Generations of Coco Peru fans wouldn’t have it any other way
A consistently popular presence within the LGBT community since she debuted with a sudden splash in the New York cabaret scene in the early 90s, she has entertained audiences with witty repartee and finely crafted monologue-style storytelling—the kind that leaves theatergoers moved and even with a sense of healing due to the surprising weight of her observations.
She started out challenging expectations of what a drag queen entertainer could do, sidestepping them to forge her own path. Now, in an era where drag is exalted in the mainstream, often with bombast and lavish budgets, she has remained true to herself, right down to her signature red wig. In a business full of frenzy and flashy grins, she finds gold in quiet, intimate moments and continues to take rapt audiences with her.
The complexion of the audience may have changed, and the venues may have grown, but she is still the same Coco, only older and wiser. In a disingenuous, skin-deep culture, her benevolent, BS-free persona and tart honesty are an oasis for many, including very young fans who ask if they can call her Mom. (She always says yes).
Beyond her theater work, Coco has been celebrated by LGBTQ audiences for her work in cult flicks Girls Will Be Girls and Trick, as well as a memorable appearance in 1995’s Too Wong Foo, and Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar starring Patrick Swayze. She gained a new audience through YouTube videos where she shops retail outlets making wisecracks and ogling merchandise, with memorable quests for Celestial Seasonings’ Tension Tamer Tea and the perfect holiday panettone. She reached perhaps her widest visibility yet playing a fictionalized version of herself in a recurring role on the second incarnation of Will & Grace.
Throughout the pandemic, she pushed beyond her comfort zone to entertain virtually through a series of live shows called Casa Coco, as well as the YouTube series Coco’s Thoughts While in Solitude, which put her finesse for storytelling to good use when theater—and the world—were on hold.
Coco took time to chat with me about the past year, reflect on her career and look ahead to what’s next.
You’ve had success during the pandemic with your Casa Coco series as well as Coco’s Thoughts While in Solitude. Fans have taken solace in them during trying times. What have you learned from the experience?
Coco Peru: I’m a perfectionist when it comes to what I put out in the world, and even if it’s not perfect, that’s something I’m always striving for, but with the pandemic—with Coco’s Thoughts While in Solitude—I challenged myself to just push ‘Record’ and talk from my heart, and then whatever came out was what I would put onto YouTube, without it having to be perfect. That was pretty scary for me, but the pandemic has taught me that I don’t always have to be “perfect.” I certainly pride myself on working on my craft, but sometimes just communicating with other people from your heart is enough.
What inspired you to create Coco Peru? Did you think it would take you this far?
CP: I’m sort of in amazement it’s taken me this far. When I created Coco, drag was not what it is now. It was still very looked down upon. I was often dismissed because I did drag. I hated the dismissiveness of any drag. What inspired me was the liberation I felt coming out and reading a book about Native American two-spirits—we didn’t have words like non-binary back then, so [that helped me to] reclaim a part of myself. I was also inspired by a drag queen I met in Peru who was very popular, even in a place that was very Catholic and homophobic. I thought there was something so powerful about owning one hundred percent of who you are that it could transcend [that].
It all sort of came together, like the universe aligned for me. I found my voice and healed—in the process of creating Coco—that part of me I’d tried to deny by butching up, which I’d been taught to do in theater school, and all the bullying I’d experienced growing up for being girly. I thought, “Yeah, I am girly, and I think it’s fabulous, and I’m gonna celebrate it.” When I stood on stage and felt the audience not only supporting me but experiencing that kind of healing and liberation for themselves, I was hooked. I thought about future generations of LBGT kids and the people we lost to AIDS, so my vision became bigger than myself. My fears went off to the side. My goal became greater than my fears.
A lot of rigor goes into touring. Now that you’ve done Casa Coco, have you considered it something you might do beyond the pandemic, that you could still entertain people without having to schlep all over?
