Drag Dossier #1: COCO PERU

By Michael Varrati

One thing Peaches Christ and I have always had in common is our desire to celebrate our artistic influences loudly. The very essence of Peaches’ Midnight Mass is the appreciation and worship of the movies that inspired and motivated her to become the icon of fright she is today. Similarly, a lot of my articles here on the site, including the popular Cult Filmmakers You Should Know series, are all carefully planned to pay tribute to the avant-garde and daring artists that I love.

While film is definitely a huge motivator for the two of us, Peaches and I are also rather multi-faceted in our appreciation of the arts. Recently, Ms. Christ and I got together to discuss praising different aspects of the performance community, and we kept returning to the idea of legendary drag performers. As Phillip Ford mentioned in my Vegas in Space piece, there was an era when drag was certainly not the celebrated part of the LGBT community it is today. For a whole generation, the mere idea of gender-bending was considered to be an outlaw act. Certainly, a far cry from the RuPaul’s Drag Race-era we exist in now. But, because of a plethora of drag pioneers like Divine, Charles Busch, and more, the concept of this fringe performance art began to creep its way into the theatre and movies, creating a veritable cult of its own.

So, in the spirit of the Cult Filmmakers series, Peaches and I would like to open to you the Drag Dossier. Through this series, both myself and special guest writers will reveal to you the stories of some of the most famous, avant-garde, and unique performers in drag culture. Hold tight, my dear children of the popcorn, because it’s going to be a glamorous ride!

For our first installment, I am beyond thrilled to highlight one of the very best of the community:

The legendary Miss Coco Peru.


Since her debut, Coco (aka Clinton Leupp) has blazed a unique trail through the entertainment industry. A seasoned veteran of the stage, Coco has also made a splash in the world of cult cinema (which you know we love) in such films as Trick and Girls Will Be Girls.

Bawdy and outrageous, Coco has also always presented herself as a positive force in the community, serving as an activist and champion for those in need. Her live shows are full of intimate and relatable stories that make the audience laugh, learn, hope, and heal.

With preparations to bring her latest show to San Francisco on April 1st, I was able to sit down with Coco over a cup of coffee to discuss her remarkable career. Sharing stories about her films, her friendships, and her aspirations for what’s to come, Coco provided a wealth of insight into the life of a performer who knows the value of hard work.

It was a truly inspiring talk, and I can’t say enough positive things about the performer in question. So, instead, I’ll let her tell you.

Ladies & gentlemen, Miss Coco Peru!

First and foremost, it seems congratulations are in order! Your latest live show, There Comes a Time, just wrapped a series of sold-out dates in Los Angeles. What can you tell us about the show and how are you feeling now that you’ve got a few minutes to rest?

I am just so grateful, first of all, that it was sold out. I did three shows and got three standing ovations… it was a real exciting weekend for me.

In my shows, I always do autobiographical stories. People always come up to me afterwards and say, “Did that really happen?” In this particular show, I’m celebrating 20 years of doing Coco Peru. I reflect back on how things have changed in the last 20 years, and how things have changed for Coco. This show really resonates with people. I feel like all my shows have resonated with my audience, but this show seems to be the one I’ve gotten the most reaction, from older people and younger people alike.

I talk about AIDS, in a pointed way, but also tell a somewhat tragicomic story. Twenty years ago, you couldn’t even tell a story about AIDS that would make people giggle. It wasn’t done. That’s a sign of how things change. The older people in the audience seem to love that portion of the show, because they lived through and can relate to everything I’m talking about. On the other hand, my partner was initially worried that by doing that part of the show it may distance the younger audience. But they’ve been coming up to me after and saying, “Thank you so much for that part of the show, because we didn’t live through it and need to be reminded.” I’m happy that I’m able to talk about the issue, but still do it in a way that’s entertaining and thoughtful. That idea that things can be funny, moving, and thoughtful sort of describes the whole show.

You’ll be doing There Comes a Time again in San Francisco on April 1st. When taking a show between different cities, do you keep the material more or less the same? Or do you find that you alter it, both for yourself and the change in atmosphere a new location provides?

It really depends on the show. For example, I would never do this particular show in a bar where people are standing. It’s too intimate of a show. It works better in a theater or a club where I can control the atmosphere, because once I start, people get what I am doing and are respectful. So, I’m thrilled that Marc [Huestis, the event programmer] is hosting me at the Victoria Theatre, because that’s really where I shine.

