Famed drag queen Lady Bunny and hairdresser Jimmy Paul cover wigstock, truck stop makeup touch-ups, and the hair related dangers of cab rides.
A frequent columnist for the “worst dressed” section, Lady Bunny snuck into her first drag club when she was just 13. She was a small town girl from Chattanooga, Tennessee, destined for the big city. Driving from Georgia in drag, she found herself as a backup dancer with RuPaul at the Pyramid Club and in 1985 founded Wigstock, the annual event, held every year until 2005. Hairdresser Jimmy Paul is known for his big, sexy, and sculptural styles and once remarked, “hairdresser equals fantasy.” With 18 Vogue covers to his credit and frequent collaborations with Mario Testino and Steven Meisel, Jimmy Paul has a huge influence on the way we see hair today. Document caught up with Lady Bunny and Jimmy Paul to talk about the first time they met and the influence Bunny has had on Paul’s work.
Jimmy Paul: I remember your first night in New York at the Pyramid [club], it was maybe 1983, and I just remember you coming in with this crew and there was a magic to all of you guys, it was a really exciting thing to see. I mean, the Pyramid was magic and then in walks this crew from Georgia who had an incredible vibe and just fit so well. And then I remember seeing you perform for the first time, I think that it was Gloria Gaynor? And then, “I Will Survive”—
Lady Bunny: Yes, a rousing lip sync of “I Will Survive” where I was so drunk that I lost a shoe and a wig and I think maybe fell and, in that low of the music where she comes back triumphantly [laughs], I managed to hobble back up and put on the wig crooked and the crowd went wild.
Jimmy: Well, for me it was an electrifying performance and it seemed like everything was planned. You’re just a master at your craft and I just fell in love in that moment. One thing I wanted to ask you is where do you think this little white girl from Chattanooga got that?
Lady Bunny: First of all I’m not little. I grew up in Tennessee, and Tennessee is the home of Memphis which is the blues capital and the Memphis horns were played in many famous soul recordings of the seventies, and they had an incredible soul sound. Growing up around there I always gravitated towards soul music, and I don’t care what it is, from Aretha Franklin to James Brown to Jennifer Hudson [laughs].
Jimmy: I love your voice when you sing, and I’m so happy that on your last one woman show you sang. When I first heard you sing “Fancy” [by Bobbie Gentry], it was a watershed moment for me because I didn’t really know that kind of music, so I had such an education from you with Bobbie Gentry and also your friends like Floyd.
Lady Bunny: Well, Floyd loved Bobbie Gentry too but she was unusual because she was a country singer-songwriter but she often used those Memphis horns to give her country a very snazzy rough Vegas feeling which she also added gospel vocals too. You know, if I’m not mistaken, the Muscle Shoals [a group of Memphis based musicians] played the horns for Dusty in Memphis.
Jimmy: I’m sure you’re right.
“Getting around in cabs is no fun with a ‘do, especially arriving at some fancy residence or red carpetish thing, the crunchdown in the cab is giving you a cowlick on your immaculate coiffure.”
Lady Bunny: But there was kind of a blue eyed soul link to Bobbie Gentry. Most people know that song “Fancy,” which is a story about a young white trash girl whose mom sends her to be a prostitute because the prospects there are so bleak. And it’s really about prostitution but Reba McEntire also covered it and that’s the version that a lot of people know.
Jimmy: I was very angry when Reba did it because, to me, she stole your song and everybody knew and how could she have done it.
Lady Bunny: We all borrow a little though, don’t we.
Jimmy: I certainly borrow from you in my hairdressing career because your hair is always so spectacular. One time you referred to your makeup as your paint and there was a young queen who did your paint, and it is so identifiable and I got to see it evolve. I think anybody that even saw you just once would remember.
Lady Bunny: I try to be! [Laughs]. I’m not one of those people that can look good in everything in pictures, I would never kid myself that I could try any lady’s style. Through years of looking at photographs, and drag makeup, it’s essentially corrective makeup [laughs], if you apply something and if it looks good, you stick with it. It’s not like, if that trick goes out of style you’re going to stop doing it—no, you have to look your best! My theory is get a lot on and keep moving, like, “Honey, because it’s gonna be dark and they’re gonna be drunk!” What I’m trying to say is the reason that my look is so identifiable is, in my opinion, after years of not having a dime and not having any know how I finally got it right. So it’s certainly not changing now [laughs]! There were so many years where we had nothing, we didn’t have custom made costumes that suit us, or custom made jewelry or, you know, five wigs on top of each other. I just wanted to go to a club, get drunk, and look good. Don’t give me too much credit for an old look, I just finally got it right.
