Interview: Miss Coco Peru Discusses Her New Show, Bartending on “Watch What Happens: Live,” and a Scary Voicemail from Bea Arthur

Miss Coco Peru, a.k.a. Clinton Leupp, has enjoyed a 20-year career in drag that has yielded unforgettable results, including her signature line in the 1999 movie Trick (“It burns!”), a starring role in Richard Day’s gay cinematic classic Girls Will Be Girls, and a number of hilarious and touching live shows, including her “Conversations with Coco” series at Los Angeles’ Gay & Lesbian Center, which has featured special guests such as Bea Arthur, Lily Tomlin, Karen Black, and (my girl) Lesley Ann Warren.

Earlier this week she bartended during an episode of Andy Cohen’s Bravo talk show Watch What Happens: Live, and on Thursday, she debuted her new show She’s Got Balls at New York’s Laurie Beechman Theatre for a weekend run.

We caught up with Coco to discuss nervous jitters, meeting Andy Cohen, and Bea Arthur’s threatening voicemails.

AfterElton: “She’s Got Balls” is a pretty commanding title. Is it a ballsy show? Are you excited?
Miss Coco Peru: It’s been at least 15 years since I premiered a show here in New York first. I’m a total bag of nerves. Usually when I come to New York, I’ve done the show in LA first and worked through all the kinks. Tomorrow night I’m just getting up there and — that’s the title of the show, She’s Got Balls! So I’ll have to have ’em tomorrow, for sure. I guess if there was a theme to this show it would be — I don’t want to say sex, but a liberation of some sort. A sexual liberation.

AE: You’re consummately honest and frank. Did you grow up admiring people like that?
MCP: I don’t know if there’s really anybody I look up to for that. When I was younger, we were always fascinated that Madonna could always change her ideas and whatnot. But I don’t think I’ve ever looked up to anybody for those reasons. When I was younger, I looked up to people who were like Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin, people who created characters and got discovered that way. l always knew early on that I was gay and I wanted an openly gay performer. Back when I started, that was pretty rare. I was trained in the theater and I went to college for theater, and I decided to do drag as a way to express myself both in theater and as an activist. I always find that people who are able to do all of that an inspiration. I feel like Lily Tomlin and Bette Midler, early on, did that. She was very sexual. I loved that. She started in the bathhouses and gay men wrote her material. Of course she had the performance style to pull it off, but she also had gay men writing for her. That’s why her voice had that gay sensibility.

AE: We have to talk about your Watch What Happens appearance. You “bartended” in back while Andy Cohen interviewed Lauren Conrad and The Real Housewives of NY’s LuAnn de Lesseps. It’s fair to say those two aren’t really “our people.” How was it?
MCP: The whole time I was standing there, I was thinking, “God, why am I not being interviewed?” [Laughs.] But I mean, they were all so nice! Andy could not have been nicer. He was so sweet. He was friendly and welcoming to everybody. When you walk into a situation where you don’t know what to expect, and the person whose show it is reaches out to you? That’s really great. Even the two women were lovely to speak to. But I’m the type of person who thought, “I’ve been doing this for 20 years, trying to write and create and do art — and I’m standing behind a bar!” But having said that, I was grateful for the opportunity. Nowadays you can be on TV and I can post something about it [on Facebook], and I’ll get 190 hits, comments, and whatnot. Meanwhile, I’ll post something about my New York show and get three “likes.” So it’s the power of television! Back when I started writing my shows, there was no internet. You had to go out on the street passing out postcards, you had to go to make appearances in other people’s shows, you had to do benefits, you had to do press. You really had to do something special to stand out.

AE: Are you nostalgic at all for the pre-internet age?
MCP: I mean, we were out! I was spray-painting sidewalks for my show, which was completely illegal. I didn’t even think about that while I was doing it. I hate to sound like I’m old and things were better back then. They’re not better; they’re just different. I guess there’s a little bit of me that always felt that the gay community and as gay men we were a little bit more involved with our tastes. Sometimes I question that nowadays. [Chuckles.]

AE: I love your “Conversations with Coco” series, where you interview people like Karen Black and Lily Tomlin onstage at the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center. How did this get started?
MCP: It started because a friend of mine did it and he interviewed me. Then he left, but the Center wanted to continue it, and they asked me if I’d be interested in interviewing people. I said sure, and the first guest I had was Bea Arthur, a friend of mine who did it as a favor. And it was wonderful, but it’s been hard to get people to do it. It’s not very high-profile and they’re giving up their time, but also there’s this fear too, like, “Is this drag queen going to make fun of me?” That kind of thing. Karen Black was so nervous about doing it. She committed right away, but then she had all these doubts, and I kept saying, “It’s going to be wonderful! It’s going to be wonderful!” By the end of it, she was like, “Oh my God, you were right.” Lesley Ann Warren, same thing. Bea Arthur was freaking out days before, leaving messages like, “I better not f*cking regret this!”

AE: That’s a scary message to get from Bea Arthur!
Oh, it was great. She was a hoot. It was a real challenge to sort of go out onstage — and I’ve done six or seven now — but I could feel it every time onstage, there’s a moment like, boom, they get it. Then they get relaxed and go along for the ride. All of my guests, I think, have been moved by the experience. I’m not there to make fun of them. I’m there to really, really celebrate them. The thing with Karen Black was, a lot of people remember her from a lot of bad horror movies and associate her with those. Meanwhile, I remember her from The Great Gatsby and Five Easy Pieces and remind people of that. In this world it’s so easy to dismiss people once they’ve reached a certain age. I really enjoy celebrating people who had an effect on me as a kid.


AE: Who would you like to interview next?
MCP: If I could pick my next person, I’d love to pick Shirley MacLaine.

AE: That’d be fantastic!
MCP: Well, she said no! [Laughs.] I’d love to do Liza Minnelli, because we were friends years ago and I think I can say we’re still friendly when we see each other. It’d be fun to revisit with her and celebrate with her. And I would love to do Dolly Parton. If I had to pick a fourth, who would that be? There are so many divas I’d love to celebrate. There’s just something funny about a drag queen sitting down with a celebrity — oh, I’d love to do Cher! She’d be a lot of fun. She’s funny on Twitter. I’m surprised at some of the things she comes out with. Of course a lot of these people are very private. Joan Rivers said no because she said a celebration of her career made her feel old. So people have their hangups, I guess.

AE: Lastly, can you give us a line or two from “She’s Got Balls”?
Oh, well, I sort of trash people’s behavior on Facebook. And I talk about — now, it’s so hard to describe my shows, I swear — I talk about my sister-in-law’s p*ssy ring. So there you go! Who else can talk about their sister-in-law’s p*ssy ring but Coco Peru? I hope it makes people laugh and inspires people. At the beginning of the show, I talk about my mom being 86 years old. She said to me recently that at 86, she doesn’t care anymore what people think about her and that, in a way, she feels she has the balls to say whatever she wants to say. And my question to the audience is, “Eighty-six? And she finally feels free to say what she wants? Why wait?” So it’s me sort of daring myself to share things I normally maybe wouldn’t share, hence my sister-in-law’s p*ssy ring. I feel one must have balls to stand up onstage in the first place and then sort of open up and be vulnerable.