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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Deeper Dish with Miss Coco Peru

It was such a pleasure to recently chat with storyteller/monologist Miss Coco Peru (aka Clinton Leupp), who first gained fame back in 1991 when she wrote, produced, directed and starred in her first show, Miss Coco Peru in My Goddamn Cabaret. It ran for two years at Rose's Turn in New York City, and since then, she has performed many one-person shows, including Miss Coco Peru: A Legend in Progress (for which she received a MAC and a Bistro Award), Miss Coco Peru is Undaunted (an LA GLAAD Award Winner), Ugly Coco, There Comes a Time, and her latest, She's Got Balls.

Coco has appeared in such films as To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, Trick, Girls Will Be Girls and Straight-Jacket, and her television credits include Will & Grace, Bravo’s Boy Meets Boy, Arrested Development and How I Met Your Mother. She has also been involved with numerous charities over the years, including The Trevor Project, Aid for AIDS, and God’s Love We Deliver, and in 2009, she received the Board of Director's Award from the LA Gay and Lesbian Center for her commitment to HIV/AIDS causes and the LGBT community.

I am so delighted to have the fabulous Miss Coco here on the Dish to discuss her career and answer a few pop culture questions.

Let’s begin with your latest video, which was in the news recently. Tell me about the controversy that caused you to create it.
I went to Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx and graduated 30 years ago. And I get their newsletter and read something about a meeting that was going to take place, inviting parents of LGBT children. This priest, Father Timone, was going to be leading the meeting, representing two groups - one called Courage and one called EnCourage - basically to encourage those parents to teach their children how to lead chaste lives. And it referred to gay people as "such folk" and that really annoyed me. So I then went online and researched these groups that I never even knew existed. And at first I thought it seemed like they were compassionate about there being gay people within the Roman Catholic Church. But then the more I looked, I started to see that it was a 12-step program. They have a weekend for men to learn how to play sports in a safe environment. It's all about shaming gay people. So I started posting about it and alerting my friends from high school. And everyone started writing letters to the school to encourage them to cancel this meeting, and then the news picked up on it and eventually it did get either canceled or postponed. And then the Cardinal wrote this article recently in the Daily News talking about how gay people are so intolerant. I mean it's just ridiculous how the oppressor wants to see himself as the oppressed. So I was actually going to create another one of my silly shopping videos when all of this happened - and I decided to address it in a video.

How did you choose the song, "Feeling Good”, to sing in the video?
I had actually already chosen the song to make another video for an idea that I had. And then this all happens and I thought, "That is the perfect song for what I'm trying to say to my old school and to those groups." And also when you live in a big city like Los Angeles or New York and you liberate yourself from the Roman Catholic Church as well as the things you learned from society about gay people, and you discover that there is another way to live which is joyful and happy and you embrace who you are - when you live your life like that for years, you never forget that that's where you came from, but you forget that there are still groups out there like this. And that they do deeply affect young people, and I really reacted to that and I wanted to let young people know that there's another reality out there. And you know the other side will refer to me as liberal, radical, Hollywood, just a drag queen, but they forget, too, that I'm an uncle, a son, a brother - I'm all of those things and I am a drag queen. And that doesn't mean that what I have to say isn't valid. And I've even gotten people who support the gay community say those negative things about the fact that I'm just a drag queen and not the bright face to have said something or to have alerted the media. And I didn't alert the media - the media was alerted through another person and through the Bronx Community Center when they got wind of what was happening. They just assumed that it was me. And even if it was, I don't care. It's just that they seem to think that a drag queen doesn't really have a place in this argument. Of course, that's just a few people. There are other people who have been completely supporting me. And then the other issue is that I've even had some people say "Enough is enough" or "You've made your point." And I think that's a problem that the gay community has to look at - in today's world when something's in the news, we all react and become very passionate about it and then after a few days we all move on with our lives - but I can't get it out of my mind that there are kids at Cardinal Spellman who are getting these messages that being gay isn't good and that their parents might actually want them to join a group like this to try and suppress their gay sexuality. So I can't let it go.

Do you think they will invite this priest back?
I've read different things where the meeting was postponed and the principal said that this was not a done deal, it wasn't finished, so, yes, there is a possibility that it could still happen. I'm hoping though that if it does happen that they have enough sense to invite someone from the Bronx Community Center to offer the parents another point of view on how this could actually damage their children. Definitely in the 30 years since I graduated, things have gotten better for young people, but we're talking about the Bronx - and it's different.

