Randy Roberts, Key West’s Drag Icon
Chances are you’ve probably seen Randy Roberts' acclaimed drag performance at La Te Da on one of your trips to Key West. And if the name doesn’t ring a bell, the characters will. Whether it’s his impersonation of Cher or Bette Midler, Mae West or Joan Crawford, there’s no one that does it better. The Gates got a chance to catch up with our favorite performer for a short interview. Have a look:
How did you get started?
Well, I was putting on my makeup to go to elementary school one morning - that's not true by the way. It actually started off as a dare in a bar in Suffolk, Virginia, and I was horrible. However, the very first time I did drag I went to Rocky Horror Picture Show in my senior year of high school with the theater repertory group. After I graduated from highschool I was dared to enter a drag contest, and I didn't do very well in it. But someone told me "Well, you should try it again - for god sakes do this!” They fine-tuned my look and gave me some pointers on the performance aspect of it and little by little I got better and better and just grew from there.
How did you get to Key West?
I originally came to Key West in 1986 for a little tour at the Jan McClark Cabaret Theater, which is now Meson de Pepe. It was around October of that year - such beautiful weather, Fantasy Fest going on. We had a great time, and from Key West we went to Chicago, IL - in the winter, where it was freezing. After closing New Year’s Eve, I had to decide where to go because I had given up my apartment since I was going to be on the road. I said, “I'm going back to Key West.”
And I came back for about a year, and the show went on the road again. But I came back on-and-off in the ‘90s for little one-off performances. In ‘98 I came back for a private party, and while I was here I was asked if I would do my show at Divas, which is now Aqua. I did it for a week, and then they asked me if I could stay for the next weekend, and I did, and then they asked me to stay for the next weekend, and I did. I'm still here. That was March of ‘98, and then in August of 98, the owner of Divas asked me if I would go over to La Te Da and do my show there because they wanted to try to drum up more business. So I've been at La Te Da since August of ‘98
Is there something particular about Key West that made you stay? What keeps you in Key West?
Everything! I mean, first and foremost, the people here. It's pretty amazing what the people are like here. You either or “get” Key West or you don't, if you know what I mean. And if you hang around the people that "get" Key West, you can't do any better. That one human family thing has been here without a name for a very long time. Then they put a name to it, and that’s really what Key West is about. So I've experienced it for a long time. The people, the weather, all of that.
You've been performing for over 30 years. How did you know that this was "it?" What keeps you performing?
A paycheck [laughs]. When you get down to the brass tack, I wanted to be a musical theater actor, and I found a gimmick that has kept me working and acting. I'm creating characters every night on stage, but it's kept me working nonstop since 1985. That's all I've done. A lot of other actors who are trying to make it have to wait tables on the side, but this is all I’ve done. I sing with orchestras now and then; I do theater; I got to do a movie. And I've been in drag in a lot of those, too. So it has opened a lot of doors. A lot of it has to do with making sure that you have a certain reputation and sticking to your craft, because it is a craft. There's makeup and hair and character study and taking care of the voice and the body. It's work. And I look at it as a career. This is what I do. I created this world and now I'm stuck with it.
You draw a huge range in terms of audience, from kids to grandparents. What's your secret? How did you find the happy medium?
I always keep in the back of my mind, "What would my mother say about what I'm doing?" And my mother is my biggest supporter. You never want to embarrass your mother or do something that she would not approve of. My mother's got a very open mind. So I had a wide range to choose from. And that's exactly what I do. I ask myself, "Would my mother laugh at that or would she think it's disgusting? What would my mother say about that?" And that’s the basis of it. My father died when I was 11 years old. So he never lived to see this, which possibly is a blessing. I don't know. He might have been much more accepting than I think, but my mother raised three children to be accepting and as non-judgemental as one can be. But the honest truth is that I always try my best to not embarrass my mother.
Who's your favorite character and why?
For the audience, they love Cher. I don't know why, but they love Cher. They've always loved Cher. For me, I like doing myself. I have my own character that I do and that's my favorite because I don't have to sound or look like anybody. It's just me. It lets me really interact with the audience and that's my favorite part.