What’s Bothering Coco Peru These Days?

The drag legend talks about her new live show, guesting on "Will & Grace," and UFO encounters.

Being a true “drag legend,” or an entertainer who was performing in drag long before a certain reality competition series came along and made it mainstream, is an exclusive honor. Coco Peru is one such icon.

A staple on the stage and screen since she debuted back in the early ’90s, Coco (the stage persona of Clinton Leupp) has had roles in queer cinema classics like To Wong Foo…, Girls Will Be Girls, and of course, the 1999 gay rom-com Trick, which features her memorable bathroom monologue.

In recent years, Coco has made several appearances on the Will & Grace revival and found a whole new generation of fans with her unhinged shopping videos, complete with the catchphrase, “That bothers me.” Now Coco is finally back onstage with her new live show, Bitter, Bothered & Beyond. A lot has happened in the past few years, and Coco has some thoughts when it comes to the state of the world, and what in general is getting under her skin.

Coco spoke with Logo about a variety of topics from her new show, the latest on Trick 2, and her life-affirming trip to Roswell, New Mexico.

Peter Palladino

I’m excited to talk about your new show. You’ve already done some dates in San Francisco. How was it being back on stage?

I was so nervous, but as soon as I got out there, it kicked right back in. Part of the reason I was so nervous was also I was doing a new show and had no idea if I was going to remember it all. And also I hadn’t been in front of an audience for a long time. So anyway, it was wonderful, and it was wonderful to feel appreciated. I think a lot of us drag queens that do one-person shows are feeling that. Not only are people coming to see us and enjoying and having a good time, they’re really expressing how much they appreciate us and how much they missed us.

What was the genesis of this show? How long have you been working on it?

Well, San Francisco, actually the venue, had invited me back, and I said, “I don’t have a new show.” And they said, “Well, write one.” And so in July, over the summer, I was in Spain and I started writing over there. The thing was, it’s always terrifying to sit in front of a blank computer and just think, what am I going to write about, and how is this all going to make sense and come full-circle? But the other part was that after COVID, I wasn’t feeling very hopeful about anything, and my shows are always hopeful. So I just decided to say, “Well, you know what? Then talk about your experiences through lockdown and be honest.” So it still has that hopefulness element to it, but it definitely is me being cranky and saying a lot of things I want to say. And the wonderful thing is the audience laughs, but there are also some serious moments. I felt as though from the audience’s reaction, I was saying a lot of things that other people would like to say.

The show is called Bitter, Bothered & Beyond. What in particular is bothering you these days?

Oh Lord. Well, one of the big things that has bothered me is that we just went through this horrible pandemic that we’re not out of yet, but during lockdown especially, I just thought that human beings would come out of it having learned something or being gentler with each other and with the earth. And that has not been the case, as far as I can see. I find that really frustrating. It makes me angry.

You said there’s still a little hopefulness in the new show. What gives you hope these days?

Well, I think the fact that the queer community and other communities that we align ourselves with — we’re survivors. And we always managed to [survive] with laughter and through theater and through creativity, we always managed to push forward. And I certainly learned that having gone through the AIDS pandemic back in the ’80s and ’90s, when it was at its worst and things were just frightening. You couldn’t really see beyond, there wasn’t much hope. And yet we did. I was doing my cabaret shows and I was being political, and it gave me a voice. So I guess that’s where I found my groove is through this human connection and creating it in these spaces.
 

You’re coming back to your hometown, New York City, and you’re playing Birdland. Are you excited to come back to New York? Do you go back there often?

