BWW Interview: Ray DeForest and DORIS DEAR
Doris Dear has been nominated for another MAC Award this year. When taking home the prize for Impersonation/Characterization/Drag Artist in 2019, Doris Dear made an impassioned and heartfelt speech that drew her ever closer to the bosom of the members of the cabaret community, a community that embraced her five years ago and that has never let her go. A few months later, Ray DeForest appeared in An Evening With... Frank Sinatra - not as Doris, but as Ray, performing a rendition of "Mack the Knife" that has had this writer obsessed with the hope that Ray will give Doris Dear a night or two off and produced an entire evening of Ray DeForest. That wish ever-present, I emailed Ray and asked if I could talk to him about his evolution in show business and the creation of Doris Dear, who is more than dear to us all - she is treasured. Ray, most kindly, took my call, and forty minutes later I had a very clear picture into the world of Doris Ray.
This interview has been edited for space and content.
Hi Ray. It's Stephen Mosher.
Hi, Stephen Mosher. How are you?
Fine. How are you today?
I am terrif! The sun was out and I was very happy.
Boy, I think that it makes all the difference in the world, doesn't it?
Ray, what was your first job in show business?
My first actual paying job was in summer stock. I was at the University of Maryland, I had never really done theater before. I befriended this amazing gal that I'm still friends with, Angela Lomangino, we did a show together -- I was given one line to sing in Jesus Christ Superstar - I was basically cast because I was on a swimming scholarship and they needed a body that looked good in pink hot pants. (Laughing) And so we became friends and she said, "I do this thing up in the Catskills - it's great summer stock, you should do it". I had never done anything like this before and she said, "Don't worry, when you sing, you sound like a friend --we'll send his tape in and we'll take a picture of you and you'll just get cast in the chorus, you'll be fine and you'll be able to learn and you'll have a great time. It's so much fun." I said okay. So we sent it in and they told me I got the job, we drove up together to the Catskills. It was very Dirty Dancing, with cabins, it was fantastic. And we go to the first day and I find out I have one of the leads in Candide, a lead in Wizard of Oz, a lead in Company - it was the craziest thing in the world. I remember looking at her like, what do I do? And she said, "Don't worry, we'll get through it." And that was my first professional job, paying me to do what I want to do. It was amazing.
Before this, you had no experience in the business?
(Laughing) I was one of the three Kings in Kindergarten, in the pageant... And then my senior year of high school, I went to an all-boys Catholic school in Staten Island and the sister school to us did musicals and they needed a tall guy because one of the girls who was doing one of the leads was super tall and they didn't have anybody tall. I was friends with some of the people who did those shows, so they said, "Why don't you just do the show with us? It'll be fun." And I said, "Sure, why not?" We did No, No, Nanette and it was fun - I got the part of the Butler and I was able to be funny, but it was never really anything I thought about. Then, in college, I got cast in Jesus Christ Superstar 'cause they needed a good looking body and I was a swimmer at the time. So yeah, I didn't really have any experience.
It was not your intent to go into the business?
No, I never thought that I would study or do theater or anything like that.
Where did this amazing vocal talent that you have come from? Were you born with that?
I've always said that you can't teach people to sing. They just have an innate ability and through the years they can refine it and make it better. I've always felt that I was the least of the group: anytime I've gotten a job, I ended up working with all these people who went to conservatories and major schools and studied their whole life. And then there I was, in my late teens and early twenties, working with all these people, and I had not done any of that. I always felt like I had to play catch up. So when I did Jesus Christ Superstar at the University of Maryland, I wasn't supposed to sing. They told me I would just stand around and flex my muscles and be the guard. Then the musical director asked me to sing one line: "That's strange for I am sure I saw you with them, you were right by his side and yet you denied." He came up to me and said, "I think you can sing this." And he gave me the mic and I sang it. Then he came to me after that rehearsal and we had a long talk. And I said, "I don't know how to do this." And he said, "I think you'd have a natural ability and I would love to help teach you if you're open to it." I said, "Well sure, why not?" And he gave me lessons to be able to do it. That led to more things and it started this whole thing happening.
Now you've been in the business for over 40 years.
Yeah, I just celebrated 42 years.
I know that you also produce and direct. Have you spent that entire time continuing to perform or did you put the performing aside so that you could focus on other things?
