Fame Is Such a Drug. . . I Mean, Drag

And trying to be famous? Let me tell you about it.

Having devoted my entire adult life to covering fame, I'd be lying if I didn't admit I want some more of the shit myself. Alas, thanks to a weird mixture of bad luck and self-sabotaging, I've been left with an amazing body of work staring up at me with a smirk from the cutting-room floor.

Let me give you some particularly traumatic examples from the dark recesses of my past. First off, I was chosen to be in the video for CYNDI LAUPER ' s "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." Unfortunately, it wasn't the original classic clip that helped define MTV—it was the '90s reggae-remix with an all-drag-queen cast! Cyndi herself directed and was beyond delightful. But the choreographer, future Tony winner JERRY MITCHELL, was less encouraging, especially since he didn't seem to realize I'm press and am used to constant ritualized ass-kissing. I showed up on the set in my idea of humorous drag, which involved a housedress, Payless pumps, drop earrings, and a ratty wig. Jerry apparently thought I looked like DORIS ROBERTS meets BRIAN DENNEHY, but that's exactly what I was going for! He had me change into a spangly blue minidress, with cream-colored nylons to cover my hairy knees.

Much worse, Jerry didn't care for my dancing. But I never said I was a dancer. I never even said I was a writer! He had us doing vigorous calisthenic-type stuff around the old World's Fair grounds in Queens, and from the beginning, my moves were scaring the pigeons away. As Jerry kept sending me to the back of the line, I felt like the Rosa Parks of reggae-remix drag videos. Pathetically enough, I ended up only being in two quick shots—but can you really be cut out of something no one's ever seen?

I survived, and shortly afterward was hired as an extra in the movie of Jeffrey, based on the gay PAUL RUDNICK play. (No, that's redundant—let's just say based on the Paul Rudnick play.) I was in the "Hoedown for AIDS" scene, in which socialite CHRISTINE BARANSKI led me and a bunch of other queens in a Texas two-step to fight HIV. Hilarious, no? Well, sort of, and it was certainly funnier than the fact that the choreographer turned out to be Jerry Mitchell! Jerry didn't change my outfit this time, but somehow he hadn't developed a sudden affinity for my esoteric movement technique (and he still didn't know who the fuck I was). He sent me once more to the back of the line—but again, can you be cut out of something no one's etc., etc.?

I finally got in something that a lot of people saw and which didn't involve Jerry Mitchell. In 2001, I was cast in an AT&T commercial with DAVID ARQUETTE, and I'm pretty sure this is what caused 9/11. The ad was set at a fashion show, with various models taking the stage along with Arquette doing his wacky, hilarious shenanigans. Well, maybe not that hilarious—not long after this they replaced him with CARROT TOP.

They sent me the script in advance, and since I wasn't sure if I was Critic 1 or Critic 2, I dutifully learned both esteemed roles. On the set, I found that Critic 1 was being played by a real actor named Lynn, whom I recognized from the Mary Tyler Moore episode in which Ted has a mild heart attack. I was beside myself! I didn't even mind being 2 if she was 1!

Alas, I must have sucked on the very first take because the director announced, "Change of dialogue! Lynn, you say 'Call 1-800-ATT . . .' " Mama say what? That was my big line! Had I come off too gay? But I was playing a freakin' fashion writer and besides, I'm Michael Musto. Of course, there was a tiny chance I hadn't been gay enough. Should I have flounced around in those drop earrings and lisped through the whole thing? ("Call A-Thee-Thee.") But I practically did! To her credit, Lynn acted surprised and humbled, like BEYONCÉ in Dreamgirls. ("I don't want to sing lead!") But the crafty creature, just like me, had learned both parts and could easily do all the dialogue.

Sensing my despair, the director made a big deal of letting me say the word "fabulous," instructing me to intone it 10 different ways so they could choose the best rendition. But with everyone (even COURTNEY COX ARQUETTE) watching me from the sidelines, I totally froze and said it the same exact way every single time! And it was either too gay or not gay enough, because not one of the 10 versions made the final cut. I ended up in just—everybody now—two reaction shots, though amazingly you can hear one of my lines ("a fabulous Scotty Basson") said over a long shot of the runway. The second I got home, I switched to Verizon.

Next up—no, I wouldn't quit—I was asked to be in a pilot for a gay version of The View as done by the delicate wallflowers who brought you Hard Copy. This was back when the success of Queer Eye made producers feel every single thing ever televised had to have a gay angle. A women's show? Make it with all gay men! Duh!

"Gay guys are like women," a producer explained to me in a preliminary meeting. "They listen to your problems, and they're very sensitive." I made a very sensitive retching face. Clearly, these people hadn't realized it's lesbians who are like women.

"Look, the show won't be all mammograms and mascara," chimed in a production assistant. Too bad—I'd love a show about mammograms and mascara. But before I could react, the same guy turned to the head producer and excitedly wondered, "Hey, would it be good if we got a black host?" "Yes!" crowed the boss, as if he'd just freed the slaves. Great, maybe the host can even dance!

For the panel, they ended up assembling me, FRANK DECARO, SIMON DOONAN, a hottie, and a black person. There was no host. We shot the pilot in front of an audience that looked like Death Row inmates on their day off, but at least they didn't throw things. We dutifully covered women's diets, recipes, and children's car safety, but the producer lady was getting nervous about our performances. Sidling up to us, she murmured, "Guys, I need you to be more . . . more . . ." "Say it," urged Doonan, as if watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Tense pause. "Be more faggy!" she blurted, her face turning a fabulous shade of fuchsia. Shock waves went through the studio. So this was a total minstrel show, and I was being counted on to be a big-fag Stepin Fetchit? After years of being told to tone it down, it was sort of refreshing to finally have someone say, "Be gayer, queen!" But a stereotype is still a stereotype, and I was actually relieved when the pilot wasn't picked up, no one buying the idea that gay men are really like women. That freed me to work on my new pitch: Jew Talk.

But just then the phone miraculously sounded again (via Verizon) and I was asked to audition for a game show with an all-gay cast. "But we're not going to say you're gay," I was told, strangely, by the producer. Ugh, that was so gross! So unbelievably hideous! "Fine, I'll do it," I chirped. They assembled a panel of me, Frank DeCaro, a hottie, a black guy, and a lesbian. I got the job, but I didn't want to go back to L.A. and do it when instead I could be this sad little semi-failure who kvetches for a living.

Have I ever told you about the time I was made up with pustules for Dawn of the Dead, only to be personally cut by GEORGE ROMERO because I threw my arms in the air like DIANA ROSS? Fabulous!

musto@villagevoice.com

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