Lady Bunny Is Still the Shadiest Queen Around
Three decades after landing in New York with RuPaul, Lady Bunny rules as New York’s reigning drag queen, even as a younger generation nips at her heels.
Lady Bunny backstage at Wigstock in New York this month. Caroline Tompkins for The New York Times
“Testes, testes, one, two, three!” a voice rasped over the sound system in a cheeky Southern drawl.
It was the first day of September, and the occasion was Wigstock, the storied drag extravaganza that was making a bedazzled return at the South Street Seaport after a 17-year hiatus.
But it had stalled as soon as it started, at 3 p.m., with the sound booth playing the wrong track. “Have you been to Wigstock before?” the voice squawked. “Have we ever got it right? Are all our mics on? Check? Check?”
Finally, the correct song played, and the owner of that Tennessee twang emerged in full splendor. As most of the crowd already knew, it was Lady Bunny, Wigstock’s buxom, potty-mouthed founder and ringmaster, wearing a kimono-sleeved metallic-gold minidress and a towering blond bouffant.
She was flanked by three other drag veterans in gold, who traded unprintable barbs (mostly about who was the oldest or most promiscuous). After a few minutes, Neil Patrick Harris, who helped revive Wigstock with his husband, David Burtka, popped onstage in a tank top. “It is my job as the producer of this show to keep things moving,” Mr. Harris said.
But Lady Bunny kept talking, promising “un-P.C. humor” and other risqué acts. “You’re going to see nudity today. Don’t worry, it’s not me,” she told the raucous crowd, many of whom had come in wigs and sequins. “We’re going to lock the doors, and I’m going to strip. And you’re going to pay to get out!”
A fixture of New York night life since the early 1980s, when she moved from Atlanta with her pal RuPaul, Lady Bunny is arguably the city’s reigning drag queen, less a mother hen than a queen bee with plenty of sting. Her signature look — big curves, bigger hair — has endured, as has her act: scowling, spiky comedy, laced with political jabs and honeyed with Southern-fried gregariousness.
Lady Bunny resurrected Wigstock at Pier 17 earlier this month.
And while much has changed in L.G.B.T. life over the past 17 years (gay marriage, PrEP, Caitlyn Jenner and “RuPaul’s Drag Race”), Lady Bunny retains the rude and crude spirit that has eroded over the decades, both from downtown Manhattan and from drag itself, now that “Drag Race” has minted a new crop of camera-ready stars.
Like a record store clinging to a gentrified block, her insult-comedy style is a throwback to her scrappy East Village roots — or maybe just a stubborn refusal to evolve with the times.
“Bunny is more of an old-school clown-slash-entertainer, whereas RuPaul has become more of an Oprah-like oracle,” said Michael Musto, a longtime night life columnist. “They’ve become kind of the yin and yang of drag.”
Meet Her ‘Evil Twin’
A week later, an inconspicuous 56-year-old materialized at a West Village coffee shop and said, “I’m Bunny’s evil twin.” The voice was instantly recognizable, but little else: wavy shoulder-length gray hair, wrinkled forehead, naked lips. In her black punk-rock T-shirt and sneakers, she looked more like a part-time guitar teacher than an undercover queen.
“Very few people recognize me out of drag,” she said. “And I like that, because if you’re lugging your laundry to the laundromat, you’re not always in the mood to stop.”
Even offstage, however, her friends call her Bunny, rather than her birth name, Jon Ingle. She also prefers to be addressed by a female pronoun, even as she balks at what she sees as the younger L.G.B.T. generation’s hypersensitivity to gender labels.
We were a few blocks away from her rent-stabilized basement apartment on Greenwich Avenue, where she has lived for more than two decades. “It’s about ready for an episode of ‘Hoarders,’” she said about her wig-strewn “hippie crash pad,” which she shares with no roommates, lovers or pets. “I’m not relationship oriented.”
