SEEING RAINBOWS : The Pride finale event at the Mission draws thousands of visitors.
Q&A WITH LISA LAMPANELLI: NEW TIMES How do you get a job where you’re encouraged to curse like a sailor?
LISA LAMPANELLI Learn to say the c-word but in a very nice and loving fashion and to call gays faggots and have them still like you. I’m telling you it works. I’ve had people come up to me and say how come you can call me the c-word and when other women call me a bitch I’ll punch her out but with you I’ll hug you and I’m like ‘cause I’m loveable, cause I’m the freaking nicest person you ever met.’
NEW TIMES How come you’re one of the few female comics at roasts?
LAMPANELLI I don’t think any women comics other than me say ‘I want to dedicate my life to roasting and being an insult comic’ so when other comics do it, it’s great. If Sarah Silverman does one it’s really funny. But the reason I do it consistently is that’s what I do every day in my career. I’m an insult comic so basically the roast format lends itself well to what I do.
NEW TIMES Is that where you started out in your career?
LAMPANELLI No, they always say you never end up where you started. I think I had a decent personality but I didn’t know what to talk about yet. No comic really knows, like Roseanne didn’t go onstage and say ‘hey, you know what, I’m starting comedy today and I’m going to be this domestic goddess.’ It’s just something that develops and you feel works for you and you notice that you have fun doing it. People are laughing and you go ‘wow, I’m actually liking the angle I’m taking.’ It took about seven years for it to develop and you couldn’t stop the flow of words, just couldn’t stop the corn-holer and the ass-pirate, chink, all of it.
NEW TIMES How’d you come to be known as The Queen of Mean?
LAMPANELLI I say that the New York Times said that but in my book I talk about how I actually just planted it in the New York Times. They were interviewing me and it was really, really early on in my career. I said ‘well, they call me comedy’s loveable Queen of Mean’ and they printed it so I’m like ‘oh, the New York Times called me that’ but I put it there because I wanted to have it in print.
NEW TIMES Anything you won’t joke about?
LAMPANELLI No. I thought for a while ‘oh my god I’ll never say spic. I’ll never say the n-word. I’ll never say the c-word.’ And then you just get better and better at what you do and then you can pull it off. The funnier you get the more chances you can take. Whereas earlier in my career I didn’t really have the mastery to pull off the n-word, now I have mastered it with much aplomb.
NEW TIMES How has the industry changed since you came on board?
LAMPANELLI You know, I don’t know. Cause all I do is worry about myself. I never tried to force myself into things that didn’t want me so if a certain club gave me resistance I just moved on. If a theater didn’t like me I was just like ‘okay, there’s plenty more.’ Not to say you don’t get upset when you don’t get what you want but I haven’t noticed that much of a change. I didn’t start until the 1990s so I missed all the high times of comedy where there were comedy clubs on every corner, where it was like Starbucks and everybody could work. In my experience, everything’s gotten maybe a little better because there’s more cable channels where you can get noticed but for me the only thing that’s changed is I got more popular.
NEW TIMES Any preference in terms of the type of venue you perform to?
LAMPANELLI Yeah, the bigger the more money you get. Come on, it’s all about money. If Twisted Sister is saying ‘we like to play the intimate venues,’ why don’t they just kill themselves cause they’re lying. Everyone likes big venues cause it’s big money. George Lopez would play arenas with like 11,000 people. I mean, holy crap. Do you know how much friggen money he makes? I’m not gonna lie and go ‘oh, I’d much rather play a nice intimate club of 200 people.’ Fuck the 200 people. I prefer big places with huge budgets. That’s it. And, of course, I prefer gays, blacks, Hispanics, and a few whiteys to be in the audience so I have people to make fun of.
NEW TIMES What did your family think when you went into comedy?
LAMPANELLI I think they’d given up at that point anyway because I was the rebel of the family and didn’t follow any clear path. I don’t even remember telling them. I think my mother always got a kick out of it in a way because she’s really a loud-mouthed Italian who loves to curse. She says racist things that are hilarious that I put in my act and take credit for so she got off a little bit. Now they’re thrilled to death because I make enough money to put them in the nursing home with the private room instead of the one where they’re with five other old decrepit assholes who are dying. I think my parents are very happy with my career ever since I started making some dough. Also, once you do enough TV, the Tonight Show legitimizes you as a comic. Once I did the Tonight Show it was almost like my parents were like now you really are legitimate and they started taking me seriously.
