A conversation with Coco Peru
The Music City Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (MCS) hosted their fifth H8s a DRAG fundraiser on Sunday, April 17. This year Nashville was in for a COMPLETELY different experience. Yes, there was still plenty of clown-white drag courtesy of the Sisters, but the event moved off Church Street to Ibiza Night Club and was hosted by perhaps the most famous queen to yet grace the Nashville Sisters’ stage—Miss Coco Peru.
H8’s a DRAG is a drag extravaganza raising money to allow the MCS to support of organizations such as GLSEN Middle Tennessee, Bully-Free Tennessee, and the Oasis Center/Just Us. Sister Wendy Yugitov, MCS Abbess, explained last year, “we are all meant to be loved equally.” H8’s a DRAG is just one way the MCS have been spreading and reinforcing that message over the last few years.
Ibiza Night Club in Brentioch, which late last year began hosting a weekly LGBT night on Thursdays featuring Veronika Elektronika and, more recently, local Drag Race contestant Jaidynn Diore Fierce, was the site of this year’s show. A much larger stage, and ample room for seating, allowed audiences to comfortably enjoy the warm-up acts, as well as Coco Peru’s comedic show.
Coco Peru has been a drag mainstay for twenty-five years, appearing in LGBT cult classic films like Trick and Girls Will Be Girls, and the MCS are excited to be bringing her act to Nashville. According to Sister Faegala Tina Pfischzoot, “Over the past year, there has been considerable buzz in our community about bringing Miss Coco Peru to Nashville.” The opportunity came about when Sister Faegala met her on the Drag Stars at Sea Cruise in January. “Her full length show brought the house down. Coco entertained us for more than an hour with quips, stories, songs and interactive comedy that had the crowd begging for more! Coco made a whole new generation of fans that afternoon.” The following day at lunch, the groundwork was laid for Coco’s first visit to Nashville.
In advance of that visit, Coco agreed to sit for an interview with us to let Nashville audiences get to know her a little better.
How did you get started in drag?
I had trained to be an actor in college, and Coco was going to be just a character that I was going to create, with the thought that it was going to be just one of many things that I did... But it was the one thing that took off, so I just stuck with it!
What were your inspirations for developing this character?
I was inspired when I went to see a show and [a man] was playing the female lead, and I thought, ‘My God, he’s having so much fun! I want to do something like this! And everything just all of a sudden came together…. I had this burst of inspiration that I was going to be a drag queen that told autobiographical stories, and that’s how I was going to change the world. And then it just took off from there.
I was really responding to the AIDS activism at the time—wanting to somehow find my voice and address things that I was concerned about in the gay community. That was one of my inspirations for how Coco developed.
How did you develop your distinctive comedic voice?
When people tell me they saw my first shows I always get a little embarrassed because I know they weren’t … well they were special for that time, but I’m sure I’ve gotten better since then! But I knew early on even as a kid that I had a knack for making people laugh, especially when I told stories, just to my roommates and friends.
I grew up in a tight neighborhood in the Bronx, and I happened to grow up around a lot of very funny people who happened to be great storytellers. My parents would have these parties and I would just sit there in awe of these adults, who were just non-stop telling jokes and great stories! I always felt like my parents’ friends were celebrities.
You know, it’s so weird! I used to love watching celebrity roasts back then, when you had all those greats, like Bob Hope and Lucille Ball, and I always felt like that’s who my parents’ friends were, these sort of glamourous… And they weren’t glamorous at all, really! They were working class people, but they just had that same sort of style…. I just grew up admiring my parents and their friends. I think I developed a knack for storytelling just by studying them at these crazy parties they had.
Once you got into the entertainment business yourself, who were some important or influential people you developed relationships with?
I feel so lucky that I’ve met so many of my idols. I have to give a shout out of course to Bea Arthur, because—you talked about comic timing earlier—that was another person I studied as a kid. I was obsessed with Bea Arthur when I was a kid! The fact that I got to meet her was special, and then I got to become friends with her.
Bea was the first celebrity who said yes to me when I asked her to do a “Conversations With Coco” show, and she did not want to do it, because she was very shy. She was embarrassed that so much attention would be focused on her, but she said yes.
When I was getting very nervous as the date approached to interview Bea, her musical director, Billy Goldenberg said, ‘Just remember, Bea said no to Larry King, but she said yes to Coco Peru!’ And then the day afterwards, when I went over to Bea’s house to drop some stuff off, she said, ‘Well, after last night, I guess we can say we really are bosom buddies.’ And I just thought, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe Bea Arthur just called me her bosom buddy!’ That for me was just amazing.
