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Frank Marino: Clothes Make the Man a Woman

Frank Marino
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For the last nearly 29 years, Frank Marino has come out of – and gone back into – the closet more times than any entertainer in Las Vegas history.

Of course, switching complete head-to-toe costumes 17 times each and every night for 25 years starring as Joan Rivers/Femme Fatale in “An Evening at La Cage” at the Riviera, and now in the female impersonation show “Divas Las Vegas” at The Quad (formerly the Imperial Palace), which he created, headlines, and is co-producing, Marino definitely has a handle on what it really means to go through “the change.”.

“Each time I perform one of my nightly switches, I change everything from my gown to my shoes, jewelry and wigs,” explains Marino, who will be the subject of a celebrity roast at the Stratosphere this coming Friday night, October 4. “As much as it may give me a leg up when it comes to melding fashion with entertainment, the ladder of success is definitely harder to climb when you’re wearing high heels. Actually, I was a natural in them from the moment I took my first steps as a female impersonator – it’s sneakers that I have trouble walking in. I always knew I’d be successful in whatever I chose to do; I just didn’t know I’d be wearing designer stilettos to do it.”

In reality, female impersonation has always been part of Marino’s makeup. He started out wanting to be a doctor and, while in college, worked at a large pharmacy on weekends. Apparently, he spent more time upfront at the cosmetics counter than at the back dispensing pills. Makeup fascinated him for some reason and through trial and error, he learned to apply it, Then, one Halloween, he dressed up like Diana Ross and went to a party.

“There was a booking agent there who told me that I looked so good that he could send me out to different events impersonating famous divas,” Marino recalls.  “He offered me $150 a night. That’s when I kissed the idea of medical school goodbye.”

Between the ages of 17 and 20, Marino tried portraying every female character from Cher to Madonna. Then, one night, he went to Atlantic City to see Joan Rivers perform. She invited him backstage where he met the producers of “An Evening at La Cage,” which was playing at Bally’s on the Boardwalk and in which the headlining host of the show was the female impersonator portraying Joan. Since Marino couldn’t sing and Joan was the most glamorous of all the female comedians, she subsequently became his permanent character to impersonate.

After finishing four years of college, Marino ended up in Florida, headlining the “La Cage” show there as Joan Rivers. Meschulam Riklis, who owned the Riviera at the time, and his then-wife, Pia Zadora, came to see the show and subsequently brought Marino to the Riviera on a six-month contract to the Riviera to star in it in Las Vegas. He ultimately became the longest running headliner on the Strip thanks to that show, performing in it for two and a half decades before it closed at the hotel in 2008.

“Of course, the thing people are most curious about where female impersonation is concerned and the first question they ask is, “Where do you put IT?”  he laughs. “I always respond with, “Where do you want it?”  The second thing they want to know is how long it takes me to perfect Joan each night. When I first started, the makeup process took over two hours. Today, it takes me less than an hour but it takes an hour and a half to get the makeup off because of all the putty and wax and theater makeup I use.”

“When I’m putting on my makeup, I look at Joan’s picture,” he adds. “I try to recreate her facial structure, much like an artist who takes a blank canvas and turns it into a painting. I don’t do my makeup like Joan’s; I do my makeup so that my face will look like Joan’s. It’s been a lot easier to do over the years because I’ve had over $150,000 of plastic surgery – I have my surgeon, Dr. Giselle Anson, on speed dial. I’ve had a nose job, cheek implants, a neck lift and liposuction and I’m a big fan of Restylane and Juvederm. And I’m never more than six months away from a shot of Botox.  I’ve had so much that even my clothes don’t wrinkle.”

Marino emphasizes that he doesn’t do the surgery to look like Rivers but rather because it softens his features so that when he applies the makeup, it makes him look more like her. He notes that she’s had so much surgery herself that she’s changing every day, which makes it difficult to get her physical appearance down.

“The hardest part about impersonating Joan for me has always been her hairstyles,” he admits. “In the 80’s, she had the teased-up bouffant, then she went to the straight pageboy – what I call her talk show look – and then she went to Meg Ryan with the spiky look. Luckily, I have a great wig stylist in Las Vegas who does all my Joan Rivers wigs.”

About eight years ago, because Rivers was getting up in years and he was concerned that he wouldn’t have a character if her career didn’t stay stable, Marino invented a Femme Fatale character that he also portrays in the show. Little did he know that Rivers would end up being the queen of the Fashion Police on the red carpet, the top-seller of costume jewelry on QVC, and the winner of 2009’s “The Apprentice,” So he portrays Rivers for the first 20 minutes of the show, doing a monologue to warm up the audience, then he introduces the other acts as the Femme Fatale character.

Marino has more than 2,000 gowns in his wardrobe, most of them designed by Bob Mackie, and others by a local designer, Coco Vega. For “Divas” debut, Mackie created 17 new gowns for Marino.

”In helping to design them, I kept with my motto, ‘Too much is just enough,’ Marino exclaims.

.As for “Divas,” which Marino co-produces with SPI entertainment, audiences will get a chance to see 15 cast members, including six hunky dancers, portray the likes of entertainers from Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Beyonce and Rihanna to legends like Cher, Diana Ross, Liza Minnelli, Madonna, and others.  

If life is a drag, it’s fine with him.

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