COMMITTED: CONFESSIONS OF A RABBLE-ROUSER
Dan Mathews is best known as the PETA campaigns director responsible for such national ads as I'd Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur and Fur Is A Drag. Through the latter campaign, Dan and I met and become fast friends and worked together for years. He's a hoot, and it translates beautifully in his fab new book. Dan was gracious enough to allow me to post Chapter 11, Ladies Who Lunch, about the time I met his "delightful" mom Perry in Miami. The pic is from Hooters, where we'd originally intended to have a launch party, but they didn't give a hoot! Don't dare think Dan's book is a preachy animal rights tome--he's a party animal who's done it all from hustling in Rome to, well, read this free chapter and if you like it, buy the fucking book. It's a totally fun spring/summer read from a hilarious new gay voice.
Chapter 11 Ladies Who Lunch
“I want to meet her!”
“It’s not really a her. It’s more of an it.”
“You mean he’s had the surgery?”
“No, it has the plumbing of a man, and the voice of a woman, but the disposition of, well, I just refer to it as it, as in ‘a class by itself.’”
Thus, I attempted to explain Lady Bunny to my mother.
We were in sunny Florida for Thanksgiving to escape the chill in Virginia, where mom had recently moved to be nearer to me and the handful of others who indulge her at the PETA headquarters. Ma hadn’t been in Miami since the fifties and was curious to see how a rainbow had replaced the Star of David on local flags, so we booked rooms at the adorably dilapidated Dorchester for a low-key weekend reading by the pool or shuffling to the beach. The only real mission she had was to visit a salon for her annual yuletide nail treatment: pale red polish with snowflake appliqués stuck only upon the nails of her middle fingers. Invariably, some poor soul sees the sparkles, and, to make small talk with an old lady, says, “Let me see your holiday nails!” to which mom responds with a genteel, obliging double flip-off and a mocking “Merry Christmas!”
Our simple South Beach plans were to liven up, however. Hobbling along Lincoln Avenue, mom spotted a poster on a telephone pole for a party hosted by Lady Bunny, the razor sharp queen of quips behind Greenwich Village’s annual Wigstock drag festival. Bunny is also one of my dearest and queerest friends.
Delighted to hear that we were in town, Bunny had the party promoters send over VIP passes and a favor bag, which mom and I poured out in a frenzy onto the faded floral bedspread. We ignored the lube and condoms, fought over the Stoli Orange mini, and exchanged an anxious glance after reading the event’s flyer promoting some superstar dj and a wall of bass-thumping speakers. Mom has to struggle to hear people with high-pitched voices, and Lady Bunny’s is so high that Bun was actually employed by a phone sex line as a woman.
“This will not be a good hearing situation,” mom lamented. “Can’t we have lunch with it instead?” I phoned Bunny back and we made plans.
“I know from the stories that she changes her name more than the drags,” Bun wheezed over the phone in a delicate Tennessee drawl, “so what does your mom call herself now?”
“She has been Perry Lawrence for the last few years,” I replied, “but she also answers to Baby Jane and Mommie Dearest—if you holler loudly enough for her to hear you at all.”
Most gays are highly selective about which of our ilk we’ll expose our parents to, ever careful to showcase the most “regular” folks. Many homos would sooner reconsider pussy than set up lunch with their 72-year old white-haired mother and a gutter queen who still had a bruised nose from a rendezvous with a Gentleman Caller who refused to remove his belt buckle. But my mom likes people who treat everyday as Halloween. She has been a drag enthusiast since Rocky Horror, through La Cage Aux Folles, and right up to Pedro Almodovar’s latest. Growing up, my brothers and I were much more familiar with Divine and Tim Curry than whoever the current sports heroes were, and if there had been tranny trading cards we’d have collected the whole set. My biggest concern in Miami wasn’t that Bunny would be too much for Perry—or vice-versa—but that they would both hold back out of awkward politeness and not be their true, sarcastic selves.
I first met Bunny in the late ‘80’s while barhopping in the East Village with Goldie Loxxx, during my years in his closet. Bunny, a go-go dancer at the Pyramid, lived in a rough walk-up, with skinheads in the apartment above who were antagonistic to gays, but for some reason liked their freakish downstairs neighbor. They were probably afraid of it. Bunny isn’t your typical glossy female impersonator, but rather a scary clown drag, with multiple pairs of heavy black eyelashes and ridiculously huge blond wigs like an exaggerated Barbara Eden, a voice like a hung over Scarlett O’Hara, and the often-vulgar quick wit of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. At Bunny’s raunchy cabaret shows, a hand-scrawled sign reads, “Make-up by Sherwin Williams, Choreography by Stevie Wonder, Music by Marlee Matlin.” Bunny has an hourglass figure—though much of the sand is stuck up top. What you’ll usually see is lots of shapely leg in opaque pantyhose topped by a large, distracting, garish blouse and flashy costume jewelry.