CP: You know, I don’t like the schlep—that is true—but I don’t particularly care for staring into a computer screen and not having that intimate connection with an audience. That’s what theater is to me—creating a space where you’re all coming together, having an experience in that moment in time. As much as I think the Casa Cocos have been wonderful to reach an audience and make us feel together, it’s not something I would choose to continue once the world opens back up. I can still do an Instagram Live and connect with people that way, but it’s the theatrical experience I’ve always been after—that communion with people. That’s why when young people are sitting in my audience with their phones recording, I have to say, “Okay, everyone, put the phones away. This is about being present.” (Laughs). I remember this one girl who said, “But my friends couldn’t come, I want them to see it…” and I had to sort of school her because that’s not what theater is. You got yourself here, so you’re having the experience.
“I can’t stand even being in audience where everyone has their phone out. It’s distracting!”
Cyndi Lauper once said something like “Are you a voyeur, or are you here?”
CP: True. Yeah, I can’t stand looking out and seeing phones going. I can’t stand even being in audience where everyone has their phone out. It’s distracting!
You have such a gift for storytelling, where you find nuggets of gold in everyday life. Did you always have this gift? It connects you to your fans in a special way.
CP: Thank you! I started to notice as a teenager that I was funny. I used it, of course, as a survival tactic. I grew up in a neighborhood full of great storytellers and joke tellers, and I was fascinated with them. In high school, I started to realize I could tell stories and make people laugh, and that became more of a craft when I created Coco. I always appreciate kind words from fans, too. I answer every message, or at least I try to. I love a compliment! You’d be crazy not to. Being kind is not something that just happens. It’s something you choose to bring into the world.
Do you have a coming-out story?
CP: I went to a gay bookstore and bought a book called How to Come Out to Your Parents. It wasn’t the world we live in now. I had to figure out, “How does one come out to their parents? How does one prepare for that moment where you might be rejected or kicked out of the house?” I felt I wouldn’t be, but that fear was still so strong because I knew it would change everything, and I was very fortunate that it changed everything for the better. My parents couldn’t have been sweeter.
I know a lot of young people turn to you, including ones who don’t have that kind of loving support. What advice have you given them?
CP: I always ask them if they’ve gone on the Internet and looked into their [local] LGBTQ community centers. There are national programs like The Trevor Project, and if they can’t help you, they can guide you to people who can help you. When I do shows [at the Los Angeles LGBT Center] part of the money goes to a homeless youth program that provides housing and gives them a safe space. When young people know that that’s out there, with people who are willing to support and help them, it makes it easier to know they’re not gonna be alone. I’m always encouraging them to reach out to people who make them feel safe.
What was it like to have Liza Minnelli as one of your earliest fans?
CP: It was kind of a magical moment in my life. We met, quite by accident. Next thing I know she came to see my show and gave me her phone number, and we became friends. I couldn’t believe I was having these moments with someone that I used to sing along to in my bedroom as a child and go get records of hers from the public library. It truly was amazing. And to feel that she got me and appreciated me was really wonderful, really special.
What do you think about drag becoming more mainstream? You’ve mentioned mixed feelings.
CP: Yeah, I kind of miss the days when drag was more underground. I have to laugh nowadays when I read comments like “Coco Peru isn’t a real drag queen” because of my makeup or because the costuming isn’t what these girls spend on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Part of what inspired me is that drag could be what you wanted it to be. It was about self-expression and creating. Now, suddenly everyone’s an expert on drag.
We get to create how we want to be seen in this world—that’s the beauty of it! But the positive is I see young kids being self-expressed and dressing up. And I have young fans! I never thought I’d have teenage kids coming to my shows with their parents. That feels good. I’ve survived 30 years in drag. I’m not complaining. Future generations will figure it out for themselves. I just hope drag maintains that it’s supposed to be fun and political. It’s also like being a court jester, where you are meant to poke holes in this day-to-day reality and offer people another way of seeing things. That’s always been what’s so beautiful to me about drag.
I used to apologize for my YouTube videos, thinking this all these kids know me from, not my theatrical shows, but I realized what they’re finding value in. Although I don’t fit into the world, and I certainly stand out in a Home Depot or a Kmart, I own the space that I’m in, no matter where that space might be, and that, I think, is empowering for a young teenager who is a bit insecure about their place in the world.
