Nick Cearley: From Skivvies to Sequins
Whether he’s wearing an evening gown or just Andrew Christian underwear, Nick Cearley gets tens across the board. Half of the Skivvies, a performance duo that strips down to play stripped-down covers of pop songs, the gay actor now makes his off-Broadway debut in a revival of Pageant, which features male actors as female beauty pageant contestants. The campy musical comedy opens tonight and runs through October 26 at the Davenport Theatre. We spoke with Cearley about why he’s always dressed for success.
The Advocate: Tell me about your character, Miss Great Plains.
Nick Cearley: Bonnie Louise Cutlett is the most underqualified of all the contestants in the Miss Glamouresse Pageant. She didn’t win or even place in her region, but no one else was available.
What’s her talent?
Writing and acting her own material. Bonnie Louise is talented at her strengths, but she’s not a seasoned pro like the others, so I think that’s her challenge. She definitely gets an A for effort. She’s like the Rose Nylund of the group — she does the best she can with what she’s been given to work with.
Is this your first time in drag?
It was when I first did Pageant in 2008 at the Stoneham Theatre, just outside of Boston. I didn’t realize how hard women have it. It’s so much work.
Would you say that you make a pretty woman?
Nope. [Laughs] The script actually says that Miss Great Plains is not the prettiest contestant, and I pretty much take that and run with it. But she’s having the best day of her life.
Has the cast gotten any tips from professional drag queens?
Well, the creators of the show specifically wanted these roles to be played by male actors dressed as women, not by drag queens — there’s a difference — to maintain the show’s sincerity. So we got tips from some real female pageant winners and runners-up. But we did get a tucking lesson from Bob the Drag Queen, who is notable around New York. Our director wants us to be tucked as much as possible. It’s a struggle, because every boy is different.
Which is more challenging — tucking or high heels?
The high heels really hurt! I didn’t expect to have so much pain in my lower back. Fortunately, I only have to tuck for the swimsuit competition, because my other costumes aren’t that revealing.
The New York Times recently called Pageant “required viewing” for fans of RuPaul’s Drag Race, a show that’s helped to make drag much more visible and popular in the mainstream than it was when Pageant premiered off-Broadway in 1991. How has the mainstreaming of drag affected this revival?
The audience climate has definitely changed. Yeah, seeing boys wearing dresses on TV wasn’t really a thing in ’91. Now that drag is more mainstream, it’s not as much of a shock in Pageant, which lets the audience focus more on other things.
Fun fact: Drag Race winner Bianca Del Rio first did drag in a regional production of Pageant. Have you been bitten by the drag bug?
Absolutely not. I never want to do drag again! I’m having so much fun doing it for this show, but it’s exhausting. I have so much admiration and respect for men who dress as women more regularly than we do.
Although the musical is scripted, members of the audience actually vote on the winner. Does that create any friendly competition between you and the other guys?
It’s so out of our hands who wins. Some nights people root for the underdog, like my character, and some nights they root for the seasoned pros, like Miss Texas or Miss Deep South. We’re not in control of the material we were given. That said, we all keep track of our wins with lipstick tally marks on our mirrors.
As the Skivvies, your performance duo with Lauren Molina, you strip down while playing stripped-down pop covers. Is it easier to do drag onstage or to sing for strangers in your underwear?
There’s more physical prep that goes into doing Pageant because of all the hair and makeup. I definitely feel more at home in my underwear.
You’re married to Eric Lesh, a lawyer for Lambda Legal. Which does your husband prefer — you performing for people in drag or in nothing but undies?
He’s the biggest Skivvies superfan — he’s never missed a show. Whenever he comes to Pageant, it stresses him out, because he does not like the judges voting on me at the end. He’s come on nights I’ve won and nights I haven’t won, and he says he can’t keep putting himself through that. I have to explain to him, “Honey, it’s not real! It doesn’t really matter.”
For tickets and more information visit PageantMusical.com.