On a balmy Wednesday afternoon, I sit down and gear up my laptop to talk to Lady Bunny over Zoom. Once we link, I ask simply: How are you doing? “Oh, just the usual weekday, arguing on social media with people I don’t know,” she replies in her trademark Tennessee drawl, followed by a shriek of laughter. “I’m a people person, and we can’t really see people right now—but I can still type at them!” Well, indeed.
Where RuPaul has reached international ubiquity thanks in part to his quotable platitudes about self-love, as well as his knack for translating the world of drag into something more digestible for the mainstream, Lady Bunny has taken an alternative route. Her no-bullshit politics and subversive humor wouldn’t cut the mustard on national television, but for many drag purists, it represents the heart of what drag is all about. Consequently, Bunny’s DIY attitude to drag is now underappreciated by an international fanbase that—largely as a result of the runaway success of Rupaul’s Drag Race—expects their queens to be polished, glossy, and ready to serve a runway-worthy look (or death drop) on cue.
“I congratulate the queens who look great in any style that comes along,” Bunny says. “But for someone like me, I know what looks best on me and I don't even really attempt to change with the times. Not every silhouette suits me.” Bunny’s distinctive fashion formula, from her early days in the Atlanta scene with RuPaul to her current status as a New York drag stalwart, usually consists of an oversized blonde wig, a floaty, thigh-skimming gown, and a towering pair of heels. “There are tricks to showcasing your legs,” she adds. “Everyone says that Tina Turner has great legs, but actually, what she's doing is the same trick that I’m doing. Wearing high heels and showing all of them. If you don't have great legs wearing a tiny minidress and high heels, you might be in the wrong business!” If she was forced to describe her style in a single sentence, how would she? “If Dusty Springfield put on weight,” she replies, again with her trademark cackle.
Bunny’s physical presence is something she has always used to comedic effect, whether in her cameos across pop cultural milestones from Sex and the City to Party Girl, or her role as founder and emcee of the iconic drag festival Woodstock. And so she does again with her latest comedy special, Cuntagious, filmed under quarantine as a tongue-in-cheek take on lockdown living. “I was sitting around bored, but once I started writing this COVID-related humor, it made me feel like I was back in the game,” she says. The half-hour-long show, opening with Bunny declaring herself as “mother of the house of Purell,” largely features riffs on club songs. “Despacito” is reinterpreted as a gleefully filthy paean to giving blowjobs titled “Patient Zero,” while a version of RuPaul’s “Sissy That Walk” becomes “Sissy That Cough.”
Where many might instinctively balk at the idea of finding humor in a global health crisis, it’s easy to forget that for the queer community, this isn’t their first time in recent memory facing the tragedy of a pandemic, and using humor as a coping mechanism to find moments of uplift. Merely weeks ago, the New York Times published a front page that lit up social media with its moving insights into the 100,000 Americans who have died thus far of the COVID-19 virus. But others took the opportunity to offer a stark reminder of the disinterest with which the AIDS crisis was covered—at the point of its 100,000 death toll within the U.S., it was memorialized on page 18 of the Times, with no pictures, no names, and no true acknowledgement of the tragic consequences of this grim milestone.
“It's awful,” Bunny adds. “There are parallels, but there were specific and more difficult ways to contract the HIV virus, whether through intravenous drug use or anal sex. COVID is there for absolutely everyone to catch, just from touching your face.” While she resists being labeled as something of a figurehead for the New York drag scene (“the New York drag community thinks of me as what I am: a nut,” she laughs), she is more philosophical when it comes to the profound impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the future of queer nightlife. “Drag queens, like 80% of the country, often live paycheck to paycheck, and our fans realize that we don’t have any more paychecks coming in for the foreseeable future,” she adds. “But maybe we don't have to be in the same room with our fans. We don’t even have to be in the same city or country. If we do something that’s downloadable everyone can enjoy it all over the world.”
It’s in these more self-reflective moments that it’s possible to see the other side of Lady Bunny, whose close-to-the-bone humor is always undercut by more nuanced political analysis. A staunch Bernie Sanders supporter in the Democratic primaries of both 2016 and 2020, Bunny has thrown her social media weight behind everything from abolishing super PACs and corporate funding to electoral campaigns, to defunding the police in the wake of the recent Black Lives Matter protests initiated by the murder of George Floyd. Her risqué brand of comedy may not be politically correct, but it isn’t a product of ignorance. “By sticking to posts which are more humorous, it brings people joy in this really dark time,” she notes. “That’s why I chose this profession. I’m very much driven by and fascinated by politics. I’m more likely to check political figures on Twitter when I get home from work than check out drag queen makeup tutorials or performances in pageants.”
“At the same time, I’m not in any way suggesting that things are not as serious as they are,” she continues. “People might say that COVID-19 jokes are insensitive right now—well I’ve had friends who’ve died from this. I live around the corner from a hospital where there’s a refrigerated truck that is a makeshift morgue. At 57, I’m three years away from the 60-year-old danger zone and have another pre-existing condition as well, and I live in the world centre of the pandemic in New York City. If I can’t laugh at it, who can?”
It’s these more sobering facts that make Bunny’s approach to humor feel less like something that trades on shock value, and instead as something strangely defiant. “I got through the AIDS crisis losing friends left and right, not shying away from AIDS humour,” she adds. “So why would I shy away from this humour now? For all I know, I could get COVID and die in a few weeks. It's not time for me to change who I am. If I am going out, I'm going to go out with a laugh.” Right on cue, Bunny erupts in cackles once again.