Christopher Kenney is sitting at a table in Charlie’s, a popular gay nightclub in Las Vegas.
It is “Underwear Night,” a beloved occasion when patrons strip down to their boxers or briefs (or less) in exchange for a free drink. Hordes of mostly-undressed men are milling around, chatting casually with each other. But Kenney is fully clothed, sitting stoically upright, and sipping politely from a pitcher of beer, unfazed by the gogo dancer gyrating above his head in a neon green thong. Instead, he is discussing with friends whether or not he should host a Halloween party at his sprawling desert home.
“If we have a party, I’ll have to order food,” he says with a sigh. “I don’t believe in having people over and giving them alcohol without serving food. It’s irresponsible.” He takes a sip, and then launches into a story about his most recent party, when he spent hundreds of dollars on catering. By the end of the night, every bit of food was gone. That was the party, he explains, when various guys were having sex upstairs in his bedroom and they left body-prints on his bathroom mirror. Ah yes, his friends nod, they remember.
He takes another sip. “But everybody loved the food.”
Kenney knows a thing or two about hosting a fun party. Ten times each week, he takes the stage as Edie the Entertainer (photo, right), hostess of Zumanity, Cirque du Soleil’s show at New York New York Hotel and Casino. As the emcee of the show—Edie’s official title is “Mistress of Sensuality”—Kenney commands the stage in front of a thousand or so people each night. It is a role he has performed since 2007, which is an impressive accomplishment, considering Cirque du Soleil signs performers to one-year contracts—and then makes them re-audition for their roles, again and again.
Zumanity is Cirque du Soleil’s version of old-school Las Vegas burlesque: aerialists hang from the ceiling, contortionists bend themselves into unbelievable positions, comedians work the crowd with terribly crude jokes, all punctuated by a chorus of dancers who kick and spin to high-energy music. As this is Las Vegas, the women are often topless. But because this is Cirque, there are all sorts of twists, including two men who dance in high heels, then embrace each other and kiss. And then there is that final scene when the entire cast fills the stage, and writhes around in a Romanesque orgy.
Just as Kenney works the room at his own parties while people are having sex upstairs, Edie floats around the Zumanity stage and chats with the audience between acts, adding a ladylike touch to the sexually charged antics. Occasionally she singles out audience members who look like they need to loosen up and have fun, and every show she pulls a few lucky folks to come up onto the stage for that final scene and spank a dancer or two. Donned in a black negligee and her trademark black bouffant wig, Edie’s presence is refined and elegant, or as elegant as one can be in a show that features two women juggling dildos.
Chatting ad-lib with an audience can take an awkward turn very quickly. This is an art that requires a hefty dose of intelligence and a lot of on-stage nerve. Drag queens sometimes rely on being rude, perhaps outright mean, to their chosen victims in the audience, in exchange for getting a cheap laugh; but Kenney wrangles her audience with a wink and a smile, without making fun of anybody.
“It’s easy to stand in front of an audience and say ‘Shut up and sit down before I put my dick in your mouth!’, but Edie would never say that,” says Kenney. “It is so old, we’ve heard it already. So how do you get someone to shut up and sit down without saying that? That’s what Edie was always based on, to be kind.” Kenney then pauses and shrugs. “Although at first, I thought that was going to be the thing that would kill my career.”
A classically trained ballet dancer from Portland, Ore., Kenney traveled the U.S. dancing with ballet companies before he moved to New York City and landed some good gigs in theatre. But in showbiz there will always be highs and lows, and after dressing in drag one Halloween, Kenney used his costume as a way to make some quick cash by performing at clubs around town (“It was survival,” says Kenney, “I didn’t have a job”). Dancing around in cute, ’60s-inspired frocks and that black bouffant, Edie quickly became a familiar face in the NYC drag scene, notable for her gracious smile and sunny personality. She stood out amidst the field of oftentimes crass, filthy-mouthed queens running amok in downtown NYC. She also caught the attention of Cirque du Soleil, whose management is always looking for something unique, and it wasn’t long before Kenney packed his bouffant wigs and signed a contract to work in Las Vegas. It was a drag dream come true, and has been true since joining the show in 2007.
Despite his on-stage persona, Kenney is still a gay guy who likes to drink beer from pitchers and talk about people having sex at his parties, and he is quick to heap praise on his scandalous drag queen friends with whom he has worked over the years. “I love the quick, witty performers, like Lady Bunny, Bianca del Rio, Sherry Vine,” he gushes. “There’s crude, and then there’s smart crude.”
As “madam of the brothel,” which is how he refers to his Zumanity role, it could be said that Kenney is one of the most visible drag performers in the U.S., as he has performed collectively in front of literally millions of people over the years. And over the years, he says, he has seen those audiences make a major shift. When Zumanity opened 12 years ago, people in the audience sometimes walked out at the moment two male dancers kiss. But Kenney says the mood has drastically changed, which he accredits to cultural elements like LGBT characters on TV forcing the public to become acquainted with the community. Now, although they receive occasional boos from the audience, those two men kissing receive widespread applause.
“To this day, people may not like it, but they don’t walk out anymore,” he says. “We (the cast) occasionally hear a few men, they’ll yell ‘Booooooooooo,’ but we love it when that happens. Because you may not like it, but when you see those two men kiss and you hear the applause from so many other people, that’s a lot more powerful than your hate.”