NEW TIMES You were raised Catholic; do you ever feel guilty about the things you say?
LAMPANELLI I have to say something really effed up for me to think ‘oh my god, I shouldn’t have said that.’ But I also know how to edit myself. I know if someone in the audience looks like they’re insecure so I don’t fuck with them because it’s not my job to make them have a miserable night. After 20 years you’d better know who you can pick on and who you can’t.
NEW TIMES What advice do you have for would-be comedians?
LAMPANELLI You know what advice I give them? I say quit now because you are not funny. Chances are you don’t have what it takes cause it takes, first of all, to be really naturally funny, likeable, decent writing or enough money to hire good writers, a work ethic like you would not freaking believe because you’re self-employed and you have to work 16 hours a day. So I usually say quit now, save yourself some trouble, move in with your parents, do what you’re really supposed to do, be a hooker, I don’t care…but don’t do comedy.
NEW TIMES I’ve read that you make jokes about Oprah. I didn’t even know that was allowed.
LAMPANELLI What’s she gonna do for my career, really? She’d never have me on the show cause she is very politically correct. We read a lot of the same books and we have a lot of the same ways of thinking, I just don’t like how she treats guests different based on their level of fame. If Halle Berry said ‘my husband cheated on me, he’s a sex addict,’ Oprah would look at her sympathetically and want to cry. If I went in there, or Jo Blow off the street, ‘my husband is a sex addict, he cheated on me,’ well, ‘why didn’t you get out? Girl, you saw the signs.’ She goes black on us.
NEW TIMES In 2009 you published a memoir, Chocolate Please: My Adventures in Food, Fat, and Freaks. Was your writing process like your process for developing new material?
LAMPANELLI No, it was completely different because I write on stage talking out loud. With this stupid book you have to sit there at the computer and make it work. It sucked. I hated it. I hope I never have to do it again.
NEW TIMES How do you credit your positive relationship with the gay community?
LAMPANELLI I was doing this book signing at this gay bookstore in Atlanta and I asked them, I said ‘why do you think faggots like me.’ I said ‘is it because you sense that I, like you, didn’t fit in anywhere and sort of felt cut off from other people and felt that I’m weird compared to the rest of the world, cause that’s how I always felt. Is it because I have that likeability underneath that gays have that bitchy side but don’t really mean it too.’ I said ‘do you think that’s why you like me.’ And one of the gays just goes ‘nope, we just like mean people.’ So, wow, I thought it was some big philosophical reason. It turns out, gays just like mean people. So you know what? I’ll go with the gays.
NEW TIMES What would be more difficult to give up, cursing or sex?
LAMPANELLI Cursing. I can’t give that up. Sex I’m like whatever, I’m 48, are we done yet?
Fourteen years ago the Central Coast’s Gay and Lesbian Alliance joined a growing number of cities and towns offering celebrations of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) history and pride. They chose the month of July to avoid competing with similar celebrations in other cities, and the party has grown ever since with 4th of July barbecues, drag shows, and big-name guests of honor at the PAC culminating in a Pride in the Plaza festival on the final Sunday.
GALA has a lot of reasons to celebrate during this year’s pride, which began with an event June 11 and runs through July 11. President Obama is focusing on ways to expand benefits packages for same-sex partners of federal employees. During his State of the Union address on Jan. 27, 2010, he also committed to repealing the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell ban on gays and lesbians serving in the military.
But the community has also faced its share of setbacks. In May, students at Cal Poly’s Los Lecheros Dairy Club posted information about the organization’s formal on Facebook. Along with specifics about the date and time, there was an admonishment that same-sex couples were not welcome. Dozens of states have enacted constitutional bans on same-sex marriage, and in an even greater number of countries same-sex relations are illegal, punishable by fines, prison sentences, and even death.
“This is not just something the gay and lesbian people in this country are fighting for. There’s a bigger battle to be won,” acknowledged Central Coast Pride Coordinator Robert Kinports. But the larger vision doesn’t obscure the day-to-day challenges. Kinports plans to marry his partner when and if it becomes legal in California, but he still doesn’t feel safe holding his partner’s hand while walking down the street. Harassment, and potential violence, is always a threat. And if Kinports decides to put his partner on the medical insurance plan that he gets through his work, he has to declare the benefits on his income tax, something straight couples are not required to do.
