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It’s a Wednesday in mid-June and ladies’ night at Remingtons, “Washington, DC’s favorite Country Western Bar.” Or at least it’s something like ladies’ night.
Among the many men in attendance at the Capitol Hill watering hole, three are onstage and vying for the title of Miss Gay Crystal City America 2005. Clad in makeup and glam evening gowns, the contestants—Esmerelda Kaye James, Jaclyn Avanite, and Victoria Barrera—face the question-and-answer portion of the competition.
“What’s the most important function of being a female impersonator in today’s world?” the MC asks. Brunette-wigged Barrera, in a glittering green dress, responds with a typical beauty-contest remark: “Simply to entertain,” she says. “And bring good tidings to the homosexual community.”
Offstage by the bar, a tall, leggy blonde offers a deeper thought: Cross-dressing performers, she says, are upholding an important artistic and cultural tradition.
“In a lot of ways, the drag shows are the last cabarets in America,” explains the man behind the drag, Bill Pietrucha, a towering beanpole of a guy sporting a slinky black cocktail frock and 3-inch-high, size-13 heels.
Furthermore, Pietrucha argues, it’s about better bridging the gender gap. “You learn a lot about the shit that women have to go through,” he says. “You can know it intellectually as a man. But just try being on the receiving end of all the stupidity.”
Pietrucha’s alter ego is not among the competitors tonight. But then again, she’s hardly your typical drag queen. The way she’s swilling beer, chain smoking, and cursing like a truck driver seems none too ladylike. And whereas most of the Miss Gay Crystal City hopefuls favor sequins, shimmer, and plenty of bling-bling, she follows a different model, aiming for something a little more, well, conservative.
Once the talk turns to politics and Ms. Tall, Leggy Blonde declares that “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity,” the gag becomes clear: Pietrucha is mockingly impersonating right-wing political pundit Ann Coulter, the Fox News talking head, author of Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right, and one of the so-called “elves” who secretly assisted Paula Jones’ sexual-harassment suit against President Bill Clinton.
Tonight’s appearance in Coulter drag is basically a dress rehearsal for an act that Pietrucha calls Annie Has Her Gun, a satirical song-and-drag routine that he’s been developing for several months and hopes to soon start performing in local clubs. “It’s a real piss playing such an extreme character,” he says. “She’s already, in a sense, doing a caricature of herself. It can be trying attempting to parody someone whose statements are already so outrageous.”
But Pietrucha insists he’s the right man in a dress for the job: “It takes balls to be a Republican woman.”
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“If you’d told me a year ago I’d be onstage in drag,” Pietrucha says, “I’d be like, ‘You’ve gotta be out of your fucking mind.’” It’s true that he just doesn’t seem the type: His preferred attire includes ratty snakeskin boots and a Calgary Stampede belt buckle. He wears his long blond hair, now graying and receding, pulled back in a ponytail beneath a cowboy hat.
Not that the 56-year-old Capitol Hill resident isn’t used to trying new things. A self-described “gypsy” and “jack-of-all-trades,” he’s worked as an actor, writer, and light-show technician, among other odd jobs. These days, Pietrucha bides his time with multiple occupations: On Tuesday nights, he tends bar at the Hawk ’n’ Dove, just across Pennsylvania Avenue from his apartment on Seward Square. On other days, he works on a farm in Amesville, Va., driving a tractor and “shoveling horse shit.”
Yet even before the Coulter skit came about, Pietrucha wasn’t a cross-dressing virgin. Twice previously, in fact, for Dupont Circle’s annual High Heel Race, he had appeared in drag: in 2002, sporting a French maid’s outfit, and in 2003, in a full Snow White costume.
The political schtick wasn’t his idea, Pietrucha says. It was something his longtime friend Larry LaSota came up with: One night last fall, LaSota was watching HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher from his home on Kauai, Hawaii, when he noticed something familiar about Coulter, a frequent guest on the show. “Oh, my God,” LaSota recalls realizing. “That’s Bill in a blond wig!”
Retired from the TV and film industry, LaSota and his wife, Elaine LaSota, who now run their own wedding-video company, urged their friend to capitalize on his Coulter-like characteristics: being over 6 feet tall, a mere 150 pounds, and, as Pietrucha says, a “caustic, sarcastic bitch.” (Coulter did not return calls for comment.)
“When you’re built like this,” he says, “everybody’s making comments—‘God, you know, you should’ve been a model.’ I’m 6-foot-5 and a size 4. Do I piss off women? Yes. They’re all like, ‘I hate you.’ I’m like, ‘Read it and weep, bitch.’”
Ever since his friends’ suggestion, Pietrucha has immersed himself in the art of dress-up. Four foam heads topped with wigs—blond, black, brown, and red—now line the shelves in his one-bedroom apartment. His clothes are separated into two spaces: the “Boy Closet,” containing shirts, slacks, and sweats, and the far larger “Girl Closet,” stuffed with a burgundy business suit, a skimpy black spandex dress, eight pairs of women’s shoes, and numerous other feminine garments.
