Photo: Augusten Burroughs
Standing at 5-foot-7, Nick Cearley is dwarfed by some of his co-stars in Pageant but his eyes pop with so much excitement that it’s hard not to notice him as Bonnie Louise (a.k.a. Miss Great Plains), a doe-eyed woman from Nebraska competing to be Miss Glamouresse. Even though Bonnie is not the loudest, sassiest, or most sophisticated character, Cearley makes her “plainness” as equally funny as the five other women vying for the crown.
That kind of stage presence is in part why he's become the breakout star of the musical’s revival (currently in a limited Off-Broadway run at The Davenport Theatre through Oct. 26). “I think about the real reality of what I’m doing and it’s like I’m putting on a dress and I’m making a complete mockery of this world and people are responding to it, which is nice,” Cearley says of the attention.
If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then for Cearley, wearing high heels and wigs is the finest compliment he can give to the women involved in the world of beauty competitions.
“I think women see the pain in our eyes because my lower back hurts so bad after wearing heels for that long," Cearley says. “I will walk the prettiest in my heels because it hurts, and I think women get a kick out of seeing it.”
When not in heels, however, Cearley can be seen in nothing but his underwear as one-half of The Skivvies with Lauren Molina. After meeting during a 2002 children’s theater tour, the two dabbled in the world of viral videos when they recorded a stripped-down cover of Rihanna’s “We Found Love.” The idea for the duo's look didn’t come together until they recorded the video. “[Lauren] was standing there trying to find something to wear and she was just wearing a bra and I was like, ‘Well, we’re stripping down the music, so why don’t we just do it in our underwear!’”
The video (and subsequent uploads featuring Rock of Ages’ Wes Taylor) were a hit. What started off as a gimmick soon turned into a cabaret act featuring other Broadway stars performing covers of hits in their underwear at 54 Below.
“I think we have established that it’s not about what we look like, or what anybody looks like because we have had every shape and size perform and age performing with us,” Cearley says. In the past year alone, everyone from Laura Benanti to Perez Hilton has shed their clothes to perform onstage with the duo. Now it’s not so difficult finding guest performers, and people such as Olympic champion Greg Louganis have reached out to join them for upcoming shows.
Cearley admits that being on stage in his underwear or in a wig and dress as Miss Great Plains are two roles he never expected to do. Constantly cast as the nerd or sidekick — Cearley has a slender frame and ability to model black rim glasses — people are finally seeing the performer from a new perspective. “With Skivvies totally against type, physically, it’s not something most people would see me as in a normal world," he explains. "In Pageant, I don’t think people think I’m a pretty girl, so I do think that I’m playing against type in everything that's successful for me right now."
If there’s any real sign of achievement, it’s the fact Cearley manages to do both, even on the same night. On a recent Saturday evening in New York City, the writer (and amateur photographer) Augusten Burroughs captured the performer as he went from vying for a crown to playing with Hilton during back-to-back performances of Pageant and The Skivvies. Cearley was kind enough to walk us through an evening of wigs and undies.