Jimmy: Well, I agree, you got it right. But I just always, always, always loved it. Anyway, I want to talk about a story when we first met and you told me you would go to a little drag club in Chattanooga, Tennessee, that was basically a shack. And that you loved this one performer and she was one of your first big inspirations to do drag.
Lady Bunny: That was Chattanooga’s own bubbling brown sugar, Miss Tasha Crime, who you can look up on Facebook, and, she was dazzling but what she taught me the most was about stage presence and a way to connect with the audience. She just had it and the crowd went nuts every time she walked on the stage. I got into that drag club and here I was seeing these queens with big wigs, false eyelashes and sequined gowns, which you just didn’t see in Chattanooga, so I fell in love instantly and you could tell that all these men—some of them might be a tranny chaser but some of them might—when you’re serving that much interest they kind of know that you’re really one of them [Laughs]. They recognize their kind like a vampire. I got into that club at 13.
Jimmy: Oh my god, that’s amazing, I didn’t know that.
Lady Bunny: I had yeah, I had to have it.
Jimmy: I think that’s really interesting that I didn’t know that, and the queens in Chattanooga and you seeing the gowns and the wigs is crucial to me. I’ve met your mom and she is adorable and that you have the support of your family and that you have this really nice, really bright, smart, educated family is such a fascinating thing too because, you know, to me it’s like you were fancy, and really it’s that you were surrounded by love, you’re really surrounded by the support of our families.
Lady Bunny: When I moved here I was in my early twenties, and of course I always loved my mom but that’s an age when you’re trying to distance yourself from your parents and say, no, that’s who they are and this is who I am, you know? When I got to New York and saw how many of my friends in New York didn’t even tell their parents they were gay, much less explaining being a drag queen, and mine knew exactly what I had done and had seen me do it, I realized how lucky I was.
Jimmy: And you’re one of the few people I’ve met that had that. You’re one of the few people whose parents know exactly what’s going on and accepted it and—
Lady Bunny: Well, they don’t know everything that was going on.
Jimmy: True, true. Back to the beginning, the first time you came to New York was with a band from Georgia, called The Now Explosion.
Lady Bunny: They got a gig in New York and we rode up and arrived at the Pyramid, I arrived from Georgia in drag. Of course, I don’t drive, so they forced me to entertain them [laughs] and they got a real kick out of seeing me shave through my makeup at a truck stop, and they wanted to go thrift shopping in DC and me, being dyslexic, could not find the van, and this was at a time when I had no cell phone. So there I was, in DC, lost, in drag, without a dime.
Jimmy: No, shit. And they found you?
Lady Bunny: Somehow.
Jimmy: Oh my god, you must have been terrified.
Lady Bunny: So yeah, I arrived at the Pyramid in drag.
Jimmy: I had no idea, that’s unbelievable, that’s unbelievable. It felt very, very new to me. It felt very funny and fresh.
Lady Bunny: We were more like get down, you know, psychedelic—but let’s just say so they hear it, there was a band called The Now Explosion, Bunny and RuPaul were the dancers—Ru and I were the backup dancers.
Jimmy: RuPaul, that’s very remarkable.
Lady Bunny: RuPaul and the U-Haul. Two big fat girls.
Jimmy: Ah, heaven. I never heard that either. So then you stayed in New York from that time?
Lady Bunny—I did, my sister was living here and I briefly had a day job here so, at a plasticine company, but…
Jimmy: And then you were working at, like, a transsexual phone line for a while? Yes, I remember that was—
Lady Bunny: Honey, it wasn’t just transsexual, it was real woman, okay? [Laughs]. I was employed as a real woman, and if there was a particularly irritating caller, we’d be like, ‘Oh, shoot your hot load, yes, daddy, and then, [drops voice] okay, have a good one,’ after they came. Nothing withers your cock like that. [Laughs] You’ve just cum with a dude! Can you imagine?
Jimmy: Okay, so you and I live in the same neighborhood and if we run into each other and chat, a few topics come up and one of them usually is transsexual, transgender women. Those of us seem to be enchanted, obsessed with trans women, and I just think, can we touch on that a little bit because I, I know for me it’s an absolute obsession. And we both love and respect—
Lady Bunny: From this whole trans activist perspective versus RuPaul or any drag queen using the word tranny, its foolish because I think the drag community has always been the most supportive of the trans community, so I think that there are members of it like me who feel like we kind of have one big foot potentially touching the tip of that puddle ourselves.