“Is there any topic off limits?” Bunny asked as we walked across the Dorchester’s deco foyer to mom’s room, the clip-clopping sound of large Lucite heels echoing around the hotel lobby as if Mr. Ed were checking in. This question perplexed me, as Bunny had already prank called her, pretending to be the Dade County VD Clinic phoning to report that “over a dozen clients had listed me as a contact.”
“He’d better come in quick for a test!” Bunny chortled before hanging up.
When we keyed ourselves into mom’s room Bunny screeched “Hi-eee!” and hugged her, then stood back to give her outfit the once over twice.
“Wow—where’d you get that dress?” asked Bunny.
“You like it? I got it at Lerner,” mom bragged.
“Hmmm—more like slow Lerner,” Bunny quipped. Mom laughed out loud.
“Well, I love whatever it is you’re wearing,” mom said, eyeing Bunny’s green and red muumuu with a giant gold bow tied across the chest.
“I’m the Christmas present nobody wants to unwrap,” Bunny replied in a fake sob.
“It really shows that you have a swimmer’s build,” mom said. “Like Shelly Winters in Poseidon Adventure.” The holiday weekend was off to a promising start. Perry was well-prepared for Bunny, as I had been sharing stories ever since Bun and I fumbled into our peculiar working relationship years before.
One evening near Union Square, after Bunny and I were ejected by a movie usher because we couldn’t control our laughter (the theater was showing a somber tear-jerker), we developed an idea about doing a PETA party at Love Machine called “Fur is a Drag.” The event would feature a runway parody of a fur fashion show, with cross-dressing models wearing donated furs accessorized with leg-hold traps and paint. As the emcee, Bunny would ridicule each ‘model’ on the catwalk with acidic, anti-fur color commentary. Many of the insults were self-directed: “This show has made me think about giving back my leather jacket—it looked better on the first cow.”
We did the underground event on a Tuesday night, each of us snagging performers to participate, such as Lypsinka, Elvira, Deee-Lite, Hedda Lettuce, Mistress Formika, Mona Foot, Miss Guy, Julia Sweeney (aka “Pat”) of Saturday Night Live, Flotilla de Barge the Empress of Large, and Miss Understood, who sang Gilda Radner’s “Let’s Talk Dirty to the Animals.” The goal was to amuse ourselves as much as to make a point, but the response from the public and the press was so tremendous that clubs all over the U.S. and Europe wanted to have the “Fur is a Drag” show, offering to fly us in, put us up, and garner additional talent. k.d. lang even volunteered to perform—for the first time all dressed up as a girl. She wore a flowing yellow chiffon gown, a tall brunette wig with curls, and lots of make-up, even false eyelashes; she was almost unrecognizable. The giveaway was her clunky pleather Doc Marten boots.
What I liked about this effort was that it boosted PETA as a good-time group, not dour and over-earnest as many causes are pegged. We worked it out so that Bunny organized the local drags and I oversaw press and promotions. Soon, our little joke became a full-fledged campaign, covered by magazines as diverse as The Advocate, The Face, and People, and even by CBS News. In Paris the anti-fur soirée was held on the Champs-Elysées during Fashion Week and attracted trendy designers and stylists, and in London, the sold-out event was promoted by Boy George and featured the petrifying Australian performance artist Leigh Bowery.
It was a balmy late afternoon in Miami, and Mom and Bunny chatted as the three of us strolled down Collins Avenue to Gino’s, a friendly Italian dive. I had stopped in earlier for coffee and they couldn’t change a twenty so they gave it to me for free; since kindness should always be repaid I insisted we give Gino some business.
“Is it safe to eat here?” asked Bunny, glancing around the sparsely populated dining room.
“Sure,” I said, hesitantly. Because mom and I are both vegans, I offered the dead fly on our white tablecloth to Bunny as an appetizer.
After ordering, we took in the beauty of our surroundings: Gino’s is decorated with colorful plastic flowers intertwined with lots of twinkling white lights, draped around Roman arches and columns. The setting evoked a fond memory in Bunny.
“Does Perry know about our trip to Rome?” Bunny asked with a look that suggested both shame and glory.
“Oh… no,” I said, pouring each of us some wine. “Tell it.”
Bunny proceeded to explain how we were flown to my beloved Rome by the swank nightclub Gilda for a “Fur is a Drag” event. On the afternoon of the show, they had us host a surreal news conference, after which we went sightseeing. Bunny, in full Jayne Mansfield regalia, discovered that those ancient roads can be hell in heels.
