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Bouffant and brains

Don’t tell this drag legend to shut up and just look pretty.

Chanteuse.  Actress.  Disc jockey.  Bunny? One of drag’s classic quadruple threats, the Lady Bunny has been thrilling audiences for more than 30 years with her wit, her homespun southern charm and the fiercest blonde bouffant since Marie Antoinette’s final days as dessert advisor to the poor.

She was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, a town known perhaps less for its female impersonators and more for a certain eponymous choo-choo.  Back then the Lady was known simply as Jon Ingle, son of a vegetarian Quaker couple who moved around a lot due to Daddy Bunny’s work as a history professor. The clan led quite a nomadic experience, hopping from Chattanooga to Connecticut, England and even Africa, where our gal’s fashion sense really began to bloom.

“My parents were, shall we say, frugal,” says Bunny.  “Oh hell, they were cheap. When we came back to the US from Africa they brought tons of these dashikis that they had picked up cheap. So there I was, 11 years old, on my first day of school dressed in what everyone else assumed was a dress. I wore my hair long as a child, and the teacher referred to me as Jan instead of Jon, thinking I was a girl. The kids in my class never let me live that down, I can tell you.”

Looking back, our Lady acknowledges there may have been other signs that little Jon may be destined for a more fabulous life than many of his peers. “I joke that I was never in the closet,” she says. “When you’re somewhat effeminate, everyone else knows you’re gay, even before you yourself know what gay is.

“My parents often said they didn’t know whether they should give me the Barbie dolls I’d been requesting since age four, and later confessed that they thought it might make me gay. Well honey, if I’m asking for ’em, chances are I am.”

Given her parents’ religious convictions, the budding cottontail didn’t have much of a real-life role model when it came to discovering her inner fabulousness. Thank God for 1960s television. “I love my mom dearly, but she is no glamourpuss,” Bunny says. “She can’t even put on mascara. So maybe that’s why I latched onto shows like Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. I loved the idea that I could be transported somewhere and be a gorgeous blonde with supernatural powers. 

“In the first grade we had a circus-themed show and I was the snake charmer—and honey, I’ve charmed a few snakes since then. But I was obsessed with Barbara Eden, so my mom made me these red velvet harem pants and I wore pretty much the same eye make-up that I wear today.”

This may provide at least a partial explanation as to why the Ingles decided to send their son abroad to a boarding school in England; perhaps a sojourn in Mary Old England would toughen up their young Jon into the strapping red-blooded American lad all parents hope for (yeah, because those Brits are so notoriously butch). “They were thinking it would put me on the straight and narrow, but instead it introduced me to Punk and New Wave and, best of all, pubs!”

Of course the Thatcher years were all about pink hair, bad piercings and rebellion, a trio of fun that suited Ingle perfectly. It also encouraged his dalliance with drag to flourish upon returning home to the States. “When I was in high school I was very influenced by New Wave and the androgynous boy in make-up look,” says Bunny. “But once I got into heels it was like, ‘Okay, hello there.’”

Moving to Atlanta signified a huge life-change for the Chattanooga waif. Suddenly she was surrounded by other like-minded peers who were also taking those first teetering steps into dragdom. The Lady Bunny sprang to life alongside other luminaries like RuPaul and Larry Tee, finding her voice and her look as she burst onto Atlanta’s thriving gay scene.

“When I lived in Atlanta I was fairly penniless, so I had to create my look from second-hand stuff. I was a thrift store queen for all my clothes, hell, a pair of heels was only 25 cents. My first pair had those ’60s pointed toes with an hourglass heel. It was the ’80s, and my look was influenced by people like the B52s.”

But her arrival in New York really ratcheted things up a notch. Bunny and Ru had already begun to make a name for themselves among the Atlanta club circuit, having starred in Starbooty, the cult classic film series. But the Big Apple was a whole new ball game. It was also the beginning of Wigstock, history’s biggest celebration of fierce boys in girls’ clothing. Bunny launched the festival in 1985 and remained at its helm until her swan song 20 years later.

Even as Wigstock began its long sashay into the sunset, Bunny’s star continued to rise, with appearances in shows like Sex and the City and, more currently, RuPaul’s Drag U. Her penchant for quick comebacks and thoughtful opinions made her an in-demand social commentator and speaker, while her stage act got racier and more topical. 

