To Die For

Although he's been here all along, Charles Busch has finally arrived. After an estimable 30-year career in nearly every aspect of show biz -- as an actor, illusionist, playwright, novelist, screenwriter, and a film and TV star -- Busch became a national celebrity when his The Tale of the Allergist's Wife ran for 777 performances on Broadway in 2001, snagging the Outer Circle Critics John Gassner Award and a Tony nomination for Best Play.

"Suddenly, I was an overnight success," Busch laughs from his home in Manhattan, "even though I'd been doing this for a hundred years."

If Tony nods (not to mention a special Drama Desk Award for career achievement) have brought Busch newfound respect, they've also brought more than a little angst. After decades of well-regarded work at prestigious off-Broadway theaters, Busch was suddenly an artiste, as if he'd emerged from obscurity, his earlier work the failed attempts of an unknown hack. "After Allergist opened, suddenly everyone was saying, ÔIsn't it nice that you're finally mainstream!' At first I felt battered by it, but I finally got over it when the royalty checks started coming in."

Busch's winning streak continued with last year's star turn in Die, Mommy, Die!, which earned him Best Performance honors from the Sundance Film Festival. The movie, which kicks off the Out Far! Phoenix International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival this weekend, is Busch's own adaptation of his 1999 stage comedy of the same name, in which -- as in most of his previous plays -- he played the female lead.

"When you've got a career in drag, it's hard for people to get past -- even for those who admire you -- the bit about the man in a dress," Busch says. "Because I express my comedy through female characters, nobody is thinking of it as acting. That's why it meant an enormous amount to me that this estimable jury at Sundance saw my work, not just some man in a gown."

Despite a newly filled shelf of awards, the actor/writer swears that humility is always within reach -- thanks in part to the nasty notices he received for his work on the Broadway flop Taboo, the London musical about performance artist Leigh Bowery brought stateside by Rosie O'Donnell. "It was a big mess with marvelous things in it," says Busch, who wrote a new book for the show's U.S. run. "I got savage reviews for my writing, but I still had a good time."

Despite this teeny setback, Busch remains cheerful about his newly redefined celebrity status, which has landed him his own page on eBay, where on most days one can find a copy of his novel, Whores of Lost Atlantis, and magazines featuring Busch's bewigged mug on the cover. "Don't be impressed, though," Busch says. "Those items always end up selling for a couple of bucks, which makes me feel like a complete loser."