It's hard to pinpoint exactly what has brought Lady Bunny the most fame.
The legendary drag queen, who created the non-defunct annual New York City drag festival Wigstock in the mid-80s, has been performing, DJing, releasing music and appearing in films and on TV shows like "RuPaul's Drag Race" and "RuPaul's Drag U" for nearly three decades.
Known for hilarious -- and filthy -- parody covers of tracks by pop stars like Katy Perry, Bunny released an uncharacteristically straight forward dance single, "Take Me Up High" (see the video above) in July and the track has already climbed to number 29 on the Billboard Dance Chart.
We caught up with Bunny to chat about her new song, her connection to the transgender community, how her life changed after 9/11 and more.
The Huffington Post: This is the first song of yours in a long time that doesn’t feature lyrics about smegma or copious amounts of ejaculate.
Lady Bunny: [Laughs] I’ve been recording music for many years and a few of them have come out but this is the first song that’s really been remixed and given a serious release. And it is very different from the comedy stuff but I feel like I do a variety of different things. I DJ, I write music, I record music, I do comedy, a little activism here and there -- it just keeps me interested when I can have different aspects to my career. It’s an ability I have that people don’t really know about. I would love to write songs for other people who are like diva vocalists... I would love that more than anything. I would love for my mom to be able to come to one of my shows, so if “Take Me Up High” is somehow a hit, she could come to that, she could hear me on the radio because that bitch has gotten onto Facebook now so I can’t really hide anything anymore [laughs].
Does your mom know about the raunchier songs?
She does but she is a lady -- a southern lady. She’s not snooty in any way but she’s just like -- too much garlic and onion turns her off, too much dirty language turns her off. She thought Tina Turner was overtly sexual and did not like her at all. In the past I’ve had to ask her to leave the room -- much to the rest of the audience’s enjoyment -- when the show was going to get dirty. So [doing a straight forward dance track] is really just exercising a different side of my brain. The parody stuff, since you haven’t written the song, it can only get you so far. I can’t perform a medley of dirty song parodies on TV because the clearance rights would be astronomical -- a million different sellers. But it’s also a different side of my brain because when I’m performing parodies, I want to carry a tune but I’m not focusing on “Oh, is the tone sounding good?” When there’s nothing to laugh at you have to sound decent [laughs].
Do you think it’s harder as a drag performer to get credit from the mainstream music world?
The funny thing is we sent the song to DJ pools all over the world and I’ve just read a feedback sheet from Lebanon and France and they don’t know what Wigstock is! They don’t know who Lady Bunny is! They just like the song. To me, that’s very encouraging because while some people might listen to it because they know me or because I am a drag queen, you know that might turn other people off. The music industry is in a tailspin and they’re not looking for the next 50-year-old, overweight transvestite. They’re looking for the next Beyonce and Britney Spears. But at the same time, in the world of dance music, sometimes they’ve overlooked a really freaky image like Kevin Aviance or Divine or RuPaul or Sylvester. So a drag queen or a freak has been able to get over occasionally in the dance market. I hope to be one of those freaks!
One of the things that I love about you is that you address political issues in your shows. Do you think that drag is inherently political?
It’s funny because people used to come to Wigstock and say that it was such an in-your-face event and I was not at all political before 9/11. I was always like “What are you talking about? It’s a drag show, the emphasis is on having fun!” But back then, in the '80s and '90s, to be gay in New York City was often to be political and in ACT UP and I felt very divorced from that scene because I was young and I was silly. It’s funny because I saw Ru interviewed on CNN years ago before “Drag Race” and there was a female anchor who only wanted to ask him about makeup and Ru was like “Is that all you want to talk about?” It was almost as if what a woman might feel, like “Oh, I wouldn’t expect for you to have a brain.” So, I think that sometimes drag queens can think outside the box. We wake up in the morning and we see a man or some semblance of a man and we imagine this glamazon creature and, so, we’re not used to accepting everything and we can look at things differently. I think it’s always good to question government and often good to question the gay mainstream movement.
What specifically happened during 9/11 that activated you?
