“My husband is from Spain so we go every year and spend about a month and a half on the Mediterranean,” Coco explained about her recently completed vacation. “Don’t you hate me?”
Um, hell yeah we hate you. (Bitch!)
Sticky Philly summer bitterness aside, we can’t begrudge the high-profile drag performer the fruits of her hard work. Peru, aka Clinton Leupp, has appeared in feature films like “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar” and “Girls Will Be Girls,” as well as TV shows like “Will & Grace,” “Arrested Development” and her half-hour comedy special on Logo’s “Wisecrack” series.
Peru has also traveled the better part of the English-speaking world, performing everywhere from theaters and bars to sailboats and living rooms.
Living rooms? Really?
“They have to pay me,” he said before we could get any ideas. “Sometimes there’s venues where I’m just like, ‘I don’t think I can do this,’ and then they tell me they’re going to pay me really well. Then suddenly it’s like, ‘Oh sure, I’d love to perform in your living room.’ But I have to say, in most of those experiences, they work really hard to make it a special night. So those sometimes turn out to be some of the most interesting and I get to meet the people, which is really lovely.
Harlans Cabaret in New Hope is no living room but when Peru performs there on Aug. 8, it will be a first for her.
“I’m originally from New York,” she said. “I always knew it was close by but I never made it there. So now that I live out on the West Coast I finally thought I’d get there.”
Speaking of the West Coast, seeing how Leupp is married and his husband, Rafael, is from Spain, it’s no surprise that Proposition 8 is a source of concern for her.
“For the months that marriage was legal here in California, our marriage was legal,” he said. “When they voted ‘yes’ on Prop. 8, our marriage fell into this quagmire. We don’t know where we stand. We weren’t included in those 17,000 marriages that were kept legal. So I think there’s a lawsuit now that’s going to try and figure what to do with people like us and other people who were married in countries where it is legal to try and figure out where our marriages fall now. It’s sort of shocking that this could happen in California, but it is what it is.”
Gay marriage is legal in his husband’s native Spain, where Leupp said the government chose not to bow to the pressure of religious conservatives.
“It’s 100-percent legal and it’s completely equal to straight marriage in every way,” he said. “There’s no difference. [Spain] does have a Catholic population, but the thing is, it never went up for vote. It never went to the people. Basically the prime minister said, ‘Listen, we have gay people in our families and in our businesses. We deal and interact with gay people all the time.’ He basically said we need to catch up with the times. It passed and of course those Catholic people who are conservative were very angry, but he basically said your children will look back and wonder what the fuss was all about. The fact that these issues are coming up and these politicians are passing these laws is amazing. Even my elderly [Spanish] aunts are saying, ‘What happened to America? We used to look up to them as progressive and leading the way. It seems like you’re going backward now.’ They love America but they just don’t understand what’s happened. I hope with Obama that things are going to start to change again in our favor.”
But Leupp didn’t travel all this way to talk about politics. His show is more about Coco and his life. He said his debut New Hope performances will be more of a best-of show than the Rehoboth Beach performances that precede and follow it. Leupp also said they will be a bit more stripped-down than his larger theater shows.
“I love performing in a theater because I can do my full show with the lighting and the sound effects,” he said. “It just makes it more of a theatrical experience rather than being in a club where often I’m just playing for laughs. I have to cut my shows down to keep it shorter because when people are drinking, it’s just a different experience. I love that as well. But when I have the opportunity to perform in a theater, it’s really special. I started in cabaret back in New York City in the 1990s, so cabaret always feels comfortable to me as well.”
If you read Coco’s blog, you find out there’s at least one aspect to performing in bars and cabarets that isn’t so comfortable: drunken straight women.
“It doesn’t occur that often, but every now and then there’s a certain type of straight young girl that loves to get drunk and loves all that attention from their gay friends. Suddenly, I’m the competition on stage. I got so many other responses from other drag queens who said, ‘Oh my God! I thought I was the only one.’ They’re usually annoying everybody so the audience usually cheers when I tell them off. But they’re a feisty bunch. Just because they humiliate themselves doesn’t mean they stop. But that’s the beauty of alcohol.”
It would be a crime to interrupt Miss Coco Peru’s show. Really. Kick the ass of anyone who dares.
Leupp is a storyteller at heart and said he was influenced by and drew inspiration from some of the great performers both in and out of drag.
“As a kid I loved Dame Edna on ‘The Tonight Show.’ I had seen Charles Pierce on TV. I was also drawn to the one-person shows of Whoopi Goldberg and Lily Tomlin. I loved storytelling, and when I saw their shows I got very excited and knew there was something there for me. Then, of course, when I saw Charles Busch perform in New York City — at that time, I was actually very afraid of drag. I had trained to be an actor but I was told that I needed to butch up and I was never going to make it if I couldn’t be more masculine. When I saw Charles Busch doing theater and being hilarious and campy, I got very excited. My boyfriend at the time turned to me and said, ‘You can do this.’ I felt like I had been caught and I felt very ashamed. But then I broke through that fear and decided that was my calling and I had to do this. And I don’t pretend to be a woman on stage like Charles and some of the other performers. I tell autobiographical stories about being a young boy and growing up in the Bronx. So I never pretend to be a woman.”
Leupp admits that some take a little time to get used to that aspect of his stage persona compared to other drag performers.
“Often when I go out and people are speaking to me, they forget they’re talking to a drag queen because I’m just being myself,” he said. “But certainly as Coco, I say things and I do all the mugging on stage and whatnot that I wouldn’t do as myself. But as Coco, there’s a safety net for people and myself. I’ve often heard people say, ‘I started relating to you as a woman and then you’d mention that you were a boy. Then I remembered, that’s right, he’s a guy.’ After a while, it didn’t matter. It was just about the story. That was one of my goals. I wanted people to get past what they saw and relate to the story.”
Leupp adds that his focus on storytelling also means he doesn’t feel the need to be over the top with his look, much to the disappointment of some of his peers.
“Less is more with Coco,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s because I’m lazy. I’ve never been drawn to the outrageous, flamboyant costumes. Coco has always been more reserved. I love the 1950s styles and the tight-fitting things. And I have that flip hair that’s very ‘That Girl.’ That’s my signature look. Other drag queens tease me that I’ve had the same hairdo for all these years, but that’s my signature.”