A Drag Queen Shares Her Secrets

Meet GayBINGO's Anita Manhattan

Courtesy of Rob Paluso

Anita Manhattan is one of the boisterous drag queens who helps ramp up the laughs at GayBINGO each month along with fellow lady killers Summer Clearance and Thunder Showers. Over the last 15 years, the Philly AIDS Fund has enjoyed proceeds from the popular event. As Anita (real name Rob Paluso) gears up for the big three-oh, G Philly had some questions for this Bingo Verifying Diva (BVD).

A native of Washington, Pa., Paluso attended West Chester University and the Istituto Marangoni in Milan for fashion design – yes, he makes all of his own drag. When he’s not checking bingo cards at the Gershman Y, he’s the resident costume designer at the Ritz Theater in Oaklyn, N.J., where he recently worked on the oh-so-gay musical Hairspray.

On Saturday, Jan. 15, folks can see Anita Manhattan come to life at GayBINGO’s “Beauty Queens Gone Wrong.” He gave G Philly the inside scoop on how he went from rugby player to drag queen for a truly great cause.

How did you get involved with GayBINGO?

I actually knew John Hollingshead of the AIDS Fund from playing rugby. There was a mention of The Wizard of Oz-themed bingo back in 2009, and I jokingly mentioned I had a Galinda gown from Wicked in my size. Thus began the life of Ms. Manhattan.

Where did your drag handle come from?

It really came from how my persona developed. I like to stick to old-school glam. So I thought about what would be a fun, campy name. Anita Martini came up, but I felt like Martini was so cliche. So I went with Anita Manhattan instead. And Manhattans are stronger – they remind me of a broad sitting at a bar with too much jewelry on. So that’s pretty much Anita.

Your outfits – most of which you make – often pay homage to the grand dames of the 1940’s and 1950’s.

I do make most of my outfits. I’m a costume designer, so it’s a really great chance for me to build crazy costumes for myself. Plus, it’s hard to find a 50s Dior-style ballgown in my size. As Thunder Showers says about me, “She’s beautiful, but she’s built like a linebacker.”

I guess that explains your stint at rugby. What drag heroes do you look up to?

Of course, RuPaul. She was just an amazing public figure – and still is. Let alone she’s stunning in drag! And also Ms. Thunder Showers, my fellow BVD. She’s really helped me out so much with Anita. She’s a wonderful teacher and I’m so proud to be from the House of Showers [laughs].

How do you and your fellow BVDs choose the theme for GayBINGO each month – and who gets to wear what? Is there ever a battle over who gets to be Dorothy from Oz or Dorothy from the Golden Girls?

To choose, we have an e-mail group, so we can all throw suggestions out. Then they are chosen by the AIDS Fund staff. We’ve had pretty good luck for the most part, but sometimes there are some duplicate costumes, then it’s just all out war [laughs].

What’s been your favorite GayBINGO moment in recent years?

Wow, there are a lot. I always love seeing the players who are there every single bingo. I have to say that I really love when the 50/50 raffle numbers get high. It’s just so amazing to be a part of the organization.

Any backstage gossip that would make TMZ blush?

[laughs] Always! Nah, we’re all good gals. But you gotta watch out for Summer Clearance. That’s all I can say.

What’s the biggest misconception about drag queens?

It would be that all drag queens are just men who want to be women. It’s not that at all. It’s a mix between performance, admiration and vanity. To quote Too Wong Foo: “When a gay man has way too much fashion sense for one gender, he is a drag queen.” I couldn’t agree more.

Drag’s a pretty powerful performance medium as is. But if you could have one superpower, what would it be?

I would love to be able to morph myself. I think it would be the most amazing thing to change form all the time. I guess drag is the same thing, just on a much smaller level. But to just wake up and be like, “I think I’ll be a bedazzled Tyrannosaurus Rex today,” would be amazing.

GayBINGO, Jan. 15, 6-11 p.m., Gershman Y, 401 S. Broad St., 215-731-9255.