Kinports’ mission is to market Pride as family-friendly, emphasizing the normalcy of the LGBT community. Normalcy is part of the Central Coast Pride mission statement, which Kinports paraphrases as “to celebrate our lives and our accomplishments, to demonstrate our normalcy, our numbers, and to educate the community about ourselves and our areas of concern.” To that end, he finds it problematic when the media turns exclusively to photos of the drag show to promote Pride. But he acknowledges that drag queens played a key role in one of the most momentous events in gay rights history: the Stonewall riots.
Tommi Rose, producer and emcee of the drag show taking place at Downtown Brew on July 9, described the role the drag queens played in starting the historic riots of June 28, 1969.
“The drag queens were sitting in a bar. Judy Garland had died. It was a very sad time. They were crying in their beer. The police had harassed the community for years and at that point it was the queens who said ‘we’ve had enough.’ That was the start of the gay movement.”
For many decades, drag queens were revered for their role in that night. But that sense of history hasn’t necessarily carried through to the present, insists Rose, who noted that the term drag queen tends to have negative connotations on the West coast.
“Most people think of a drag queen as a guy who puts on a dress and swoops around a bar on a broom,” he explained. But Rose has made a profession of female impersonation for 34 years, a career that enabled him to travel the globe and rub elbows with celebrities.
PHOTO COURTESY OF TOMMI ROSE
RE-DEFINING LADY : Female impersonator Tommi Rose will emcee the drag show at Downtown Brew.
Rose started his career, accidentally, at a nightclub on a 4th of July weekend. He had watched the club’s show and heard that there would be an amateur contest later that night. At the insistence of his friends, and with some help from the professional performers backstage, Rose entered and won the competition.
The performer acquired his stage name by accident as well. While at a New Year’s party one of Rose’s friends announced that the drag queen resembled his aunt, Rose. The performer happened to have an Aunt Rose as well, and considered it a nice, theatrical name.
Now a Palm Springs resident who performs a regular Sunday show at Toucans Tiki Lounge in Palm Springs, Rose was asked to organize Central Coast Pride’s drag show, which includes selecting the talent. Though Rose’s preference is a little more traditional—showgirls and Broadway numbers—he insists that finding performers with diverse talent is key.
“The hardest thing to do is get the right mix of girls. I’ve got a showgirl. I’ve got someone who does comedy. I’ve got a girl who is a dancer. So you don’t have everybody doing a ballad. It’s got to be very smooth putting it together, so there’s a little bit of something for everyone.”
And Rose will be performing comedy between each of the acts, keeping the audience energy level high. It’s no small effort preparing to simply step out on stage during a drag show. After three decades in the industry, Rose can apply his makeup for a show in 20 to 25 minutes, but some performers require several hours. Then there are myriad small, but important details. Wigs must be constantly styled and cleaned. Performers have to girdle and cinch to give themselves a waistline, and rely on padding to create the illusion of breasts and hips. But at 51 years old, Rose wouldn’t want to do anything else, and jokes that one day they’ll have to drag him off the stage.
As for the people who are critical of his profession or lifestyle, Rose is comfortable in his skin, and the world he has created for himself. He jokes about his sexuality onstage, claiming that his mother knew he was gay because his birth was preceded by three yards of yellow chiffon, a red sequined dress, and a Judy Garland record.
“Just because you don’t understand a lifestyle doesn’t mean they’re wrong,” he said. “I have a lot of friends in the leather community. I personally don’t understand it. It happens in every community. We just have to get beyond that and look at everybody as individuals.”
Because the city has a history of being supportive of GALA’s pride events, Kinports is proud that the festival returns the favor by working as a draw for outside visitors. Much of the growth of the annual 4th of July barbecue is due to patronage from the Central Valley. Kinports estimates last year’s attendance at 300 people, and GALA serves them all with a barbecue and drinks for free. The Freewheelers Car Club—“the world’s oldest gay classic car club” according to the organization’s website—will be hosting its West Coast Meet on July 10 at Embassy Suites in SLO.
If barbecues, classic cars, a drag show, and festival at the Mission aren’t sufficiently alluring, comedian Lisa Lampanelli—billed as Comedy Central’s “Queen of Mean”—will be performing at the PAC on July 10. The shiny new GALA center on Palm Street will also play host to an art reception on July 2. And even after the last of the 4th of July burgers have been digested, the drag queens’ wigs sent to the shop for cleaning, and the face paint cleared from children’s faces, GALA welcomes and depends upon community support. This can come in the form of financial donations, votes, or even support in a social situation when someone makes a homophobic slur. The pride festival might come just once a year, but respect never goes out of style.
Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach hearts equality. Send comments to [email protected].