Pietrucha has also enlisted the help of a 22-year veteran of the D.C. drag scene, Andrew Abell, co-owner and promoter of the annual Miss Gay DC America pageant. “Everybody needs guidance in makeup and style,” says Abell, an Alexandria resident also known as his female persona, Blair Michaels. Abell has adopted Pietrucha as his own “drag daughter,” he says, to better introduce the newcomer to the ways of female impersonation.
“He kind of reminds me of that uncle that you have that you wouldn’t think [of dressing in drag],” Abell says of Pietrucha. “But he really gets out there and puts his heart and soul into everything he does. He’s very passionate about it.”
Indeed, for Pietrucha, female impersonation has become an all-or-nothing proposition. “It’s one thing if you, say, for Halloween put on a dress and a wig but kept your beard or didn’t put on a lot of makeup,” he says. “Or did the Dolly Parton thing—big butt, big chest, almost making a caricature of a woman.
“That I will not do,” he adds adamantly. “I won’t take the worst stereotypes of a female and exaggerate them even further. If I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna do it right. I’m going for the full illusion….With my kind of build, there’s no way I’d be a C or a D cup. It would just look ridiculous.”
So, equipped with build-appropriate B-cup fake breasts, a necklace bearing a charm shaped like the letter A, and a 12-inch talking Ann Coulter doll, Pietrucha has spent countless hours crafting his female persona: studying tapes of Coulter’s talk-show appearances, reading the weekly rants on her Web site, and even buying her latest book, Treason: Liberal Treachery From the Cold War to the War on Terrorism.
“A lot of it is bullcrap,” he says of Coulter’s work. “But it’s clever bullcrap.”
And clever bullcrap is something Pietrucha can relate to: Coulter’s fiery rhetoric makes for “good copy.” And besides, he asks, “Why let the truth get in the way of a good one-liner?”
Ashing a cigarette at a desk in his tiny bedroom, Pietrucha explains his philosophy of performance. “Comedy,” he says, “is just reality with about a three- to eight-degree tilt.” Clearing his throat, Pietrucha then does his best Willie Nelson: “Of all the girls I’ve loved before/There’s many sheep that I’ve loved more…”
LaSota describes Pietrucha’s comedic style as “somewhere between Mel Brooks and Mark Russell” and commends his friend’s mental capacity for raw material. “Bill’s got this catalog in his head of so many Broadway songs, going back to the ’30s and the ’40s,” LaSota says. “He just comes up with this stuff all the time with a song to match it. His brain just fires ’em out.”
For the Coulter act, Pietrucha has written more than a dozen political parodies of well-known show tunes. He gathers himself together, starts some recorded accompaniment by local pianist Deena Javor, and launches into Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s “Get Happy,” made famous by Judy Garland in Summer Stock. Pietrucha has altered the tune into a critique of the Bush administration’s energy policies: “Screw conservation,” he sings. “Come on, keep drivin’…/Drill Alaska, we’ll all be better/That’s what Cheney and all them say/Get in your Hummer or SUV now/Drive straight up to your Judgment Day.”
His take on the classic Sinatra number “Love and Marriage,” by contrast, targets not Coulter, but another conservative pundit: talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh. “Rush and marriage/Rush and marriage,” he sings. “Preaches morals, what a gross miscarriage/Three-time loser, I’d say/He might find love if he turned gay.”
“It’s not so much a parody of Ann Coulter,” Pietrucha admits of Annie Has Her Gun. The character, he explains, is more of “a vehicle.”
Pietrucha has twice beta-tested the Coulter routine before friendly audiences: once at the Hawk ’n’ Dove this past March and later at the LaSotas’ home in Hawaii. The second time, a neighbor of the LaSotas’, comedian Michele Rundgren, joined in on the act. Pietrucha, as Coulter, and Rundgren, assuming the role of Hillary Rodham Clinton, performed a duet, a parody of the melodic gender debate in Annie Get Your Gun, called “Anything Dems Can Do, We Can Do Better.”
“It was a riot,” says Larry LaSota, who videotaped the performance and is currently transferring it onto a DVD demo. He’ll also be bringing Pietrucha back to Hawaii for a club performance later this month. By September, the pair hopes, Annie Has Her Gun will make its official debut in D.C.
Pietrucha isn’t aiming for fame and fortune, he says—he’d be content just doing small clubs, “community-theater kind of shit.” But just in case LaSota and other supporters are right about his act’s star-making potential, he’s been paying close attention to his wardrobe—especially the stuff that goes into the Girl Closet.
“They all keep saying to me,” he says, “‘You’d better be prepared not to be wearing a dress one night a week, but wearing it five nights a week.’”CP