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Back Room

Chilli Pepper

The iconic female impersonator on duct tape, Oprah, and bitchiness

Illustration by Stavros Damos
Illustration: Stavros Damos

I don’t like the phrase “drag queen,” which comes from guys dragging dresses on the floor while wearing them in Victorian theater. I like “female impersonator.”

What I do is an illusion. And anything that’s an illusion needs to look effortless. You don’t know what we go through to put on those heels and duct tape and move our things around.

I won’t answer to my given name. Why would I? My mother doesn’t even call me that.

Transitioning has never interested me. I’m comfy in my skin.

My mother had me really early—at like 14. She was more like a sister. We were both raised by her parents. I didn’t mind that. My mother made a choice, and I made a choice.

I came to Chicago for an impersonator contest at the Park West. I was a teenager. I couldn’t even get into bars. But they didn’t know that. I came, I won, and I stayed.

I’m a diva only onstage. I created my own cartoon, and my cartoon is Chilli.

“Lip-synching” sounds so cheap. I like to say I’m a “mimest.” I interpret the song how I feel. And my interpretation could be completely different than what the artist had in mind.

The song that people always dis is “I Will Survive.” But it’s still my favorite because it’s a female anthem.

The first TV host who was crazy about me was Irv Kupcinet. I was like 17 at the time and on a panel of female impersonators. He said on TV that he wouldn’t have a problem marrying me. See, I have red hair, and I have good legs. I think I reminded him of his wife, Essee.

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I’m a creature of habit. I don’t have a computer. I don’t have a cell phone. I don’t know how to drive. It doesn’t interest me. Just stand outside and get a taxi and go.

I met Oprah two weeks after she first got to town, when she was nobody. I was her first friend here. I’ve helped her with her hair, helped her with her makeup. She trusted me because the one thing that I know how to be is a good friend. And a silent friend. That’s very important.

People always want to know my age. I keep them guessing. I’m a showgirl, and showgirls are ageless.

You have to read the crowd. You’re at the mercy of their generosity. You have to play with them—be funny or catty or campy. I look at facial expressions. For every reaction, I make an equal or opposite one. But I’m not outrageous. That’s why I’m still here.

A lot of people confuse applause with talent. Those are two different things.

The Baton is not a gay club anymore. It’s 90 percent straight. After I went on one of the first Oprah shows, everyone started coming there. Next thing you know, we’d get church tours. We are the steppingstone for the crowd’s homosexual curiosity.

There’s a difference between being curious and being rude.

Most everything I wear is Chanel. Gifts from wealthy women friends. Like this purse. A friend bought it for me. Her husband is very, very, very rich. She can afford it.

Don’t confuse my bitchiness for being bitter. I’m not bitter.

I don’t have power. I don’t have money. You know what I do have? Fame.

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