Chiffon Dior: Well hello there Vinnie and Pepperica! It’s nice to finally talk with the brain trust behind Planet Pepper! How are you both doing this evening?
Pepperica Swirl: Hi doll! Greetings! We are doing great. We’re thrilled to be talking chatting with you. Big kisses!!!
CD: So let’s go back to the very beginning. Which came first, your relationship or the business?
Vinnie Cuccia: The relationship really did. But the business came very shortly after we started dating.
PS: Yes! Actually Planet Pepper was Vinnie’s idea.
CD: What were your fashion backgrounds leading up to the creation of the business?
VC: I had none. I can barely tell you what colors match! I’m the worst. But what happened is because I am visually impaired, I was offered $15,000 to start a business by the New York State Commission for the Blind and Visually Handicapped. I was sick and tired of getting fired and not being promoted! Everyone was always concerned about how much work I could do as a visually impaired person so I decided to apply for the funds and start my own company that I could never be fired from. To get the money, I had to write a business plan. I knew that I could do that, because my communication skills are excellent. The problem was coming up with a business.
PS: I have a costume background. I went to Wagner College and then went on to work at the world famous Eaves-Brooks Costume House, where I met a lot of amazing designers such as Gregg Barnes and Theoni Aldridge. Then I began sewing for friends and clients out of my 5th floor apartment and back stage at my theatre gigs. When I first met Vin, I had queens like Lady Bunny and Twinkle Montgomery meeting me backstage at”Hairspray” or at home to get work done.
VC: I went to several events and met with several other entrepreneurs. I asked if they wanted to start a company. They said yes. I asked if they wanted $15,000. They said yes. I asked if they would work with me. They said yes. I said great. If you’re really sure, prove it to me. Call me in three days with another yes and we have a deal. I spoke to about seventy five people and no one called me back. I thought of Oprah’s famous quote, “Showing up is the most important part. Most people don’t show up.”
PS: At that time, Twinkle was about a hundred and fifty pounds overweight and smoked like a chimney. She cursed me out when she had to climb those stairs for a gown! *laughs*
CD: So basically it was a dressmaking AND personal training service?
PS: I did a LOT of sewing in that tiny Hell’s Kitchen apartment!
VC: Finally, I saw what Pepper was doing for Lady Bunny and Twinkle. I was impressed. So I asked if she wanted to start a company. She said yes. I asked if she wanted $15,000. She said yes. I asked if she would work with me. She said yes. I said great. If you’re really sure, prove it to me. Call me in three days with another yes and we have a deal. She did.
PS: I was excited that Vin wanted me to call him back!
VC: We have been inseparable ever since. I was so excited when she said yes! In Dec. of 2009, I presented our idea of Planet Pepper to the New York State Commission for the Blind and Visually Handicapped. They loved us and awarded us the money! When I told people in the gay community that we were starting this business, they were like “You can’t make any money by catering to drag queens! You’ll close in a year!” Blah, blah, blah. I was shocked that the New York State government had more faith in us than the gay community. The state has been really supportive of our efforts.
CD: Vinnie, when you heard that from the community, did it give you pause or make you worry about the feasibility of the business?
VC; Yes, those comments are meant to make you doubt yourself! And I did. I was scared. Then I got angry and pissed. How dare they? So we pushed really hard to succeed. I just kept reminding myself that New York believes in us. I know it sounds strange, but that kind institutional support wouldn’t have ever happened unless some queens stepped out of a bar one June night back in 1969 and fought back! That’s what amazed me. We had fought for that support and, years later, here was the state giving it to us!
CD: Was the plan right away to a company catering to drag queens or was the business more broad initially?