While she has never achieved RuPaul-level fame (or sought it), Bunny has remained ubiquitous: flouncing through parties during New York Fashion Week, touring bawdy cabaret shows and D.J.ing around the globe, including at Van Cleef & Arpels’ 40th anniversary party in Paris and a disco-themed exhibit at the Faena Art Center in Buenos Aires. She currently spins at Disco Sundays at the Monster, a gay club in Greenwich Village
Partying with Ms. DiLove, left, and Todd Oldham at Bryant Park in 1994.CreditRose Hartman/Getty Images
Being Lady Bunny is her full-time job, and has been for at least 20 years. “Luckily, I’ve been able to diversify and split my time between performing, DJing and a few acting gigs here and there,” she said. “So I never get bored.”
She has also benefited from the global spotlight of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Lady Bunny was recently invited to do a gig in Cardiff, Wales, which she acknowledges never would have happened without the RuPaul effect.
And yet she has misgivings about what “Drag Race” has wrought.
“If all of these people are embracing drag, they need to get with the drag subculture and realize that not everyone is trying to be a mentor like Mama Ru,” she said, taking a seat on a nearby park bench. “Some of us are hateful and demented.”
She also worries that drag is losing its subversive edge. “I do differentiate myself from the cookie-cutter drag that’s out there today,” she said. “Ru wears a flower in his hair, so everyone wears it. I don’t want to be just like someone else.”
“I would rather see a busted booger queen who has smeared glitter all over her face and black tattered teeth come and tear a number up,” she added, “than one who spent five hours on her makeup on the highest-priced cosmetics, but has nothing to do onstage.”
Go-Go Dancing for $40
Lady Bunny grew up in Chattanooga, Tenn., where she was an outlier from the start.
“He loved to dress up in outfits and put on plays with the kids in the neighborhood,” said Bunny’s mother, Becky Ingle, a retired registered nurse who still lives in the same house with her husband. “We used to live in next door to a florist, and they would throw out ribbons in a garbage. And he made an outfit for a little play he did, where he tied all these ribbons together. He was about 6.”
Bunny’s father, H. Larry Ingle, was a history professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. The family’s liberal politics made them black sheep in 1960s Tennessee. The Ingles were vocal opponents of discriminatory housing and the Vietnam War, and they lobbied the City Council to end Chattanooga’s Armed Forces Day parade.
When Bunny was 11, her father got a Fulbright Scholarship and temporarily moved the family to Ghana, where her parents converted to Quakerism from Congregationalism. “It was the best year of my life,” she said, recalling banana trees in the backyard and an anaconda that slithered across the street. “I still gag West African cabdrivers by speaking the remnants of Fante. I can only say a few things, but it tickles them like crazy.”
But it became harder to fit in. “By the time I was 15 or 16, there were tensions in the home, because I was a flamer,” she said. “My dad would say, ‘Jon, all you want to do is flit around and try on clothes.’”
To straighten her out, her parents sent her to a Quaker boarding school in York, England. “I majored in drinking, which the English are good at,” she said. “It was the height of new wave, disco and punk, and I was super into music. Sylvester was my icon. And it was a known secret that I was gay, even though I made it somehow through school without getting gay bashed.”
A younger Lady Bunny at the nightclub Area in 1986.CreditPatrick McMullan
When she returned to Chattanooga two years later, she reluctantly enrolled at her father’s university, but by then her worldview was too wide. Restless, she transferred to Georgia State University, where she was less interested in class than in the burgeoning drag scene in Atlanta, which she called “the mecca of the gay South.”
There, she met RuPaul Charles, an ambitious glamour puss two years her senior. They became go-go dancers for a local new wave band, the Now Explosion, dressing themselves in thrift-store exotica.
“We were frequently evicted, occasionally working at Popeyes chicken — you know, street kids, essentially,” Bunny said. “At one point, Ru and I were homeless together, and we went with whoever would take us in after the club night was over. We were flashy trash.”
In 1983, she followed RuPaul to New York City, where for a time they shared an apartment in the still ungentrified meatpacking district. The epicenter of East Village drag was the Pyramid Club on Avenue A, and RuPaul and Lady Bunny (as she now called herself) became in-house queens, go-go dancing for $40 a night.