Jimmy: So let’s talk a little bit about Wigstock, which I am lucky enough that I got to go to every single one of them. What you did there is history. I mean, I could just name a few of my favorites off the top of my list, I think it was incredible when Deee Lite came back after their success and came and to see them perform was amazing. And then what about Leigh Bowery giving birth? I thought that was a remarkable moment, with all the sausages flying.
Lady Bunny: It was. Wasn’t that rancid? It was brilliant. You know, I don’t know what to say about it except watch the movie Wigstock and see what an amazing talent and how lucky I am to have formed a bond with him. Not many people know this but Leigh died before the movie came out, and had to sign papers saying that we could re-record his songs because he’d used a Beatles song and we couldn’t clear it. So Antony was then not known—of Antony and the Johnsons—and he actually recorded the song that Leigh performs in the movie to have a similar sound to the Beatles song.
Jimmy: I mean, that’s a lot of pageantry at once right there.
Lady Bunny: I know! I know.
Jimmy: I mean, it was so shocking, it was the last thing—it was a total surprise, like all of a sudden he’s singing a Beatles song and trust me, that was enough! It was enough for him to be standing there in that outfit singing the Beatles song, then he gives birth with sausages and blood flying, and a whole person comes out [laughs]—it was that poor girl was inside the outfit for hours!
Lady Bunny: And if you happened to be on drugs and catch that happening, I’m told that it would really send you into the stars. [laughs]
Jimmy: Well, I think whether you were on drugs or not at Wigstock you had a contact high. It was just that kind of thing. I was at work yesterday and there was this guy who was saying he knows your tranager, he called her a tranager because she manages drag acts and, he asked me, ‘How does Bunny keep those wigs on?’ They’re so huge and they must be so heavy! I have to say as long as I’ve known you it still has me full of goose bumps the moment I see you. How do you get around?
Lady Bunny: Well, getting around in cabs is no fun with a ‘do, especially arriving at some fancy residence or red carpetish thing, the crunchdown in the cab is giving you a cowlick on your immaculate coiffure, it’s definitely not easy getting around. And I think keeping them on is a challenge, I use this silicone medical adhesive to glue them onto my scalp.
“We rode up and arrived at the Pyramid, I arrived from Georgia in drag. Of course, I don’t drive, so they forced me to entertain them and they got a real kick out of seeing me shave through my makeup at a truck stop.”
Lady Bunny: But I appreciate it when I sling it around because I have to wear bigger and bigger wigs with stronger and stronger glue, and I’m actually ripping my own hair out as I remove it. [Laughs].
Jimmy: Sometimes as a hairdresser watching you perform if you’re really getting down, I’m watching the wig like, is it gonna fly off ?
Lady Bunny: It’s not going to fly off but this silicone junk is no joke, it requires a remover and it is flammable so it’s not anything you’re even supposed to travel with. The spirit gum stops working when you get hot, but not this shit [Laughs].
Lady Bunny: Ru gave me the glue and only told me about the remover after, thank god, because I’ve got real hair, okay?! [Laughs] But when I took it off the first time it yanked a chunk of hair right out in the front, it looked like a reverse mohawk and after a year people were asking, “Is that a style choice?” [Laughs]
Jimmy: What you do for your audience, my dear! And I don’t know how, seeing you DJ at the Monster the other day was so much fun. And back to our transsexual obsession, the transgender community coming out to show up for you, because, you know, we don’t get to see those girls every day, so to see them all out, and your one friend who is disabled, who has the amazing beautiful face, to see her come down those stairs with her crutches, and then perch and then every word to every song you played, I have to say I could have just, I was in heaven. To me that’s a little slice of—
Lady Bunny: Well, I see her, I love seeing her happy because it’s hard to get out. For anyone now, we won’t leave computer screens, we won’t leave cell phones, even when you’re at a club if you bother to not go on Grindr and actually go to a club to meet people, if we do that we’re constantly out taking pictures and video to suck the life out of the party and put it back on the internet so that we can gain more fans or whatever. So, the party is a crutch because people aren’t there in the moment.
Jimmy: I agree, I agree.
Lady Bunny: So my friend’s a DJ in DC and he says people just don’t dance, they just run around the dance floor taking selfies and then get off the floor, I said, ‘When you DJ in Switzerland and France do they dance there?’ He said, ‘Yeah, but that’s because these are big events on the outskirts of town or in castles with thick walls,’ and I just said, ‘Oh, so you think—if the internet connection drops, you take it away, people will actually make eye contact, get drinks, socialize and dance?’ Revolutionary!
For our tenth anniversary edition, we revisit a selection of stories from Document’s archive—celebrating a decade of championing the independent creative spirit, and honoring the cultural icons who will shape our future. This conversation originally appeared in Document’s Fall/Winter 2014 issue.