You've got a great singing voice. Have you ever thought about recording a CD?
No, because I don't believe I have a great singing voice. I believe I have a voice that can put a song over, but I don't believe it's a voice that deserves to be recorded for pleasure listening. I think if I ever did a Broadway show and there was a recording of me singing, yes, I believe I can put over a song because I always try to tell a story when I'm doing a song and I think that's what people connect to. But if you just put me on a CD, I think after about 15 minutes you'd be like, "I'm ready to pop that CD out."

Would you like to do a Broadway show?
I think it would be exhausting but, yes, I would love to do a Broadway show. I would love to do more movies. I would love to be doing all sorts of things.

Tell me about your latest show, She’s Got Balls.
I would say that this show is my most in-your-face show. And I talk about how we're all going to die so why not just enjoy the night because we could all drop dead. And it sort of puts the audience like "Oh dear God", but then they sort of realize that's the truth. I talk a lot about sexuality and that's the gist of the show - this whole sexual theme and to embrace your sexuality.

You also have your own live interview show, Conversations With Coco, and last April you interviewed Jane Fonda. How was that conversation?
It's a show that's pretty sporadic. It's hard to nail down these celebrities, and then also I think a lot of them get afraid when they hear it's a drag queen interviewing them. Jane Fonda did it because Lily Tomlin had done it and Lily is connected to the Gay and Lesbian Center where I do my shows. And she asked Jane a favor and Jane agreed to do it. It had nothing to do with me - it was just because she loves Lily so much. But it turned out to be a great event and we raised a lot of money.

Did you learn anything new about Jane?
She's very professional, on time, not a diva. And she came in like "Okay, this is what I have to do" - and backstage she said to me - and I think she was trying to feel me out because we didn't have any real connection before this event - we talked on the phone very briefly and I just explained to her what I would be talking about and she basically was "Okay, I'm fine with that" so I didn't feel like we had any kind of chemistry. And before the show, she came in backstage and was talking to her assistant and some of her people that were there and I'm thinking, "We have 15 minutes to try and connect before we walk out on stage." And she looked at me at one point and said, "I'm not feeling very funny tonight. I have a hangover", and I said, "Don't tell me. Tell them" - meaning the audience - and I think in that moment the ice was kind of broken and that's when I seized the opportunity to start talking about myself so she could see that I was a real person and that I was here to honor her. I think people have an idea of what drag is and I celebrate that kind of drag as well, but I wanted her to know that this event was about being thoughtful. So she came up on stage and just really let it all hang out and even said the word "cock ring" at one point, so we had a great time.

Is there anyone you would love to interview?
I'd love to interview Dolly Parton because then I could complete the triangle of the three of them from 9 to 5, which is one of my favorite movies. That would be terrific. I've always fantasized about interviewing Shirley MacLaine. I'm sure there's a slew of other people - they always tend to be women and those icons that I grew up with.

Did you always want to be a performer?
Yes, always.

When did you first discover that you enjoyed drag?
In college I dressed up in boy drag one night - it wasn't even real serious drag - and I got a lot of attention. I then started dating this guy when I graduated - I was totally in the closet in college - and towards the end of our relationship, we had gone to see Charles Busch in a show and he was in drag and being hilariously funny, and I sat there going "I want to do that." And during the show, my boyfriend turned to me and said, "You could do this", and I remember feeling ashamed in that moment, that he had somehow figured something out - it was about being effeminate and whatnot that I still had a lot of shame. And then I started reading books about the two-spirit Native Americans and everything sort of came together. I had seen documentaries about Stonewall and the drag queens and I thought, "Wait, there's a really powerful history here of men wearing women's clothes." And once I felt that history and that sort of support from beyond - because I didn't really have a connection to the drag community at that time but I felt connected to my past - and I spoke the words one day, "I'm going to be a drag queen", and I'm serious, as soon as I said it out loud, literally the ball started rolling and I had no doubt that that's what I was supposed to do - as outrageous as it even sounded to me at the time.

Do you remember your very first drag performance?
I remember my first show that I wrote in three months. It was probably terrible. People still have good memories about it, but I think it's because I was doing something new at the time. I was a drag queen that talked. At the time it was more lip-syncing and stuff like that. I was political and talking about AIDS and people weren't used to it. I even think I forgot where I was at one point during my first performance - I just blanked, I was so nervous - but I'll never forget that my parents and family were out there right in the front and that's probably what completely unnerved me but at the same time how amazing was it that both my parents were there. They were not educated - my father was a truck driver, my mom worked when she had to, waitressing or secretarial kind of work - but they still found it in their hearts to be open to what it was that I was doing. And my mother actually was horrified, thinking that people were going to throw tomatoes at me. So I think there was probably even a part of them who showed up just to make sure that nobody did that.

