Frank Marino is marking 25 years as a Las Vegas headliner. And every onstage moment has been spent in drag.
As the city's First Lady/Man, the hardest-working showgirl on the Strip, that's 25 years of shaving up to four times daily, 25 years of tucking his junk, a quarter-century of having his face whited out and reapplied, of wigs and nails, gowns and heels, 25 years of being his own special creation.
"The only thing that came naturally for me in this job is that I was born with a small foot, so I fit in a woman's shoe and I can buy one anywhere," says Marino, midway through having his stage face painted on for a Tuesday night performance of his new show, Divas Las Vegas, which officially opens tonight at the Imperial Palace.
"Everything else is hard," he says. "I'm Italian, so I have that blue-black beard. I get 5 o'clock shadow in 15 minutes."
So he's understandably picky about accepting appearances outside of his nightly gig.
"I mean, it's not as easy as just calling Lance Burton and he shows up with some doves up his sleeve," Marino says. "You call Clint Holmes, he gets dressed nice at home, he goes, does the function, and then he can continue his day. I wish I could just show up like Clint. People don't understand that this takes hours and hours."
Long live the queen
With Divas Las Vegas, Marino is starting all over again, after a near-24-year reign as ringmistress of An Evening at La Cage at the Riviera. When Marino and his cast of expert gender illusionists were abruptly pink-slipped last year, he was ready to throw in the makeup towel.
And he could easily have retired at 45 — unlike many entertainers, Marino has been good with his money.
"On opening night [of La Cage], Rip Taylor told me, 'Frank, this is show business. You're making good money here in Vegas now — save it. You never know when that curtain's gonna go down.' Well, it took 25 years — three shows a night for the first 16 years — and the curtain went down. I didn't even get a wave goodbye."
After some agonizing, Marino decided he wasn't done with his Vegas career. He didn't get an automatic welcome back.
"You're gone five minutes, they forget who you are," he says, sounding like a world-weary showgirl in a black-and-white backstage movie. "I didn't have to get Botox and a nose job — the door hit me in the face so many times it would have flattened itself out."
Then he met Harrah's president Don Marrandino at Terry Fator's opening night. After negotiations, Marrandino eventually proposed that Marino do a one-off performance over Labor Day weekend. It surpassed expectations, and a four-walling deal was made to install Divas at Imperial Palace as the late show, following Matsuri and Human Nature.
Women's wear, daily
Even though his professional wardrobe includes more than 1,000 gowns — including some 50 custom-designed creations by Bob Mackie, famed for his designs for the Dynasty divas, Cher and other one-name goddesses — Marino maintains strict separation between drag and life.
"In my house, there's not one piece of drag. There's not an eyelash, a nail or a feather. If a robber broke into my house to steal something, they would think they were at Elton John's house," he says. "I have so many boy clothes. I get in different moods."
At the moment, he's in work mode, swathed in a pink peignoir, while his stage face is painstakingly painted on by Gregory Andrews, "the Michelangelo of hair," who also maintains Marino's sculpted hairstyles.
An effusive motormouth — except when Andrews forces him to shut up so he can outline lips — Marino is refreshingly transparent about what it takes to make a woman out of him. He recently invited local entertainment reporter Alicia Jacobs along to witness his Botox and Restylane injections.
"In Vegas," he says, "with this economy, and everybody chasing the young dollar, you've got to keep reinventing yourself, you've got to keep up with Britney Spears and all those kids in your show."
Marino has an edge on many career Strip performers, female and male alike — he doesn't have to lie about getting a tweak or a touch-up. And he could do this for another 25 years, if he liked.
"Believe me," he says, "some of these headliners are wearing just as much makeup as I am."
Life could be a drag
Drag has been having something of a mainstream cultural moment. Its most high-profile expression is the second season of RuPaul's Drag Race, a competitive reality show on the Logo channel — a cross-dressing Survivor, searching for "America's next drag superstar." (Shannel, a popular contestant from the first season of Drag Race, is returning to Vegas, performing at Gypsy at midnight this Sunday and every last Sunday of the month.)
