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Catching Up with Charles Busch

The Tony-nominated playwright and actor Charles Busch is lounging in his Greenwich Village apartment. Its early on a Tuesday morning -- just three days away from the opening of his new play, The Divine Sister, a hilarious homage to almost all of the Hollywood films involving nuns. It centers around St. Veronicas Mother Superior, played by Busch, who is determined to build a new school for her Pittsburgh convent. Busch doesnt seem nervous. In fact, since the show is only running for 24 performances, he said hes doing it to reconnect with his audience. No stranger to the theater world, Busch wrote the critically and commercially acclaimed Broadway play The Tale of the Allergists Wife and Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, which played for five years and is still one of the longest-running off-Broadway plays. By doing performances in drag, Busch gained a following that led to the tribute documentary, The Lady in Question is Charles Busch, as well as the opportunity to write and star in the feature Die, Mommie, Die! When Busch spoke with Out, he didnt hold back -- opening up about demons in his childhood, how his career in drag began, and what he really thinks of todays biggest stars. Out: Before we even start, what did you think of the Grammy Awards? Charles Busch: It was an epiphany. You know, popular music ended with me with Patti Page. So, Im a little behind, and I thought the Grammys were going to be one big bore because I wasnt going to know one single person. I thought it was going to be like when I was on Fire Island once and wandered into the Long Island Gay Bartender Awards. And after you watched the Grammys? It turned out that I got a whole new excitement about the modern world. Did you love Lady Gaga? Well, yes, I think Im on the Gaga train! I didnt get it before. I really hadnt heard her songs because I dont listen to the radio or anything. Oh, didnt that date me? The radio. I just saw her always with those crazy outfits on, and you couldnt really see her face. In my day it was Madonna or Bette Midler, and you could actually see them do their act. But when she sat at that piano with Elton John, shes really a good singer. What about Pink and all that spinning and getting all wet? Oh, that was fabulous! Pink and the beaver showing. Ive never seen so much beaver! That Pink -- shes good! Im on the Pink train too. And Taylor Swift. I think shes just adorable. I totally get it. And Michael Jacksons children -- Im just a sentimental, so when those two Jackson children came out, I just burst into tears. I think they are just the most wonderful children. I wish I knew them. How do you think I can get them to come over? Theres got to be a way. Id have them over for tea. That boy was wonderful and that girl had such style with those anonymous screwy glasses and all. Wow. The Grammys really did inspire you. What inspired you to write your new play The Divine Sister? Its always been on my books that I wanted to do a tribute to Hollywood religiosity. I grew up loving any movie where Jesus was involved, and I didnt grow up with any religion at all. So, the only glimpse I got into any kind of religious stories was through the movies. The play is set in Pittsburgh. Why Pittsburgh? I know youre a big fan of Auntie Mame and once played her. Right. Right. Vera Charles from Auntie Mame is from Pittsburgh. So was that the reason? Well, people always use Pittsburgh as a joke, dont they? They always make it sound sort of dreary. Ive been to Pittsburgh, and its a beautiful place now. But I remember my aunt telling me that in the '40s she had to take a train and stop over in Pittsburgh and the sky was just black with soot, and if you were wearing a white collar by the end of the afternoon it was dark. Of course thats all changed, and Pittsburgh is just heaven on earth now. I didnt want it to take place in New York, so Pittsburgh sounded like a good urban town. Theres also something that sounds kind of creepy about it -- Pittsburgh. You play Mother Superior. Whats she like? Im a big dollop of Rosalind Russell with some Loretta Young and some Ingrid Bergman thrown in. Im not like that lady in Doubt. Im lovely and noble, but I have these awful opinions. At one point I mention -- because its 1966 -- A new clinic just opened around the corner devoted to womens health and reproductive choices, and with a grim face I add, Well see what we can do about that. In The Divine Sister you star with Julie Halston -- again. You two always work together. How did you meet? We had a mutual friend who kept telling me how I had to meet Julie because she was the funniest girl in the world. Of course I avoided that like the plague! Then I was playing at a theater in San Francisco and on my dark nights they brought in Julie Halston. I met her, and I wasnt that crazy about her. But I kept her number. Then when I got back to New York and would need an audience, I would just call everyone whose number I had, and I would offer comps. She would bring 10 people at a time to see my one-man show. Shes very popular. Then when we were going to do Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, I was in a real bind, and I needed a flamboyant woman to play opposite of me and no one would do it. So, the last person on my list -- after my own sister turned me down -- was that blonde girl who wasnt particularly funny, but knew a lot of people. I just thought, What the hell? The after that we became friends. Then she became my muse. Lets go back to the very beginning. You were born in New York City. Yes. Mount Sinai Hospital. And when you were 7, your mother died. How did that affect you? On one hand, when you lose your mother as a kid, it is something that you never really get over. I get big maternal crushes on sort of strong women. I just want to please them so much and kind of be the favorite son. I even get jealous of their children. Its really ridiculous. I get very emotional when I watch the red carpet [at award shows] and see somebody bring their mother. You were raised by your mothers sister, Aunt Lil. What was she like? I was extremely fortunate to have this extraordinary