I'm very lucky that the business has been very kind to me. I think we all know there's plenty of talent in the world, but it's also about timing. I've been really lucky, I never had to carry a tray or serve a drink or hand out fries or anything. The business has been great to me, I've worked consistently the whole time, and it took many forms. I did stage work until I was 35. Then I started doing television for about 12 years, hosting my own TV shows on The Food Network, HGTV - I had a syndicated TV show with Fox. I was on Lifetime, Animal Planet. I had this great sort of run. While I was doing that, I learned how to produce as well because one of my great loves and is learning process. I love process, and the process of producing is fascinating to me. So I learned to produce my own shows and I ended up leaving all of that to produce on TV. I was producer on a couple of projects, and after a couple of years of that, I decided I was kind of burnt out. I took some time off and then happenstance happened and I came back to singing.
I would like to ask you about the pink hot pants from Jesus Christ Superstar.
You are frequently seen to be wearing hot pants and high heels around town.
The hot pants from Jesus Christ Superstar - that was a few years ago.
When did you embrace this particular fashion sense that you carry off better than anyone I've seen? When did that become a part of your daily fashion style?
Thank you for the compliment. My entire life... I grew up in Staten Island with an amazing family who was really supportive. I came out when I was 16 years old the summer of 1974, and when I told my parents at the dinner table, basically my dad just said, "Okay, just pass me the potatoes before they get cold." (Laughing) I've only ever been able to just be who I am and be authentically that. That has always come through, I think, in my performing, although, as an actor, we play many things. Certainly, in my own true-life I can only just be who I am, and what I am is a gay man - I'm very fluid with my gender expression when it comes to clothing and stuff. I would say, over the past couple of years, with the birth of my new work in cabaret and onstage with Doris Dear, it's just opened me up to stepping further and bringing back my hot pants and my nylons and my heels. I think it looks great and, for me, it feels powerful; I think it's my expression and my way to say to the world that everyone should be able to express who they are and how they feel in any way they want. Women wear suits, why can't men wear hose and heels and skirts and whatever else they want? I feel very free, and I have an amazing partner in my life who just looks at what I put on and says, "Wow, you look fantastic." So, as my mother used to say, "If I can accept you for who you are, nobody else has the right to tell you otherwise." That's just kind of how, how it is for me. I just am who I am
Who is Doris Dear?
Doris Dear is a character that I created. My mother was diagnosed... I lost my father when he was about 72 years old, to colon cancer complications and my mother was alone. I grew up on Staten Island. Her name was Taffy, my dad's name was Duke, and those were actually their names. (Laughing) That's how everybody knew them, I had a sister named Nancy. It was an amazing family. Taffy and Duke were the perfect mid-century modern couple on Saturday nights, they were downstairs in the Rumpus Room with all of their friends listening to CBS Masterworks Broadway albums, drinking Manhattans and Whiskey Sours, and smoking too many cigarettes. I grew up in this atmosphere, and I've always told stories about them because my mother was this amazing woman who was a Vogue model in the late forties, early fifties. She walked in Paris and New York and Rome. She gave it all up to be a mother. She was this beautiful, amazing, strong personality woman, and in her lifetime, she changed the world. She protected... I went to parochial school and we had nuns that started hitting the children and hurting them. She gathered women and they went to the Archdiocese and had nuns removed from the school forever to protect the kids. She had priests taken out of the church. She took a part-time job with a major bank at one point and they told her she couldn't wear pantsuits. So she didn't stop until she had the rules of that bank changed so that women could wear pants at work in 1969. She was my best friend, and when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, as she started to forget things, she started to open up her life and tell me all of this stuff, which I never knew about. I knew she was this amazing woman - I just didn't realize how much. So I just wanted to deal with her death and the loss, the final loss of my parents. I wanted to tell their stories, especially my mother. So I started to write a show and I decided to do it in the cabaret world, quite simply because it's cheaper to do it than to do it in a theater under a union contract, which would have cost me a fortune. So I decided, "Well, I've never done cabaret, but I think I can do it in cabaret and it's going to be a lot cheaper." I started writing the show as Ray telling the story of growing up with Taffy and Duke... and the storytelling just wasn't working, it just didn't feel right. My partner finally said to me, "Why don't you do it in drag?" I had done drag, obviously, I'm a gay guy; and I marched in hundreds of Pride parades, and led the parade, and worked for nonprofits, and done drag for them. And I thought, "Well that's interesting, let me try it." The minute I made that decision and created this character called Doris Dear, who is basically Taffy and Duke's daughter, and the premise is that Taffy is teaching everything that she knows about life so that Doris Dear grows up to be America's next perfect housewife.... it just took off from there. I found a great director in Lina Koutrakos and a musical director in Rick Jensen, and I booked a theater. I only planned to do it one night to give to the world this gift of my parents that I felt was such a gift to me, and then it would be done - I would have a way to honor them. I remember sitting backstage at The Triad and saying to my husband, "Just make sure everybody is sitting up front because I don't want to feel like there's nobody in the theater. So just make them sit up front," and he said, "What are you talking about?" I said, "Well, how many people are out there?" And he said, "We sold out and we just turned away 20 people." And I thought, "Well, who the heck is out there? I don't even know anybody in there." It was shocking to me. There's something about that character that people really identify with. I would say she's a much nicer version of me (Laughing)... and it just took off from there.
