The irrepressible Clinton Leupp has been performing as the fabulously hilarious Miss Coco Peru for over 24 years now.
With his razor-sharp wit and those deer-in-the-headlights attention-grabbing eyes, his latest hit show ‘Have You Heard’ reaffirms his position as one of the best drag performers trotting around the globe these days. A storyteller, monologist, actor, singer, comic, entertainer, mentor and passionate gay activist, Miss Coco is sharp, sassy and sophisticated and has this remarkable natural ability to make sure that we all see the funny side of life. Outspoken and outrageous her one-woman-show in 2012 summed her up beautifully: it was called ‘She’s Got Balls’. When I caught up with Clinton after a recent performance the first thing that struck me was his wonderful warmth and his loud infectious laugh. He is unique in the fact that unlike most cutting and somewhat sarcastic drag performers he exudes happiness on and off stage and was a sheer joy to spend time with. Over a martini (or two) he shared his views of life, love and laughter with me for THEGAYUK.
Let’s start at the very beginning and talk about your ‘Coming Out.’
It may seem ridiculous to people who come to my show and see me wearing a dress and being as flamboyant as I am now, to think that I ever had to ‘come out’ in the traditional sense, but I did have to go through the same process just like every other gay man. There was a time when I was in a theatre programme in college and closeted and was constantly told to ‘butch up’. And for years I did try to be someone who I wasn’t, especially as I wanted to be accepted as an actor and you had to pass for straight back then as there was not that many gay roles.
When I was 23-years-old I had a boyfriend and we went to the Gay Pride Parade in Manhattan and I was in seventh heaven as I had never ever seen such a large and diverse crowd of gay people in one place. However, on the train on my way back home to the Bronx afterwards my elation quickly subsided and all my old fears and worries came rushing back. It was at that very moment that I decided that from now on I wanted to only be myself and that I wasn’t prepared to go back even part way into the closet.
I was very lucky as when I came out to my parents they were actually relieved that I was both healthy and happy especially as we had just lost my sister to cancer. I had all the usual fears and dread of coming out just like anyone else but it was only when I addressed them that life got better for me. Being effeminate in a working class area of the Bronx had been torture and I had been picked on and bullied during my entire childhood and adolescence. Now that I was an openly gay man I started to embrace everything I had learned to hate about myself. I was determined not only to accept this side of me but as Miss Coco I was going to dress it up and glorify it, and become the gay man who I chose to be.
There is something wonderful about owning who you are. I learnt then if people did not respect me, that it was of no consequence as they didn’t control me anymore.
How did Clinton Luepp morph into Miss Coco Peru?
I didn’t know anything at all about Drag and then I went to see the great drag icon Charles Busch in his play ‘A Lady In Question’ and I was completely mesmerised. I could see that he and the entire cast were having THE best time EVER. And that included Julie Halston playing Countess Kitty in the same broad Bronx accent that the college had insisted I lose. I just thought, I want to do what Charles is doing and in my own voice and style.
I’m a great reader and all through my life books have a habit of arriving in my library at the exact moment I have needed them. It was at this time that I came across one about a Native American called ‘Two Spirits’ which was all about being a third gender. When I read that I thought ‘Oh My God’ this is it. In my life until then I had been searching for something that I could truly identify with, and now I had found it. I decided that I’m going to do Drag and I’m going to be this third gender. As soon as I said it, everything started falling into place. It felt like my calling and that I had found my vocation.
You once said ‘I’m not impersonating a woman: it’s just an extension of me.’
Well, I never intended Miss Coco to be a real woman per se because the stories I tell are all-autobiographical and so I’m often talking about when I was a little boy. So for me the goal when I started Coco was to confuse people a little telling his stories whilst wearing a dress. Then after a while I just wanted audiences to know the stories just by connecting to someone who was simply another human being.
You have a remarkable gift for observation, which comes through in the stories that you tell on stage, are they all true?
Yes, every one of them are based on my life. I have always been very resourceful at finding humour in everyday incidents right from the very beginning. My parents had me late in life so my childhood was spent amongst a group of old people who had grown up through WW2 and who had not had an easy life. They were all heavy drinkers and heavy smokers and as a little kid I became their bartender.
Yes, I even went around with a tray emptying all the ashtrays, but I just adored them and I loved being there listening to this wealth of funny stories and jokes being surrounded by these wonderful larger than life characters.
Do you tell the stories straight as they happened?
Well, I do add a little spice to them naturally to bring out the funny element, and that seems to work. Sometimes so much that they appear so over the top that people will come up to me and say ‘You didn’t really physically chase that group of little old Indian ladies around Sydney Harbour because they were giving you the evil eye did you?’ And I have to say yes, it was all-true, which totally shocks them. (laughs)
Tell me the story behind your famous copper-toned hair, and the fact that you must be one of the few Drag Performers who never changes her wig.
