Russ King has a firm handshake, the kind of grip you can do business with. His hair is a no-nonsense buzz cut, and a square jaw anchors his mug. Get him laughing, though, or rolling his eyes, and the outlines of King's alter ego emerge. Smear some ruby red on those lips, pop a cheap black wig on his head and dress his eyes with round jumbo-frame glasses, and he becomes the campy suburban doyenne who has beguiled audiences all across America, Miss Richfield 1981.
In the past year, King has taken Miss Richfield to 11 states outside her native Minnesota, including a four-month gig in the gay tourist mecca of Provincetown, Mass. There, she performed "Color Me Richfield" five nights a week at an entertainment multiplex on the tip of Cape Cod. She worked hard for her money, barking to passersby to join her inside the club for the 10:30 p.m. show, becoming the town chatter and copping an invitation back for next year. She'll need to crowbar that engagement into a schedule that's likely to include Puerto Vallarta on Mexico's Pacific Coast, several cruise ships, and Los Angeles. Miss Richfield in Hollywood? How will they tell her apart from JoAnne Worley?
Only in the past two years has King made a full-time living out of the character he introduced on a lark seven years ago. At 41, he feels he has years to go before he peels off the pantyhose for the last time.
"As long as it's growing as a career, as long as I can continue growing, I'll keep going," he said. The discipline of nightly work in Provincetown made him realize that for all her kitsch, Miss Richfield is serious business.
King is back in town for Miss Richfield's annual holiday show, which opens tonight at the Illusion Theater in Minneapolis. Her theme is "Christmas Cheer," so King schlepped over to Highland Park High School in St. Paul last week to shoot a video of Miss R. cavorting with cheerleaders and football players.
"Ladies, don't dawdle," she bellowed at the theater students portraying the cheerleaders. "Smile! You can't be cheering when you're frowning. Stand up straight!" Then she hiked out the door and across Snelling Avenue in her impossible white platform heels and cheerleader outfit, and minced onto the breezy football field.
"Let's do it right, no mistakes this time," she scolded after a few practice runs. The students giggled and got into line as video director Karl Reichert told them to pretend this was live TV Ã la 1955: no retakes. The scene went fine until one student tripped.
"OK, pretend this is live TV 1960," Reichert said. Soon, the deal was done, to the applause of onlookers.
King has been trussing himself up and donning false eyelashes since 1996, when Miss Richfield debuted at the Gay 90s. She has gone international, her local humor translating to universal audiences.
"The suburban Midwestern sensibility is endearing to a lot of people," King said. "We all grew up in suburbs; it's sort of the same thing as small towns and farms used to be." Miss Richfield, he said, is the spinster aunt families love to laugh with and at.
King is far more calculating than his alter ego. He has had careers in marketing, public relations and journalism. He understands why they call it show business.
"I think it works on two levels," he said, coolly analytical. "Drag is burlesque, and people associate that with naughty stuff, taverns, nakedness. Miss Richfield is 180 degress from that. So there's this dichotomy that makes it much richer. And second, she's real. She's the only character I do. It keeps this character pure so they see her as a person."
Reichert, who has known King since they were in college together at Bemidji State, said his friend has been able to separate his personas -- all the more since Miss Richfield's success has grown.
"I visited him for five days in Provincetown, and when he's out of character, he's the Russ I've known for 20 years," said Reichert.
King indeed grew up in Richfield, in a conservative Baptist family: no dancing, no movies, no card-playing. Religion played a large enough role in his life that he attended Moody Bible Institute in Chicago after high school. "I knew I was gay since I was a little kid, but I couldn't reconcile it with my faith," he said.
Two years out of college, after counseling, praying, pretending, working with an ex-gay ministry, King determined he would tell his family that he was gay. His parents were not keen on the news.
Whatever disappointment they might have expressed was dwarfed years later by their response to a 1997 newspaper article that raved about a drag performer who had wowed audiences at the "Gay 90s" with her sassy routine. Although he had forewarned his parents ("I told them to think of it as 'Uncle Milty' "), his parents were nonetheless chagrined to read that Miss Richfield 1981 was the creation of their own Russ.
They came around -- a little. King's father never saw the show before he died three years ago, but was always willing to give Russ a ride to the airport for performance trips.