How did you become Miss Coco Peru?
My boyfriend at the time was Peruvian. And I went to Peru and met a Peruvian drag queen named Coco - that is a boy's name in Peru. I met him as a guy and a couple of hours later he came out as this glamorous Las Vegas showgirl. He was very famous in Peru and was on television and would be interviewed on talk shows. I was so impressed that in this homophobic country where you had to knock on a door to get in to a gay club, someone like him had crossed over. And I thought there's something in being courageous and going over the edge that people respond to - even the most homophobic. So that - along with reading these books and sort of discovering this history of drag - led to me calling myself "Coco". I then tacked on the "Peru" and wrote my first show. I'd also decided that I didn't want to make up a character that lived outside of who I really am. I wanted to tell autobiographical stories, and part of my mission back then was that I was going to dress up in drag and sort of confuse people - he's dressed like a woman but he keeps talking about being a boy - and then have the audience forget the costume and really just relate to the stories.

Now let’s discuss a few of your film and television appearances. What’s the first thing that pops into your mind about:

Too Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995)?
That was the first time I really got involved in a drag community and discovered the drag queens of New York and how diverse of a community we were at that time.

Trick (1999)?
I would just say that I was so happy that I got into that film because I did it as a favor for a friend. I could've said no and then that would've never happened. So I'm so glad I said yes.

Will & Grace (2001)?
It's amazing to me that you can work in theater doing your shows for years and years and then do 30 seconds on a TV show and millions of people see you. And that the cast was so friendly.

Girls Will Be Girls (2003)?
Another opportunity where I could've said no, but I said yes to a benefit, which had me working with "Evie". And I almost quit that benefit but didn't. And because I didn't, Girls Will Be Girls was born out of that performance basically. So another opportunity that happened because I said yes.

Now you filmed a Girls sequel, didn't you?
We did, but I have no idea what's going on with it.

If you could go back and give your 19-year-old self a wise piece of advice, what would it be?
To not worry so much about what other people think of you. And to not waste time doing that. And to have a lot more sex.

In high school I was:
Sad. I hated high school.

My favorite comfort food is:
Cold pizza.

When I was growing up, I never missed a television episode of:
I loved Batman.

Today I never miss a television episode of:
Amazing Race.

Three of my favorite movies are:
The Orphanage. Oh, it's an Argentinian film that won Best Picture and I can't remember the name of it. And I loved Jaws.

My favorite Christmas movie is:
Oh, I don't know - I'll say Mame, even though it's not a Christmas movie.

With Lucy?
Yes - and Bea Arthur, thank you very much!

My favorite Christmas album is:
I have two - Johnny Mathis: Give Me Your Love for Christmas and the first Barbra Streisand Christmas album.

If I was asked to choose the Sexiest Man Alive, it would be:
Right now I'd say Joe Manganiello, and I also have a thing for The Rock.

If I could have anyone in the world – living or dead – be a guest at my dinner party, I would invite the following three people:
I would definitely invite Jesus so I'd have the opportunity to say, "Can I record you and what exactly were you trying to say?" I don't know why but I think I'd love to have Mae West at my dinner table. I think she'd be a hoot. And Bea Arthur - even though I did have meals with her, but I do miss her. It would be nice to have one more.

What’s next for Miss Coco Peru?
Just me traveling right now, doing my shows. I'll be in Puerto Vallarta the first two weeks of February. And then February 21, 22 and 23, I'll be back here doing She's Got Balls in Los Angeles for a second time. And then May 12, I'll be in New York City at Birdland - this will be my debut performance at that venue - and I'll be in Louisville, Kentucky, again for a benefit in January. So you never know where I'll pop up. I always encourage people to join my email list because I send out little emails every now and then - I don't abuse it - but they'll always know where I am. And so often I'll be in a city where someone happens to be on vacation or visiting their family and they get to see me whereas they most likely wouldn't.

Thank you, Coco, for getting Deeper with us here on the Dish. To learn more about Miss Coco Peru and join her email list, visit her website at You can also become a fan on Facebook.

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