Monday, March 20, 2023

Christopher Peterson Talks Eyecons, Learning To Sew, Counting Heads, Judy, and Stonewall

Peterson is, without doubt, North America’s foremost female impersonator, and his show, “Eyecons,” has been a Key West staple for 17 years. Over the past decade, he has taken it on the road much to the delight of audiences everywhere.

This weekend, “Eyecons” rolls into town to benefit the LGBT Life Center with two performances on Friday and Saturday night at the Little Theater of Virginia Beach.

A master of impersonations, both visually and vocally, Peterson’s performances never involve lip-synching. He flawlessly transitions from one character to another with the help of his “magic” side-stage closet and a plethora of wigs and gowns. His vocal range and comic timing are truly remarkable.

Over the course of the evening, he transforms himself with ease into Marilyn Monroe, Carol Channing, Madonna, Joan Rivers, Reba McEntire, Bette Midler, Tina Turner, Julie Andrews, Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli, Judy Garland, Eartha Kitt, Cher, Bette Davis, Lucille Ball (whom he portrayed next to Cuba Gooding Jr. in the hit movie “Rat Race”) and Lady GaGa.

We had a chance to chat with Christopher recently about his career and lots of other dish.

We’re so excited to see you this weekend. Saturday night is sold out. Is that important to you at this stage in your career?

Fortunately, I’m a very horrible performer. I don’t like to count heads. We had this big discussion the other day, and I said my whole life has been literally counting heads. So, what I do is I say hello to everyone, I go into the dressing room, I put on my makeup, I put on my wig. And five minutes before the show, I peek out the curtain, and I go, “Oh look, a full house.” And I go and perform. Or I go, “Oh look, a half a house.” And I go and perform. And that’s it!

You can drive yourself a little crazy with that. Everybody hates me, I mean all that stuff goes through your head. But a thousand years ago, a performer friend of mine told me, “Always remember, those 10 people out there? They paid to see you.” So, you give them exactly what they came for.

Now, it does matter to me this weekend because we’re raising money for a good cause (the LGBT Life Center), so I hope we sell out Friday, too!

You’ve been doing this for 17 years in Key West—and been a performer much longer than that—and your audiences have grown in size and stature over that time.

I know that, but when I talk about my career, it’s strange for me because every night I have to prove myself. Because it’s a virgin audience. I work for tourists. There may be three or four people who’ve seen me before, but out of 100 people in the audience, 96 of them are complete strangers. And they have never seen drag! I put my neck on the line every single night. I have a duty every night to win them over. Like Barbara Walters said, every time I go on, I have to audition.

Now part of that is I trust the work. I know 98% of the time, the audience will have a great time. And the two percent that don’t, it’s because they had a bad dinner.

My father in law will be here this weekend, and he’s a former law enforcement officer from Nebraska. What can he expect?

He can expect the same that those same certain gentlemen get with every show. One of the things I absolutely know is what happened two weeks ago. All of the husbands said to their wives, “What do you want to do for Valentine’s Day?” And all the wives went, “Let’s go see a drag show!” And the husbands said, “I don’t know if I love you that much, honey. But here you are.”

That’s the thing. They sit back and go, is he going to pick on me, is this going to be over the top gay? And halfway through the show, they’re the ones who start clapping the loudest, and by the end of the show, they’re the ones saying, “Oh my god, this is the most amazing thing!”

I’m in awe of how you’ve cobbled together a career from traditional theater work, Canadian talk shows, movies, and now Eyecons. Did that all happen by design or accident?

Mine was strategically planned from the age of 5. When I was 10 or 11, Carol Burnett was the show we all watched. And a man by the name of Jim Baily was one of her guests. He came on as a man, then left, and came back on later as Barbara Streisand. And I said what the hell is that? And I knew what I wanted. I wanted to be Jim Baily.

The goal from that age on was to take home economics so I could learn to sew; take theater classes so I could learn to act; and take make up classes so I could learn to do my own. I threw myself into theater, and by the age of 14, I was a professional actor. And from there, it was a short jump to drag. I won a huge drag pageant in Vancouver in 1984 called Mr. Alternate, and that threw my career into the stratosphere in Canada. And from then on, it was just luck. Now I’ve been working for 39 years.

How has drag changed over those 39 years?

In the 80s, all the queens tried to get on talk shows. I don’t know if you remember Jimmy James (an American impersonator whose trademark was Marilyn Monroe), but he landed on Donahue. I was on two high profile Canadian talk shows (The Shirley Show and The Dini Petty Show). And then in the 90s, Ru Paul came up, which launched drag into the mainstream. And then in the 2000’s we all kind of went underground again. But now, we’re back, and we’re all drag queens again. 

How has Ru Paul’s Drag Race affected the drag and impersonation industry?

I think anybody can move up through the ranks if you have real talent. But the problem is that the queens on Ru Raul’s drag race are just the same as the contestants on any other reality show. It’s a competition that is first and foremost about ratings, and someone has to get kicked off. So maybe it’s not the cream of the crop that wins.

You don’t lip sync. Your vocals are live. Are you a trained vocalist?

Well, I’m high school and church choir. I believe everybody can sing. Some sing well and some don’t. When I hear myself, I go, eeeewww! I seem to sell it though. I wish I could sing a little bit more controlled, but my audience doesn’t allow that. They want you loud and in their face. So ballads are out. It’s big and loud and brassy.

How do you decide which celebrities make it into your act?

Whichever ones I can do! I’ve gone through billions of characters. And some of them have been dropped just because I can’t quite get it how I want it. Again, we were discussing this the other day: who new can I do?  I did Gaga for a while, and I think we’re going to add her back to the show. But again, I want to go Madonna-Gaga! Because I think that would be interesting for a crowd to look at. How the two ladies, just by putting on a pair of sunglasses, all of a sudden, become the same person. 

I love that you change on stage and transform in front of the audience.

Yes, my Magic Closet. Because I get to do the obvious joke: 32 years out of the closet, and now I have to go back in and do this show. 

Do you have one performer that you love to do the most?

Garland. And I save her for the end of the show for a couple of different reasons. One is that she deserves that. In her day she was the greatest entertainer of her time. And in the gay community, she was our very first icon. We all know that Stonewall would not have happened if Judy hadn’t died. The only reason those queens decided to fight back was because they were mourning, and the cops wouldn’t let them do that. So fuck you. And secondly, I do her very well.

What advice would you give an aspiring female impersonator in 2019?

I just watched the Oscars last night, and everyone who won said the same thing: you work hard. It’s never handed to you. There will be people who will help you along the way, but it’s all you. It has to be something that you want so badly to do. You can’t just put on a wig and eyelashes and have that be it. There’s this old saying in the industry. Everyone who makes it has talent. But not everyone who has talent makes it.

Tickets are $35. Saturday night’s show is sold out. Tickets are available for Friday night’s show online or by calling 757-428-9233.

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