Norfolk’s Randy Roberts Dishes on Bad Drag, the Cue Club, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and Impersonating Lady Gaga

He brings his renowned female impersonation show to town this weekend.

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randy roberts

Female impersonator Randy Roberts has been entertaining audiences for over 30 years. He was featured on NBC television’s America’s Got Talent. He’s been seen off-Broadway and on television on ABC television’s One Life To Live. He made his movie debut in the award winning indie film Any Day Now starring Alan Cumming, Garret Dillahunt, and Frances Fisher.

He’s currently headlining and packing the house in The Crystal Room Cabaret at La Te Da in Key West and can be seen regularly at The Alibi in Wilton Manors.

He’s performed on the Las Vegas strip in Boy-Lesque, at the Sahara and Stardust hotels, and in An Evening at La Cage at the Riviera Hotel.

This weekend, he returns home to Hampton Roads for a special two-night run of his energizing one-man show Randy Roberts Live! at his alma mater, The Hurrah Players. We spoke with him this week about his time in Hampton Roads and his stellar career.

So the prodigal son returns home this weekend. Tell me a bit about growing up in Norfolk.

I went to Norfolk Collegiate my sophomore and junior years, and I heard about this new program in the Norfolk public schools called the Hurrah Players, so during my junior year, I went to Booker T. Washington High School just so I could audition, and I got in. I left a college preparatory school and went to public schools just so I could do that! I was more interested in learning theater craft than anything else. But Hugh (Copeland) cast me in The Emperor’s Nightingale, and I refused to do it because I had to wear a gown. Ironic, don’t you think?

I recall hearing that you went to see Rocky Horror Picture Show around that time, and that was one of your first experiences with drag.

We went to Richmond for a Children’s Theater Conference my senior year, and we all went to see it. I raided the wardrobe department, and thought I looked smashing. Au contraire. I had no business being in drag the way I looked. That was also around the time I discovered that you never wear a white bra under a black leotard.

And you were also a waiter on the Spirit of Norfolk?

Yes, I was a singing waiter their first year in business. I started as reservations manager in the office. Then I realized the waiters were making all the money, so I left the office and went on the boat. Around that time, there was a club in Ghent called The Late Show, and that was my first real time seeing drag as it should be done. And then I did drag at the Cue Club for years.

Who was the first drag performer you saw that had a real impact on you?

Diana Rhoss. Tracy has been one of my dearest friends since I was 18. That’s been five years. She was instrumental in me starting my show at the Cue Club. I looked horrendous, I sang live, which was different. My drag name back then was Dorian Lord, the villainous diva from One Life to Life.

You impersonate a variety of well-known performers. Which ones come the easiest to you?

No one is easy per se. They all take research, and you have to find their characteristics that are recognizable to the audience and the ones I’m able to do. So for Bette Midler, I don’t sing The Rose or From A Distance. I like uptempo Bette. So I do create the illusion of the bawdy Bette, and with those little details thrown in, you know who I’m impersonating. And here’s the thing, I’m not lip-synching. I’m singing live. Because of that, I don’t know of many performers today who are that recognizable whom I can impersonate accurately. Celine is one of them, and I can look exactly like her, but who can sing like that? Not me, I can’t hit those high notes.

Who have you tried to incorporate into your act that you later on realized wasn’t a fit?

I did Lady Gaga for a while, and I will say people loved it. I didn’t feel the fit. I may try it again sometime, but between you and me, Gaga’s, what, 30? I don’t dance like she does, and I can sing somewhat like she does. I can pull it off. But I don’t want to just pull it off and think about it. Bette and Cher are in my blood now. Joan Rivers, Mae West. I can do them in my sleep.

You’ve performed in some really interesting places, some that I thought must have been difficult.

Like Biloxi?

Yes, that’s spring to mind.

We sold out every single show of the first 10-month run, and the majority of them during the second five-month run. It was at the casino. You could come there, you weren’t going to a gay bar. And every Saturday night, we had the same people at the same tables. And they baked us cakes and brought them to us at the door. I was Mr. Randy to everyone. Biloxi was wonderful.

On the other hand, I performed on the top deck of a riverboat casino in Greenville, Mississippi—probably the smallest town I’ve ever performed in—and there was some kind of bug swarming. Let’s just say, it wasn’t my favorite gig, but I did it more than once. They plastered my huge face on a billboard in Greenville, Mississippi. That had to be a first for that town.

How has drag and female impersonation changed for better and for worse over the years?

Back in the early days, we were doing drag at a great time to do drag. It hadn’t exploded, and there weren’t any expectations. We defined it, and let it define us. Jennifer Warner, Mercedes, Diana Rhoss, all of us back in those days. Today it’s not as shocking to as many people as it was. Back then, it was “let’s go see the clown, the freak,” you know? But there’s been the good and the bad of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Yes, drag is now mainstream. That’s a positive. My negative take from the show is that instead of showing the creativity and time involved, they’re adding all this drama, the Real Drag Queens of New York. And I’ve also found that if you’re not on Drag Race, it’s not as easy to get a gig in as many places.

What differentiates what you do from what the performers on RuPaul’s Drag Race do?

I always wanted to be an actor. That’s why I did The Hurrah Players. Musical theater was always my thing. I found a gimmick within the drag universe that kept me working non-stop and satisfied that desire. So I’m not a drag performer, I’m a female impersonator who sings live.

WANT TO GO?

WHAT: Randy Roberts Live!

WHEN: Friday, June 8 and Saturday, June 9 at 7:00 PM

WHERE: Hugh Copeland Center, 112 W Wilson Ave, Norfolk, VA 23510

TICKETS: $25-$30. OutWire readers, use discount code OUT757 when purchasing and save 20%.