Penny Arcade on Aging Whores, Warhol & Boobs
By Jerry Portwood
But you look so fit. You look like you take care of yourself, right?
I’m 63, it’s so crazy! Everybody in the audience and people after the shows, they all come up to me and they go, “But you’re aging in reverse!” And I think, yeah, way better than like, fast-forwarding. I’m so glad you came to see it!
Yeah! I really wanted to. OK, and after seeing it, one of the things I wanted to talk to you about was your bosom, if you don’t mind.
Oh, not at all. Let me speak about it.
Well, it’s quite ample and you get to touch it and fondle it and other people do as well. How does that feel, doing that on stage each night?
[Laughs] Well, it’s just really funny because I’m such a prude on a lot of levels. I hate vulgarity; I really dislike vulgarity. And yet, I’ve used my body. I’ve been nude onstage several times, to good effect. In one of the plays, I take off my clothes and I keep talking. The thing that's been kind of fascinating is—it’s been my joke, honestly, since I was in my thirties—I would always say, “Penny Arcade: Famous For Tits Since 1968.” And in the '60s when I was young, everybody wanted me to show my breasts. I mean, everybody wanted them: Warhol! Andy’s big thing was that he wanted me to go to Hollywood and become an international sex symbol because my big breasts and my beautiful face. And I thought I had more to offer. I was like, really offended. I think because I had been sexualized from such an early age, and objectified.
I was that girl, that 12-year-old girl, actually flat-chested. I didn’t spring my 34 double-D breasts until I was 17. But I got to be both the flat-chested scag, and then the girl with the big tits. I never really lived either identity, in a way. But I was that girl who everyone said they had sex with when I was 13 but who had never had sex with anybody. I had that Aphrodite energy my whole life, and that meant they focused on me as a sexual being. So as a 19-year-old, I was really railing against that. Now I’m always joking about it, saying, “Shit, if I had shown my breasts when I was 19, they would have wanted to see them every 10 years, and I’d be making a fortune!”
I have breasts like a 25-year-old woman, which is crazy. When I was working with my dancers in London, they were all under 27, and we’d be in the dressing room and they’d come up to me and they’d go, “It’s impossible! How could your breasts be that great?” And I thought, Geez, I really missed out here. Because, well, maybe they would have paid me $150,000 every 10 years to see how my breasts are doing.
So, the thing is that I am—and this is, it goes with my training, I could tell you, honestly it's ridiculous—I will do whatever it takes to serve the work. And in this character, this character is different than me in that, when you have breasts like mine, even a slightly low-cut dress becomes really low-cut because I have a lot of cleavage, you know? But I never—you would love this. In 1988 the great Ethyl Eichelberger, the great drag artist, said to me at a party: “Penny Arcade, if I had your breasts, I would rule the world!” And I looked at Ethyl and I said, “It never occurred to me.” I was alienated form my own sexual presence because of being tortured and tormented and attacked and raped and, I never thought of myself as a victim, but I was a target, you know?
So it’s interesting to be in this play because the character does flaunt her breasts. She’s not above her breasts to get along and get by and promote herself. So, it’s really fun to do that, and if you think about the fact that I’m 63, if there is any time to get comfortable with your sexuality in public, I think it would be at 63. I kind of like that it’s taken me a really long time to grow up. I think that’s part of the reason why I’m perceived as being so young onstage and in person.
The thing that’s really funny is that when I’m doing a scene with the sailor, and I’m putting his hands on my breasts, every night I can really feel his discomfort. Because I am totally in the play. If it was me, just me in real life and somebody grabbed me—I mean, I’ve been known to deck somebody who reached out and touched my breasts.
Well, I loved seeing you having a good time with them onstage too.
Isn’t that funny that gay men really like big breasts! They’re into it as an aesthetic. Which, as this long-term faghag who had a lot of sexual energy, that was something that I had to kind of surf with my gay male friends, and still have to surf that. Because I’m a real faghag—the kind that doesn’t try to have sex with gay men, but who has happened to have a lot of sex with gay men. But I’ve never been confused about that. I certainly have never been predatory. And I’ve always said that gay men and faghags, it’s not that we don’t have sexual energy—we have lots of sexual energy—we just don’t use it for sex. We use it for other things, like dancing and carrying on and madness in the streets—that’s all still sexual energy.
The play is called The Mutilated, and there are obviously clues to certain physical things we can interpret it to mean, but also there are more emotional and symbolic ways to interpret that title, and I wondered what you’ve come to think about it in that way.
Well, I think that isolation is a terrible thing. And I have been very isolated at times in my life, especially in my early life, as most people of a certain age who are gay, queer, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, non-heteronormative kind of experience, and this is a play about family. Trinket and Celeste are partners. And this is very, very common in the criminal world that Tennessee Williams participated in. The gay world, pre-1990, the gay world and the criminal world intersected. The demi-world, you know? So, we were always in and out of dicey dives and crossing paths with all kinds of people who were also outside society. I think that when you’re part of that kind of a world, you form alliances—for survival, for entertainment, for comfort.
I think that in this play, long before Trinket has a mastectomy—which is the actual "mutilation" in the play—that she was isolated and a loner/outsider, living already in that fleabag hotel. So, the mutilation is not her mastectomy, the mutilation is her loneliness and her isolation.
I think that at this later time in Tennessee Williams’ life, he was doing a real evaluation of what his life had been. And his life had been creating family relationships with people in nontraditional ways, as gay/queer people have always done and have always had to do. So, I think that this is a really super important element in the show. And I feel that we are really vindicating Tennessee Williams with this production by bringing that really to the form of what he would have really wanted. I think he would go mad over Mink and I in the play and all these young people and the singing.
It's also one of the more bizarre Christmas plays ever produced.
The fact that it takes place at Christmas is very telling because Christmas is one of those holidays that pushes everybody’s buttons. It really delineates the haves and the have-nots. I’ve had many solo Christmases that I’ve chosen to just be by myself and have my fabulous Christmas breakfast with my house decorated for Christmas all by myself. I don’t mind going to my family’s—especially after my marriage broke up. The first two Christmases, I just didn’t really feel like celebrating the way people do. For people who are estranged from their families as many of us have been, having this play take place at Christmas is a part of the sorrow. It's one of the things that has long been an element in gay culture: When we were really outside of the heart of the world, we could have unconquerable spirit. And that’s very much what this play is about. You know you’re at a Penny Arcade show because some weirdo is winning.