<i>Spilled Milk</i>: Tea and Coco

Every young girl should have a fairy godmother. Mine does. Her name is Miss Coco Peru.
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Every young girl should have a fairy godmother. Mine does. Her name is Miss Coco Peru.

Just how does one go about locating a fairy godmother? It's best if they appear at your daughter's crib when she's quite young, wag a finger and say, "I wanna be her fairy godmother." That's how it happened for us.

It all started at a Club Med, as so many things do. Years before I became a dad. I was nursing a pretty devastating heartbreak and needed to get away, so I'd booked myself a solo pity party at Club Med Playa Blanca on the Mexican coastline.

I know what you're thinking. Aren't those Club Meds kind of... cheesy? And it's true, there are lots of cheese platters, most of them repurposed from earlier cheese platters. But I wasn't there for the cheese. I was there for the all-inclusive, up-front prepayment. Club Med is one of the few vacation spots where you pay one lump sum for everything before you arrive, including tips. Which means that for the rest of your trip... no thinking. Thinking just aggravates depression, especially thinking about money. Thinking is the last thing you need when you're trying to focus on what's important: overeating, over-tanning and moping. Which you can never overdo. The only thing Club Med could have done to improve my stay would be to have someone stick a needle in my arm and feed me intravenously by the pool.

But they said "No," so I was forced to take my meals in the dining room. They don't like people eating alone at Club Med. It's practically an actionable offense, so I was presenting a problem for the GOs. Club Med originated in France; staff members are referred to as GOs, which stands for gentils organisateurs. Roughly translated this means "pains in the ass." The main task of these overzealous smilers is to encourage guests to mingle, socialize, connect. My mission was to disconnect. So whenever my GO would approach, trying to coax me into joining a group table, I'd put up my hand, signaling my GO to STOP.

I might as well have been flipping him the bird. My GO became more and more discombobulated, his smile finally collapsing under the weight of all that sweat now pooling on his lip. That's when I noticed him nervously glancing over his shoulder at his gentil supervisor, who was standing behind a palm glaring at us both. And that's when he whispered, "Please, señor, I am on probación." Finally it dawned on me: Great, I'm about to get somebody fired, which would mean feeling guilty, which would mean thinking, which was unacceptable. So I moved to a group table.

It was there that I met a gentle, soft-spoken man with huge blue eyes and a huger mouth. He introduced himself as Clinton Leupp. All I knew about Clinton was that he was (a) from the Bronx; (b) wickedly smart; (c) delightfully funny and (d) like me, being harassed for dining alone. We immediately became pariahs-in-arms and took most of our meals together after that. We'd ogle the bronzed Adonises crowding the group tables around us -- they tend to travel in packs with a single suitcase for all their Speedos. Clinton and I couldn't help fantasizing what it might be like to poke one of their balloon pecs with a fondue spear to see if it would actually explode.

It was probably our second or third lunch before I got around to asking Clinton how he'd come to be at Playa Blanca by himself. Sipping his tea he casually remarked, "Oh. I'm doing a show here Saturday night." Alarm bells went off inside my head. There'd been an excruciating show the night before. You have no idea how much can go wrong when a hypnotist stutters.

"What kind of show?" I asked Clinton, casually. He dismissed my curiosity with a wave of his hand. "You'll see."

So I was concerned, to put it mildly, as I took my seat in the outdoor theatre on Saturday. I don't remember exactly how the show began. I do remember that the lights dimmed as the announcer introduced a woman with an unusual name. As she stepped into the spotlight I took her in from the bottom up: sensational legs, iridescent blue minidress, killer rack and lovely... Adam's apple. Smiling at the crowd were the same huge blue eyes and huger mouth I'd been lunching with all week, framed by a deep orange wig with a perfect That Girl flip.

Miss Coco Peru had landed.

Actually, "landed" is exactly the wrong term. Seeing Coco Peru in person for the first time is like watching a spaceship blast off, fiery and dazzling, shooting straight into space and taking you along for the ride.

Over the course of the next ninety minutes, striding the stage on a pair of tasteful yet practical high heels, this spectacular creature -- well over six feet tall -- defied not only the laws of gravity, but any expectation I might have had. Not because she was a man in a dress. Men have been putting on dresses since the dawn of taffeta. Because she was this man in a dress. Though I'd never heard of Miss Coco Peru, I realized immediately I was in the presence of a true original, somehow wildly improbable yet inevitable at the same time.

When film critic Pauline Kael famously wrote of Barbra Streisand,"Talent is beauty," she could have been describing Clinton as Coco Peru. Anyone can do drag; it's Clinton's writing that dazzles. Expertly combining monologue, song and hilarious storytelling, you soon realize, as odd as it seems, it's the humanity spilling out from under that vermillion wig that makes it impossible not to be mesmerized.

