Friday afternoon in the ballroom in Talking Stick Resort, about 13 men are walking on stage, preparing. They move with a practiced deliberation to create what will become Divas, a drag show starring Frank Marino, who's been the costumed star of a Las Vegas female impersonation revue for 30 years.
After a few minutes, Marino, in a black beanie and wearing a black blazer and T-shirt and black-and-gray speckled pants, pauses.
"I'm gonna go do an interview, and I'm going to need Katy Perry and I'm going to need Madonna," he commands in a voice that retains a hint of his Brooklyn upbringing.
Later that night, Marino will step onto stage dressed in a bright red suit jacket and mini-skirt, gaudy makeup, and a platinum-blond wig. The ensemble is something the late Joan Rivers would have worn, and when Marino speaks, his mannerisms, tone of voice, and body language of the famous comedian are spot-on.
They should be. Marino has made a living impersonating Joan Rivers for more than three decades, and he's gotten pretty damn good at it. Not only has he perfected Rivers' snarky delivery, he has emulated her wardrobe as well, with lavish dresses and gowns designed by Bob Mackie, the designer behind some of Rivers' best looks. Marino launches into the opening standup routine, which is funny, his comedic timing honed by 30 years on the job.
"That Paris Hilton, she's had more hands up her than a Muppet," Marino quips, and the audience eats it up.
Backstage before the show, Marino appears relaxed and jovial as he takes a seat in the green room flanked by Kenneth Blake and Andrew Ryan, who impersonate Madonna and Katy Perry in Divas. A woman who is helping make a reality show about Marino and his drag extravaganza takes a seat on the side of the room.
"Really, I wanted to be a doctor," Marino says of his early life. "I was working as a junior pharmacist as I was going to college and spent more time at the makeup counter than I did on the pills counter . . . and like any law-abiding gay guy, I went out in drag for Halloween."
He started impersonating Joan Rivers and soon had an agent, making $150 an hour performing at weddings and bar mitzvahs. One thing led to another, and he ended up performing in Atlantic City, Florida, and finally Las Vegas, where he will celebrate 30 years on the strip this year.
"You look so young," the woman says after Marino shares this fact. Immediately, Marino exclaims, "I have a good plastic surgeon. Dr. Anson, 822-2100" (Yes, that's the real number of Las Vegas plastic surgeon Goesel Anson.)
"Yes, I always thought I'd be famous," Marino says, anticipating the next question. "Did I think it would be drag? No. But I always had the intuition that I would be rich and famous.
"I always was a performer, but I never wanted to perform. I would have been like Donald Trump is for business. If I was a doctor, I'd be an outspoken plastic surgeon. I'd love to knock on people's doors and say, 'I could fix you.'"
In Vegas, tickets for the Divas show at Linq Theater start at $90, and Marino is a star -- literally, he has a five-pointer on the Las Vegas Walk of Stars. Two, in fact, possibly the only person to claim that honor. No one has performed on the Vegas strip longer than he has.
His two co-stars seated beside him don't have the Vegas experience he has, but they each bring their own skills to the table -- and both have strong Arizona ties. Blake lived in Tucson for 25 years, and Ryan is a Parker native and an Arizona State University grad. Blake was Miss Gay Arizona America in 1998 and Miss Gay Western States America in 2000. Ryan got his start performing in drag at Karamba Nightclub in Phoenix, and he moved to Vegas soon after and has been performing with Divas since 2012.
"Phoenix has an amazing reception to female impersonation," Blake says. "They have a show every night of the week somewhere in town, so they're really responsive, and they'll give you a lot of energy."
"I had a girl do my makeup for the first show I ever did . . . and it was a huge mistake," Ryan says. "The next day I did real drag makeup and fell in love with it."
There is an art to impersonating a celebrity, the men agree. You can't just totally ape a person's personality exactly; it will become too obvious you're not actually them -- tiptoeing in the uncanny valley of drag impersonation, you might say.
"It's almost like a caricature. You capture all those little things that they do that people recognize," Ryan says, and he knows what he's talking about. After hours of study, his Katy Perry eye blinks are visible from 100 feet away."
"I do [Madonna's eye flutter] half a dozen times in four minutes, when she might do it a half-dozen times in a whole concert," Blake says.
Marino is the glue that holds the show together. After each short set of stand-up he does, an impersonator will come out, flanked by scantily dressed male dancers. After an overwhelming three- or four-minute medley of lip-syncing and dancing, Marino comes out again, with a different gown and different barbs to throw for the audience's pleasure.
You don't last 30 years in Vegas by appealing only to a niche audience. His characterization of the audience is that wives drag their husbands reluctantly to the show, and by the end of it, the wives are reminding their husbands that the hot Madonna on stage is a man. Drag has historical importance to the gay community, but Marino is leery of the association.
"They try to book me or a gay pride. Don't book me for a gay pride," he says. "Don't book me because there's a gay event. Book me because Middle America's in your hotel. . . . It's not a gay show at all. I guarantee you there are more gay people in that big Cirque [du Soleil] show you just saw than in mine. Write that down!"
Marino and Rivers had a rough relationship at first. In 1986, Rivers sued Marino for $5 million, and the two settled out of court ("thank God, I was $86 short," he jokes). The two later became friendly. When Marino celebrated 25 years in Vegas, Rivers recorded a video saying, "25 years you've been stealing my fucking material ... I hope we have another 25 together on the strip."
Rivers has a complicated legacy, what Emily Nussbaum recently called a "powerful alloy of girl talk and woman hate, her instinct for how misogyny can double as female bonding" in the New Yorker. Marino stays away from fat jokes, unlike his patron saint, but he says he has one joke he has yet to try in front of an audience.
"I want to come out in a really tight dress and say, 'Is it just me or does this make my dick look fat?'" he says with a smile.
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