Frank Marino arrived in Las Vegas in 1985, armed with a cast of female impersonators, to star in a three-month engagement of An Evening at La Cage at the Riviera. Twenty-five years later, he’s still decked out in diamonds and doing 17 costume changes a night, six nights a week as the Strip’s longest-running performer. Marino didn’t always want to make a living dressing as Joan Rivers—his original dream was to be a doctor, but he soon discovered it was makeup, not medicine, that spoke to him. Marino has accumulated quite the résumé since: 20,000 shows, 10 million audience members and 350,000 costume changes to his name. Now with his own show, Divas Las Vegas, running at the Imperial Palace, he has just one notch left to mark in his belt—a wax figure. Madame Tussauds, he’s coming after you.
Why are men in drag so fascinating?
I don’t know why but, besides hooking, it’s probably one of the oldest professions in the world. It started back with Kabuki, went to Shakespeare and in more modern times we had people like Milton Berle. We had a person like Flip Wilson who was a comedian on television, and even closer to modern-day times, The Adventures of Priscilla—Queen of the Desert, Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire had major actors portraying drag characters. It’s been around so long, it’s just a fun form of entertainment and that’s how we portray it. It’s just a very light form of entertainment and I make it very clear we’re not selling a lifestyle, we’re selling a form of entertainment.
What’s your wardrobe worth?
I would say I have over $1 million in costumes. I have a warehouse and in the last 25 years every time I’ve had a gown made there’s always a brand-new pair of shoes to go with it and a brand-new set of jewelry. I never wear the same shoes twice with any outfit, or the same set of jewelry, and I do that for the audience. I do it to entertain the audience. Day One, I think it was, someone said to me, “I loved all your shoes,” and I thought, “Thank God I changed my shoes because if I was wearing the same shoes they would think I was trying to be lazy.”
Have you ever wanted to play another character?
Nowadays what I do is I open the show as Joan Rivers, but I’ve created my own character. The way RuPaul is music, Frank Marino is comedy and I do my own glamorous look that I’ve created where I come out as myself between each act in the crazy gowns and the crazy wigs. I want it to be Vegas, I want it to be over the top, I want to be as flamboyant as I can because I feel you can go next door to see the girl next door. If you’re coming to a Vegas show, you want to see something over the top.
If you weren’t a performer, what would you be doing?
Originally I was going to be a doctor, but at this point 25 years later, if I was ever to stop show business I’d either retire or do anything I could do in Vegas. I would rather be a mailman in Vegas than an entertainer anywhere else because I love Vegas that much.
What do you love about it?
I love the 24-hourness of it, I love that at midnight I can go to a fancy restaurant or nightclub and it will still be in full force. I love the energy of all the tourists being here all the time, and I love the way the city expands at such a great pace.
When will you know it’s time to retire?
I’m going to know it’s time to retire when they stop asking me back. I thought I retired last year when La Cage closed and then I had someone say to me, “You’ve been always saying how much you wanted to be the owner of a show. Why don’t you do it now while you can? Get that out of your system, or you might regret it.” I went to the executives of the hotels and joined up with SPI Entertainment and we went over to Harrah’s Entertainment and they loved the show and they put it at the Imperial Palace.
What will be on your tombstone?
He came, he conquered, he’s now retired.