Few, if any, performers are fabulous enough to headline Echo Magazine’s 500th issue celebration. Fortunately, we have the incomparable Miss Coco Peru, a.k.a. Clinton Leupp, to bring the requisite glamour, style and humor to this one-time-only event.
Lucky were the local audiences who saw Miss Coco in her one-woman tour de force at the Phoenix Theatre’s Little Theatre 10 years ago, a production Leupp remembers fondly. But others will remember her from her scene-stealing work in the films Trick and Girls Will Be Girls, costarring sex kitten Varla Jean Merman (Jeffrey Roberson) and chain-smoking Hollywood has-been Evie (Jack Plotnick).
What sets Miss Coco apart is the way Leupp incorporates his experiences into this larger than life diva goddess, who he freely admits can say and do things he wouldn’t. In shows like Miss Coco Peru’s Liquid Universe and Ugly Coco, the red-haired raconteur weaves stories as different as helping mother move to Florida and finding boxes with used bits of ribbon she had saved from old gifts, to a life-altering journey to Peru. Leupp is proud of his marriage to husband Rafael (in Spain), although the activist in him gets angry when we discussed California’s anti-gay Proposition 8 and Arizona's own dreadful Proposition 102. The common thread in all of Miss Coco’s shows is being proud of who you are and not letting anything diminish that.
I jumped at the chance to speak to Leupp, who I’d seen perform in Los Angeles shortly after his 1998 Phoenix engagement, and I easily could have kept talking for hours.
Miss Coco Peru: I’ve been up all morning getting ready for my trip to San Francisco, packing, washing dresses. That’s what you caught me doing.
NC: Well, it’s an honor having you come out to celebrate Echo’s 500th issue.
MCP: An honor? Wow. Well let’s see what you think after you see it.
NC: People are still talking about your production 10 years ago.
MCP: I know, that was such a long time ago, and it was such a bizarre experience. And a good one. It was still strange — I peeked out right before the show and I said to the guy who brought me out, who was an old friend from New York, ‘The front row is full of old people. They must have meant to go to the Holocaust show next door.’ So he went out and asked them and they said, ‘No, we’re here to see Coco, we heard about her on NPR this morning.’ And they were wonderful! At one point during the show, I do a lot of talking about my childhood, and then I sang this song. And it was meant to be touching, but they were crying, and at the very end, they were like the first ones to stand up. That’s my memory of Phoenix — those amazing older straight people … and I mean old like "walkers and canes" old.
NC: Tell me about your Ugly Coco.
MCP: Ugly Coco is my newest show, but it’s not the show I’ll be doing in Phoenix. The show I’ll be doing is sort of a combination of three of my shows, actually four of my shows — it’s like the greatest hits kind of show. And when I perform in places like Phoenix, that’s the show I find works best in that kind of atmosphere. Ugly Coco is a little bit longer — if this show goes well and they want to have me back to do Ugly Coco, I’ll be happy to return!
NC: I have to ask, how many times do people come up to you and go, “It buuuuuuuurns!” (an infamously hilarious line from Trick about getting a certain bodily fluid in one’s eye)?
MCP: A lot. But I love it. People always say, ‘Do you get tired of hearing it?’ and I say, ‘No, not at all.’ Because I wrote most of that monologue (in Trick), and that line in particular, so the fact that people remember it is really pleasing to me.
NC: It was one of those roles where you come in and walk away with …
MCP: Walk away with at least those seven minutes. (Laughing)
NC: I love your web site. I have to admit, I got a little choked up when I read your journal entry about helping your mother move to Florida.
MCP: I actually had to stop sending my mother Miss Coco clippings, because she hangs on to everything, and I didn’t want it to be a burden later on.
NC: How is your relationship with your mother? How has it developed over the years?
MCP: We were always close — my mother and I bicker a lot, but so much of my show is about pain, but that’s where the comedy comes out of. I’ve always said, ‘no one wants to come see a show about how happy you are.’ That’s a boring show — they want to hear about your trials and tribulations, 'cause that’s what people can relate to. We get along great, and both of my parents were very supportive of my shows. When I first told them I’d be doing the shows and that I’d be talking about being openly gay, they were a little upset, because they thought that people were going to throw things at me. I told them they had to come see my show, and at that time, I wasn’t even doing drag. They came to see that show, and nobody threw anything, so they were very happy. So when I told them that I’d be doing the show in drag, my mom’s reaction was, ‘Well, you’ve always had to be different.’ (Laughing) And they really celebrate it now — of course my dad has passed away, but he was thrilled whenever there would be a review in the newspaper. He wasn’t educated — he graduated from grammar school, and he was a truck driver, and my mom was a housewife who worked when we needed cash, so the fact that these two people could not only accept me but celebrate it … because I hate it when people say, ‘I accept you.’ I want you to celebrate it, and that’s what my family has been able to do.
NC: That’s really great to have.
MCP: Oh yeah, it’s been great. When I first started doing my shows in New York, my mom used to drive her girlfriends from church down to see it without telling them what I did. And recently, she showed a bunch of her girlfriends in Florida Girls Will Be Girls. I said, ‘Mom, how could you do that?’ She goes, ‘What? They loved it!’ I said, ‘They lied to you!’ (Laughing) You’ve seen that show? It’s disgusting. You can’t show that to 70 and 80-year-olds!
Leupp explained how the cult classic came about. He and Evie were asked to do a benefit and work together, which Leupp found challenging but fun. The show was such a hit; people told the two that they should do a TV show together. Varla Jean Merman was added into the mix, and Showtime almost picked up the program, but didn’t at the last minute. Richard Day turned the project into a movie, and then when the Writer’s Guild strike took place, he created a couple more “episodes” (watch them online here), which are too hilarious and outrageous to describe.
“And still, no one’s interested!” he laughed. “We had a great time making them and we’re always so happy with the response. I mean, it’s like a cult film now where people don’t just enjoy it and think ‘Oh, that’s funny,’ they have to show it to their friends.”
He’s especially happy to receive e-mails from guys in small towns who say they have Girls Will Be Girls parties, and that they dress up like the characters. While touring, Leupp has seen how small the gay communities can be in these places and how intolerant the greater population can be, so he’s glad that his film reaches gay people via DVD or the internet.
I asked Leupp, who lives in California, what he thinks of the proud bigotry of the anti-gay marriage amendments.
“It makes me both incredibly sad and incredibly angry. My partner and I have been together for 13 years, and I don’t understand how this country can be so backward, when Spain, who lived under a dictatorship and was very Catholic for so many years, has moved ahead and passed gay marriage. That’s where my partner’s from. Even countries in South America have passed gay marriage, so I can’t understand how people here can be so backward. It actually frightens me that people use religion, and that half of our country seems so fearful. We have our ‘No on Prop 8’ sign out on our lawn, and we check every day to make sure it’s still there, because we’re just so worried that someone’s going to take it down. It happened to a friend of ours — she didn’t even have it up for 24 hours before someone ripped it down.”
Miss Coco Peru fantasizes in her show about a gay island where we could all live (like the one some right wing nut jobs want to put us on). “I’d love to see what would happen to the rest of the country if we all just packed up and left. They’d collapse!”
When I asked Leupp what he thought of the current election, he answered, “Well, I think it’s obvious what side of the fence I land on, but even in my shows, although I am political and an activist, I never try to talk about politics. I think sometimes then, we make the mistake of assuming things about people. Having said that, I don’t understand why they picked (Sarah Palin). There were so many other women they could have chosen. She frightens me. When I watch Obama speak, I love how calm and collected he is, because I snap. You should hear me, how I talk to the television!” he said, laughing. “The vile words that come flying out of my mouth. It’s all just my rage at the injustices in the world. That’s the beauty of drag. When you’re in drag, it really does cut through the bullshit. And when you walk down the street, you know who’s on your side and who’s not on your side. And it’s very liberating for that reason.”
We finished up talking about the gay cruises that Miss Coco performs on, which is how she was chosen to celebrate Echo’s big day.
“On these gay cruises, there are always straight people who latch onto our group and want to attend our parties, because they realize that we’re much more fun,” he said. “I know that’s a stereotype, but there’s a truth to that. We really are fun. We mean no harm to people. We’re very giving. And even in Spain, there’s a gay area in Madrid that the gays sort of took over, this area that was decrepit and falling down, as we always do, and now it’s the new place to live.”
He commented on how an older woman from the neighborhood was so happy at how well her neighbors take care of her and the neighborhood. “When I saw that on the news in Spain, it really summed up who we are as a people, and if people can’t accept us, it’s their loss,” he said.
Interview by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.