Rob Paluso: Designer, costumer and traffic-stopper

Rob Paluso: Designer, costumer and traffic-stopper

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Ah, Halloween. The high holy of all gay holidays. Next weekend, there are a ghost host of places for you to try out your Michele Bachmann crazy-eyes costume or parade around attacking necks as one of the many vampire characters ruling the airwaves. This week, PGN spoke to someone who is involved in not one, but two of the events going on Halloween weekend. Rob Paluso, aka Anita Manhattan, is one of the BVDs — Bingo Verifying Divas — who will be checking out your cards at Monster Mash GayBINGO! on Oct. 29. Get your tickets now!

PGN: So let’s get right into it: Are you from the big city? RP: No, I’m not. I’m from a small town called Washington, right outside of Pittsburgh.

PGN: Tell me about growing up. RP: I’m one of five kids. I was the youngest by 10 years so I kind of grew up like an only child. Typical rural living, there were about five houses spaced out and then nothing but fields. My dad’s a doctor and my mother’s a nurse and they’re both pretty cool and very open. In the mid-’70s, they all thought it would be cool to get country houses so I grew up in a farmhouse, not a working one — though I did have a horse. I loved to be outside. I also did a lot of theater as a kid. I started doing shows in sixth grade.

PGN: What’s your horse’s name? RP: Starfire. He’s an Appaloosa and he’s huge, I want to say 16-and-a-half hands, but he thinks he’s a big dog. He’s an awesome beast. I was originally going to compete in dressage and English but he ended up getting hurt at the farm where we boarded him. They had hay placed too far on the other side of a wire fence and he tried to paw through it and tore his Achilles. We were told that he should be put down, but we loved him too much. My sister’s a nurse and she nursed him after his surgery — changed the bandages, did his stitches — and now he’s a teaching horse. He can’t hold adult weight for long so he teaches little kids how to ride.

PGN: That sounds like a Disney film! What was your best equestrian moment? RP: I used to go to a summer camp every year and we would ride into the middle of the woods and camp. That’s all we would do, ride and camp, and it was really fun. You would get assigned a horse by your level of experience, and since I’d done some riding I got the owner’s horse, a white Arabian jumper. It scared the shit out of me. We’d see a log on the trail and the other horses would walk over it but my horse would run and leap over it! A scary moment was a time we climbed a hill that was at a 45-degree angle: It had been raining so it was muddy and slippery. You had to wrap your arms around the horse’s neck to keep from falling off. It was terrifying and amazing at the same time!

PGN: What fun things did you do as a family? RP: We went to Maine every year. My parents had a house up there; I really love the beach.

PGN: What was the coldest water you swam in up in Maine? RP: [Laughs.] Maine is cold, but the coldest water I swam in was jumping in the Pacific Ocean. I don’t remember anything that cold. It was ridiculous!

PGN: Favorite teacher? RP: Ms. Sprowlf. She was my English teacher and yearbook advisor and did stuff with the drama club. I wasn’t out in high school but I still got bullied and she helped me through a lot of stuff. I had a few incredible teachers that I still keep in touch with.

PGN: What was the worst bullying incident? RP: Oh, I went through a lot of shit. I was an arts kid who liked the theater and English and history. Being a small town, everything revolved around football and sports. I’m tall but didn’t play any sports until after college. The worst incident ended up being good and bad. We were doing a production of “Cheaper by the Dozen” and there were big glass doors facing the backstage area. I was in costume, which was god-awful and didn’t help my cause in the least, but I was going over lines and a bunch of guys opened the door and started yelling all sorts of things at me. I didn’t even know them. They were blatantly making fun of me and it was horrible. The good thing that came out of it was that one of the other teachers that I really loved and one of the kids in the show who I knew but wasn’t good friends with — he was straight and very popular, but really chill — both went out and railed into the guys. I was really surprised that they both took up for me and it felt good to know I had people in my corner.

PGN: Where did you go to college? RP: I went to West Chester College to study theater.

PGN: And what’s your day job now? RP: I work for the Ritz Theater in Oakland, N.J. I’m the resident designer and I do freelance work for other theaters and shows. I also do bridal wear. PGN: Any bridezilla moments? RP: Knock wood, I really haven’t had any. The worst would probably be for one of my best friends. On the last fitting, days before she was getting married, we decided to change a major element of her gown. We put it on and we were both like, “We don’t like this.” So it was more a stress element than a bridezilla moment — redesigning on the fly and redoing the dress right then and there and getting it done.

PGN: Was that your Tim Gun “Make it work” moment? RP: Yuck, don’t get me started. I have a bad taste in my mouth about “Project Runway.” I tried out for that show and made it through the casting process to the day of the audition where you meet the actual panel in front of the cameras and Tim Gun was a dick to me. I don’t know what his problem was with me but he was a jerk. I’ve had a few scrapes with reality TV and I think I’m not crazy enough for them. I mean I’m crazy and I’m fun, but I’m not bat-shit crazy.

PGN: [Laughs.] Have you always designed? RP: I have. Ever since I was a little kid. My parents have design sketches from when I was about 5 years old. I always loved historical costumes. We would go to museums or visit historical mansions and I’d always want to check out the clothing displays first. PGN: So I’m guessing your family was not terribly surprised when you came out? RP: God no! And I didn’t come out to them ’til I was 22 and they were both like, “Yeah, we know.”

