Carol Channing on Gay Men, Drag Queens, and Johnny Depp

7.8.2013

By Michael Musto

Musto catches up with the entertainment icon before her Fire Island debut

Photo by Michael Davis

With her saucer eyes, rasp of a voice, and razor-sharp timing, Carol Channing has long been a show biz treasure and a gay man’s fantasy figure. Famed for originating roles like gold-digging Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and matchmaking Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly!, Carol has won three Tony awards (including one for lifetime achievement) and an Oscar nomination for 1967’s Thoroughly Modern Millie, in which she was the socialite Muzzy, who loved shrieking “Raspberries!” at odd moments.

The woman’s always redefined verve, and at age 92, she’s actually coming to Fire Island! To perform, of course. On August 24, Carol will play Daniel Nardicio’s Icon series at Cherry Grove’s Ice Palace. (Yes, she’s going to the place beyond the Pines.) That night, crooner extraordinaire Justin Vivian Bond will do a set and then bring Carol out for some James Lipton-style grilling. I just got to ask the legend some questions of my own.

Michael Musto: Hi, Carol. We love you! Are you any relation to Stockard Channing, Margo Channing, or Channing Tatum?

Carol Channing: I tease poor Stockard by telling everyone that she is my older sister, but we aren't related at all. I believe she married into her name, which I suppose could still mean she is related, but not that I am aware of. I believe Stockard once played the role of Margo Channing with our mutual friend Angela (Lansbury) onstage in Los Angeles, but I have no relation to either Stockard or Bette (Davis), who played the role in the movie. Channing Tatum? Is it bad of me that I don't know her…What?...Him?

Why do you think gay men (among others) adore you so much?

I don't know, but I am terribly grateful. I mean, gay men seem to always know who has talent before the rest of the public does, don't you think? A stamp of approval from the gay community is almost a guarantee of success. Just ask Liza Minnelli, Bette Midler, or Cher. I think they would agree. In San Francisco, they made me their Queen. They have a new Empress every year, but a Queen is for life. Isn’t that wonderful?

Yes, it is--and there’s a lot of competition out there! But do your drag impersonators get it right?

I'm the worst judge. It’s a huge compliment and I'm always honored, but it is hard to watch. Every time I see someone impersonate me, I can't help but think I must have a hormonal imbalance. Johnny Depp has said he wants to play me in a movie. Wouldn't that be great? People say, "But he is a man," but it doesn't surprise me at all. I can’t remember the last time one of my impersonators didn't have a 5 o'clock shadow.

Well, get ready for the marvelous gender revelry on Fire Island. What are you expecting there?  If you observe acts of mating, will you be shocked?

I have no clue what to expect from the Fire Island Q&A. I hate to say it, but I haven't given much thought to it yet. Isn't that awful? Dating? Oh, mating! Well, you see everything when you work in the theater. We are used to undressing in front of everyone backstage, so there are no secrets. However, I still think that discretion is classy. I don't care who you are.

Speaking of discretion, have you really never seen Skidoo [the 1968 psychedelic mess of a cinematic marvel starring you, Groucho Marx, Mickey Rooney, and Jackie Gleason]?

I can remember bits and pieces, but that's about all I could handle seeing at any one time.

I’ve seen it five times! In 1964, you beat Barbra Streisand for the Tony. How did that feel?

Oh, we were such good friends then. Beatrice (Lillie), Barbra, and I would get together for lunch and tell each other, “Oh, you’re going to win,” but I'm sure we each hoped we would. Barbra was very good in Funny Girl.  It wouldn't have surprised me a bit if she had won. But I did. (laugh)

Congrats. Was Julie Andrews kind to you on Thoroughly Modern Millie?

Oh, she was more than kind! If it weren't for Julie, I wouldn't have won the Golden Globe or been nominated for the Academy Award. When we did my closeups, she came in--on one of her only days off--to read with me, because she thought it was that important for me. Ohhhh, Julie was a Godsend.

On a darker note, when you sued one of your husbands, Charles Lowe, for divorce, you said he'd only had sex with you once or twice. Which was it--once or twice? And was he gay?

[Carol tastefully declined to answer this question. She didn’t address the topic in her book or documentary and isn‘t about to now. She and Charles had problems, but she’ll always be grateful for the role he played in her success.]

What do you credit your amazing longevity to?

Genetics.  My family has a history of living to over 100. My dear cousin Dickie just passed away last week at 99 and he was still active. In fact, he was a daredevil well into his 80s. He had a passion for life and so do I. I think the love I send out to an audience is returned twofold, and the love I have been receiving has had a healing effect on me as well, which may be why I recover so quickly. Of course, I'm also very stubborn. You know, if you miss a show, you're missing what may have been your finest performance!

Well, I’m not going to miss your Fire Island show! See you there, darling.

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