Let’s talk a little bit about the origins of Coco Peru. Ever since you emerged on the scene, you’ve carefully cultivated Coco Peru into a fully realized persona that I think surpasses the limits of mere drag performance. Just as Cassandra Petersen has made Elvira seem like a living, breathing separate entity, I feel many of your fans could easily believe that Coco roams free after you’ve gone to bed at night. What influences did you draw on to create Coco? How is she different from you?

I was in New York and I wanted to be an entertainer. At the same time, because of the AIDS crisis, I wanted to be an activist. I had read about the “two spirits” in the Native American community, and I really identified with that concept. Growing up and being drawn to female things like jewelry, dolls, and clothes, I knew what it was like to feel different. So, that’s how I created Coco: I decided I was going to do this modern day two spirit. I wasn’t going to pretend to be a woman. I was going to talk about growing up as a boy in the Bronx, and whatever else I wanted to talk about…it was always going to be autobiographical, just filtered through this drag character.

At that time, there weren’t really any drag queens telling stories. Mostly they were in bars lip-synching, doing theatre like Charles Busch, or female impersonating like Charles Pierce. I got a lot of attention when I first started my show for that reason, because no one had really seen anything like me.

I feel like Coco is the better part of me, in a way. I certainly feel a little more enlightened when I’m out in the world as Coco, as opposed to when I’m out as myself. I think it’s because I’m so fully aware of being in drag out in the world. As Clinton, I tend to react right away, whereas Coco absorbs things and chooses how to react. I think that’s probably the better way to live, so I guess I’m more evolved as Coco.

How did you come up with the name Coco Peru?

My first boyfriend was Peruvian. I went to Peru with him and we went to this gay bar. There was this boy there named Coco-because in Peru, “Coco” is a boy’s name-and he was beautiful. He disappeared for a bit, and next thing you know, he emerged onstage as this even more beautiful, exotic Las Vegas showgirl. I was taken aback by the transformation. Furthermore, I was taken aback by the fact that in this third world, Catholic country where the gay bars had to be hidden, he had some minor crossover success. He had been on TV. I realized that there was something about 100% owning who you are that human beings respond to in a positive way, regardless of what they may feel about gay people. They embraced this drag queen. It really inspired me.

So, when I started my show, I called myself “Coco,” because that was the drag queen I was thinking about. It also explains why I added on the Peru.

I was so naïve when I wrote my first show. I had people calling me “Coco Chanel” and “Coco Larue” and it was only then that I realized that there were so many Cocos! –laughs-

You’re certainly well-known and respected for your stage work, but you’ve also made quite a splash on the silver screen. Many people were first introduced to Coco Peru during your scene-stealing bathroom monologue in the movie Trick. Although that scene has since passed into camp legend, I understand that you were initially convinced that your execution of the scene was unsuccessful. Is this true?

That is true, yeah! We were shooting on film, and we were on a budget. So, there wasn’t a lot of film to waste on me doing my monologue, which was supposed to be done in one take. There was little room for error. In one shot, a fly flew into my face. In another, we ran out of film. I had three takes for something that was supposed to take one. I thought I had blown my one chance to be funny in a film.

Anyway, I was at Wigstock, of all places, and this couple came up to me and said, “We just saw this screening of a movie you were in called Trick.” I told them I didn’t even know there was a screening, and they said, “Oh yeah, and you are HILARIOUS!” –laughs-

The first time I ever saw the film was at Sundance, which was an amazing experience. But, the first time I ever saw the film with a gay audience was at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. It was packed. After it was over, I went next door to the after party…and when I walked into the tent, I was literally stuck there for the next couple hours. I didn’t get anything to eat. I didn’t get anything to drink. Person after person was coming up to me. As a performer, it’s the kind of thing you fantasize about your whole life, but when it’s actually happening, you kind of freak out. It’s so overwhelming. But, it was great and I’ll never forget that night. We took that movie all over the world for screenings, but I’m glad that my first gay screening of Trick was at the Castro. I can’t think of a better place or better group of people to see a gay movie.

Another film you were in, Girls Will Be Girls, has a level of cult prominence and is much beloved by fans. How did you first become involved in this project?