I was at Murray’s Bagels on 6th Ave and 13th Street and you can see all the way down 6th Ave. Everyone ran into the street and the general consensus was, “Oh my god, we’ve been attacked, what do we do?” But I remember thinking, even then, “What have we done?” Because even though I wasn’t involved in politics, we’ve been meddling all over the world for quite a long time and it’s going to come back to bite us. I think that it’s often going to come back to New York; it’s not going to come back to Montana or Nebraska. So, part of it is self-preservation, part of it is me getting a little bit older. My dad was the town liberal of Chattanooga, Tennessee -- an anti-draft counselor. And in my enthusiasm to say, “That is him who made us miss ‘The Brady Bunch’ to watch Watergate, this is me, I’m not that political person...” I guess I kind of became more of one as I got older. Maybe we all have a responsibility when we reach the age where our head is screwed on a little bit more to make the world a better place.
Another thing that I’m always interested in during your shows is your approach to trans issues. Talk to me about the connection you see between the trans community and the drag community.
A lot of drag performers go on to become trans... in the same way that gay people come out as gay and then you come out again as a drag queen when you’re ready to flex those muscles. For a transsexual, it’s even harder because some of them will become drag queens and then realize that they want to live in drag and they don’t want the illusion to disappear in the morning. And that’s really, really tough because it involves surgery and things that don’t wash off like cosmetics. So, I feel an affinity with both. People ask me, “How are you different out of drag?” and I say, “I’m really not! Not at all.” Everyone I know, including my mom, calls me Bunny. I definitely have tons of transgender friends and I do feel that gender is fluid, so I do feel as if I’m part of that community. But I have no plans for the surgery.
I’m very lucky in that my parents allowed me to be what I wanted to be. I often used to question them and say, “Don’t you want me to be a doctor? Don’t you want me to be a lawyer?” and they’re like “Not if you don’t want to be!” And now they say, “Ooh, girl you called our bluff!” -- well, they don't call me "girl" [laughs]. Even when I was a kid, before I ever did drag, people on the other end of the phone would say, “Yes, ma'am” to me because it’s just like -- there’s something about me that heard what a woman sounded like and thought, That’s what you are, so that’s what you need to sound like.
You’ve been on “Drag Race" and "Drag U" and they've obviously both become huge hits and have brought drag into the mainstream. But do you see any negative consequences to the “Drag Race” phenomenon?
Let’s start with what I do like! [Laughs] It has introduced a lot of fun queens. I’m friends with a lot of them and working with them on “Drag U” was wonderful because they were booked as talent and so they were not competing with one another with their cellphones cut off. So, it was like sisters -- I loved it! And you know “Drag Race” has also brought queens out like Sharon Needles, very intelligent and provocative, and I just saw Jinkx Monsoon perform for the first time and she is doing all of these old “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” kind of show tunes and she’s doing them with so much charm that they actually seem new again. So I really loved her show.
There’s a lot of them that are great performers but I do think that often they may be great on the show but they’re not necessarily good performers. And that feeds into this thing where I have asked, or club owners tell me, “Oh, we just had so-and-so from ‘Drag Race.’” “How was she?” “Horrible, but I’d book her again because she pulled so many people in.” So, it doesn’t matter what the show is, it matters how many people they bring in. I think you can sacrifice quality when you’re turning it strictly into a numbers game. Then the other downside of that is that I think a lot of times the kids don’t care about what is going on in the show. It becomes all about a meet and greet, so that the kids can get pictures with the “Drag Race” star and put them on Facebook. So, when it doesn’t become about the show and there are really, really talented queens that aren’t being booked -- I think that is not a great development. It has brought drag into the forefront and it has brought many different kinds of drag. I know Ru sticks up for having different kinds of drag because that is his background. Tammy Brown, I love. You know, Latrice is a fantastic performer and great on the show. Jujubee -- I mean a lot of them are amazing. Raja, an incredible beauty.
How have you managed to stick around for so long? What’s the secret to your longevity?
[Laughs] Some things you just can’t kill! I don’t know, I do different things. From DJing, to comedy, to performing. I think my act is fast-paced so it works well in a nightclub, where some queens my age have gone into a cabaret setting. But I do like that kind of thing too, it’s just a little bit harder work.
Would you ever consider doing Wigstock again?