Of course, Liza Minnelli always had my back when I was in New York City and would bring people to see my show. So I just feel like I’ve been lucky to meet so many of the people I was obsessed with when I was growing up. And in way the little gifts from the universe that maybe the career I chose—as outrageous as it is—was the right thing to do. That’s kind of the way I look at it.
Can you tell us a little more about the “Conversations with Coco” events you’ve done and the show you’re trying to develop based on those?
Sure. I did these events, but with no budget, so it’s really a shame but they aren’t on tape and no one will ever see them again. They were fundraisers for the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s homeless youth program. Now the producers want to film a Conversations with Coco pilot to see if they can sell so it as a series. Our guest for that show is Lily Tomlin.
If it did go forward as a TV show, part of the proceeds would still go to the LGBT Center. We’re not forgetting friends or from where we came, or that we still need to work for people less fortunate than ourselves. That was always the goal with the “Conversations with Coco” events—Bea Arthur, Jane Fonda… these are all people who gave their time to raise money.
What projects, besides your own shows, are highlights for you in your career?
Two films really kind of changed my life. Trick definitely was the thing that put me on the map in a much larger way. When that movie came out in 1999, that was one of the first gay movies that dealt with just two gay guys—it wasn’t a tragedy, it wasn’t sad, it wasn’t about suicide or AIDS. It was just about two cute boys looking to hook up, and they weren’t coming out….
I won’t say it was an important film, but I think it was important to a lot of people. I get a lot of emails from young guys saying what that film meant for them, just to see two gay guys not struggling with being gay and just being happy with who they are. So I was very proud of being a part of that movie.
The other film which I loved being a part of was Girls Will Be Girls because it just has such a gay sensibility. It didn’t do well in the movie theatres at all, but I love that people discovered it on DVD and it became this cult gay movie. That was just by word of mouth, and I think that says a lot for the film—the fact that it could fail so miserably in the movies and go on to have a life of its own. I’m talking globally!
How has being openly gay in the field changed from your early years as an entertainer to now—how has reception changed?
It’s completely changed—it’s amazing to me. When I decided to be a performer and talk openly about being gay, people looked at me like, ‘Why are you throwing your career away? You’re crazy!’ Nothing was going to stop me: I knew that this was what I was going to do. But that was the reaction. It was not a normal thing that I was doing. Drag is … well I never wanted to be normal, in a way, but for someone who was trying to be an actor and went to college for all of that, and paid all that money, it seemed to a lot of people in my life that I was throwing away my career by being openly gay. And my feeling was like, ‘I’m so gay anyway that it’s better to just embrace it and celebrate it!’
At the time there were no gay characters on TV. Then Will & Grace came along, and all of that began to change. And certainly with RuPaul’s Drag Race now, drag is back in the mainstream, and kids are into it…
I was just in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and I was staying in a little guest house where they had a party. It was for Mexican people, it wasn’t for tourists but for gay Mexican guys in the surrounding areas, and the thing was they all had to wear heels! And there was a little boy there in heels. What had happened was his parents didn’t want him—they rejected him because he was gay. So these two gay guys adopted him. I was just in awe that this little gay kid was prancing around in heels, so confident, so not ashamed. It was so beautiful to me to see this kid totally self-express. I thought, ‘Boy, the world is changing.’
I get emails from eleven-year-olds, and from their parents thanking me for making the world an easier place for their gay kid. In the twenty-five years I’ve been doing drag, the world has changed for the better, and I’m proud that I was part of the change in my own little small way.
You mentioned that, in part, Coco was developed as you were struggling to find your voice about issues. Do you have issues that’re still driving you?
My one-person shows will always have a point of view. I try to make it very universal even though they’re very personal stories, so it’ll always have that element of where I want people to be thinking and feeling, but also to be entertained. This brand new show, I’ve had a lot of straight people come see it, and they’re expressing to me all the same things a gay audience would express.
I’m always thinking about the younger gay generations, and now we have gay marriage and all these things that I was marching in the streets for years ago, so to see them come about is really wonderful. You know the world is always evolving, so I talk about everything. I’m always concerned about littering, so I wrote a monologue about that. There’s always something you want to change in the world.
Can you tell us a little about the show you’ll do in Nashville? Is it your new material?
It’s my first time in Nashville: I’ve never ever been, even as a tourist. I’m so excited to visit! Whenever I go to a new town I always give the audience a ‘Best Of’ show so they get a really good idea about what it is I do. I tell people, “It’s like a group therapy session, only it’s my turn to talk!”
For VIP admission, doors will open on April 17 at 6:30 p.m. and general admission begins at 7:00 p.m. VIP admission includes guaranteed access to a meet-and-greet after the show. For more information about H8s a DRAG, visit the event’s page on Facebook, and tickets to the show may be purchased at Eventbrite. To learn more about Coco Peru, visit www.misscocoperu.com