It's five years later, you're an award-winning drag performer now and everyone loves her. I believe you've played other countries as Doris Dear.
Yeah. And in fact, she is going to Scotland to host a large event and probably will be back in the U K sometime this year to do, shall we say, a Royal nonprofit, and some other things over there. There's talk about bringing her to Australia on a small tour. She's international.
How does that feel?
This is really my truth, and my truth is that I am the sum of the people who gave me their love and gave me their support throughout my entire life. That includes family, it includes close friends that I've had over the years and even friends who aren't really that close; people who took the time to reach out to me, or comfort me, or be by my side at times when I needed that, and to stand on stage and present this character is such an honor to all of those people and especially to my family. For me, it is such an honor to be able to do that and to actually have people want to listen to it. It's shocking to me, especially when I do my one-woman show and I spend almost 90 minutes on stage, just me, I'm shocked that people want to listen to me that long! (Laughing)
And through Doris Dear, you are keeping Taffy and Duke alive.
We do a three night run of the Christmas show and at the end of those three nights, I've been living with my family again, for night after night, through the rehearsals and the writing. And It's very emotional for me. It's wonderful that I get to feel like I'm living and breathing with them again and to feel the audience embrace them in a way that, I hope they know, it really warms my heart and fills my soul. It makes me feel terrific. My partner always knows, after those three days of going through that, I need a little space and a little time to debrief myself - I have to let go of my family again. I've lived with them, they were close to me, they're on stage with me, and then, once again, it's over and I have to say goodbye to them until the next time we meet.
I would love to speak with Doris Dear.
Okay. Hold on. Let me go get her... Doris! Come on!
Hi, Stephen darling, how are you?
Doris? I'm very well. How are you today?
Oh, I'm marvelous. I'm sipping on a Whiskey Sour in the Rumpus Room and, well, things are fabulous.
Doris, do you make your own Whiskey Sours or does Duke make them for you?
Oh, darling, I make everything homemade.
Doris, what are the lessons that you're currently learning about how to be the perfect housewife?
Well, it's ever the journey (Laughing) I keep a logbook from when Taffy was teaching me everything she knew. And one of her most important lessons I feel, and it's one that I try to practice every day, and teach all those marvelous people around me: Taffy always used to say that a dress doesn't get you anywhere, darling - it's the life you live in the dress that counts
I've been noticing what beautiful fashion sense you have. Is that something that you developed on your own or did Taffy influence your fashion style?
I think Taffy was an icon -- she was in Vogue and all the marvelous magazines in the late forties and fifties, and she had style her entire life. She said that style was everything, style is what gets us up in the morning. She certainly influenced me in that respect, and also encouraged me to find my own style, which I think I have.
I notice that when you wear day wear it's very fifties themed, with big skirts and petticoats, but when you wear evening wear, it's nice and snug, form-fitting and very elegant. Which one came from Taffy and which one came from your own fashion sense?
Well, Doris does like a handsome print, darling! I love them. I love how they look. When I go into evening, sometimes I will even wear a large skirt, but my evening look is always sleeker, more monochromatic, highlighted by jewelry. I think that's a little more of what Taffy was.
What do you think is a good lesson that the young women of today should be learning from the more seasoned Housewives?
(Laughing) Well, darling, where do I begin?! Ha HA! Taffy always believed that when you walk out into the world, how you're presenting yourself is how people will treat you. Your look will certainly influence the world. I think that's quite important. I always try to walk out with my hair in place and my seams straight. I think the world approaches you differently when they think that you've taken the time to put your best pump forward.
Speaking of your pumps, your high heels are incredibly high. That's a high heel. Tell the truth: have you ever fallen off your heels?
(Laughing) Well darling, YES! When I was merely a child, there is a home movie of me scampering across the eight-millimeter camera in Mom's heels and I did take a fall! But I immediately got up, straightened myself up and continued on. I think that's the way of my entire life.