VC: For a split second, we thought to make it broad, but then we went with Pepper’s strengths. The first thing I wanted was a name for the company. We joked about naming it after Pepper’s cats, but that wasn’t right. We knew Pepper’s name had to be in the title. One day Pepper mentioned that her supervisor at Hairspray, who also did drag, used to say that any drag queen who shaves off her eyebrows and paints them in three inches higher than where they naturally grow was so daring and outrageous that they were on a whole new planet! I said that is the kind of customer we want, someone who is bold, audacious, outrageous…someone who is out of this world! That was it. We thought we’ll call it Planet Pepper. So now Pepper has her own planet. *Laughs*
PS: I’ve always been fascinated with drag. It’s what I enjoy. I love the outrageousness of it all! But I’m not afraid of making something subtle and tasteful too.
CD: Pepper, did you get your start in drag before or after Planet Pepper started?
PS: Way before. I started going to drag shows in Washington DC in the early 90’s. I lived at Ziegfields every Friday and Saturday night. Actually last week, I took Vinnie there for the first time to see Ella Fitzgerald and the girls. It was fab. I can’t believe that queen has been hosting her show for twenty five years. Wow! She’s an inspiration!
I started doing drag in college, Halloween, like so many of us. I went to a party as dead Jackie Kennedy with blue/ purple skin bugs crawling out of my eyes (Jackie had just passed) and a fabulous 50’s dress and hat I got at the Domsesy thrift store in Brooklyn. I was hooked!
CD: So how quickly did things take off once you started Planet Pepper? How did you get the word out?
VC: After we came up with the name, I felt the next step was space. I hated that drag queens were climbing five flights of stairs to get to her Hell’s Kitchen apartment. They were getting fitted next to a sink of dirty dishes while two cats circled them. I thought this is so unprofessional. So we found a studio space near by. Things took off pretty quickly by word of mouth because of Pepper’s membership in the Imperial Court of New York.
PS: For people who might not know the Imperial Court is a 501c3 organization with chapters all over the country and Canada. Each group focuses on raising money for their community by dressing in drag and having events. The imperial court of New York has events all year long and holds its big star studded gala “Night of a Thousand Gowns” every spring. We also travel to other courts and attend their galas. It’s a great way to do drag and give back to the community. (Check out icny.org for more info)
At first it was primarily my clients and Imperial Court friends, but eventually our customer base grew. And I was a cast member on a little on Bravo called “Mad Fashion” with my pal Chris March ( of Project Runway fame). That sort of encouraged us to think bigger.
CD: Since you mentioned “Mad Fashion”, let’s talk about that, shall we? I was a huge fan of that show and was crushed when it didn’t get renewed, especially compared to some of the other junk that is on the air! Bravo, you dropped the ball! How did that come about for you?
PS: I met Chris backstage at “Hairspray”. I made some horrible joke which I won’t repeat here and we instantly became friends. Over the years we worked on a lot of projects together and when this TV show was coming together he asked if I wanted to be on the team and I was thrilled! We were crushed when season two didn’t happen. There was a lot of talk with producers and bravo it just didn’t come together.
CD: Did you know the rest of the team prior to the show?
PS: I’ve known Izzy (Decauwert) since my days at Eaves. She’s amazing and hilarious too. Currently, she’s working at “Matilda” on Broadway now. “Hi Izz!”
Matt is one of Chris’s best friends. Jake and Christine were cast. Everyone was great! We all get together every once in a while. (Except Matt since he’s on the west coast.)Mad Fashion did introduce me to a whole new world. I am usually behind the scenes, but it was fun to be the “on-air talent” for a while!
CD: Was there a bump in business following the show?
PS: No bump in business at all.
VC: Not really. I think it added to our credibility but I don’t think it actually led to sales.
PS: Yes, credibility for sure but I actually I lost a lot of money that year. But it was an experience. I’m glad I did it.
CD: Because of time away from sewing?
