Miss Coco Peru, star of the stage, screen, and YouTube, graces Illusion Theatre this Saturday. Peru, the drag persona of actor Clinton Leupp, says the show intersperses autobiographical stories with songs that run the gamut: Broadway show tunes, pop songs, and old classics.
Peru’s act grew out of a desire to be an activist during the AIDS crisis of the late 1980s and early '90s. “I got swept up into wanting to change the world,” he says.
Leupp was bullied growing up. His classmates called him a girl, and he was teased. In theater, he was told by his teachers to “butch up” and lose his Bronx accent. “So I just decided rather than trying to suppress what was natural to me, I was going to bring it forth in a big huge gay way,” he says.
Leupp found his voice through creating Coco Peru. “Word travelled very quickly around [NYC] about my show because I was so political and I was saying things that people wanted to hear or wanted to say themselves,” he says.
Leupp had never done drag before his first Coco performance 27 years ago. “I had this idea, so I called the club and booked the venue,” Leupp says. “I hadn’t written the show yet, and I hadn’t ever seen myself in drag. I didn’t know how to even shop for drag.”
He gave himself three months to write and create a character.
After his early success on New York stages, Coco went on to appear in Hollywood films like To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar and the independent film Trick starring Tori Spelling, as well as TV shows like Arrested Development. Miss Coco Peru also is known for Conversations with Coco series, where Coco interviews famous Hollywood stars like the late Bea Arthur, Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, and Liza Minnelli.
“My biggest early influence was Bea Arthur, because I just loved her comic timing and I knew she was funny at a very early age,” Leupp says. Creating Coco gave him the chance to meet the stars he grew up worshipping. “I feel like every time I meet one of those people, it’s just a nice little way of the universe telling me that I made the right choice in becoming a drag queen.”
Miss Coco Peru has also found popularity on YouTube; her videos where she searches for Celestial Seasonings Tension Tamer Tea are probably her best-known work. “I made some videos just for the fun of it,” Leupp says.
They went viral, and attracted a whole new audience of teenage girls.
“I find it fascinating that teenage girls are looking up to me,” he says. “But I think part of that is, it’s not easy being a teenage girl in this society. They see me walking through the world dressed drag in a Kmart -- where I clearly don’t belong -- not giving a crap what anybody thinks of me. I think teenage girls think that’s kind of neat.”
While Leupp hasn’t lost his Bronx accent, he’s spent the past 18 years in Hollywood, where he lives with his husband. While he loves New York and is happy he’s from there, he doesn’t have plans to move back.
“I took a leap of faith and moved out here, just like I took a leap of faith when I created Coco. That’s kind of where the magic in your life happens," he says. "When you face your fears and you step off the edge of that cliff, you have no other choice but to make it work. That’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned creating Coco.”
IF YOU GO:
An Intimate Evening with Coco Peru
8 p.m. Saturday, September 30
528 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis