At 60, world-famous female impersonator Charles Busch is ready to be himself.
“I’m at a very interesting place in my life and, therefore, my career. I’m just really enjoying being unguarded and being for real,” says the Tony-nominated playwright, who performs A Divine Evening with Charles Busch Sunday night at The Cabaret South Beach in Miami Beach. “It’s a bit of a challenge when you’re in drag, because drag can be seen as a mask or a kind of masquerade. And yet for some reason, since I’ve been doing it for over 30 years, I’m able to actually be myself — at the same time look like a very glamorous lady.”
In fact, Busch says he contemplated doing the show as himself, without appearing as “a cross between Ginger in Gilligan’s Island and Norma Shearer.”
A good friend talked him out of it. “He said, ‘If I came to your show and you weren’t in drag, it would be like going to Disneyland and finding out that Space Mountain was closed,’” Busch recalls. “I said, ‘Maybe the tea cup ride?’ He said, ‘No, Space Mountain.’”
Busch, who recently performed the show in London and Paris, says he’s more comfortable on stage as a woman. “Oddly, in a way, being in drag still kind of liberates me. It gives me a confidence and swagger that I’m not sure I totally possess out of drag.”
Growing up in New York City, Busch attended the High School of Music & Art. “I got into Northwestern University, somehow. I really don’t know why they accepted me because my grades were so mediocre. I was a theater major at Northwestern,” Busch says. “I was not successful there. I saw fairly quickly that I was never cast in a play at Northwestern. I just was too gay, whatever — I was just too much. And not enough.”
Back in New York, Busch began attending experimental theater. “That was a great awakening for me, to see that the theater didn’t have to be the Broadway musicals and comedies that I had been raised on. That you could create your own world in the theater. I could write roles for myself. Everything that made me seem too eccentric and gay in university theater could actually be a plus. My gift for evoking old Hollywood iconic female stars that I would entertain my friends with, that could be developed into something I could use creatively,” he says. “My big breakthrough came with my play Vampire Lesbians of Sodom in 1985. I was really in the right place at exactly the right time.”
Quickly, Busch and other rising Lower East Side artists including Madonna and Keith Haring began to attract attention. “All these big publications like People magazine and New York magazine would do big stories on the bizarre performance art scene in the East Village, and they would include our photographs. It was incredible publicity and helped us transfer Vampire Lesbians to a real Off-Broadway theater where it ran for five years.”
Mainstream writing success came in 2001, with the smash Broadway comedy The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife starring Linda Lavin, Tony Roberts and Michele Lee.
“It did throw me at one point when The Allergist's Wife became a big hit,” Busch says. “The press always creates a narrative around you. My narrative was that this downtown drag queen shockingly, or surprisingly, has written a kind of Neil Simon comedy on Broadway. “At first it kind of threw me, everybody saying ‘Isn’t it great that you’re finally mainstream,’ including my own sister,” he says. “There’s a little edge to that that made me think it’s a little bit of a put-down of what I’ve been doing for the past 20 years. The word mainstream means that everything else wasn’t quite legit.”
Two years ago, the youth-inspired LGBT arts group Live Out Loud honored Busch with a Legend Award, presented by his longtime friend, Joan Rivers.
“I just adored her. I think she was the first celebrity who came to see me perform. She had an amazing curiosity and really did go see everything. So it would make sense that she went down to the East Village and saw us in that hole in a wall,” Busch says. “I knew her a bit for many years without really knowing her. Really we became friends about eight years ago. We became great friends and she was very generous to my sister and I. We went over to her apartment every year for Thanksgiving and Passover. She was at my house for Christmas.”
Nearly three months after Rivers’ death Sept. 4, family and friends, including Busch, filled her New York penthouse for one last Thanksgiving dinner.
“What I thought might be a rather sad ghostly affair, turned out to be a lovely evening,” Busch wrote on Facebook, along with a Thanksgiving night photo of Rivers’ elegant dining room. “It was wonderful being in those extraordinary rooms once more and hearing them filled with laughter.”
Busch is livid the theater and movie communities snubbed Rivers after she died — no tribute at the 2015 Oscars and a battle to dim the lights on Broadway.
“She was always kicked in the ass. All her life. Talk about lack of respect. She had a chip on her shoulder for a good reason,” Busch says. “She was just always kicked in the ass. I don’t know quite why that is. But I remember when she gave me that award, she said to me, ‘I never got an award.’ I said, ‘Wow, she should get an award every day.’ I was getting a Legend Award. Me? And she was the one giving it? It was the silliest thing in the world.”
If you go
‘A Divine Evening with Charles Busch’ will be performed 8 p.m. Sunday at The Cabaret South Beach, 233 12th St., Miami Beach.
Tickets are $40, plus service charge. There is a two-drink minimum. To purchase or for more information, visit www.thecabaretsouthbeach.com.