Maybe you know her from the unforgettable “it burns” monologue in the movie Trick. Or maybe it’s her appearance in the hysterical film Girls Will be Girls. Or you might know her for her brief cameos on Will and Grace and Arrested Development. Or for her countless live shows around the country.
The point is, you know Coco Peru. Even if you’ve never seen her before, you will instantly recognize who and what she is: an acerbic, witty drag queen, weary of the world and the fools inhabiting it.
Coco was my guest on a recent episode of The Sewers of Paris, a podcast about entertainment that’s changed the lives of gay men. Or to be more accurate, Coco’s associate was my guest: The actor and comedian who created the character spoke candidly about his childhood, including how he used to practice telekinetic powers as a child, and the time he startled Barry Manilow.
As a kid, Coco grew up obsessing over records: the soundtrack to Funny Girl and a comedy album called The Jewish American Princess featuring Bea Arthur were in frequent rotation. There was a revelation when Coco realized that Bea’s voice was the same she heard singing on the soundtrack of Fiddler on the Roof.
At the time, she assumed she was the only little boy in the world who liked that kind of thing. Like many young gay kids, she felt like she was growing up on an island, isolated from the world — but in her case, it was actually true. She grew up on City Island, a small outcropping just to the side of Manhattan.
Fortunately, her parents brought her into the city for shows often enough. She’d see Broadway performances, and Radio City Music Hall extravaganzas. She still vividly remembers the TV ads for Pippin when it originally appeared with Ben Vereen.
“I lived for going to see a Broadway show,” she said. “I always knew I wanted to be a performer.”
And so that’s what she resolved to be, going to college to study performing. She quickly got a reputation for being a funny guy, and she knew that there was something about her that was similar to gay entertainers like Charles Nelson Reilly. She staying in the closet throughout college — “I let so many opportunities pass by,” she recalls.
After college she finally came to terms with being gay and got herself a boyfriend, attending her first gay pride parade in the mid-80s. It was while riding the train back home to the Bronx that she realized that she never wanted to lose the feeling of pride and liberation that she felt at the parade. “All the security I felt surrounded by all those queer people started to disappear the closer I came to home,” she said, and that was the moment she resolved to be completely out.
What she discovered stunned her: being openly out and proud didn’t make her more of a target for harassment, as she’d feared. In fact, the harassment ended, and people started congratulating her.
As she began to explore the queer world of New York in the late 80s, she discovered queer comedians, and realized she could join their ranks. Inspired by Charles Busch, she created Coco Peru, droll New York drag queen, and rented a theater. She’d never done drag before, but something about this plan just felt right.
Her show was a hit — and that was only the beginning of a triumphant career in dresses and heels.
Listen to the full interview with Coco in the player below, and at SewersOfParis.com.