PGN: How did you get started in drag? RP: Actually the first time I did drag, it was oddly fueled by masculine pride. My friend and roommate at the time, Jen, and I were both obsessed with the show “Wicked.” Well, I guess that’s not terribly masculine ... [laughs]. I have a really bizarre mix of masculine and feminine in my life! But anyway, we were chatting about Halloween, which is huge for me — I love Halloween — and she said, “We should go as Elphaba and Glinda!” and I was like, “Uh, no. Not going to happen. I don’t do drag.” I had this weird stigma against doing drag. She was like, “Right, you’re too butch to do drag, whatever.” So that weekend, she went away and I bought all the materials and created costumes for both of us. The following year I went out in drag again with a friend as Samantha and Endora from the show “Bewitched.” It was funny because I was about 6-foot-4 in a dress. Then a few years ago I was playing rugby with the Gryphons and one of my teammates, John Hollingshead, worked as head of volunteers for the AIDS Fund the year they were doing a Return to Oz BINGO night. He said, “Oh my God, you already have the dress from ‘Wicked’ — you need to do BINGO night.” I had no idea what GayBINGO! was, but I went and have been there ever since. It was a perfect match because I’m a performer and I get to have fun for an incredible cause.

PGN: So now that you’re in drag, do the straight guys hit on you? RP: No! I’ve been told I was pretty, but I think I’m a little intimidating even as a woman!

PGN: So, a few random questions: What do you have in your bag/wallet that best describes your personality? RP: Oh dear. OK, I have something that works for both. I have this vintage shiny metal mesh wallet. I carry it as both Rob and Anita. It’s a real conversation piece and I love it. Shiny is my favorite color!

PGN: If you had to be handcuffed to one person for a month, who would it be? RP: That would be my friend Tim, aka Stella Dora from GayBINGO! We’re very close, so I probably wouldn’t want to kill him after a month and there’s always something crazy happening to him, so it would be entertaining.

PGN: Any stupid human tricks? RP: I can belch on command. It’s actually on my résumé under “special skills.”

PGN: Hey, you never know when that beer commercial comes up. RP: Exactly.

PGN: What takes you out of your comfort zone? RP: I like to try new things, but I like to know exactly what’s going on. I think it’s part of being a designer. I research the hell out of everything and I’m very meticulous with every detail. I have to be informed and prepared and, when I’m not, I’m very uncomfortable.

PGN: Ever been in a car accident? RP: As it happens, I was in an accident this spring and my poor little Toyota Camry was totaled by a Lincoln Continental going about 45 mph. It was not cute. At least I wasn’t in drag yet! I was on my way to the Beagle to co-host Kinky Quizzo with another BVD performer, Thunder Showers, when I got hit. It would have been hilarious, but ...

PGN: What is the funniest story your mother tells about you? RP: [Laughs.] That would be the story of how they found out she was pregnant. They initially thought I was a tumor! It was 1980 and she was 37 years old. No one had kids at that age back then: She already had four and was done. She was apparently carrying me real high and under her ribs and it didn’t even occur to them that she could be pregnant. They were always very honest, so they sat my siblings down and said, “We are afraid mom is sick and she’s probably going to have to have surgery and it may be pretty serious.” Everybody cried and she went in for testing. Her doctor was one of my dad’s best friends and he walked in to give them the results with a big smile on his face and said, “Well, you do have a growth ... but you’ll get to name it!” I was a big surprise, but the funny part was they figured out that I must have been conceived the week my grandparents took my siblings fishing. So the family joke was to tease my parents any time anyone went fishing.

PGN: Something people are surprised to find out about you? RP: That I play rugby. Especially if they find out while I’m dressed as Anita!

PGN: What’s a favorite moment as Anita? RP: I love anyone who gets who she is. A lot of times there is a younger crowd, not just at BINGO but when I perform and they don’t necessarily get her. She’s a mix between Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth, an old-school, pin-uppy bombshell. A good girl with a dark, noir side. The debutante that drinks too much. I grew up watching movies from the 1940s and ’50s with my mother. A lot of the songs I do are old-school songs too, so it’s great when I get an audience that really appreciates Anita Manhattan and her whole persona. Oh, but a specific moment was after Black Tie BINGO, when we walked back from the Crystal Ballroom to the Gayborhood. I was in this insane floral ball gown and a giant fur piece. We walked past a straight bar and some dude yelled out, “Jesus! What makes you think you look good in a dress?” and I turned around and snapped, “Go fuck yourself, buddy!” Sometimes I forget I’m a lady. But then later that night we were walking around 13th and Camac and this car started slowing down in front of us. You’re always on your guard when you’re in drag, but it turned out to be a car full of gay boys and they were shouting, “Oh my God, you look fabulous!” etc. They were so busy waving and cheering that they slammed into the van in front of them. They were only going about 15 mph, so no one got hurt, but it was our big old-timey Hollywood moment. We caused a car crash!

PGN: Your beauty stopped traffic! RP: Apparently! One of the things I also like about Anita is that I get to make her clothes. I do menswear for myself, but it’s not as much fun as those old Hollywood clothes from the ’40s and ’50s.

PGN: So for Halloween, in addition to the Monster Mash GayBINGO!, you’re also going to be at the Beagle Tavern in Norristown. RP: Yes, we do a monthly show there hosted by Thunder Showers and Summer Clearance. We’ll be heading over after BINGO for a special Halloween party and show. The Beagle is really a gem of a bar. It’s in an odd area and always has a friendly crowd and the food’s pretty yummy too. The girls who do that show are really varied, we have someone who does Liza, who did her in Vegas for 25 years, and Stella does the more fun pop stuff and I do the burlesque-y vintage stuff and the audience is receptive to everyone. The last show we did, there were a bunch of people who had never seen drag and then three random people from a bridal party. I’ve never seen any altercations or problems there, everyone’s just chill. I hope people come out for both events. A good cause and great fun!

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