By Andrea Poteet
What does a drag queen do for Labor Day?
If you’re New York City drag icon Lady Bunny, not much.
“New York really shuts down over Labor Day,” she says in her sugary southern drawl. “So maybe everyone else was invited to barbecues. Maybe they looked at my waistline and decided I didn’t warrant an invitation.”
It’s an uncharacteristically quiet holiday weekend for Bunny, who for more than 20 years presided over Wigstock, the city’s preeminent outdoor drag festival that drew more than 30,000 people in its heyday and inspired the 1995 documentary of the same name before a run of bad weather led to its ultimate cancelation.
“We got rained out two years in a row, and there’s nothing sadder than a soggy drag queen,” Bunny says. “It led to some very bad hair days. When you are looking out at the audience after your number and they’re not clapping and then you realize they are holding umbrellas… we just decided to end it.”
Born Jon Ingle in 1962 in Chattanooga, Tenn., Bunny says she was obsessed with drag queens from her first encounter, while sneaking into a bar at 13, but never pictured the path her life would take.
“I was mesmerized, it was somewhat inevitable,” she says. “I was college-aged during the time that punk and New Wave were popular, so I was experimenting with androgynous eye makeup, but not fully in drag. There was just something in me that was saying, ‘Go further. Add a wig. Add heels.’ I never sat down and said, ‘I’m going to be Lady Bunny and she’s going to have big wigs and wear mini dresses.’ It just kind of happened.”
After spending time in Atlanta where she roomed with none other than drag legend RuPaul, she moved to New York in her 20s and quickly became inspired by the drag queens she saw at the East Village’s Pyramid Club.
“Down South I had only seen queens who were lip synching to Patti LaBelle, Barbra Streisand, etc.,” she says. “The queens at the pyramid were writing their own original music. They were impersonating people like Mona Lisa. And I thought, ‘This scene is incredible, it’s so creative and I think that I need to showcase these performers to a wider audience.’ And it turned out that my instinct was right.”
Since the last Wigstock in 2005, Bunny has kept busy, lending her trademark wit and mile-high bleached blond wigs to Logo Channel’s “RuPaul’s Drag U,” where she serves as Dean of Drag. She’s also turned up on Comedy Central’s roast of Pamela Anderson (where she quipped that she and Courtney Love were the evening’s two scheduled “boner breaks”) and regularly deejays, contributes to Star Magazine’s “Worst of the Week” fashion column and performs at gay bars across the country, blending stand-up with risque song parodies and her unique brand of “fast-paced drag craziness.”
She’ll bring her show to Hamtramck’s Ice nightclub Oct. 1, and promises the appearance will be a far cry from her last in the Detroit area.
“I don’t remember the name of the venue, but it was a blast,” she says. “But it wasn’t in the best neighborhood. There was a supermarket advertising pigs’ feet. You know you’re not in the best neighborhood when pigs’ feet are on the menu.”
The menu for Bunny’s live shows usually include hearty helpings of raunchy jokes, which she said contributed to one of her worst bombing moments when her show at a Gay Pride festival in the Bible Belt was mistakenly labeled “all ages.”
“Someone sent me a picture,” she says. “I was dangling a dildo from my crotch and in the front row there was a little girl sitting on her dad’s shoulders with her face a couple feet away from the dildo…I don’t want to be the Typhoid Mary that shuts down Gay Pride in Richmond, Va.”
Most of the time, though, Bunny isn’t bombing. She’s a hit among crowds who are…well…bombed.
“Generally speaking, I perform in gay bars so they are open to dirty material and they’ve normally had a few drinks,” Bunny says. “Even drugs, occasionally…I’m told.”
It’s not just chemically-enhanced clubbers who adore Lady Bunny; her appearances have led to run-ins with childhood idols like “I Dream of Jeannie’s” Barbara Eden – who once complimented her hairdo – and Charo, who appeared as a judge on “Drag U.”
“I actually got her on video saying (adopts accent), ‘Lady Bunny is the biggest puta in the United States,'” she says. “Some people have their childhood videotapes… but I have Charo saying, ‘Lady Bunny’s the biggest whore in the United States.'”
When the last season of “Drag U” wrapped in April, she left with more than a record of Charo’s sendoff.
“RuPaul turned me on to this really strong adhesive to glue the wig on, and it sure did work,” she says. “When I pulled it off, some of it had gotten into my own hair and pulled it out, so I have an idiotic reverse widow’s peak now. We stopped taping in April, and it’s grown like 1.5 inches since then.”
Looking back, she says that even though the festival she helped create has peaked, she still hasn’t.
“I guess everyone would say Wigstock (was my biggest accomplishment) because it ran for 20 years and it really did kind of cement the gay community and it was a bit of a New York City institution,” she says. “That’s what most people would say. I would say you ain’t seen it yet.”
Though she describes herself as a “seasoned” drag queen, she says she’s not ready to hang up her wig yet.
“I don’t know how to do anything else,” she says. “Luckily I’m in comedy, so looks are not important.”