Jack Plotnick, who plays Evie, was asked to do a benefit that I was asked to do. The writers came up with the idea that we should co-host it together. So, we were getting together with the writers to come up with material, I started rehearsing with Jack, and I didn’t really get along with him at first. Well, we got along, but we worked differently. Although I had trained in the theatre, I was a solo performer. I wasn’t used to working with other people, especially when they were telling me things like, “No, say your line like this!” –laughs-

So, I called the writer with plans to tell him I couldn’t do the show. It just wasn’t for me. But, when the writer picked up, he gave some sort of horrible story about something that had just happened to his family. I thought, “Well, I can’t quit now or I’ll really devastate the guy.” So, I lied and told him I had just called to see how he was doing, and ended up doing the event.

Jack and I got a huge response afterwards. People were coming up to us and saying that we had to do something together. That’s how Girls Will be Girls came about and I’m so grateful I did that event, because it led to the movie. Richard Day, who wrote and directed the film, was a friend of Jack’s and was one of the people who had seen us together that night. He thought there was something there, and he added Varla to the mix. That’s how it came together.

It was almost going to be Showtime show. It came down to our show and another show, and they chose the other. We were devastated. I said to Richard, “Well, why don’t we turn it into a movie and then we have something to show people.” I thought we could do a five minute trailer, because when people heard “drag queens” they didn’t always quite get what we were doing. I wanted people to know that, yes, we were men playing women, but we were doing it for real. It’s campy, but we were playing it straight. You know what I mean?

Anyway, Richard went all the way and we made a full-length movie.

I think what really sets Girls Will Be Girls apart from other camp/drag films is the fact that it’s ultimately kind of garish under the glitz and glamor. For example, that scene when you’re hacking into your toe with a nail file always makes my skin crawl, but I still laugh. With such a no holds barred sense of humor, was there ever a point in making the film where you all paused and asked, “Should we be doing this?”

Yes. We definitely felt that way. Varla especially was the one that would say, “Oh no! We can’t do that!”

Richard wrote all those jokes and outrageous things, but the one thing that really upset these women at Sundance was the fact the character keeps getting pregnant and having abortions over and over just to meet a doctor. What’s funny about that is the fact that it’s the only thing he based on true life. He based it on a woman he knew who had actually done those things. So, I had to laugh when these women at Sundance were so upset that this man had written this horrible essay about women, and it turned out to be the one thing that was based on reality.

Certainly, the Girls Will Be Girls legacy has endured. You and your co-stars have continued to share the misadventures of your characters in a series of web shorts, and now I understand you recently completed shooting on a feature length sequel. What’s the status of that project, and what can fans expect?

I have no idea! I mean, the first film we did, it was a real film in the respect that it had a budget, it had the techies on set, all that. This one, we raised the money on kickstarter, and it’s not nearly as much as we used to film the first one. However, since we made the original, technology has made it possible to do a lot of things on your own that we couldn’t before.

I think that the essence of it is what people are going to want and watch. It’s called Girls Will Be Girls 2012, because this is the year the world is supposed to end, and there’s a little of that in there. There’s also a theme of Hollywood coming to an end.

It was chaotic, but it was a lot of fun. Everyone on the crew was a volunteer and a fan of the first film. I hope that the love that this movie was made with is really what comes through in the end.

Although Trick and Girls Will Be Girls are the two movies you’re most frequently asked about, you actually had a number of wonderful roles. You were in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar and turned in killer guest spots on TV shows like Arrested Development and Will & Grace. Is there a lesser known project or role that you don’t get asked about often that you hold particularly close to your heart?

Yes, but no one really saw it. Last year, I did an episode of a show called Detroit 1-8-7 that has since been cancelled. I think that the show was a very good, and I’m very proud of my work on that particular episode. I play this aging, bitter drag queen…a real stretch. –laughs-

It was a really great experience from the moment I auditioned right through to the end. When you go onto a set, it can be hard, because these people know each other and lot of the people on this show were New York actors and part of the community. But, I had this real intense scene with another actor, and this actress said to me the following day that she called her boyfriend afterwards and said, “I watched this drag queen do this scene, and I felt like I was watching an acting class.” That was the best compliment I could have possibly gotten. It was really great.

We’ve talked a little bit about your stage performances and your film work, and it’s undeniable that you’ve had success in both mediums. Between the two, do you have a preference?

My answer is so cliché, but there is nothing like live theatre because you get that energy from the audience. But, I’ll tell you: There’s also nothing like being able to sit on your couch and know that people are going out to see your movie. Plus, you don’t have to put on the make-up and heels, and you get a residual check when it comes out on DVD! –laughs- I love both of them. At this point in my life, I would love to do more TV and film, mainly because it reaches so many more people. Plus, with the live shows, it’s hard work and I am getting older. That’s why I tell people, “If I’m coming to your city, see me! Because I’m not sure how much longer I am going to be doing this!”