When I first started performing I had a great big fussy Ann-Margaret wig but that was such hard work maintaining it and to be perfectly honest, it was a real drag. Then the moment I found my wig and had it styled with flip ups I instantly knew that this was perfect for Miss Coco.
I was always drawn to the silhouette that I adopted for Coco. I wanted it to be very long and sleek and not over the top as Coco never wears a lot of jewellery or glitzy dresses. It was to be sophisticated but understated and I wanted her to be different than what most people expect of drag. Coco and I are both very happy with how she looks and the one night I actually dared to wear a shorter version of the same wig people HATED it! (laughs)
Tell me about your breakthrough role in ‘Trick’ where in one small scene you ‘stole’ the movie and our hearts.
I was not originally meant to be in the movie at all but Jim Fall the Director is a good friend of mine, and asked me to help him out in the audition process. I ended up reading the Tori Spelling part whilst he tested potential male leads, and suddenly everyone told Jim ‘you’ve got to keep the Drag Queen in the movie’. So they wrote a part of me and were kind enough to allow me to rewrite my infamous bathroom monologue in my own voice. Some years previously somebody had actually tried to lure me into bed by saying ‘It’s Big It’s Beautiful …you’re gonna love it’ and I always knew that I would have to use that line in a performance one day.
How deliberately was it that you looked more like Tori Spelling than she did? (laughs)
When Tori flew to NY to audition, she had blonde hair. However when it came to filming she showed up on the set with red hair, and when Jim Fall tried to question it, her hairdresser said ‘honey, don’t touch her hair it will just fall out as she has dyed it way too often!’ We didn’t do a scene together so the penny never dropped until we saw the completed movie on the screen at Sundance, and I thought ‘Oh My God, we could have been sisters or something more tragic’. (laughs)
Did you ever imagine that this one small movie part would make such a major effect on your career and life?
Well, I remember the first time that I ever saw a gay movie and it impacted me so much I just hoped that one day I would get to be in one and help others feel the same way. And now 15 years later when young people come up and tell me that ‘Trick’ was the first movie that made them feel good about themselves and helped them come out, it makes me so very happy.
I never ever get tired of people shouting out “It Burns” * to me in the middle of the street. Anytime anyone wants to celebrate my work, I embrace and enjoy it, and I never ever take it for granted.
How much fun was it making the ‘Girls Will Be Girls’ movie with Jack Plotnick & Varla Jean Merman?
Actually, the first couple of days were not that much fun at all as in my own shows I am used to playing it for laughs but now I had to play a sad sack. The crew were laughing their pants off when Varla and Jack were acting, but looked so down and miserable when it was my turn as my role was a bit of a downer.
Confused, I phoned Jim Fall who just said ‘play it for real’ and that’s what I did, and I found the craziness in my character, and I was so happy with the result.
As were audiences as you all picked up Best Acting Awards for that. When is the sequel coming out?
Soon I hope. We have filmed it all and our director Richard Day is now doing the final edit.
Tell me about your experiences taking Miss Coco to London?
The thing I loved most about London were the audiences, and one of the best compliments I have ever had in my career was from one of the Soho Theatre staff who said ‘we love working your shows because people come in a good mood and leave feeling even happier.’
I got another different buzz when I was eating in Balans restaurant one night and the doorman recognised me and thought that he and I could do a version of the bathroom scene in Trick with me performing on him. I was very flattered but I am very married too. (laughs)
You love mentioning your husband Raphael often in your Show, and you always have such a wicked grin on your face when you do.
I was worried that being so happy would take away my edge, but it hasn’t and I can still be as cutting as the next person. Sometimes people want me to be miserable and bitter as they perceive that’s where real comedy is, but that just isn’t so. I am really fortunate that I have such a good husband who supports me and finds joy in my performance, and also I find some great comedy within our own lives. Like the time we first met his sister and he just happened to fail to mention that she was a naturist and we were all going to be naked (Laughs).
I’ve noticed that unlike most great comedians you don’t use Raphael as a comic foil as is the normal tradition.
I have never ever thought of that. I do play up the whole thing of him being from Spain where everyone is meant to be romantic, in the same way that I think British people are all so posh. But all you need to do is to take one trip to Southern Spain and see the Brits on holiday, and honey you soon realise they ain’t so posh at all. (Laughs) They can be just as trashy as the rest of us.
What’s next for you and Miss Coco?
I’m travelling all over with this new show, which I am dying to bring to London. I am collaborating with a composer on a new musical. Busy, busy, busy… but you know Roger, the reality is that I have a pretty great life regardless of whatever happens next.
One question I almost forgot to ask, did you really perform in a Nudist Colony?
Yes, but I was fully clothed (laughing). I have to tell you for a bunch of people who are meant to be free-spirited and relaxed, they really were not a fun audience. They were kind of limp!
But where did you look as you performed? (laughing).
Well, straight into their eyes naturally!
* ‘It Burns!’ is a warning about getting sperm in your eyes.