“Patrick Swayze was delightful and would call me at home”
In the ’90s, you worked with so many greats—Cyndi Lauper, Patrick Swayze, Jonathan Larson. You even were the first person to read the character of Angel in Rent! How does it feel to reflect upon those days?
CP: I’d gone to see Cyndi Lauper in concert as a fan and loved her, and the fact that she was so sweet to me was one of those magical moments. Patrick Swayze was delightful and would call me at home and ask me questions about my experiences so it could inform his character [in Too Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar] and I loved that. Had I been cast in [his] role, I feel I could have brought [another level] of truth to it, or any drag queen, but at least he was so willing to go there and do his best. He was so engaged in it that you couldn’t help but just fall in love with him. He was a gentleman. I really thought he was such a sweet man. You wanted him to be great and rooted for him.
And Jonathan Larson—we went to the same college and did a few cabaret shows [together]. I knew he was super talented and loved some of his earlier music. We later lost touch—my life was very magical back then—and I happened to be singing a song Jon had written and was walking down a street thinking, “How do I get in touch with Jon?” and then I turned and looked in a restaurant window, and he was sitting there. He said, “I’m working on a new show. Would you play the role of this drag queen?” I was terrible, but I did bring something to it because the one note that they got from that workshop was that they wanted to see the drag queen fleshed out—they actually made the role of Angel a bigger role—so I feel like I contributed something. I must be honest and say I thought, “This show is going nowhere.” (Laughs). I love so much of what Jon did, but I didn’t love Rent, which was so funny. He was so lovely, sweet, and supportive. He was a big, sweet nerd.
“Bea Arthur! When I met her, I was just blown away”
You were friends with Bea Arthur. Was it surreal to learn she was a fan of yours? Is there a lesson she taught you—either about life or performing—that you carry with you?
CP: Bea was one of those people I was obsessed with from very early on. I discovered her voice on a comedy album called The Jewish American Princess, and she was the original Yente in Fiddler On the Roof, which was the first musical I was obsessed with. And then, of course, there was Maude and Mame—you know, Bea Arthur! When I met her, I was just blown away that she had come to see my show. We became friendly, but I could never quite get past being a fan. Even if we were having lunch or hanging out—I’d call her on the phone, and she’d cry out “Darling!” and be happy to hear from me—I was always in awe that I was speaking with Bea Arthur.
One thing I learned from Bea when I asked her to do the Conversations With Coco with me—she was my first guest—she initially said no. She told me why she didn’t want to do it and the problems she had with some of the ideas I initially had. I hung up disappointed, and then I called her back—which I can’t believe I did. I was so bold. And I told her, “I’ve taken what you said, and I’ve rethought it, and I’ll change some things, and we’ll do it this way…” and I reminded her that it was raising money for gay homeless kids, which was her great passion. And I think it was because of those two things—me taking her notes and reminding her of what the bigger picture was—[that] she said yes.
I loved her for speaking her truth to me, even when it might hurt me. At least I knew where she stood. And I have made that mistake over and over in my career—being a people-pleaser or being afraid to rock the boat or let people down. I’d end up hurting people or being angry at myself for putting myself in a position I was not comfortable in, so when she did that and first rejected me, I did learn from that. I admired her for speaking her truth. I loved her.
There was a Christmas movie last year where there two gay leads, and it was a big deal. Sometimes there are still straight actors playing our parts—and not always so well. Sometimes it also seems like gay men are packaged in a very hetero way, maybe to get straight women to watch, to make us more “acceptable” or mainstream. I know I don’t feel represented by that. I wonder what you think about our representation in the media these days.
CP: I’ve always had a problem with Hollywood and its depiction of us, and yet I’ve done things that are very Hollywood at times because I wanted to make a buck and have the experience. For instance, I was on How I Met Your Mother. I had said early on in my career, “I will never play a prostitute, that’s such a stereotype,” and there I was, like, “Oh, okay, I’ll do it.” (Laughs).
