” and Icona Pop because it’s just not club music. This is pop music.
I’ve been hanging out at clubs since 1978, and we always went out to hear interesting, underground sounds, and not just regurgitation of what is on the Top 40 charts on the radio. I’d really like to get back to that. I think that gay clubs were known for their good taste in dance music, and if we’re regurgitating what’s on the radio, I think that’s really tired. Everyone I know complains about the same ten songs, Rihanna… and so I think there are other artists out there and sometimes it’s time to just say, “Hey man, it’s not a big dance label, it’s not a big record label, but let’s just [play this song].”
Clubbing has become really boring because of the bad music, so instead of whining about it, let me see if I can try to create the music which I think has a little bit more of an underground sound. Which is – I don’t know – a little bit cooler than Ke$ha.
“I don’t care; I love it!” I mean, give me a break, play something off of Barney or Sesame Street. I know people love that song, but they didn’t even bother to change one word in the verse, it’s like, 30 words in that song, you know? It’s a little embarrassing. Have you ever heard a song that’s like “verse-verse-crash my car into a bridge” – and the second verse is the exact same thing? I mean, come on. When I hear that, I have to rise up and say, “Oh, hold on, there may be a lot of stupid people with unsophisticated musical taste out there – but I am not one of them”. I realize that Icona Pop is not “English-first” language, they’re from overseas, so maybe they get a pass. I don’t know, not in my books.
Another disturbing trend is that choruses are disappearing from the songs. Two perfect examples are “Starships” by Nicki Minaj, where she just says “We’re higher than a motherfucker,” and then the chorus is [imitates music] “We’re higher than a motherfucker,” and repeat. It’s the death of the song, really. What has happened… there’s a producer who’s doing the equivalent of a guitar solo. It’s like telling the artist, “Okay, the hook – the chorus of the song is going to be where the audience thrashes around.” It’s so busy, that you can’t have any lyrics over it. Unless it’s lyrics like [sings the theme song to the 1966 Batman series]. Or with Ne Yo’s “Let’s Go,” [sings example]. Instead of the chorus being this wonderful part of the song that everyone sings along to like [sings chorus to Cece Peniston’s “Finally”], we’re now reducing the chorus to “Let’s Go” or [blargh by Nicki Minaj]. I mean, come on!
I’m working with Wayne Numan, who did two of the mixes. He’s been great. Like I said, this is something I’ve dabbled in for years. He lit a fire under my ass, and gave me a release date of July 1, handled all of the remixes. So far I’m very pleased with the outcome and definitely want to do a follow up with him. Definitely want to continue doing that. It’s just been on my bucket list and it’s time to start fooling around with it more.
What’s popular in drag is different depending on location, as well as generation. Looking at up-and-coming drag performers, what do you think they’re doing well as a group? Where do you think they need improvement?
Well, the same Top 40 disease that has affected DJs has definitely affected drag queens and their selection of material. I went to a show and there were like six queens in the show all performing Rihanna! You know, give me a break! I don’t know what kind of show director doesn’t figure out what songs everyone’s doing in advance. It’s just like… I don’t know. I grew up watching drag and learning about music that I didn’t know from drag queens. In the same way that a DJ that really knows their stuff; he may play a song that I don’t know, and that is not on the charts, but it’s a great song because I’m trusting his instincts. And that’s why he’s being paid as the DJ, ‘cause he tends to have better taste, and distinction than the average Joe and has his finger on the pulse.
Same thing with drag queens; you can give him all the Beyoncé and the Rihanna, but to me, it does become overkill at one point. I grew up watching drag queens that turned me on to incredible music I’ve never heard before like Patti LaBelle’s “Over the Rainbow,” “Lean on Me,” Melba Moore. Even rarer artists like New Birth had a drag queen lipstick classic called “I Don’t Want to Do Wrong”. I’m talking about you got an education from the DJ and from the drag queen.
What about that Grace Slick number that so many queens lip sync to, “Dream”? These were never Top 40 songs, but they were songs that spoke to the drag. I always love when I see somebody do something different. I also realize though that you’re not always getting paid a lot, you’re trying to save up for that $1,000 gown to win you that pageant, so you end up doing popular songs that are on the radio at the moment in order to make those tips so you can get that gown and win that pageant. I understand the dynamic of it.
I was in DC recently; there was a drag queen doing with the pink wig, she was clearly impersonating Nicki Minaj, and she went out and started performing, and I heard the crowd just screaming and going ballistic. I looked up there and I said “I gotta see what she’s doing, she must be an amazing dancer.” No! She was just walking around to the song collecting tips. All of that’s good for her – it’s like, I’d rather see a song that meant something to that queen, even if no one had ever heard it, but she was really turning out, it was some rare, Fantasia track that was like a gut-wrenching, tears.