I don’t think so. I’d never say never but it represented a very unique time in the New York drag scene and I was very inspired by everything I saw around me. I just don’t think it can really be done like it was. I think people in New York City, in the club scene, they really felt that they were part of something amazing. And it wasn’t just gay, it was straight and gay, goth kids, it was house music divas like Barbara Tucker and Ultra Nate and Kristine W. It was really like the music made in New York was going around the world and people were dancing to it. It was just a really incredible moment and the scenes kind of fed off each other. Now things are very fragmented and the other day someone asked me if the queens in New York get along. I think it’s so fragmented that they don’t all even know each other. So it’s not like a unified scene.
What do you think the future of drag is?
Well, you know Sharon [Needles] was number four on iTunes. Ru has a really successful TV show. I think the sky is the limit. They’ve truly shown that drag is acceptable to mainstream America. There was a drag boom when [RuPaul's single] “Supermodel” was out and [the drag films] “To Wong Foo,” “Priscilla,” and then it kind of became, like anything that’s in for a minute, it kind of became by the 2000s “that’s tired now” because we’d had so much of it. But, it’s always been the entertainment of choice for gays, but I think that this brought it to a new generation.
As queer culture gets more and more mainstream and more and more accepted, drag, which in many ways was always radical and transgressive, has also become more mainstream and in some ways, perhaps, less radical and transgressive. Does that trouble you at all?
I will tell you right off the bat that the kind of drag I like is so twisted and dirty that it’s not usually gonna make it onto TV. SI don’t know about drag becoming too mainstream but I think gay experience is becoming very mainstream, where we’re liking all the same TV shows and music. It’s like the gays always had "the best" taste, so if they were loving a show, it was “Golden Girls” or if they were saying, “OK, you’re so fabulous you come over here with me to see Grace Jones." I do see younger gays having much more mainstream tastes. I see that as a DJ because they walk right off the dance floor if they don’t know a song. It’s unfortunate because they’ve turned the DJs into a jukebox. Whereas, it used to be that you would go up and ask the DJ, “What is this?” because you trusted their taste to turn you on to stuff. It's like -- you’re a kid! You don’t know it and the DJ is paid to know it. So, that’s something that’s happening all over the world. Big-name DJs like Dennis Ferrer, Mark Farina are getting yanked off the decks in big clubs because they’re not playing commercial enough. I think it’s very sad that kids would not be searching for -- or they wouldn’t have an open ear for -- the hot new sounds. I think that’s a little sad. Straights used to come to gay clubs to scout the hot new records -- I don’t think they’re doing that anymore.
I’m not a separatist by any means, but at the same time there’s something in me that sort of recoils at the thought of being in a traditionally queer place -- going to see you for instance -- and being in a room full of straight people. There are somethings that seem sort of sacred to me as a queer person that I just don’t really want to share, I guess. Is that greedy?
Well, [famed New York City gay bar] Splash just announced that it’s closing. And what really eats at me about this is -- look, I have been a slut and I will fault no one for hooking up any way they can, but the effect of Grindr is that clubs aren’t doing well. What also bugs me about that is that it implies clubs were only about sex. Was that a big part of it? Sure. But we also came out for entertainment, fashion, music, conversation. I mean I understand that there’s a recession and it’s very economical to make your own drinks at home and plaster a picture of your anus on Grindr. I tried it -- the only person that came over was a laser hemorrhoid surgeon [laughs]. But, I do think that it is killing the big watering holes like Splash, which has been open for 22 years. However, maybe that’s because we’re free now to be ourselves in society and maybe we don’t need to only meet in hidden bars.
What is the future for Lady Bunny?
Oh gosh, who knows! [Laughs] I live near the Meatpacking District where there used to be a lot of tranny hookers, so with Splash closing, I might be getting out the hot pants and the knee socks and the pigtail wigs and knocking my teeth out and going for it! [Laughs] I don’t know! The immediate future, I mean I’m doing all kinds of things this summer from a bunch of gigs in San Francisco, L.A., Amsterdam -- just all over the place. I'll continue to do that, continue to work at XL’s “Hot Mess” on Fridays, and we’re working on a follow-up to this song and have written something for another singer named Annette Taylor who is best known for her work with Peter Rauhofer who passed away recently, who I met singing in a subway which made me feel like New York is still happening. I’m just throwing things out there to see what sticks. There’s a pilot idea that I’m working on, I’m writing a script. With all the time off I have from Splash, where I spent every Sunday, maybe it’s time for a book because I’m giving it away on Facebook, which is my primary addiction.