Miss Coco achieves this by weaving a complex tapestry of tales from a singular life. Growing up in the Bronx as an effeminate boy, chased home by bullies and mortified one day to discover that his mother had painted their house. Pink. A life-changing fall through a glass shower door as a teenager, from which he nearly bled to death. The day he discovered the thrilling voice of soprano Eva Marton, whose name he hilariously mispronounced, along with "Wagner" and Tristan und Isolde, to a withering New York record-store clerk. All this combined with songs, stories of his unflappable, devoted mom Helen, exotic tales of world travel, his childhood ambition to form a tribute band to Josie and the Pussycats, meeting his husband on a nude beach in Spain, cocktail party disasters and tribal vision quests in -- where else? -- Peru. Every word of it delivered in a thick Bronx accent.

But most amazingly, by the end of his show, this man in the minidress and ridiculous wig had somehow pulled off the impossible: He made you feel Miss Coco was you. Whoever you were. Over the years, I've brought many people to see Coco -- straight neighbors, work friends, my mother-in-law, our children's egg donor and her husband. They all come away with some version of the same reaction. That was me up there. It's sort of transcendent, while at the same time being -- did I mention? -- pee-your-pants, gasping-for-breath funny. That is the sublime gift of Coco Peru. Somehow she connects us.

Clinton and I have remained friends since that first day as dining room pariahs at Club Med. On one of my first dates with my husband, I took him to see Miss Coco's Glorious Wounds... She's Damaged. I knew it would make him love me more, and it did. As a bonus, I had the pleasure of introducing two of my favorite people.

Soon after our daughter was born, Clinton visited us all with his mom Helen (lovely, and exactly as described). He brought Elizabeth one of her first baby gifts, the book On the Day You Were Born, which celebrates the uniqueness of each individual who arrives on this planet, signed, inevitably, "Love, Aunt Coco, a.k.a. Clinton Leupp." We still read it. As we laid our baby girl down for a nap in her crib, Clinton declared then and there that Miss Coco Peru would forever be Elizabeth's fairy godmother.

2012-05-09-DSCF2892.JPGAnd so she has been. On Elizabeth's first birthday, she received a lovely, very small gift box from Aunt Coco. Inside? A perfect, tiny, white feather boa, with the inscription, "For Elizabeth, because you deserve it." It came in very handy for dress-up princess teas. There have been birthday presents and cards ever since, and whenever Kelly and I attend one of Coco's shows, she always sends us home with a gift for her fairy goddaughter, usually a purse with lots of sparklies.

Though she'd heard of Miss Coco Peru all her life, seen a photo or two and received gifts bearing her name, Elizabeth recently began to wonder whether her fairy godmother really existed. Once you're past the age of 5 or 6, unless you're Cinderella, the scuttlebutt is that they don't.

To Elizabeth, Coco might as well have been a unicorn.

So she began asking to meet her. I told her that Miss Coco only appeared on stage, at night, and that she was too young to see the shows. The best I could offer was to see if we could arrange for Elizabeth to meet the man who played Miss Coco Peru. Of course Elizabeth was disappointed, but I explained that it takes hours for Clinton to transform into Miss Coco. Besides, asking a drag queen to get dolled up, in daylight, for no money, is like asking a drag queen to get dolled up, in daylight, for no money. But they are the same person, I assured her. "Coco may be the wrapper, but Clinton is the candy."

Clinton was delighted at the invitation, and since both Elizabeth and Clinton love tea, we decided to meet at the Tea Rose Garden on a Tuesday afternoon in Pasadena. In my email to Clinton confirming our date, Elizabeth asked if she could type him a personal note. She wondered if he might -- please? -- consider bringing along Coco's red wig. I think she wanted proof. We got a nice note back from Clinton stating that though he was very much looking forward to tea, "The wig stays at home!"

The next day I picked Elizabeth up from school. In the back of the car she brushed her hair and changed into her most elegant red dress and low heels. We arrived at the Tea Rose Garden running a few minutes late. After jamming some coins in the parking meter, we rushed up the sidewalk and opened the glass door, already mouthing apologies for our tardiness to Clinton. But Clinton wasn't there.

Sitting at a table about twenty feet away, smiling at us, was Miss Coco Peru.

Gravity could not contain my daughter. She leapt up and down in the air, clapping her hands, and went flying into the arms of her fairy godmother. Clinton smiled at me through Coco's makeup, his eyes saying, "Come on, Bill, how could I not?"

For the next hour and a half, Elizabeth might as well have been having tea with a unicorn. It was that magical. And that rare. Coco Peru doesn't appear in the daytime. Ever. Spotting her at three in the afternoon -- in Pasadena? -- you're more likely to see a herd of unicorns galloping through Target.

Elizabeth was in heaven. Over scones and finger sandwiches, she launched into a flurry of questions, the sort any child might ask: "When did you start wearing a dress?" Why did you start wearing a dress?" "Can I touch your wig?" "Do you go grocery shopping like this?"

