Well, she doesn't show signs of stopping
Sherry Vine (a.k.a. Keith Levy) is still hot.
Fri Dec 10 2010
Photograph: anna nicole images
Keith Levy grew up in the suburbs of Baltimore before heading off to Los Angeles to study theater. But it wasn't until he landed in New York, with friend and roommate Candis Cayne, that he really found himself—in a leggy, trashy-glammy, potty-mouthed drag queen named Sherry Vine. Since that arrival in 1992, Sherry has reigned in clubs all over town with her bitchy banter and naughty tunes; she's been hosting Sunday nights on and off at Barracuda for more than 15 years; and she spent four years living in Berlin, wowing cabaret fans as she traveled around Europe. This week, she joins Joey Arias and Sade Pendavis (fourth regular Raven O is out of town) for their beloved annual Bar d'O Reunion. But mostly, Sherry's been churning out beautifully hysterical pop-parody videos (Lady Gaga's "Alejandro" became "You're a Homo"; Katy Perry's "Firework" is "Fire Crotch") faster than she said "Yes! Please!" when TONY requested this interview. We met with Levy (not Vine) over coffee in Hell's Kitchen.
How was growing up gay in the 'burbs?
I was the big sissy. I was tortured. I look back now and wonder how I even got through it. I lived in fear for my entire school life, until college, devising different ways to sneak home because I was so scared. And I had no self-defense skills at all—except for the last two years of high school, when I started realizing I could make people laugh.
When did you first try drag?
In college, just for fun, to do a monologue. I was like, Well this is kind of fun! Then I visited New York to do [drag for] a play that my best friend had written, The Bad Weed, which was the beginning of [Off-Off Broadway spoof troupe] Theatre Couture. After that I was really happy, in a way I had never been before, but I was like, No, no, no! I'm not going to be a drag queen! My friend was like, "Why are you fighting it? You can do something that not a lot of people can do." I had my life planned out. I wanted to be a movie star. I was doing very well in L.A.—Equity theater, national commercials—and I was like, I'm not jumping off this train to do drag. But something about doing drag fulfilled me in a different way, so I let go and said, Okay, I'm going to do this. And I've not once doubted that I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing.
How did Sherry Vine emerge?
In the beginning it was just Sherry, and I always just tawked like this [Makes his voice high and "New Yawk--y"], this very [Judy Holliday in] Born Yesterday voice—tattered showgirl down on her luck. The look was much more comedy, like I didn't wear boobs or shave my legs. When I came to New York in '92, there was Candis Cayne and Mistress Formika and all these drag queens who were gorgeous and talented, so it evolved a bit, but was still Barbie on crack.
You have a great voice. What singers do you emulate?
I grew up total rock & roll, worshipping Pat Benatar and Debbie Harry and Siouxsie Sioux. So I don't know if I could pick one person who was a musical influence, but I would definitely say a female rock singer. Heart. You know? But working at Bar d'O with Joey and Raven, I just learned so much. Raven's kind of jazz and in-your-face; Joey's also jazzy, but really refined; and I was like Carol Burnett.
Why did you go to Berlin and why did you return?
I had already been spending eight months out of the year in Europe, working a lot with Joey Arias. Plus it was during Giuliani and the whole crackdown on the clubs scene, and I needed to get outta here. It was the most amazing experience ever. I got to learn another language. I really saw all of Europe and performed and fell in love. But I knew I'd come back here for Theatre Couture, so when they secured the rights to do Carrie, I was like, Okay.
What was your return like?
When I first left, I was so done with New York that I was like, I'm never coming back! I'm European! [Laughs] When I did come back, I was like, Oh, right! New York! My battery was recharged. And I really tried to come back with this European mentality: It's okay to sit down and drink your coffee. Nothing's going to happen if you don't run holding your cup of coffee.
Would you ever do classic cabaret?
In Berlin I stepped away from the parodies because of the language, mostly, and I was doing cabaret, in drag, in big theaters that seat 300 people, with a band and backup singers. Drag is really different there; it's really considered a legitimate art form. When I came back I was like, I'm not singing any more of those stupid parodies! But then no one was interested [in me]. So again, I was on a path and then kind of tripped myself, and thought, Well, why not sing parodies? There are not that many people who can do that.
How has the drag scene changed since you started?
There was this ten-year period where there was no one new—just us dinosaurs. But now there's been this explosion of really talented, amazing queens. So I think there's a drag renaissance now in New York. It's related to the economy: When times are going well, drag is the first thing to get cut from the budget. "Oh, we don't need the clown!" Then, when times are not good, like now, we're more in demand because people really want to just escape.
Are your parents in your life?
I'm so blessed to have my parents. They're amazing. They're so cool. They've been to the Bar d'O shows. They love Joey, they talk to Joey on the phone. They always come to the opening night of my plays. I get e-mails from my dad like, "Hey, I thought of a song for Sherry Vine!" Some of the songs and videos they don't like, it's too much for them. They love the Lady Gaga stuff. If it's potty humor, they love it. "Shit My Pants" [to the tune of "Bad Romance"] they love, that's their favorite. My dad really appreciated "You're a Homo." But they don't really care for the sucking-dick or eating-ass ones. [Laughs]