"RuPaul always says 'life is drag,'" Marino says. "Whatever someone is wearing, that's their costume, that's their cover."
Then Marino offers his definition of drag: "A person that has too much fashion sense to be just one sex."
The "characters" in Divas Las Vegas — Celine and Cher, Beyoncé and Diana — are in "drag" themselves, Marino says. It's harder, he says, for drag performers to play younger stars like Carrie Underwood, who don't have the instantly identifiable visual signifiers of the old stars.
Though he prefers not to impersonate other showbiz ladies himself, Marino traditionally opens the show as the MC, with his salty, sandpaper-voiced Joan Rivers impression — which put him on the map when Rivers sued him for $5 million in 1986 for copping her stand-up act too well.
"Thank God she settled, 'cause I was about $80 short," he jokes.
Vegas, Marino says, is a particularly hospitable town for drag performance; in fact — because of the constant influx of novelty-hungry, ticket-buying tourists — it may be the only city where it could work on this scale, at this level of quality, year in and year out.
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Marino belongs to a lineage of drag entertainers who enjoyed solo success on the Strip, including Charles Pierce (who opened for Ann-Margret at Caesars Palace), Jim Bailey (whose uncanny impersonation of Judy Garland led to a "mother-and-daughter" duet concert with Liza Minnelli at the Flamingo) and Kenny Kerr, who played most of the big-time casino showrooms.
And Middle America, he says, loves his show. His audience runs from prom kids to senior citizens.
Marino works very close to the front row, and he watches the faces very closely.
"Here's what happens: The men come in, reluctantly, with their wives who have seen me on Oprah or some talk show. You see him holding her hand very tightly. By the time Britney and Cher come out, he's let go of her hand, and by the end of the show his wife is hitting him on the shoulder, saying 'you're paying too much attention to these performers!'
"I'm not selling audiences a lifestyle," says Marino. "I'm selling a form of entertainment, an art form that goes way back to Kabuki and Shakespeare and Milton Berle and Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire."
But Marino doesn't let his Midwestern crowd get off with just having a laugh at the painted ladies. Divas closes with a poignant version of Charles Aznavour's humanizing ballad "What Makes a Man a Man?," staged in reverse-drag. We see through the mirror as a drag entertainer removes his makeup and sings of the mundane moments and myriad indignities of his offstage life. More than a few hearts are softened.
Like mother, like son
Marino was adopted at birth; his adoptive parents, the Marinos, died of cancer before he was 9, and he went to live with godparents in Long Island, where he suddenly had a brother and three sisters, all older.
"Most people would look at it as a family, I looked it as wardrobe," says Marino, always ready for a rimshot moment.
"My brother is the one who busted me the first time: Picture me, bathrobe on, a big black frizzy wig, singing 'Ain't No Mountain High Enough,' thinking I'm Diana Ross in front of the mirror. Next thing I hear is him yelling, 'Ma! Get up here — your son's in drag!'"
Marino says he was supported and encouraged in his unconventional career choice — even after deciding against medical school. And drag, in a strange way, brought Marino full circle to his origins.
"I was out front (at the Riviera) signing autographs after my show, and I met these women who were here for an adoption convention. And lo and behold, they found my birth mother for me."
Marino's mom, Mary Mastrangelo, now lives "10 steps away," and attends nearly every show.
"We had a great reunion," he says. "And if you put a thousand women in the room, and my mom was there, you would walk in and go 'there's your mother.' Picture Brooklyn, big blonde hair — she dresses like a country-western star, you will not see her in the same outfit twice. When I'm in drag, we could be twins."
Of course, Marino is prepared when asked, for the millionth time, 'What does your mother think?'
"She's the happiest woman in the world after meeting me, because she's now doubled her wardrobe."