PS: Yes and I was offered a job as Wardrobe Supervisor for the Broadway run of”Priscilla Queen of the Desert”. I chose Mad Fashion, not the best choice financially. We didn’t make much at all on the show. They promised season 2 would be the payoff but of course, it never happened. Oh well…
I still do a lot of theater. I’m the wardrobe supervisor at Lincoln Centers Claire Tow Theatre. I’ve been there for six great years, so I balance my time between there and Planet Pepper and Vin teaches here in Brooklyn.
CD: Hypothetically speaking, based on your prior experience, if they came to you wanting to do a “Planet Pepper” reality show, would either of you have interest in it?
PS: Vinnie would for sure. *laughs* We would joke back then. He wanted to deliver coffee or tap dance outside the Mad Fashion studio. He’s a ham!
VC: I would. I think we’re fun. We don’t have the studio now because we are much more virtual, but I’d go back if someone wanted to produce it.
PS: I don’t know that a watching me make hip pads and dresses for the likes of Lady Bunny and Lisa Lampanelli would make for great television. Well, maybe! *laughs*
CD: People watch a bunch of racist hillbillies making duck calls. Yours would be at least as interesting as that! For all those television producers reading this, you heard it here first. (Please message me about my finders fee first though)!
PS: Hysterical Chiffon!
VC: *Laughs*That’s right, honey. You get that fee!
CD: So you recently launched a fabulous new product, the Astrobooty! Can you tell us a little bit about it?
PS: We want to bootify the glamazons of the world! I am amazed how many queens don’t pad. I’m from the south and it’s a sin down there so I’m selling my Astrobooty and new Astrobooty Mini primarily on eBay now. (Trademark, patent pending)
CD: What makes yours different than some of the other ones that are out there on the market?
VC: There are others out there designed for real women to enhance their hips so those don’t even show up on men. Ours are designed for men.
PS: I don’t know of any business that makes hip pads for drag queens. I know some designers who sew for private clients. We wanted to get these out there and available for all. They come in three colors and different thicknesses. We have two style, one that goes down the leg, hip and booty and one that just does the booty.
Planet Pepper® Astrobooty® Medium Size hip pads are inserted into shorts to wear under tights for that smooth, sexy, feminine look. Without Astrobooty, you look like a man in a dress. But with Astrobooty, you get a perfect hourglass figure and rocks the dress, because this patent pending technology rounds out your waste, buttocks and thighs and fills out the dress nicely. The pads are made of soft foam that is squeezable and pinchable. Each of the two pads is 18 inches L X 13.5 inches W and 2 or 3 inches thick. You can perform easily on stage and sit comfortably at the bar. They come inserted into shorts and can easily be removed by turning the shorts inside out and unzipping the internal pockets. You can then wash the shorts. The shorts come in Medium, Large or Extra Large. They are made of spandex and are fully surged so no seams show under your stockings. Destination–Planet Pepper!
CD: So what does the future hold for Planet Pepper? Do you have any long range goals that you’d like to achieve?
PS: Yes. We want to design an Astrobody which will be a full body suit with the hips and boobs. I’m also designing a line of dresses which we hope to be available in the spring.
VC: We are developing new products and a fashion line. We are also working on a great marketing plan that includes visiting our clients around the country and seeing them perform We’re also in the process of redesigning our website for e-commerce to make our products more accessible to people around the country.
CD: Do you see yourselves expanding into “off the rack” drag costumes for sale on a site like eBay in addition to your custom work?
PS: We are doing less and less one of a kinds. I still sew for a few clients and myself of course. Pepper always needs some fabulous new frocks to wear! I am really excited about getting my gowns and costumes manufactured and available for all!
CD: It was so good to talk to you both finally! I wish you continued success both personally and professionally! Do you have any final words of wisdom to share with the readers?
VC: I say follow your dreams. I did it with no experience and no sight. What’s your excuse? There aren’t any. Thank you so much Chiffon. It’s been great chatting with you!
PS: I say “Get on the spaceship” and join us on Planet Pepper! Big kisses to you and all your readers. XOXO!
For more information on Planet Pepper, check out their website here.