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Miss Coco Peru: Still a storyteller

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The drag icon is returning to Galesburg’s Orpheum on March 11.

Miss Coco Peru. Photos via Facebook

If you’re a certain age, you might remember the movie Trick back in the late 1990s. And if you’re a bit younger, you watched the revival of Will & Grace a couple of years ago. What they have in common, along with being well-loved LGBTQ entertainment, is Miss Coco Peru.

Coco is appearing at The Orpheum in Galesburg on Friday, March 11. This will be her second trip to Galesburg and she’s looking forward to it.

“You go to these smaller places with a wonderful staff, it’s better in some of the bigger cities,” she said. “I encourage people who live in the bigger cities to go out now and then.” The first time she came to town, she happened to look at her Facebook and see someone comment “Get out of my town.” She did think it was hilarious, “What is he, the mayor?”, but she also wondered what she she’d gotten herself into.

Miss Coco Peru at DragCon in 2015.

“And then when I performed, it was a wonderful experience. The people that came out were so supportive. People actually drove hours to come see that show. I felt really happy that I did it,” she said. “In some way, I felt like It’s my duty to even return to that town for that person who thinks he owns it.”

Coco, whose off-stage name is Clinton Leupp, has performed on stage in drag shows, at comedy clubs and on screen. But at core, she sees herself as a storyteller.

“I think storytelling is important, especially in today’s world with everyone glued to their phones,” she said in an interview with the Eagle. “I address that in the new show I’ll be doing. It’s so important. It gives us that time out to feel connected, not only with the person on stage but with the entire audience, people who are having the same experience. I often joke that my shows often like church to me, or what church should feel like.”

Coco got started entertaining while in college. She had dreams of being a serious actor, but found that with a strong Bronx accent and being gay, that may not be in the cards. “I was not going to be an average actor. I was going to have to create my own career.”

Her role models were Robins Williams and Whoopi Goldberg, performers who are very themselves, even when playing characters. And both are storytellers themselves.

So she dived into the world of cabaret, performing in New York City. They could be political and experiment. Jonathan Larson, the writer of Rent, actually wrote the music for many of the shows she was in.

“It was very exciting to be working with other talented people on stuff that you felt was so cutting edge, and making a difference in the world,” Coco said. “That was definitely part of my growth. And being openly gay and dealing with the AIDS crisis in New York City at the time was also a big motivation to be a performer but be a performer working to make the world a better place.”

When asked, she didn’t actually have a favorite character, because each brought back wonderful memories. Trick was one of the first times she had a prominent role and was even able to write the monologue that became so famous.

“I got to do what I’m known for, monologues.”

A gay rom-com, Coco talks with one of the leads about the guy he’s trying (and failing) to hook up with. And with just five minutes screen time, her “It burnnss” is how many LGBTQ people below the age of 40 remember the movie. It was even used in advertising for the movie. It’s also one of the top three things people say when they meet her in person.

Another iconic role was 2005’s drag comedy Girls Will Be Girls, where she was a lead along with Jack Plotnick and Varla Jean Merman. “I got to work with other people doing drag that I admire.” While the not being a big hit in the theaters, it has since become a cult classic. In fact, Coco said, some people actually judge if a friendship will last depending on how the other person feels about Girls Will Be Girls.

Miss Coco Peru on Will & Grace in 2018.

Even Will & Grace has a special place. Coco had guest starred during the show’s first go-around and again with the revival a couple of years ago.

“I could see the difference between the first go around and now,” she said. “It was incredible to see how different the show was written. And how different the world was when it came to LGBT people.” For example, when the show was first on in 2001, Sean Hayes’ character of Jack couldn’t even date much less kiss another guy. But in the 2020 revival, Jack not only kissed but married a guy.

“Even to just go back on the show, I felt like everyone there, including the crew members, made an effort to make me feel welcome and celebrated,” she said. “They really acknowledged that. It was really wonderful to feel appreciated. I never take that feeling for granted.”

Even her quick appearance on To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, where she crushes a cup while throwing shade at Patrick Swayze’s Vida during a contest, will get references. “People will crush a glass in front of me.”

In all, Coco has had 32 appearances in films, TV shows and the web, experiences she values.

“There’s only so many people who can see a live show in New York. Considering I’ve been doing this for 30 years and survived, I feel very fortunate to have the career that I’ve had.”

But even with the iconic and well-loved roles, she still loves performing on stage.

“I have a lot of fears and it’s all early childhood damage,” Coco said. “I’ve spent years in therapy and read so many self-help books and consciously made an effort to over come that. I think that I’ve gotten to a point in my life where I probably will never overcome it. But the wonderful thing is I haven’t let it stop me from pursuing my dreams. I’ve really made the effort to push through my fears and do what I love. That’s very exciting. I leave feeling not only connected to the audience but I feel more connected to myself.”

She feels very fortunate for the career that she’s had for more than 30 years.

“It gave them permission to be authentic, to feel good about themselves. That they could feel at home in the world. And that’s a really wonderful gift for people to give me when they can express those moments when I had that kind of impact. It’s a bit overwhelming.

Miss Coco Peru

“This may sound corny, I’ve had so many people through the years come up to me, not only saying they love me, but saying they were going through a horrible time dealing with trying to be authentic, feeling good about themselves,” Coco said. “And even just seeing me in a silly YouTube video walking around Kmart, where I clearly don’t belong but where made myself belong. Where I owned the space I was in.”

It may have been a silly moment to her, but it wasn’t for others.

“It gave them permission to be authentic, to feel good about themselves,” she said. “That they could feel at home in the world. And that’s a really wonderful gift for people to give me when they can express those moments when I had that kind of impact. It’s a bit overwhelming.

“That’s probably been the most rewarding aspect of my career. The countless times people have expressed really beautiful, emotional things. Really, that’s priceless.”

Miss Coco Peru will be at The Orpheum in Galesburg on Friday, March 11. Tickets are $25 and are available here.

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