I don’t come to New York often. I get triggered in New York very easily. I think it’s because I grew up there, but I do love my city. I love the audiences there. I, of course, feel a connection. And then I’m performing in a very iconic New York space. And being out here in Los Angeles, I’ve had the opportunity to tell people in the past that I was performing at Birdland, and people know it. They go, “Oh,” so it has that element of being able to impress people, and that feels good too. I’ve been doing this for 30 years. It’s wild to me. I didn’t think that Coco was going to be my career. I really thought Coco was just going to be an element of different characters that I would create or perform. And it just became such… I don’t want to say overnight success… But in the grand scheme of things, yes, it did, because I think back then, I was doing something that a lot of people weren’t doing in drag. And so it got a lot of attention right from the beginning, and it just became the thing that I do. It’s been an up-and-down rollercoaster. This is not an easy business to be in, and you have lots of self-doubts and worries. At one point I was going to quit, and my mother stopped me. She said, “You better be good to Coco because she’s been very good to you.” I’ve always kept that in the back of my mind.

How many years ago was that?

Oh god. It was probably right before Trick, so sometime in the late ’90s.

Going back to you growing up in New York, on City Island, I have to say that your episodes of Ghosted! with Roz Drezfalez are my favorite. Your stories involving the paranormal are so fascinating.

Oh, thank you. I think that’s why people enjoy my shows because it really is storytelling. I try to make it sound like I’m talking off the top of my head, but it’s scripted, it’s word for word. But with Roz, she’s a friend and she made me feel very comfortable to be able to talk about those things that were always a secret in my family. And then, of course, nowadays with the government coming forward and saying, “Well, there are UFOs. We don’t know what they are.” It was a great confirmation for what my family had experienced.

Have you ever thought about doing a whole show about your paranormal experiences?

I haven’t actually, no. I think because there is still that sense of embarrassment when… I’m feeling it now when you talk about it. You always feel like people might think you’re a liar or might think you’re seeking attention. And part of that is because when I was honest about it as a child, that’s how it was met, you know? “Oh, he must be lying,” or other kids would go home and tell their parents, and their parents would tell them that I was lying. And so you learned to have shame about anything paranormal happening in your life. And so as much as I know it happened, you still feel doubtful and you still feel embarrassment over it. I will say this, in December, my husband [Rafael] and I went to Santa Fe, New Mexico, so I said to Rafael, “Would you mind if we go for one day to Roswell?” And we went there, and it’s a real campy, small town.

Yeah, I’ve been!

But I absolutely loved it, and we went to the UFO museum. Totally campy and ridiculous. But I’ll tell you, I felt affirmed in that building. I really did for the first [time]… I felt like I was with people who thought like I did. They had that whole library filled with books and newspaper articles and a trove of stuff. And I just thought, hey, there’s other people. And that felt really good.

You didn’t feel alone.

I didn’t feel alone. It’s weird because I feel like the paranormal experience is very… it aligns with the queer experience of growing up and feeling different.

I can totally see that. Did you buy anything from the merch store in Roswell?

Oh, of course I did. I have a hat with an alien on it, and I bought some socks with aliens on them. Oh, sure. But do you know why I bought the hat?

Why?

I bought the hat because I wanted to wear it out in the hopes that people who also had experiences might say something to me. And recently that happened at a Home Depot in Florida. I was visiting my mom. I had to go pick up some cleaner. And I was in there and I had asked the man that worked there, this older gentleman, where I could find a product. And then as I was walking out, he saw me again. He said, “Hey, I like your hat.” And I said, “Oh, thanks. Yeah. Went to Roswell and bought it.” He wanted to know if I saw anything while I was there. And I said, “No, I didn’t see any UFOs, but I had experiences when I was young.” And so he opened up to me and told me about when he was a little boy and seeing a UFO in his grandmother’s backyard. Just the details and just the sincerity with which he tried to explain what he saw, I knew he was telling me the truth. And it’s the same sincerity and frustration that my neighbor had or that my sister had, or any of this where you’re trying to explain something that really doesn’t make sense. You’re giving these little details to try to make the listener understand what it was that you saw. And those little details are so real that you know the person isn’t making it up. And I was so happy he stopped and told me that story. And I thought, mission accomplished. I bought this hat in hopes that people would open up to me, and that gentleman did. And I’m sure it’s probably not a story he tells a lot of people.