woman adopt me. I was so encouraged in any kind of artistic pursuit that I lacked the sensor in my head that said, I cant do that. What will people think? So, when I was going to do a part in drag, it never occurred to me, Should I do that? What will people think? I was just raised with this thing that whatever I did was worthy. How would you describe yourself as a young boy? I went through stages. I guess I reached my peak when I was 9. Then it was downhill from there. I think I was a remarkable little kid because I was so free and my imagination was so fertile. Then after my mother died and until my aunt stepped in, there was a good five years where I kind of shut down and became very shy. Today I think I wouldve been sent to a psychiatrist or something. I was depressed for about six years. Looking back I think from 9 to 16, I just wasnt happy and withdrew into myself. Then at 16, when I became sexualized and was no longer identifying with Oliver Twist, that orphan waif kid, suddenly a whole new world opened up. I felt good and awakened. You have gained a lot of attention and fame by doing drag. How did that come about? Charles Ludlum was an inspiration to me, and he did certain roles in drag. When I was in Chicago [at Northwestern University] I started writing movie spoof plays and putting them on in bars, and Id be in drag. Then when I became a solo performer in 1978, I didnt do drag for the next six years. Then in 84 when I decided to put on this skit in the East Village for one weekend, I thought I would play this glamorous lady vampire in drag. I mean it was just for the weekend. Little did I know it would become my career. You once said, The most beautiful hair, makeup and costume can't make a man convincing as a woman. It has to come from a lot of observation, and I truly think, a great sympathy and understanding of women and the way they move and think and feel. How did you accomplish that? I cant be objective, but from what Ive heard and what I feel, there is a core reality to what I do. I think its from a couple of things. Number 1: A lifetime of true observation of female performers in movies. You know, there are different ways of seeing. Theres a way of looking at something and only seeing the surface. Theres also a way of really observing an actress and understanding why shes making the choices she is on screen. I also think coming from this matriarchal family and being fascinated by the women in my family, I just grew up with this enormous sympathy for women. Its easy for me to tap into the female in me as well as the male. Im fortunate too that my physicality contributes. Im only 57" and thin with small features. I look good in the clothes. What do you think of RuPaul? I love RuPaul! I dont know him personally. Weve met, but I think hes terrific. From the beginning I loved that RuPaul was beautiful and sexy. So often, straight people can accept drag if its non-sexualized, but God forbid if its Adam Lambert acting as a sexy gay guy on an awards show. Oh, the children must be protected. So you like Adam Lambert? I think hes fabulous. Im very excited that hes on the contemporary scene. I think hes really talented, and I like that we are going to have a real sexy, out gay artist. Will his career be lasting or is it fleeting fame? Oh yes. I think hes the real deal. I think the brilliant thing he did on the American Music Awards was he got everyone talking about him again. I mean, wheres Kris Allen? It reminded me a lot of when Madonna was first doing those outrageous things. I think hes very important, and I would love to meet him some time. Maybe you can have him over when you have the Jackson children over for tea. Wouldnt that be fun? Wed have a wonderful time! In August you will be 56 -- Hey! Youre hitting below the belt! Well, then, I guess I dont have to ask what your thoughts on getting older are. I dont like it at all. Ive really got to do something about it. Its probably too late. I did actually start working out with a trainer this year. Everything just starts falling apart, and yet youre still young enough to do new things. Its like this fight of which side are you going to go? Are you going to start moving toward getting older or are you going to try to keep a youthful spirit? I pull toward both. Its a tightrope Im walking. I really have to watch out. Its very easy for me to lie on my sofa for a long, long time and watch reality TV shows. But now youre busy with The Divine Sister. What is your hope for this show? I have no professional agenda with this show, other than I want to entertain an audience that perhaps I havent performed for in a long time. The last couple of shows Ive been doing have been to subscriber theaters, and they are mostly elderly, straight people. Im hoping to reconnect with people who just want to come and see me and not because Im part of a subscription series. Are you a diva? Hmm -- I guess a little bit. Ultimately, Ive very sensible, but Ive had my moments of freak-out because Im kind of a no-nonsense dame. Over the years youve gotten some wonderful reviews, but how do you handle the negative reviews from critics? Everybody is a critic now because of those chat rooms; everyone has a voice. But how do you handle the bad reviews? Not well! Not well! So many actors say, I never read reviews, but Ive got to read them. I want to know where I stand. Out of all the things youve done in your career, what has been your favorite project?Die, Mommie, Die! It was so thrilling to star in a movie that I wrote. We shot it so quickly. I think it was 20 days, and I was just in a state of rapture the whole time. So often in your life youre not aware of how exciting something is until its over, but I was aware of it every second. Im very proud of it, and I think it came out pretty damn well. What are you the most proud of? Im very proud that Ive earned my living in the arts for all these years. Thats really hard to do. The Divine Sister runs from Feb. 6 to March 7 at Theater for the New City. For more information, visit the shows Facebook page. To learn more about Charles Busch, visit CharlesBusch.comSend a letter to the editor about this article.
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