Doris, do you have any shows coming up that we can promote for you?
Of course, I always have my Christmas shows. So my Christmas shows at The Triad, I do every year, which is an amazing variety show with lots of guests, lots of surprises, and it's a very happy, happy show. This year, that will be December 17th, 18th, and 19th at 7:00 PM at The Triad. I'm also very excited because I'm doing a big fundraiser - my second year - for PS 132 over in Brooklyn. PS 132 is this really marvelous school in Williamsburg, the largest public elementary school in North Brooklyn. It has a little over 700 children that go to the school and this is their big annual benefit and auction that they raise money for enrichment programs, amazing programs in music performance. They have science, technology, engineering, art and math. They need all the help they can get. I'm honored that they've asked me to come back again. Last year I did it and I think we doubled the amount of money we raised, 'cause I'm very good at asking for money. (Laughing) I'm doing some stuff in Scotland and the UK, possibly Australia.
Now tell me about your relationship with Ray.
Well, sometimes it gets a little confusing because he keeps stealing my shoes. I don't know what to do! (laughing)
What's a secret about Ray that he wouldn't want you to tell us?
Oh, that he eats way too ice cream at midnight!
Doris, dear, I'd like to speak to Ray again. So I'd like to say thank you very much for chatting with me this afternoon, it's been a pleasure.
Well, of course, Stephen darling, it's been marvelous! Let me get Ray. Ray, darling! Get out of the easy chair. Come on over, put the pipe down, darling.! Yes, here he comes. It's lovely talking to you, Stephen!
Hi Stephen. How are you?
That was sweet. That was really, really sweet. I adore her. Ray, I was there last year when you won the MAC award, how did it feel?
That was a very emotional moment for me. I think most people knew at the time that I had, a month before, suddenly lost my dear sister Nancy. She suffered a brain aneurysm two days after I was with her in Florida and she did not survive that. So it was a very... I always say that losing your mother and father is something that, as an adult, you're sort of primed and ready for because you know it's eventually going to happen. But when your sister, who's four years older - I certainly expected her to be around a lot longer - and to suddenly have her taken away like that, so suddenly, was very emotional. To get that award and to stand up in that room with all those people supporting and reaching out to me, surrounding me with warmth and love, was very emotional for me and very healing for me. It's helped me heal. I wasn't sure if I was going to the awards and Jim, my partner, said to me, "They would want you there. Whether you win or not, doesn't matter, you know that, but they would want you to be there and stand tall and show the world who you are." So that's what I did and it was a wonderful moment in a room full of a lot of love.
These five years that you've been working in the cabaret and nightclub community, the people really have embraced you. Tell me about that experience, as a newcomer coming into this community.
It's been an interesting experience because I think when I appeared on stage in that big dress and the big hair and all of that, I think that there are assumptions because they look at the character and make the assumption that I'm going to tell a dirty joke or a possibly lip-sync or do a flying split down to the floor -- Doris is far too old to do a flying split down to the floor. I think that people weren't quite sure what was going to happen. Luckily, because I had an amazing director in Lina Koutrakos, and support, especially from Sydney Myer who came to me and said, "Darling, you need to do this. Your stories need to be heard, your characters need to be seen, whatever I can do to help you, please let me know." So I've been very lucky in my entire career, to be surrounded by love and affection and mentors who helped champion me through a career that is not always easy.
I have only one question left for you and I think that you'll find it a fun one. I was backstage once when Dame Edna was on Broadway and it was before the show. Barry Humphreys came in at 10 minutes till eight, and Dame Edna was still on stage at eight o'clock. How quickly can you change from Ray into Doris?
I like to give myself three hours because it's not just about makeup and hair and costume and corseting the life out of my aging waist. (Laughing) I can do the makeup and clothes in an hour if I have to but I like to give myself three hours. I have to get my brain into this space that Doris occupies and I have to allow her emotional being to exist and to bring my family back into my life so I can talk about them and bring their stories to life in a way that I like. So I like to give myself three hours of just sort of getting within that space so that I can give the best performance I can to people who pay money in a city where there are so many choices of amazing entertainment. I really try to give everything I have to the people who are sitting in my audience 'cause I'm really honored to have them there. Then when she's gone and I've said good night to everybody, I think the ride home is my decompression, so when I get home I can take her off in about 10 minutes. But then it takes about 24 hours for me to come back to the world as Ray.
I am so grateful for this time talking to you and Doris and getting to know you a little.
Thank you so, so much, Stephen!