A lot of those stories you told on Ghosted! were from when you were younger. Has anything happened to you in recent years?

No, no, and in fact, I basically made it very clear that I don’t want anything to happen unless there’s a lot of other people around witnessing it as well.

Yeah. Because you’re traveling around the country, you might be staying at a haunted hotel or performing in a haunted venue.

Oh, I’ve had that happen in the past, in Dallas and in Sacramento. When I walked into these hotels and was immediately hit with something other, I asked the proprietors, “Is this haunted?” And they were like, “Wow. Yes. But we’re not supposed to talk about it unless you asked.” But since I asked, they would share that with me. But I would feel it as soon as I walked in. I don’t think I’m sensitive to that stuff, but maybe I am. I don’t know. But I certainly don’t go looking for it. I’m the opposite. I’m a scaredy-cat.

Chris Haston/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Switching gears, I want to talk about the Will & Grace revival. What was it like being part of that?

It was amazing. Now the first time was amazing, when I was first on when the show first aired. It was amazing because it was a gay show on television with gay characters, and that was unreal, to have a primetime show with the stars being gay. But going back, it was a totally different experience all these years later. Rather than just being this little quick moment, they wanted to really celebrate me. And it just was a great experience. They kept having me back, and people were excited when I came back. And in the first episode I ever did, it’s in that phone call and I was living with my mother, and it was a very quick moment. And then all these years later, I came back and I own a bar. I’m successful. I officiate Jack’s wedding. So much had changed within the gay community just in those 20 years. And that was pretty incredible to go back. I also felt like the writers and certainly the producers, they wanted to push it as far as they could. I had the feeling they felt like they had nothing to lose, you know? So they just wanted to be as outrageous as they possibly could. And there were jokes that they cut because I think NBC just thought it was too risky, too dirty. The show had evolved, but they had evolved with their whole feeling about drag and it was a different feeling on set. This time, I felt really at home, and they made such an effort to celebrate a drag queen who’s been in this business for this many years and survived without television, you know?

I think people are so excited when you show up on their screens. What’s the latest with Trick 2, or another Girls Will Be Girls?

I’m at the point where I’m like, do people even care anymore? But for Trick 2, we had a reading, and it’s a beautiful, funny script. And the other thing that I loved about this script was that you see how much has changed, not only within the gay community but just in the world since 1998, when we filmed it. It’s a really sweet script. I have a much bigger role in it, another monologue in a bathroom, but I just don’t know if it’s ever going to happen. It’s not easy getting a movie made, especially independent little movies. So when COVID set it off track, it’s very hard to get things back on track, I imagine, and I’ve not heard anything about it. In many ways, I wish they had never said that it was happening because I’ve been having to answer that question quite a bit. And so I feel badly, you know?

So if we want to get our Coco fix, we should go to one of your live shows?

Oh yeah, definitely. That’s like going to church.

What should people expect when they come to see Bitter, Bothered & Beyond?

I think they’ll get what they expect from Coco. She can be crass and cranky, but there’s always a message behind it. There’s always a reason behind everything that I have to say, and they’ll get some cute songs. I’m happy with all my song choices, spent a fortune on my tracks. And I think they’ll leave remembering what theater and the spoken word can do and how much we need it, especially now. We need to feel connected. We need to put down our phones and feel connected to other human beings. And I feel like that’s always what I strive to do in my shows. So I can be funny. I can tell serious stories. I reflect on the past. But the point is about moving forward and pushing beyond all the shit we have to go through from time to time.

And having some hope.

And having a little bit of hope.

Coco Peru in Bitter, Bothered & Beyond plays the Birdland Jazz Club in New York on March 21 and 22. For more info on the Bitter, Bothered & Beyond tour, head over to Coco’s website.

I write about drag queens. Dolly Parton once ruffled my hair and said I was "just the cutest thing ever."
@chrisreindeer