On the town with the Bowery boys

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The Independent Online

The first questions expatriates ask each other when they meet socially in New York are the work ones. What do you do? When did you come? Are you here for ever? The replies are rarely surprising when it comes to Brits. They are in the media, on Wall Street, or connected to diplomacy.

Lavinia Co-op is an exception. When I got talking to her at a bar in the Bowery on a recent Saturday night, she was wearing her job. I don't mean figuratively, as in on her sleeve, but from her toes to the top of her head, on which was perched a Thirties-era fake leopard-skin hat. In fact, her whole, gorgeously over-the-top, outfit was leopard skin, set off by elbow-length gloves and multiple bead-necklaces.

The beads, drawn together below her neck, are how Lavinia gives the illusion of breasts. Some of the other girls performing on the small stage at the back of the Marquis Bar have gone to much greater lengths in the bosom department. Lavinia explains: they push up their chests to give the impression of cleavage and stuff the lower half of their bras with various forms of ballast, usually bird-seed.

As you've guessed, Lavinia Co-op is a stage name. Beneath the stockings and rouge hides Vincent Meehan, originally from Hackney, east London. Through the Eighties, he was part of the Blue Lips drag troupe, touring Britain, Europe and America with shows such as Lust in Space and Sticky Buns. But, like so many other Brits in entirely different professions, he eventually washed up in New York with no return ticket. He has remained here since 1991, with a couple of gaps, earning his keep mostly from drag.

"There are not many Brits doing this out here. I'm quite a rarity," says Lavinia. There is Boy George, she notes, who has hung around the city after seeing his musical Taboo, originally staged in London, flop on Broadway. "He goes out some nights and puts on a bit of make-up, you know."

I would not expect to have much in common with a drag queen. But Lavinia intrigues me. We have been in America the same number of years. We both love New York without altogether knowing why. Plus, I have this confession: I love a good drag show. Men in wigs and skirts seem to have a licence to be bitchier than a Hollywood hairstylist while still keeping it funny. And, more than anyone else in America, they are allowed to be entirely politically incorrect. I like that.

The night at the Marquis was fairly typical for Lavinia. She was there, with a couple of other queens, as a prop. For a hundred bucks and free drinks, she was expected to mill about and occasionally mount the stage where she danced with mock awkwardness. There was no drag show as such. It was just about giving the night a bit of a lift and a touch of tongue-in-cheek glamour. And she is a hit. "You do get mostly admiration from people here," she told me. She will do a couple of gigs like this at the weekends. She does private events too. Especially lucrative, apparently, are bar mitzvah parties.

A few days later I visit Lavinia at her home on the Lower East Side. I wonder whether to call her Vince or Lavinia: Vinny seems safest. It's Vince who comes to the door, in a T-shirt and casual trousers. While some cross-dressers strive to be girls all of the time, Vince is a guy when he goes to the supermarket and the post office. "It's obvious to me I'm not a female." He is, simply, a performer. "It's not a sexuality thing I do. It's for fun and for comedy." Being sexy is not the agenda. After all, at 53, he is "getting up there". His place looks less like a home and more like the costume wardrobe of an amateur Gilbert and Sullivan company. "I'm living in the closet," he jokes, steering me into his over-crammed bedroom where most of Lavinia's stuff is stored on ramshackle shelves - wigs, costume jewellery and scores of shoes, some with outrageous platforms - as well as rails from which hang about 200 different frocks.

For some Brits, living here is about making big money. Not so Vinny, for whom it's a struggle. So why does he stay? "I don't know what keeps me here," he sighs. Maybe it's because he knows Lavinia can always find acceptance here. In London, she would have to dress up at whatever venue she is to perform in. Here, she can glam up at home, pop out of the door looking like a dishevelled Greta Garbo, and simply flag down a cab. No one so much as blinks. That is the wonder of New York. And why, Lavinia, at least, plans to stay.

All skin and no fur at Museum of Sex

Oops. I am wearing leather shoes. But no one says anything at a midweek party at the Museum of Sex on 5th Avenue, thrown by Peta - People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. So I still get my vegan nibbles and my free "No Fur" stickers. I have put one of these on my dog to discourage his damned shedding.

The rock icon and political gadabout Moby is there, but all the attention is being paid to a young couple I don't recognise. They are stars from the reality television show Survivors, and are featured in a new "I'd Rather Go Naked" advertising campaign for Peta. In the posters they are Adam and Eve, wearing only fig-leaves. Given where we are, you might think they would strip off again tonight. But nothing so saucy happens.

It's a good thing Lavinia hasn't come, too. She has fur, fake though it may be. And she'd have a fit if she read a newly-released report from the folk at Peta: "Are Cow Brains Lurking in your Lipstick?"