The New York drag legend hits Spin.
A Sherry Vine performance is worth forgoing a hookup. I was so captivated, for example, when I first saw the New York drag queen at Barracuda bar in Chelsea five years ago that I found myself pushing away the cute guy who was chatting me up (although it’s hard to recall, I believe I had my cake and ate it too that night). More than 10 million YouTube hits proves that when Vine (a.k.a. Keith Levy) performs “I Shit My Pants” to the tune of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” or belts out “Give Me All Your Muff,” a nod to Madonna’s “Give Me All Your Luvin’,” people take notice. “I’ve been doing parodies ever since high school,” Levy says. “I just sort of fell into it.” Between numerous video entries, frequent gigs around New York, Fire Island and elsewhere, and a sketch show on Here TV (She’s Living for This), Vine is becoming harder to miss.
This year marked the 20th anniversary of Sherry Vine. Levy created her during graduate school in Los Angeles for an acting project that required students to create monologues based on three real-life people. “I randomly picked this drag queen in Hollywood and hung out and spent time with her, and so that was one of the characters I did,” he says. Initially reluctant to become a drag performer, Levy was nevertheless drawn to strong female characters like Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. In the mid-’90s he moved to New York and started a theater company with a writer, a director and himself as Sherry Vine in the role of various women.
At the same time, the club scene in New York was booming and Levy became swept up in a rising tide of drag performers including Candis Cayne, Varla Jean Merman, Joey Arias, Mistress Formika and Jackie Beat, all of whom would hit the club circuit doing two to three shows a night. “I was lucky to just get on the right wave when it was happening,” he says. But after Rudy Giuliani started clamping down on fun times in Manhattan, the drag scene dried up. “For ten years it was like, honey, we’re going to die off and there ain’t going to be anybody left,” Levy says. “Where are the young queens?”
Levy survived, in part, with the help of social media. Vine is a bona fide YouTube sensation thanks to NSFW pop parodies (recent entries “Firecrotch,” “Let’s Have a Pee Pee” and “Grindr Queen” parody Katy Perry, Scissor Sisters and ABBA respectively) that Levy writes, performs and films at a breakneck pace. “I was able to reach more people in two weeks than I was in 20 years,” he says of the phenomenon.
Meanwhile, drag has resurged big time thanks to RuPaul’s Drag Race, a show that has introduced the art form to mainstream audiences. “We always make this joke that drag has replaced Chippendales as the bachelorette destination,” he says. “There’s been a lot more interest in booking queens at corporate parties. I love that.” Levy says he has mixed feelings about the show itself, noting that not having music rights precludes the queens from true competition. “Queens shooting basketball hoops in drag? That to me is not really utilizing their talent,” he says.
Nevertheless, he says RuPaul has been very good to him personally and that the show has opened the door for She’s Living for This, Levy’s low-budget but smart and snappy labor of love, which he writes and stars in. The show has just been renewed for a second season with appearances from Pandora Boxx, Sharon Needles, Michael Musto and more, and is keeping Levy engaged. “I love it so much,” he says. “The minute I become bored or feel like there’s nothing left to do, I will do something else. Luckily, I don’t see that happening.”
Sherry Vine performs Saturday 8.