“I often laugh because, growing up, politics was the furthest thing from my mind,” she says.  “But I’m 50 now. I know who I am and I’m looking around at the world and seeing a lot of things going wrong. Our governments do not represent us. They are so crooked and policy is dictated by whoever’s given them money. It’s so corrupt and I think we need a change in the two-party system.

“America’s middle class is dying. These austerity measures we’re seeing in Portugal and Greece are going to come here. The government is realizing that they can do Robin Hood in reverse; rob from the poor and give to the rich. The crazy thing is we’re all buying it.”

And while many of us north of Bunny’s border may continue to breathe a sigh of relief over our neighbour’s current Commander-in-Chief, Lady Bunny is among many in her country’s LGBT community that feel let down by  his performance. “Obama is a huge disappointment,” she says.  “And so many gays are all nostalgic and gagging for Hillary, but if the system itself is broken then changing one of the players won’t do much. When 91 percent of Americans want enhanced (gun) background checks, and they can’t even get that put through, it’s clear that there is a problem. The government has taken so much money from gun manufacturers that they can’t do a thing.

“Another thing that baffles me is this bombing in Boston. I mean, where are these guys from, Chechnya?  I didn’t even know they hated us over there. America has to come to terms with the fact that we’ve been screwing around all over the world and it’s going to have consequences.”

Some pretty heady thoughts from someone that some may be tempted to dismiss as just a fluffy drag queen, but it’s clear that this Lady knows her stuff, and is unwilling to just shut up and look pretty.

“There’s always a bee in my bonnet,” she chuckles. “Things just seem so messed up. It’s alarming that HIV infection rates among American gay youth are up,” she continues, worried about the growing culture of barebacking. “Why bother with safe sex, because your life may not be that worthwhile if you live past the time when you’re considered hot? That’s a really horrible message, and unfortunately I think a lot of people got it loud and clear.”

Certainly being a queen of a certain age affords this Lady a perspective on life. Still, aging does have its drawbacks, and demands an evolution of both style and substance as the years pass. Looking at archival photos, Bunny appears much the same as she is now, but one can’t help but notice an increase in the height and volume of that famous platinum bouffant. “As the gut gets bigger the wig gets bigger,” she laughs.  “It’s all about proportion honey!”

I beg to differ, given that her face is unlined and smooth, and those gorgeous gams still go on forever.  Yet Lady Bunny herself can’t escape her own brand of caustic wit. “I’m chubby, but I don’t do the corset thing anymore. My legs never got fat thankfully, but that’s because they’re hauling around my massive gut. But weight does soften the features. You know, a lot of women pay to have fillers. Just eat.  It’s much cheaper and more fun.

“Also, now that I’m getting old, my eyesight is going. And just try putting make-up on while wearing glasses. I need one of those lorgnettes. I used to go into hotel rooms and see those magnifying mirrors and think, who would ever want to see that up close? Now it’s like, you, you blind bitch.”

And she’s also not shy about her disdain for what passes for entertainment these days, particularly when it comes to the slurry currently being shovelled through television and movie screens.  “I would just like to say, what was Madonna thinking with that horrible WE movie? Does she think she’s like Orson Welles, one of those great actors that went on to become a great director? Well she’s a crap actor, how dare she think she can direct? And Britney?  I’ve met her; she’s a moron, a sweet moron, but a moron just the same. Now we’ve got her and Nicki Minaj on TV judging singing competitions, and they can’t even sing.”

Lady Bunny can sing, and does on several club hits, including “Shame Shame Shame” and “The Pussycat Song.”  She prefers working behind the turntables as a DJ though, a role she’ll be taking on at this year’s Pride celebrations in Toronto. For her, stepping a toe onto Canuck soil is always a special treat. “It’s so great to come to Canada,” says the Lady. “Somewhere they actually have health care and gay marriage.  It’s not just a big deal up there. You know, sometimes Americans like to paint Canadians as slow, but they’re leaving us in the dust honey.”
It’s one of many stops on the Lady Bunny’s summer tour of festivals and events, a far cry from that little boy denied a Barbie by his flummoxed parents. But time, as they say, heals all wounds.

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