If you’ve ever been even near Las Vegas, Nevada, you’ve probably heard of Frank Marino. Whether it was advertisements for his longtime show, “Divas,” or even walking along the street named after him, Marino’s tenure as the longest running headliner in the city has cemented him as one of the country’s premier female impersonators.
Marino spoke with BTL before bringing “Divas” to Detroit at 8 p.m. Oct. 16 at MotorCity Casino and Hotel’s Sound Board, one of a few select locations that get to witness the tour. “There is no difference (between the Las Vegas and traveling versions of the show),” Marino says. “It’s basically the same show; I pick very few cities I go to. MotorCity Casino is one of the ones I’m really looking forward to.”
Detroit was specifically one of his favorites because of his love for Motown. “I want to put all the Motown acts in the show. I hope they’ll appreciate them as much as I do there.”
Marino admits he’s only been to Detroit one time before. The reason? “I was going to Canada, and I made the limo driver stop because I wanted to go to Motown,” he says. “I’m a very huge Diana Ross fan, so, if I was going to be that close (to Detroit), I needed to go and see where my idol started.” Marino even began his career impersonating the chanteuse. “I started out impersonating her,” he notes, “until I realized I wasn’t black and that I couldn’t sing. I had to find a white comedian to do, and that’s how I ended up with Joan Rivers … but Diana was my first.”
In addition to Marino’s own drag persona, he’s most famous for his Joan Rivers impersonation. Rivers, who died last year, formed a relationship with Marino over the years (though it began with her attempting to sue Marino in the 1980s). “I got to be such close friends with her that her daughter Melissa invited me to the funeral,” he reflects. “I was going to take the act out of my show for awhile, and she said, ‘If anybody would want you to continue, it’d be my mom.’ So now I do a tribute rather than an impersonation.” Is there much of difference between tribute and impersonation when it comes to one of the greatest insult comics of all time? “Absolutely nothing.” Marino laughs. “But it sounds nice on paper.”
Though impersonating Rivers is close to his heart, Marino prefers doing himself. “I open the show as Joan Rivers, but for the rest of the show I do my own femme fatale character, which is just Frank Marino in drag,” he says. “A comedian in drag, like RuPaul would be a singer in drag.
“I am emcee and I am the star. The show opens with a big ‘Vegas opening,’ it’s got dancers and everything. Then I come out and I do Joan Rivers,” he adds. “Then I introduce all the famous female superstars. I’m bringing Diana Ross, I’m bringing Patti LaBelle; I have younger ones, too, like Rihanna, Cher, Madonna. There will be 15 different characters.”
Despite his fame as a female impersonator, and even with Logo’s “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and with the queens featured during the recent Miley Cyrus-hosted MTV’s Video Music Awards, Marino doesn’t think drag is as mainstream as some people seem to think. “I don’t think (drag) is anymore mainstream than it was,” he says. “I still think mostly drag queens are watching that show (‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’), and people that have been fascinated with it before. So I don’t know if that’s made it anymore mainstream.”
Nonetheless, Marino’s own drag show audience is composed of more than drag queens: “Middle American comes and sees my show. It’s Mrs. Smith from the grocery store. There’s everything from prom kids to senior citizens. Men enjoy it just as much as women, sometimes even more.
“I think more mainstream people get to see my show than on a show like ‘Drag Race,'” Marino says about “Divas.” “‘Drag Race’ is so far back on your cable channel that middle America can’t even find it, you know what I’m saying? If I can’t find it, the people that know nothing about drag aren’t going to find it either. I think by traveling around we’re making it mainstream. Our show is definitely one that men and women both love, because it’s just a fun art form. I wish it could be more mainstream, and the ones who make it mainstream are the ones who did ‘Tootsie’ and ‘Mrs. Doubtfire’ and ‘To Wong Foo.’ I was in the movie ‘Miss Congeniality 2,’ and that has a drag sequence too. Things like that put it out there.”
After his tour, when he returns to Las Vegas with the other divas, look for Marino’s projected reality show. “I’m working on a reality show, so I’m hoping that soon I can add reality TV star to (my resume),” he says. “It’s just going to be my crazy life and the crazy, fun, colorful people around me.”
Colorful people might not involve other drag queens on the circuit – “I don’t really know any,” he laughs – but he does hope to work with certain celebrities in the future. “I would like to work with Diana Ross,” he laughs. “Anybody in Michigan who knows her from the good ol’ days, please hook us up!”