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The real diva: Kenny Kerr

He paved the way for cross-dressing entertainers in Vegas, but he’s ended up as little more than a footnote.

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Blazing a trail in style: Kenny Kerr helped opened the doors to the drag production show in Vegas.
Courtesy of Bill Schafer of Las Vegas Nightbeat

Editor's note: Female impersonator Kenny Kerr died April 28, 2013 at age 60. This story appeared in the Weekly's Strip Sense column in December 2009.

The man who claims to hold the record as longest continuously running Las Vegas Strip headliner is on the line from Palm Springs, and the news is not so good. He says he’s owed $4,000 from a restaurant owner way, way, way off the Strip and won’t be back in town until that’s resolved.

“I’ve got a booking on the 24th [of January] at a place in San Diego and this thing pending at a casino in Detroit in February, but that’s it,” says a dejected Kenny Kerr. “This thing could be a weekly thing in San Diego, which would be good for me. I would like to get a show back in Vegas, to find someone who has a belief in me to give me a chance. I’ve been promised by different producers that they’ll do this or that for me and then they end up fucking me over before we get going.”

That a healthy portion of you readers aren’t sure who Kenny Kerr is is a testament to the magnitude of his problems. Not even my own partner, who has been in Vegas for almost a decade, was certain what Kenny does.

“He was a drag queen, right?” Miles asked.

Uh, yeah. But not in the low-rent, cheesy form that most people think of when bandying about that phrase. Kenny Kerr is—not was, is—the best performing drag queen ever to grace a stage in Las Vegas or anywhere else. Unfortunately, he’s also one of the worst businessmen. Which he cops to.

There’s a reason I write about this now. I first caught his act in the late 1990s at the Debbie Reynolds Hotel—now the Greek Isles—and was dazzled by the novel concept of a drag queen who actually sings and has the stage presence to tell timely and often unscripted jokes. I was left in stitches by Kerr’s rendition of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” in which he gets increasingly drunk and sloppy as the standard goes along.

So it became a holiday tradition to seek out Kenny this time of year. Last year he wasn’t around, but the local gay papers recently carried ads promoting appearances. Then I learned the job had ended prematurely—and badly.

Journalists who write about the reigning Vegas queen of drag, Frank Marino, invariably refer to the Joan Rivers imitator as the guy who made cross-dressing safe for mainstream America, but Marino is as much a pale imitation of Kerr as he is of Rivers.

Marino arrived at the Riviera in 1985. By then, Kenny was seven years into his nearly-12-year run in the Gaiety Theater at the Silver Slipper. After the Silver Slipper closed he went on to headline at the Sahara, the Plaza, the Sahara again, the Stardust, the Debbie Reynolds and the Frontier, an uninterrupted streak longer than Siegfried & Roy’s.

Kerr’s singing still sets him apart from most drag schlock. “I enjoy singing live because I’d rather be a first-rate me than a second-rate someone else,” he says.

The trouble is, Kerr’s never taken control of his own destiny. Instead, he’s buffeted by both remarkable luck and incredible misfortune. The New Jersey native was discovered, Lana Turner-style, in a shop in Atlantic City when he was 15 by producers who thought he bore a resemblance to Barbra Streisand. With his understanding mother’s approval, Kerr was taught by his benefactors to do makeup, dance, act and, uh, hide his candy. He became a hit at clubs in southern Jersey and Philadelphia before being spotted by a talent scout in Trenton doing his Funny Girl-era Barbra.

Kerr was brought to Vegas in 1977 to perform in Sandy Hackett’s Sahara Talent Showcase, a cabaret attended by the town’s entertainment directors. A bidding war ensued; the Silver Slipper signed him to a two-week contract that lasted until the place closed.

“He was a success because he was funny,” says Hackett, who is back at the Sahara with his surprisingly wonderful—and also not cheesy—Rat Pack show. “It wasn’t about people going to see what a drag queen looked like. People heard the show was funny.”

Kerr became the toast of Vegas. Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick and Lola Falana came often. He opened for Joan Rivers at Caesars. He and Siegfried spent holidays at Siegfried’s Puerto Rico spread. Sammy Davis Jr. was a “good friend,” Kerr says. (Frank Sinatra, however, wasn’t. Kerr says Sinatra, who for a spell performed after a drag act at a downtown hotel, would wait for the drag performers to leave the building before he’d enter. “He was an extremely homophobic man,” says Kerr.)

Kerr’s mainstream success paved the way for Marino, who has proven to be a far better businessman. While Kerr bounced from one joint to the next, Marino stayed at the Riv for 24 years until his falling out in 2009 with producer Norbert Aleman. Now he’s at the Imperial Palace doing largely the same act as always, reciting scripted jokes and introducing other drag queens who pantomime the latest diva hits. Marino doesn’t sing or dance, he’s just sort of ... there.

Yet Marino is an indefatigable promoter. He finds ways to get press when he needs it, as he did recently by telling gossip scribes Kerr would appear soon in the new IP show. Kenny says he’s not been approached about such a gig, and so a legendary tit-for-tat between the two continues.

While Marino coasts along, though, the more talented and versatile Kerr is 57 and broke. A former manager, he says, stole all his money. And to listen to Kerr speak for any length of time is to hear of numerous instances where he has been unable to collect on his pay. “I’m too trusting,” he says.

He gets a decent job every so often. He rang in 2007 alongside Connie Francis at the Sahara for New Year’s Eve. And he’s a nostalgic choice from time to time, as when he was a surprise guest for former Las Vegas Mayor Jan Jones when she was Woman of the Year for some group a few years back. (He and Jan used to do TV ads together for Jones’ family’s car dealerships.)

But his Vegas day may have passed. That manager of the restaurant where Kerr most recently worked—I’m not naming it because I don’t want to get in the middle of their dispute—says Kenny failed to bring in any business. Kerr retorts the venue didn’t promote him enough. But Kerr seems to be living in a bygone Vegas era in which the venue takes on all the responsibility; today, the talent or his people work the phones and e-mail to get journalists interested in doing interviews. Didn’t happen.

“I would love to get me a nice room and put on a big show in Vegas again,” he says wistfully. “It’s like I’m starting over.”

With his sassy wit, he could easily make one of the resort lounges—say at New York-New York or Paris, both heavily marketed to gays—rollicking fun. As the emcee of Zumanity, he’d make the show a sensation. And sure, even as a piece of Marino’s act, he’d be terrific.

Somehow, though, I doubt it. Kenny Kerr needs to rebuild not just his financial status but his name for unfamiliar new generations. And that is probably too big a task even for someone as good at playing the chameleon as he is.

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, ...

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