Her first time performing, she said, “I did a rousing lip-sync of ‘I Will Survive’ and fell halfway through it, lost my wig, and lost a shoe. But there’s that little lull in the music right before the end, and somehow I got up, got my wig back on and finished the number with one shoe.”
One night after the club closed, Bunny and some fellow revelers sauntered into nearby Tompkins Square Park. “We started clowning on the stage in front of a few homeless people who were sick of our yelling and trying to sleep at 5 a.m.,” she said. “And we just came up with the idea to parody Woodstock and do it as Wigstock. I’m sure the idea would have died with the next day’s hangover, but I actually said, ‘I’m going to apply for a permit.’”
The inaugural Wigstock took place in 1985, in the park’s (now demolished) band shell, where she performed a semi-rehearsed version of “I Feel the Earth Move.” “It was a ragtag audience,” said John Epperson, who performed as Lypsinka. “But we were eager to be in drag and parading in front of the public.”
The festival took off just as the AIDS epidemic was decimating New York’s gay community, but Bunny didn’t feel comfortable with the Act Up crowd. “I thought, ‘What can I do?’” she said. “I can be silly. I can be a clown. I can make people enjoy themselves and maybe lighten the burden of a blight.”
DJing at the Hamptons Tea Dance in 2016. CreditCasey Kelbaugh
Wigstock grew with the years, eventually moving to the piers along the West Side Highway. Lady Bunny’s profile, and hair, grew with it. Between occasional day jobs (ice cream scooper, customer representative for the erotica publisher Ralph Ginzburg), she started D.J.ing, put out disco singles and appeared in the 1995 drag comedy “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar.”
Michael Alig, the night life promoter who later went to prison for first-degree manslaughter, kept her busy with club gigs. “Michael paid my rent for 10 years,” she said.
RuPaul, meanwhile, moved to Hollywood and became a superstar. He now has a hit show, multiple Emmys and a husband with a 60,000-acre ranch in Wyoming. Inevitably, fame put some distance between him and Lady Bunny, whose open criticism of TV’s reigning queen has led to the perception of a rivalry.
“If it is a rivalry, he’s winning hands down,” she said, laughing. (RuPaul, through a spokeswoman, declined to be interviewed.) “I don’t have multiple homes. I don’t have a boyfriend. I don’t have a star on the Walk of Fame. So if you measure success in those terms, he’s won the rivalry. But that doesn’t mean that I like everything that he does, and I do like what I do. We just have different paths.”
What rivalry? RuPaul and Lady Bunny at the premiere of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” in Los Angeles in 2015.CreditImeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images
While it’s possible to see them as queens of separate spheres — the mainstream and the counterculture — their careers have remained intertwined. Lady Bunny presided as “Dean of Drag” on the “Drag Race” spinoff “RuPaul’s Drag U.” And RuPaul was a regular performer at Wigstock even at the height of his 1990s pop-music fame, featuring prominently in the 1995 documentary “Wigstock: The Movie.”
Bunny says they reconnected on the set of the 2008 film “Another Gay Sequel” and now communicate sporadically by email. “Some people who love the idea that drag queens are bitchy, because it’s seen through the prism of reality-TV shows, like to imagine that there is more tension between Ru and me than there actually is,” she said.
I Am Wigstock
As night fell on Wigstock, Bunny was holding forth for her seventh hour. “I’m now toying with the idea of transition,” she said, now wearing a shimmering silver evening gown. “Well, I went to the doctor and said, ‘Doctor, I’d like a sex change.’ He said, ‘From what to what?’”
In recent years, debates about offensive language have rankled the drag world, as transgender people have objected to terms like “tranny,” which some longtime drag queens see as their birthright.
She closed out the night with a medley of pop songs rewritten with X-rated lyrics. (Katy Perry’s “You’re gonna hear me roar” became “Boy, is it ever sore.”) She brought out her multigenerational cast of queens for a bow.
But at the stroke of 10 p.m., the lights went off and her microphone cut out mid-quip. She looked at it quizzically, then kept on talking.