The history of drag is full of bigger-than-life personalities who have been trailblazers, setting the scene for the Drag Race generation of superstars. Making their entrance into the drag spotlight like a lioness with style, grace, and a side of camp, is one of entertainment’s finest leading ladies … Charles Busch. This multi-hyphenate entertainer made an indelible splash onto the scene in New York in the mid-’80s with his play Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, an unlikely hit that became one of the longest-running plays in the history of Off-Broadway. Not only did the show turn the theater scene on its head, but it also ignited the audience’s love affair with Busch, making his drag famous (or infamous) on a mainstream level with no one doubting the man in a wig as a bona fide starlet.
This playwright, actor, director, novelist, cabaret performer, and drag icon’s career would prove to be as colorful and almost as fanciful as one of his early plays with a Tony nomination, Outer Circle Critics’ John L. Gassner Award, Sundance Film Festival Award for Best Performance, honorable mention at the Tribeca Film Festival, Drama Desk Award for career achievement as both performer and playwright, a star on the Playwrights Walk outside the Lucille Lortel Theatre, two MAC awards, an infinite amount of critical acclaim, standing ovations, and a near cult following. This summer he tells all in his memoir, Leading Lady. Talking to him is dizzying as he recounts his almost too-hard-to-believe real-life stories, the people he’s come across, and the characters he has created – all in his signature Charles Busch voice, a demure mix of classic Hollywood and New York sensibility.
Busch’s works are often saturated in the textures of Classic Hollywood. His leading lady characters evoke the likes of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, and more. His period pieces are not parodies but rather fierce homages of the films of yesteryear. Like a page from one of his pieces, this love affair with classic films and the foundation for the Busch motif was born from a bittersweet mix of tragedy and sentiment. When Charles’ mother died when he was seven years old, his father hired a live-in housekeeper who took over Charles’ room, necessitating he share a bedroom with his father.
My father would come home from a date, late. And he loved old movies, he loved classic films. I would just be up till two in the morning every night because how can you fall asleep when there’s James Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces or Vivien Leigh in Waterloo Bridge on TV? It was a kind of wonderful thing. In some ways, it was a great time for me to be with my father who was basically a straight man with a gay sensibility. So that was great. I basically got my whole film education watching movies with him, you know. By the time I was 11, I could tell you the nominees for Best Actress from every year before then, and my father thought that was really funny.
Norma Shearer made a big impression on me, particularly in Marie Antoinette. My father loved Greer Garson, particularly in his favorite movie Random Harvest. And I can certainly see that the lady I’ve often played, although it ranges, is largely a somewhat elegant lady in the Norma Shearer/Greer Garson mode. In my plays, there is a scene, usually about 40 minutes in, where I sit the leading man down and say, “Lemme tell you a little story …” and it turns out the elegant lady Sylvia started out as a carnie dancer. Or the very elegant classical concert pianist, Gertrude Garnet, is actually Gritty Garnet, the Kissing Kitten of the Keys. I’m usually a rather spurious grand dame who comes from proletarian roots and puts on airs and more often than not, I usually have a tawdry backstory. I think that might be one of the standard elements of camp is the mask that slips, and maybe that’s kind of essential camp, at large, within the gay community – the mask that slips revealing your true self.
Still reeling from the loss of his mother, Charles was flunking school at age 14 and in bad shape. Life would imitate art as Busch’s real-life Auntie Mame – his Aunt Lillian, a widow with no children – would step in, adopt him, and sweep him away to Manhattan, essentially saving his life and providing the colorful foundation that would seep into every one of Busch’s pieces. Like one of his characters, Busch would emerge from his trauma resilient with confidence in his identity, although it took the long way around.
It wasn’t until years later going into therapy that I actually realized how screwed up I was. It affected me early on because I was sort of a psychosomatically fragile kid. I couldn’t get enough sympathy. I was the little boy whose mother died, that was my identity. And so, I think I just needed sympathy. There was never anything wrong with me. I never went to a doctor, but I was always just in a sort of this kind of fragile way. Then when I was about 15, suddenly I became sexualized. I never had to come out. I was just so gay.
I was very lucky too. I grew up in this rather sophisticated milieu. I was raised with no religion at all. I was very lucky that I didn’t have things that so many gay people have to fight against. I had to fight against just my own kind of sadness. But at the age of 15, overnight, seemingly, I went from being Oliver Twist to being a cute teenage gay boy. The whole world suddenly went from black and white to Technicolor. Suddenly I felt great, you know? Men started thinking I was cute.
My aunt got me a membership to go swimming at the YMCA. For a sophisticated lady, she was very naive and had no idea that she was sending me to the most notorious gay cruising place in the universe. I went after school one day, and it was all older, gay men. I was the only teenage boy there. And oh my God! It was all sorts of showbiz gays there, all these men discussing who was the more musical – Lauren Bacall in Applause, or Katharine Hepburn in Coco – and I thought, this is fabulous! I was sort of catnip to these older men. And I was going back. I was going swimming about five days a week! My aunt said, “Well, I think this is a great success!”
Busch attended The High School of Music and Art in Manhattan and would go on to major in drama at Northwestern University in Illinois. Not being cast in plays while in school incited Busch to write his own material, gaining early popularity and giving him his first real drag performance. Back in New York, he took a series of odd and even odder jobs and decided to put a skit on in the Limbo Lounge, a performance space and gallery in the East Village. Vampire Lesbians of Sodom was born and would be followed by a string of viral hits, with Busch usually playing the leading lady. Donning the wigs, the heels, and the lashes was just a natural choice for Charles.
It never occurred to me, what will people think? That just has never been in my mind, even when I was kind of screwed up as a young kid and kind of always slightly depressed, I never cared. That just wasn’t a part of my DNA. That could really slow you down if that’s a big part of your emotional life. So, yeah, for all my insecurity I never worried about what people thought.
I was always aware of this androgynous quality in me. And for me, it’s deeply profound. I don’t really even totally understand it and don’t feel I even need to understand it. I’m probably on some sort of non-binary scale, obviously. It’s so easy for me to slip into a female role. I don’t need the costume. I do a lot of radio plays or readings when I don’t get dressed up. It’s not necessary. I enjoy it. I mean, I love costume design and I thoroughly enjoy drag, it’s not necessary for my belief, or the audience’s belief, in the character because it comes from such a deep, personal place. I can effortlessly access it.
Busch’s drag and the mainstream success he has had with it has trailblazed a path for the queens of the Drag Race era. Busch is proud of the current state of drag and the variety that exists. His relationship with drag has evolved, and so too has the art of drag.
I think that it’s wonderful that drag performers today can be so open and aware of the depth of what it means and that we have trans drag performers and just about every nuance now. When I began, Lypsinka and the various drag performers of my generation were so upset if we were ever called drag queens in the press because it meant that we were being patronized and not taken seriously as professionals. When I read my old interviews or see quotes, I’m mortified at the stupid things I say defensively, the complete opposite of what I’m telling you.
I would say any glib statement I could come up with just to separate myself and that it was strictly a role that I’m playing and has nothing to do with who I really am. Just ridiculous. The fact is my entire creative life is my own androgyny. But we didn’t feel comfortable saying that back in the 80s. And we were right in a certain sense that if somebody in the press, particularly the straight press, called you a drag queen, it meant that you weren’t a real actor. You weren’t a real playwright. You were just kind of a party person. We were right and we were wrong. I really admire the way it is today that drag performers are from the very beginning just acknowledging the profundity of what it means to them.
Not only was Busch a leader of the drag movement, but he was also front and center during the developing art culture of New York in the 80s, a delicious time in history filled with art, sex, and rock n roll.
It was a thrilling time, starting this little theater company of misfit people who all adored each other. I’d never had a circle of friends like that. I just never did. To have that camaraderie and then to be in the right place at the right time, in the East Village in the early 80s which was a kind of a creative explosion where Madonna and Keith Haring and all these different people came out of that milieu in the last neighborhood in Manhattan that had cheap rents, was amazing. All these odd art galleries and dance clubs were popping up in an area that was basically Berlin after the war. It was just a scary crack-addicted area of burned-out buildings. But because of that, these different edgy clubs and galleries could spring up. It was thrilling being there and being part of it – doing performance art in this very edgy neighborhood. All of the magazines and newspapers were picking up on this bizarre, sexy scene in this weird part of Manhattan. Our plays had these titles like Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and Theodora She Bitch of Byzantium. We were good punchlines for all these articles. We had our picture in People Magazine, it was nuts. It was thrilling just to discover your talents in this outrageous period. It was exciting.
Busch’s pieces are usually presented without an overtly political or, yes, even in drag, gay agenda. Critics have remarked this has been attributed to the wide success of his work. Audiences of all types feel comfortable and welcome in Busch’s realm, unafraid of being preached to. Given the recent attacks on our drag and LGBTQ communities by politicians, does Charles think we need more general entertainment to build bridges with the conservative side, or is now the time to add fuel to our art?
I think it’s both. I think we have to be political, and we can’t just be marched off to the camps. We have to fight with everything we have. But there’s also a point to popular entertainment. Gay marriage came across through the fierce activism and efforts of so many people. I also think Will & Grace and Modern Family, particularly Modern Family, helped the cause of gay marriage immensely. Because so many people around the country don’t really know gay people, and suddenly they came close to them. I don’t think you can discount it, but that’s not enough. Activism is key. It’s terrifying what’s going on and how drag is somehow being used to terrify ignorant people.
Busch continues to thrill audiences around the nation and his upcoming memoir, Leading Lady, is already heating up the book circuit in presales. His fictionalized memoir about his time at Limbo Lounge, Whores of Atlantis, has become a must-read for any lover of theatre, drag, and camp. Leading Lady has proven to be a bit more serious.
It was a real challenge to just really get into that zone of remembrance, I think for most of us, we try to avoid that zone, just losing yourself in the past. But in this case, I had to and it is so interesting that when you really start going deeper, all sorts of memories and details start coming forth that you hadn’t remembered or thought about and you get into this almost hypnotic place. Some of it was very painful. My sister Margaret, who’s about two and a half years older than I am, and I are very, very close. Until I started writing this book, as close as we are, we’d never discussed my mother’s death and where we were separately on that day. It was very difficult and painful for us to just really go back there to 1962 to this day that changed our lives. My mother was this painfully shy, socially awkward person who had no friends at all except for her sisters. She spoke in a whisper if strangers came by.
And it’s just so interesting that this person from her death, her absence from the world, changed so many people’s lives. I just wonder if she had lived and hadn’t died when I was seven, what my life would’ve been like, how would she have been with this complicated gay child with all sorts of artistic fantasies and leanings? Whereas my Aunt Lilian was so capable and so strong to give me these opportunities and fight for me. You wonder …
The thing about leading ladies is that you are mesmerized at once, leaning forward to hear every dripping word and every fanciful story. This article could have been three times as long and still not have captured the delightful time we spent together. She’s a true grand dame.
You can preorder Leading Lady on Amazon.
Check out everything Charles at CharlesBusch.com
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