“After we hit the Spanish steps, the Trevi fountain, and the Pantheon, I was ready to change my name to Lady Bunion,” it recounted as our food arrived. “But that didn’t deter us from visiting the Vatican.”
Thinking back on it, I’m amazed that the Vatican allowed us inside. Seeing gaudy Bunny hop into a nightclub is one thing, but watching it mince into bustling St. Peter’s Basilica in broad daylight is quite another. Bunny, who was happy for the opportunity to give the hooves a rest, joined me in kneeling in a pew under the big dome in order to attempt a conversation with God. We’re both dubious of the fantasy of Christianity, but wanted to remain open to a message from above, figuring that if we were ever to be reached it would be right here, within spitting distance of the Pope. To be clear, our question wasn’t a strident “why does your church persecute our kind?” or “why would an Almighty allow such suffering in the world?’ but rather a neighborly “howdy—anyone home?”
We closed our eyes and concentrated, but nothing answered. With arms outstretched heavenward, Bunny assumed a pious pose, as if the glimmer of a gigantic plastic diamond ring might attract a response, even a bolt of lightning. Still nothing. We started snickering, and despite our best efforts, we were soon hunched over in the pew laughing uncontrollably. Because Bunny’s cackle can shatter glass, even stained glass, the convulsing, bewigged jester soon seemed to draw more awestruck picture-taking Japanese tourists than the nearby Sistine Chapel. Just as in the movie theater, the authorities intervened, only this time it wasn’t a minimum wage usher in black polyester pants, but the famous Swiss Guards, resplendent in their yellow and purple striped outfits and over-the-top hats. They swooped in and escorted us not only out of the basilica but across the square and off of Vatican City limits.
“Why is the Pope the only man allowed to wear gowns in church?!” Bunny asked in a huff as the men brusquely hustled us out. This question met with a response as deafening as the simple query we had made of God. Fortunately, I was able to take lots of pictures, several of which appeared in Genre magazine under the headline, “Lady Bunny’s Papal Smear.” We were relieved not to be arrested and to make it back to Gilda in plenty of time for the PETA show.
By the time Bunny finished the story, mom was in such hysterics that she had stopped even trying to finish her pasta marinara. Finally, she caught her breath and leered at me.
“Danny Lee!” mom scolded. “How dare you visit the Vatican and not bring me a rosary!”
“Oh shit,” said Bunny. “Are you into all that?”
“Don’t worry,” Perry explained. “I was brought up in strict catholic foster homes but I always thought the bible was just fables for people too simple to decide for themselves what’s right and wrong. But I love the rosary beads! I have them in almost every color.”
Bunny pretended to be relieved.
“Now in Norfolk I live in a HUD building surrounded by desperate Baptist widows,” mom continued, working up a rant. “Danny calls it ‘God’s waiting room.’ Every Thursday night they have prayer meetings, and even with my deafness I can hear them down the hall, singing and making those asinine sheep sounds: ‘We’re poor little lambs who have lost our way, baa baa baa.’ And have you ever noticed how suggestive the lyrics are in gospel? Listening to my neighbors sing, it sounds like they all want to get laid by the Lord; they want Him inside them, He fills their longing. Since the church is against sex maybe it’s how they work out their frustration, but it’s embarrassing.”
“Ewww…” Bunny laughed with a rare, shocked face.
To further prove her point, mom crooned an old hymn while batting her eyelashes and gyrating her septuagenarian frame a bit in her creaky chair:
“Have Thine own way Lord, have Thine own way
Thou art the potter, I am the clay
Mold me and make me, after Thy will
While I am waiting, yielded and still”
When you sing, you use a louder than normal voice. When you sing and you’re almost deaf—and tone deaf in my mom’s case—people can hear you clear across the state. As Gino’s kitchen staff gathered in the corner to gawk at mom sensually bellowing out gospel, each verse punctuated by Bunny’s hyena-like snort, I figured it was time to walk up and pay the check. I wanted this heartwarming holiday scene, with family and friends bonding, to end on a high note. Plus, I was afraid that the waiter was about to come over and ask mom about her Christmas nails.
Back outside on busy Collins Avenue, the sun was starting to set and Miami was revving up for another chaotic Saturday night. As we arrived at the Dorchester, Bunny asked Perry if she’d had a nose job.
“No, but I’m flattered you asked,” she said, taking Bunny’s arm, not only out of affection, but for help in climbing the stairs.
“Wow!” Bunny marveled. “You must have been a real beauty—what happened?” Mom began giggling again and took forever to make it up the steps. For a minute, I thought I might have to stand at the top and wave a Zagnut bar to lure her to her room. Again.
The door was barely shut behind us when Bunny eagerly asked, “Do you think I made a good impression?” Mom asked the same question the next morning.
“You made a fine impression,” I told each of them. “But I’ll never again be seen with the two of you in public.”