If everyone’s doing Top 40, then the drag queens become just a jukebox. You give them a dollar, and they’ll do whatever song is number one. Don’t they know a song that means something to them, that they can…? I know they do, or they wouldn’t be up there lipsyncing. Sometimes you have to give the people what they want, but right now, DJs and drag queens are forced to give the people exactly what they want, and it is stifling the creativity of both DJs and drag queens.
Even going back to MTV’s golden age, where people, queens all of a sudden thought that it was the absolute bee’s knees to recreate the choreography in a video that Janet Jackson had done – and I was like “bullshit!” Before videos, we didn’t know what Janet Jackson had done. So the queens had to create their own choreography, and, to be honest with you, a lot of drag queens danced better than the stars they impersonated. It was better! I was lucky – I saw some talent in Atlanta. I saw some real pressure-cookers that just hit that stage and, honey, you gave them every damn dollar you had. And it’s because they were bringing something fresh.
A lot of the queens now can bring something fresh to their show using mixes, which I think is very creative. I wish that – a queen that is doing a number that is doing I’ve never heard, and that’s great, and that she can really work onstage is going to impress me so much more than a queen doing “Single Ladies.” It’s just so obvious.
You were part of the recent HBO documentary The Out List. How did you become involved in that project?
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders put me on the cover of a book about people that you see at New York City runway shows; so there was a connection there. He called me to be interviewed and I was very flattered. Some of the people are huge celebrities, like Ellen, but there are also some unknown people there too. It was just a great gig that I hoped to be included, and to be included as the only drag queen.
I think that what I said resonated with people. Basically what I said is, I’m tired of conservative gays giving shit to drag queens, because we started the gay rights movement, so you will never, ever subtract us from this equation. So you people have come up to me and said that “I was that conservative gay that you were talking about, but you really, really opened up my eyes. Because, it’s true.”
Another thing that I say in the documentary is “Look. You’re conservatives, and you feel it’s okay to put on a pink t-shirt and go and march in a gay pride parade one day a year and then go back to your semi-closeted, not very flamboyant lifestyle? Well, that’s not the type of person who started Stonewall.”
The type of person that started Stonewall was forced because they were a performer or because they lived as a woman or a woman living as a man. To be in their situation 24/7, 365 days a year, and we – I’m not saying that I’m old enough to have been at Stonewall – that was the kind of person that had just had enough, and started gay rights for everyone. You will never subtract the drag queens from that equation. Don’t even try. This was the people saying “Wait a minute; you cannot treat us this way.” And I think that we should regain some of that anger. I don’t know why we don’t have it today.
What do you think it will take for the current LGBT generation to get involved in the way previous generations were?
I’m not sure that they feel the necessity. Every once in awhile, everyone will get upset about teen bullying that leads to suicide. We kind of feel like marriage is on the way, and we can now fight in the military. The new AIDS drugs do make AIDS no longer a death sentence in many cases. I don’t feel the necessity that gay groups like Act Up that started up in the ‘80s that were like, “Oh my God, we’re scared to death, and we’re in shock. Everyone we know is dying, and no one knows why. There’s no cure in sight.” The government, Ronald Reagan refused to say the word “AIDS” for ages. Mayor Koch, the mayor of New York City at that time, was a closet case. So he didn’t want to get too involved in the same way that Reagan didn’t want to ever highlight the fact that his son is probably gay.
I think that young people have got to get angry again. Why should they be angry? Somebody said “Oh, I think we’re doing pretty good.” Pretty good is like, what, 13 states with gay marriage? Is that anywhere near half? I don’t think that’s too good. Now that the DOMA ruling has said that our marriages can be respected – yeah, in the states where we’re allowed to get married – which is a fraction of the 50 states that we have.
In the HBO documentary, Larry Kramer talked about anger being an important emotion, and anger was what stoked the fires of activists who got all of the AIDS drugs that are now saving people’s lives. Do you know how tragic it is for someone of my age to hear that HIV infections are going up among youth because of barebacking? People fought so hard for those drugs that they’re going to throw their leg up in a bathhouse and ignore safe sex? And think that these AIDS drugs are a cure? They’re not a cure. It’s a very difficult and expensive regiment. I don’t know, this generation – it does slap its predecessors in the face on a regular basis.
Lady Bunny appears as part of The Other Show XXXL at Jungle on Friday, July 26, beginning at 9:30 p.m. The show also features Edie Cheezburger, Evah Destruction, Jaye Lish, Justice Tyana Taylor, Miami Royale, Violet Chachki, Jasmine Antoinette and special guest DJ King Atlas from Haus of Glitz. For more information on the show, visit jungleatl.com. For more on Lady Bunny, visit ladybunny.net.