“I loved the Spanish show ‘Veneno’ so much. It was a show about a trans woman”
I’ve tried to have integrity my whole career. But I agree with you on some level. That’s why I loved the Spanish show Veneno so much. It was a show about a trans woman, and all the trans women in the show were played by trans women. It was so beautifully authentic. I thought, “This is why trans people should play trans roles because they bring that truth to it.” Part of the joy of acting is discovering yourself in a role and exploring it—I understand that—but in a world where we’ve been so underrepresented, give us a chance to play those roles.
Now there was a time , for instance, when we did Trick—those two gay lead characters were played by straight boys. There were offers made to gay actors who didn’t want to audition for it because they were afraid it would hurt their career, as a closeted gay man to play a gay character. That was a struggle back then. We’re always evolving. But I feel like at this time [things are different]. I would love to play a drag character on television that’s complex and has dimension. We’re more complex than the stereotypical roles we sometimes get assigned in Hollywood.
When I first did, many years ago, one episode of Will & Grace, that was a time when the character of Jack wouldn’t have any love interest. It was always going to be the “straighter” acting gay man who was going to have that. I played a drag character living at home with his mom and had literally 20 seconds [on screen]. Then, all these years later, I got invited back, Jack is getting married, I’m performing the marriage as a drag queen, I’m the owner of a club with a successful business. Within that sitcom world, even Will & Grace—as groundbreaking as it was back then—was able to push the envelope more the second time around because of how Hollywood has evolved.
So when I see young people upset about representation, I think, “My God, we’ve come so far!” And yet I do understand. Even for myself, I cannot believe some of the things that have been said to me here in Hollywood and how I’ve been treated sometimes, including within gay organizations. It’s a long history of looking back at painful moments within my own career and not being able to speak up for myself because there was the thought that this is just how you get treated.
Now I realize, “No, I don’t have to be treated like that.” And don’t get me wrong, there were times I did speak up and screamed at people for what was happening, especially when it comes from within our own community. I feel like I’ve forgiven them, but I will never forget.
Certainly, a lot has changed, thankfully.
CP: I remember one time, in the early 2000s, being asked also to perform at an event for gay marriage before it was legal. I was invited to speak. I wrote this beautiful piece that I was going to read. I suddenly got a call, and I was disinvited from speaking. I was still invited to the party and the festivities, but I was disinvited from speaking because they had invited some celebrities and the event grew bigger than they thought it would—now a politician was coming, which meant the news was going to be there, and they just did not think it was a good idea for a drag queen to be on the same speaking panel as a politician, and I was literally standing there with my mouth open, thinking “How could you feel as though you can even say this to me?” I’m the one that marched in the streets in drag! It just blew my mind that they completely dismissed me because they were worried about the drag queen, basically, and how that would reflect on them rather than standing up against what people might think. And I had written something quite beautiful that I think might have changed minds.
Could you share a little with us about Chi Chi DeVayne? Her loss was felt so deeply in the drag community.
CP: She was just so authentic. There was something very innocent about her, something very real. Maybe because her illness, there was something very fragile about her, and I just felt very protective of her and [yet] in awe of her. And the other thing I loved about Chi Chi was, we did this play together, and she’d never done a play, but she was willing to take that chance—maybe because of her illness, she couldn’t do the work she had done [before], so she needed to evolve. She was absolutely terrified to be in this play but pushed herself to do it, and I just loved her for that alone. But I would observe her in rehearsals, and Chi-Chi would sit there and watch other actors and just absorb it. I thought, “She’s really learning here.” She’s one of those people who work their way so deep into your heart. I just fell in love with her—and him. Everyone who worked with her in that cast felt the same thing. That’s the effect she had on everyone.
“I go to Spain and try to wean myself off social media, I realize how addictive it is.”
Social media has changed your career and connected you to people, but we also see a dark side to it. Everybody seems to think they deserve attention, and narcissism gets encouraged. What do you think about the double-edged sword of it? Obviously, it can be wonderful in many ways, but it worries me when the first words out of someone’s mouth is “What’s his Insta?” as if that’s all a person is, and I bet it concerns you, too.