"Well, Elizabeth," smiled Coco. "First of all, here's how I explained it to one of my nephews. I said to him, 'Do you like getting dressed up for Halloween?' He said, 'Of course! I love getting dressed up for Halloween!' So I told him, 'Well, so do I. So think of this as me getting dressed up for Halloween. Only... I don't have to wait for Halloween.'"

"Elizabeth," Coco said, "that's all I had to say. He got it completely." So did my daughter.

Coco went on to tell Elizabeth that as a child she'd never enjoyed doing "boy things" like sports, and had always gravitated to "girl things, like-"

"Like my dad!" said Elizabeth.

"Exactly, only..." Coco glanced at her press-on French-tip fingernails, "I'm guessing a lot more."

Coco related how she'd been bullied by her peers from an early age as a child for being different. "I was a really nice kid, but all they could see were the things that weren't like them. Like my funny voice and my funny walk, which I didn't think were funny at all."

"I love your voice!" exclaimed Elizabeth.

"Well, thank you," said Coco. "And I've loved yours since all you could do was gurgle. Tell me, have you ever been bullied?" I'd mentioned to Clinton that Elizabeth was going through some painful mean-girl exclusion at school. Elizabeth quietly nodded. "Sort of."

"It feels pretty terrible, doesn't it? And you have no idea what you're doing wrong, right? Because you're not doing anything wrong. You're just being you. And they treat you horribly. It's very hard to understand as a kid. I know. But those kids are wrong."

Elizabeth was riveted.

With a matter-of-factness devoid of self-pity, Coco went on to spell out how things had gotten worse once she became a teenager, long before the advent of "It Gets Better" videos. She learned to hide the "girl" part of herself, partly for her own survival, partly in a misguided attempt to please her parents and partly to protect them from learning what her days at school were really like.

"Then, when I was about 20," said Coco, "something major happened. I began to read about these Native American tribes, and how in these tribes there were these people called 'two-spirits.' They were called this because their bodies were thought to manifest both masculine and feminine spirits. And I thought, 'That sounds familiar.' But unlike where I came from -- the Bronx -- instead of being bullied and tortured and mocked, these two-spirit people were celebrated by their tribes. Celebrated for being exactly who they were. They were considered by the tribe to be spiritually advanced, special. Well, Elizabeth, it rang a bell. It dawned on me that I was a two-spirit. Which could only mean one thing. Far from having anything wrong with me, I was special. Just as you are special and your dad is special and that lady serving us tea is special. I decided to embrace who I was. And that was the moment, Elizabeth, that Coco Peru was born."

Now Elizabeth had been studying Native American culture in school, but somehow they'd never gotten around to the chapter on two-spirits. I had a feeling she was going to bring it up the next day.


Coco went on: "I soon realized that as Coco, I could celebrate the very things I'd been taught to hate about myself. And I began to turn that celebration into entertainment -- because I am a performer -- so that future generations of kids like me wouldn't have to go through what I went through. You see, my goal is that by the time I finish a show, my audiences don't see a man in a dress, they see the person underneath. And in that person, they see themselves."

It took a moment before Elizabeth finally spoke: "So, are you going to finish that scone?" They both burst out laughing.

I told you it was magical.

Of course Miss Coco had brought gifts: a bottle of pale green fingernail polish and Elizabeth's first set of false eyelashes. Which I will encourage her to put to good use in a science project about caterpillars. She's 11.

As we were leaving, in true, selfless, superstar fashion, Coco handed Elizabeth an 8x10 of herself, autographed in Sharpie. How could she not? She is an entertainer.

That night, I got a call from Clinton. In his delicious Bronx accent, he began, "Bill, I had to call and tell ya what a lovely afternoon I had with you and your daughter today. But I gotta be honest, I almost didn't do the drag. It takes hours, you know, the makeup, the wig, and besides, I knew I didn't have to. I knew you weren't expecting it. But then I thought to myself, 'Coco... how often do you get invited to tea by an 11-year-old girl?'"

Then he went on, and his voice became less steady. "But Bill, when she walked through that door... when she saw me, your beautiful daughter... and her eyes lit up and she..." His voice began to falter. "... And she jumped in the air like that and she came running at me with her arms wide open to give me that big, beautiful hug, I just..." He began to cry. "It was worth it."

2012-05-09-Coco1forPub.jpg"It was just so worth it."

It was then I realized how unexpectedly powerful the afternoon had turned out to be for Clinton. In giving so kindly of himself, he'd received the one thing that had eluded him as a child: the complete and total acceptance of another 11-year-old.

Two spirits.

An inscribed 8x10 glossy now sits framed on my young daughter's desk. It reads: "Dearest Elizabeth, Keep making the world beautiful. Love, Aunt Coco Peru."

I'm sure there are many people who'd rush to call me a bad parent for taking my daughter to tea with a drag queen. I'd say they're wrong. I think every kid in America could benefit from an afternoon with Miss Coco Peru.

It might just change the world.

* * * * *

This post is the seventh in a series of Spilled Milk columns by William Lucas Walker that chronicle his misadventures in Daddyland.


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