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Paul Iacono's Incredible Story of Cancer, Elaine Stritch, & Writing His Own Queer Roles

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“I attribute so much of my success to the fact I got cancer as a kid," says Paul Iacono as we wander through the East Village sipping iced Flat Whites. The actor, writer, and nightlife host is fresh off his raunchy, queer cabaret show at Joe’s Pub, Psychedelic Hedonism, and between puffs from his pipe, he recounts his incredible, barely believable life story.

When he was 8 and living in Secaucus, New Jersey, the Iaconos got tickets to attend the Rosie O’Donnell Show, where Rosie called him up into her opening monologue after he wowed the opening act with impressions of Ethel Merman. Rosie ended up bringing him back to set 10 more times over the course of six seasons.

A month after Paul’s first spot on Rosie, his life took an unexpected turn: he was diagnosed with leukemia.

“It made me face my mortality, at age 8, and realize that you only have a second to do everything that you want to do,” he says. “So whatever it is you want to do you should be doing ASAP. I had this crazy ambition because of it.”

On Oct. 17, Iacono’s latest play, The Last Great Dame, goes up at the Howl! Festival at 6 East 1st St. The story is based on the life of Elaine Stritch, Broadway’s Great Dame, who played an instrumental role in shaping Iacono's career.

When he was 11, he landed a major role in Noel Coward’s musical Sail Away, at Carnegie Hall, starring the show’s original leading lady: Elaine Stritch. At the second to last of 12 performances, all sold out, little Paul was flitting about backstage, wishing everyone to break a leg, when he slipped and toppled down a flight of stairs, breaking his wrist moments before the show was to begin. There was no understudy.

“I’m there, with the broken wrist, and everyone’s gathered around... and Stritch comes tearing out of the dressing room and yells, ‘Where’s the fucking kid?’” She wouldn’t hear his tears—she handed him codeine and told him to get on with the show. At the end, she pulled him back onstage for the final bow.

“Standing ovation, Elaine and me, at Carnegie Hall. The spirit of survivor.”

Iacono returns to the screen, years after the original film and TV jobs that catapulted him into the excesses and indulgences of Hollywood ended, on Oct. 14 in Baked in Brooklyn, alongside Alexandra Daddario, and, later on, in the indie films Extracurricular Activities and Dating My Mother.

After going into full remission, and making it through his awkward preteen years, Iacono landed lead roles in Fame and MTV’s The Hard Times of R.J. Berger, the story of a geek whose giant penis inspires him to step outside his social rank. But Paul’s meteoric success came with newfound problems.

“To have two major things like that click back-to-back. I had a horseshoe up my ass for a couple of years. During my R.J. Berger days I was kind of destructive. I got the show when I was 20, and by this time I was openly bisexual to all of my friends and most of my family, and there was definitely some pushback on MTV’s part about whether I was public about this. And no one ever said directly to me, ‘Don’t come out.’ But through backchannels I heard conversations, and it was very clear.”

R.J. Berger was unexpectedly cancelled after two seasons, leaving Iacono blindsided.

Now, Iacono relishes the opportunities he’s had to write for himself. With Psychedelic Hedonism—which chronicles the completely absurd side to living life post-international fame—and The Last Great Dame, he’s been able to do just that. But even during his LA years, Iacono couldn’t help but get his script ideas onto paper.

“I sold a show to MTV. It would have been their first queer show. It was called Kenzie Scale. And it was sort of like Will and Grace: The College Years.”

While Kenzie Scale seemed promising, it would only add further salt to the wound when MTV picked up a different queer show, Faking It, and cast Iacono’s ex, G.B.F. co-star Michael Willett, in the lead role.

In Hedonism, Iacono belts “I don’t wanna be a twink no more!” in a sparkly LBD. Clearly, he’s comfortable with his queerness. But it wasn’t always as easy to be gay in the public eye.

“Michael Musto sort of put me on the spot, and asked, ‘So, you’re openly gay now?’ And I took a second, and I said, ‘Yeah. I wasn’t planning on saying this, but yes I am, and I think it’s the right time to say it, because it’s not about me, it’s about a bigger picture.’ I felt like I had a duty. And there was this crazy weight that I never even knew was on my shoulders.”

Iacano has become something of a queer icon in the New York nightlife scene. He began hosting events, including the famous “Pretty Ugly” party that happened Saturdays at Diamond Horseshoe, and, now, “Hump,” a raucous party happening every Wednesday night at The Rumpus Room.

“I’ve always loved nightlife. I’ve always been fascinated by nightlife. A good party is not just a party. It’s a place for creatives to meet and mingle in a very low-key way.”

Hedonism enlisted the help of some of New York nightlife’s brassiest and brightest, including guest appearances by Sophia LaMar as the voice of the Universe and Molly Pope as Paris Hilton. Iacono wrote the script and most of the music, produced, and starred in the sensational show, which lit up the room with its weirdly wonderful irreverence.

“When I went to see one of her last cabaret shows at the Carlisle, there was a documentary crew there filming Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me. And they had me tell them the story. I finally had the chance to tell her as an adult how much she meant to me, and how she taught me that invaluable lesson, ‘The show must go on.’ And that survivor spirit. Someone who’s been through those horrible, fucked up things and still gets up everyday and fucking kills it.”

The Last Great Dame premieres at the Howl! Festival on October 17. Get tickets here.

 

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