CP: Yeah, I do [think about this]. I watched The Social Dilemma, and it was very disturbing. When I go to Spain and try to wean myself off social media, I realize how addictive it is. They have built it in such a way that it is an addiction, and those who built it will tell you they don’t want their own children on social media. There’s a dark side [as well as] a wonderful side that connects people. I can talk to my mother face to face now thanks to social media—she has a Facebook portal, so that’s made it easier during this pandemic—but there’s a lot of stuff I don’t like about it.
Emma Thompson has pointed out that in casting too often, someone will book a job solely because of the amount of followers they have.
CP: That’s really the ugly part of it. Now we’re living in a culture with reality television and social media. You can be famous and be celebrated for not really having much to offer. These people you mentioned—Cyndi Lauper, Bea Arthur, Patrick Swayze, Liza Minnelli, Jonathan Larson—these are people who had, or have, a craft that they worked on. Having a craft nowadays isn’t always valued.
A friend of mine, a great drag queen, was approached by a producer about going on a tour—they had big hopes, they had seen her show, they loved it—and it was moving ahead, and then they pulled the plug on it because they realized she didn’t really have a big social media following.
When I started [in the business], it was the producer’s job to get the audience there. Now it’s flipped where it is the performer’s job to come with an audience already guaranteed, and that’s just really sad to me because there are wonderful performers out there that are being ignored. People are cheated because of that. Rather than bring [my friend] in and introduce her to a new audience, they’d rather have someone who will come in and maybe lip-sync two songs, not go to their meet and greet because they don’t want to and have all these demands because they were on a reality show. I’ve heard so many horrible stories about bad behavior, and I’ll ask why [such a person] gets invited back and they say, “She makes us good money.” That’s a problem with social media.
You’ve talked about retiring, and that’s understandable considering your years in the business and the energy it takes to tour. I also think the gifts you offer to the world—wisdom, hilarity, self-love that’s based on truth instead of empty cliches—are timeless. Your young fans are evidence of that. What makes you special doesn’t rely on youth.
CP: Well, the pandemic certainly [changed things]. Definitely, there was a plan to retire, and the pandemic stopped that momentum, and I’m thinking of writing a new show. I felt a deep connection with my fans through this year, and I don’t take that for granted. I feel a responsibility to evolve. While I’m not going into retirement anytime soon, I’m just not sure I’m going to be out on the road as much as I used to be. I don’t think Coco will ever truly disappear. We’ll just have to see how it moves along.
You’re performing on a special Legends of Drag Cruise in January 2022. What can you share about that and other plans for the immediate future?
CP: I’m going on the cruise with Varla Jean Merman, Jackie Beat, Lady Bunny, and Hot Chocolate, and we’re all older—we’ve been doing this for many, many years. We were just amazed someone would want to put together a cruise that was celebrating some old-school drag. It should be a good time. I just hope that people who come feel that the money they spent was worth it for the experience. I do know that the queens going on it will try to offer the best of themselves. I also have some outstanding gigs to play, and I’m working on some short storybooks. I’m always trying to be creative and balance it with being a lazy cow here on my couch.
You talk about your husband Rafael often, and you clearly enjoy a strong, supportive relationship. Any advice for the rest of us?
CP: Look for kind eyes. Be vulnerable. I know a lot of my friends have a tough time being vulnerable [and giving up] control because they’re afraid of being hurt. When you’re busy doing that, you’re not really being intimate. I found someone where we try to be the best version of ourselves while also lifting each other up. If I feel like I’ve disappointed or hurt Rafael, that is just crushing to me. And I have, and vice/versa. We always feel like we’re evolving and trying to work together to be better versions of ourselves. We talk about that and show gratitude. Those are healthy things. I think of a relationship as a bank account where you keep making those investments into it, and then before you know it, it’s 25 years later, and you’re thinking, “Oh my God, how did we get here? How did we get so rich?” Over time it becomes about making it work and investing in each other.