Since I’m a performer who interviews other performers, I was drawn to your Conversations with Coco series, in which you interview various celebrities and icons. You’ve sat down with an impressive array of individuals (Leslie Ann Warren, Charles Busch, Bea Arthur, etc.), and I’m wondering if you have any anecdotes from your encounters? And dare I ask…do you have a favorite?

You know, I don’t have a favorite. I will say that Bea Arthur, my childhood idol, the woman I wanted to be when I grew up…the fact that I became friends with her was amazing. In fact, in my new show, I talk about my friendship with Bea and how I was asked to speak at her Memorial. I show clips from that, and it’s really funny and sweet. Bea did the first Conversations with Coco and she did it as a favor to me. Her musical director called me and said, “I just want you to remember that Bea said no to Larry King, but she said yes to Coco Peru.”

No pressure, right?

Exactly! Bea would leave these messages on my machine saying, “Hello, darling? It’s Bea. I better not fucking regret this.” –laughs- She was great. But, they all were.

The one thing I’ve always done with my shows is storytelling. I love storytelling. I love telling my own stories, but it’s also because I feel, in some way, I’m telling everybody’s story. I like things that are universally relatable. I tried for the same thing with Conversations with Coco. I feel like when celebrities get in front of a gay audience, they feel that they are not being judged. They feel comfortable and vulnerable, so I think they have shared things that they may not have if they were on television or otherwise. I think there’s just something about a gay audience. They open up more.

I know in the drag and LGBT community, your positive outlook and skilled performances have inspired a great many individuals. We’ve already talked a bit about your influences, so I’m curious to know who amongst your contemporaries you find inspiring. Who do you consider to be groundbreaking?

When I was starting in New York, I was on the sidewalk and I heard this voice. I remember thinking, “Wait a minute! Who is that?! WHAT is that?!” I went into this place, and it was the first time I ever saw Varla Jean Merman. Over the years, I have watched Varla Jean Merman grow as an entertainer, and I think she is an old-school entertainer, which the costumes, the sets, it’s 110%. Something I’ve always admired about other performers is when they put everything onto the stage, and Varla’s just one of those people.

I’ll say this, and I address this in my show: 20 years ago, when I started drag, there was no social networking. I didn’t even have a computer then, I wrote my shows on a legal pad. If you were going to get a name in New York City, you had to really create something different and special. You had to create a buzz. Nowadays, you can put yourself on YouTube. They make celebrities out of anyone nowadays.

When I was working on Detroit 1-8-7, I went to this nightclub, and I met the owner, who was very nice, and he told he had a lot of celebrities who came to his nightclub. I asked him, “Oh? Who? What celebrities?” He told me, “Oh, New York from I Love New York, a couple of the Housewives from Atlanta,” and a few other reality stars whose names I don’t know or remember. He was paying them very good money to make appearances at his club. When I asked him what they did for those thousands of dollars, he said, “Oh, they just get up on stage, say hi, and then get shit-faced behind a barrier.” It was so painful to me to hear. I told him, “Hire me, I’ll put on a fucking show for that kind of money.”

It’s a sign of our times, and it bothers me. So when I do see performers who work hard and are creating something special, it means even more.

It certainly seems like you’ve done it all. You’ve won awards for your stage work, you’ve conquered the big and small screens, and you’ve hobnobbed with greats. With so much already on your résumé, is there anything that you haven’t yet done that you’d like to do?

A hit TV series that makes a lot of money would be great. –laughs- With my live shows, I think because I share such intimate details about my life, when people meet me they want to make that connection and share something with me. I’m always very moved by that and I always listen. But, I’m always left with this feeling and wish that LOGO or somebody would film my one-person shows so that they are more available to people who can’t come. I get e-mails from young kids who see clips on YouTube and they want more, they crave more. They want that positive role model. So, that’s what I’d want: For my work to be seen by more people.

For tickets to Coco Peru’s San Francisco presentation of There Comes a Time, go here (http://www.ticketfly.com/event/97143/).

Additionally, there will be a screening of Girls Will Be Girls at the Victoria Theatre on April Fool’s Day. Tickets for the screening are available here (http://www.ticketfly.com/event/97129/).

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