Watching Lady Bunny perform at Stonewall Inn feels like sitting down at a dance club and listening to someone artfully complain; that’s exactly what the show is. She’s irate about so many celebrities, and about several mainstays of millennial culture — our concern over acceptable terms and pronouns, how much we love our cell phones and social media — but she aims her vitriol back into herself so often that it’s difficult to be offended.
But offending you is what Lady Bunny wants. She told several rape jokes during her show, though she explained to me the next day that her intent is to mock the rapists, not the victims. She seems fed up with young people and what she calls “PC culture.” “While you’re worried about microaggressions hurting you verbally, your tax dollars are funding our country as we hurt people, physically,” she says.
Bunny began her career performing in nightclubs alongside RuPaul, and her onstage persona has stayed largely the same for decades: Bunny is, as she describes herself in her latest show, "a trans-jester, coke-addled slut” who’s gained a lot of weight in the last few decades. She mentions her weight gain a few times, and the admission is made a bit ironic by the fact that she looks absolutely stunning in a sequinned mini-dress. When she first busted out on stage, I thought to myself, I don’t know a single person who has better legs, woman or man.
The audience at her Stonewall show on a Wednesday night was made up of mostly older white men, sitting in couples and ordering cocktails. Bunny acknowledged her primary demographic a couple times during her vaudeville routine, saying, “you know what I’m talking about,” or asking the crowd if they remember country performers like Lynn Anderson. In fact, the only public figures she seems to admire are Lucille Ball, Stephen Sondheim, and Carol Burnett. Anybody else can screw themselves.
It feels ironic to hear Lady Bunny so nauseated over falsehood, given that she makes a theatrical costume change in her show, and is still wearing her characteristic, sky-high, platinum blonde wig and heels, but again, she’s just self-deprecating enough to make the disconnect work. During the show, she asked the women at the bar to turn on the AC several times, to which they replied, “it’s already on!” “Oh,” she said, reclining on her stool, “you must all be on drugs, then, because I’m burning up. It’s not like I’m up here dancing in several wigs, Spanx, and a face full of makeup.” Lady Bunny says she would prefer if more performers committed themselves to authenticity, even if that honesty came from the process of building a performance.
She names Taylor Swift as an example, when I ask her about a joke she made regarding Swift and New York. The crowd roared in response, and Lady Bunny laughed in spite of herself, pleading, “Please don’t laugh, it throws me off.” Over the phone, she explained, “when Taylor released her last album, she had that song about New York, right? Well the city named her a Tourism Ambassador! So many people were confused, thinking, 'that bitch isn’t even from here! She just moved here!' Personally, if Taylor Swift represents what New York City is today, I want to move. No one alive could be less New York than Taylor Swift.” Embarassingly, Swift, in response to her new title, released a series of promotional videos for the city, walking viewers through the definitions of things like “stoops” and “bodegas”.
It’s that fake nature that Bunny really hates. Gripes, she's got a few. “I never accepted reality TV as entertainment,” she said when asked about the Kardashians, whom she mocks quite a bit in her show. “When you grow up with genius entertainers who sing and dance and act, you just can’t admire someone who released a sex tape of them fellating someone and became famous. We’ve created this path to stardom where people don’t have to do anything, and it really cheats artists.” She has a particular disdain for all of the Real Housewives. “Listen, honey, I’m neighbours and friends with Andy Cohen, but sitting around at a martini lunch and snatching each other’s wigs, that’s not talent. That’s not stardom. My mother and sister, they’re actual housewives, they work.”
"While you’re worried about microaggressions hurting you verbally, your tax dollars are funding our country as we hurt people, physically."
Lady Bunny, though she became famous in Atlanta, moved to New York City in 1984 to join what she says was a thriving gay club scene. Though she does DJ every Sunday at the Monster, Bunny says the club scene is dead. “Sure, New York is hopping, if you’re five years old. We’ve got Disney shows on Broadway, and clubs full of people sitting around and looking at their phones. We don’t deserve to call ourselves a party destination anymore.”
When I asked how she remembers the club scene 30 years ago, she laughs and says, “That’s ageist! A couple things killed it: Giuliani and his archaic cabaret laws, the fact that clubs only play Top 40 hits — who wants to pay 20 bucks to go out and dance to something you can hear on the radio? — and cell phones.” Bunny says there are two problems with cell phones and young people. First, she says people hang out with their groups of friends, take photos, and wait to see how many likes they’re going to get. “The club scene was about getting out and meeting people, buying strangers drinks, dancing, you know, being an interesting person,” she says. Second, she says dating apps have changed the way we meet people.
“Look, I’m a slut myself, so I’m not going to criticise anyone for getting laid any way they can, but Grindr turns what used to be fun into this exchange. People upload photos of their private parts. Why assemble in a room if you’re going to stare into a phone?”
The crux of her annoyance with faux stardom seems to be Caitlyn Jenner, whom Bunny makes several jokes about during her show. The very mention of Jenner ignited a monologue while we talked. “It was so deeply disappointing and confusing for the transgender community when Caitlyn emerged. She made a transition that is incredibly difficult for people, and then allied herself with Ted Cruz, asking him publicly if she could be his transgender representative. I suppose she picked one tribe over the other, becoming a Republican because they offer tax breaks to wealthy people, and letting down her new tribe.”
Bunny adds that transgender people don’t necessarily represent one political group, and that “many different kinds of people are transgendered,” but she says I Am Cait, Jenner’s reality show, is a perfect example of how false she is. “I’m not saying I have proof of this, but I know many people in the trans community, my friends, who are beginning to think it’s all fake, that she’s not a transgender woman, but a crossdresser who’s wealthy enough to afford facial feminisation surgery. No trans woman is going to talk in a Jimmy Stewart, deep voice like that, and not know anything about feminist theory, which, you know, she doesn’t."
We defer to an individual’s gender identity; it’s not up to us to trust or believe if a person is trans. Though, Bunny feels Jenner fundamentally doesn’t understand the lived experience of many trans women, because of her inherent privilege. "They tried to make her understand, saying, 'Caitlin, some of us have to do sex work because we’ve been rejected by the mainstream workforce.' She just strikes me as a dud all the way around."
There was a moment in Bunny’s show, after her seated tirade about young people and reality stars, where she struck an uncharacteristically somber chord, singing briefly about herself as a young performer. She sings, “Bunny’s lost her way,” looking up into the stage lights and threatening to lose her boozy audience for a moment. Although she’s arguably just as costumed as any of the Kardashians, Bunny’s singing voice, comedic timing, and her persistent performance of a kind of darkness anyone can relate to elevates her above other ribald, shock-value-seeking celebrities. Her final song, “I’m Still Here,” brings the one-queen variety show to a crescendo, but it’s not entirely clear how she feels about sticking around.