Certainly, the figure in the outrageous black and gold ruffled coat and black pants on stage at New York’s Metropolitan Room sounds and looks a lot like Joan Rivers.
As someone fortunate enough to have interviewed the real Rivers a few times—the final time, her last major interview before her death in August 2014—the similarities of voice and presence between the figure—the performer Joe Posa—and Rivers are resonant and mesmerizing.
Joan-who-isn’t-Joan, who is already holding us spellbound, is Joe Posa, an almost 50-year-old actor and former dancer. His “The Bitch Is Back” performance is not a simple drag act: He truly inhabits the Rivers persona—and Rivers herself loved his act.
Rivers died, aged 81, while undergoing a throat procedure; her daughter, Melissa, settled a medical malpractice suit against the facility earlier this month.
Posa-as-Joan comes on stage waving and flapping at the air, like a demented crow, rasping that salty ashtray-growl of hers, and she immediately starts scything merrily away at celebrity images and reputations.
“Celine Dion: She’s so thin. When I saw her in Las Vegas the black suit she was wearing made her look like an umbrella.”
The audience laughed.
“We mustn’t laugh. She just buried her grandfather.” (A typically Rivers response to the death of Dion’s husband, René Angélil, 26 years her senior.) “Joan” says that when she got to Heaven she ran into Robin Williams. He says, “Joan, you’re in a better place.” Rivers replies to him, “I’m not in a better place. I’ve got a house in the Hamptons.”
When Rivers was alive, Posa’s was the classiest imitation act around; now he is traveling around the country with a memorial show. “Joan” is told at the gates of Heaven they’re not quite ready for her, so she has come back to give us one more show.
It is not just Posa’s guttural voice, outrageous clothes, and stooped-missile bearing; Posa captures Rivers’s warm emotional presence too.
Posa performs after Tony Tripoli, the best kind of warm-up act, as he was Rivers’s close friend and head scriptwriter on Fashion Police. (Another interview with the funny and insightful Tripoli will follow in a few days.)
When Posa-as-Joan appears, the jokes begin firing out immediately—as they did with Rivers—like a potty-mouthed machine gun.
Her vagina has fallen so far and is so gray, Posa-as-Joan says, she finds herself thinking why is she wearing bunny slippers. Donald Trump hates immigrants—except the two he married. It’s easy for gay men to fake an orgasm—they can just spit on the other guy’s back. Princess Diana was so lucky—she was so thin, so gorgeous, with two beautiful children, and a husband who didn’t want to sleep with her.
Posa first met Rivers in Houston, Texas, in 2006, having performed as her since 2004. He had been hired to be her at a corporate event play-acting the red carpet shtick she made her own—later parlayed into Fashion Police. Rivers herself was hired for the main show.
Backstage, she told him he looked great. Onstage, when the emcee welcomed Posa-as-Joan to the stage, the real Joan stormed on and barked: “Get off my stage, bitch. That’s Joe Posa. He makes money doing me everywhere.”
When the show was over, Rivers told Posa, “You’re fun,” and invited him back to her dressing room, which was far fuller of nicer things than his.
Rivers started packing all the free food provided for her into plastic bags for Posa and told him if he ever wanted tickets for her shows, to call her office. “She was just so lovely,” says Posa. “We had a connection. She was like a mother, so nurturing.”
He laughs, recalling that she commiserated with him about how he had been put on an early flight home the next morning (they were cheaper). The pair almost slipped in the kitchen on the way to the stage, and Rivers said she would sue; Posa joked they both would.
Growing up “closeted in New York in an Italian family,” Posa loved listening to his relatives’ voices. He studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, “but instead of learning Shakespeare would make all the students laugh with impersonations of our teachers.”
Posa had been a dancer; then, as well as Rivers, he formed an act around impersonating Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli, and Michael Jackson. He has also impersonated Susan Lucci and Tina Fey.
“Somehow I got a knack for getting inside the people who I impersonated, more than what they were wearing or looking like, but a sense of their spirit and what made them tick,” Posa says. “People think Barbra is a diva, grand, but my approach was a girl who lost her dad as a child, and who wasn’t that attractive, and who was insecure but strong.
“Liza was tormented, drunk, but with so much love to give, and Joan was a survivor of showbusiness and suicide [of her husband Edgar Rosenberg, in 1987], with so many components to her that are compassionate because of that journey.”
People have suggested Posa “do” Bette Midler, but—besides the song and camp about her he knows he could execute—he does not know what makes her tick. “Unless I know what that other thing is, I can’t fully embody it. With Joan, I really understand her journey. I understand her personally, and it was in the kindness and compassion she showed me, and the hard work she did, and I do too. Tony Tripoli said to me, ‘People can look and sound like her, but you smell like Joan.’”
Offstage, Posa says he is like her too. “She was quiet, sensitive, quite beside the ‘vagina this vagina that’ people associate with her. She let loose onstage. I’m like that too—shy to a degree in my own life. She loved elegance, crystal, white-gloved service, the beauty of life, entertaining in that grand New York apartment.”
If Rivers had no respect for niceties and boundaries—only on-the-edge jokes about grandson Cooper were off-limits—and was often criticized for racism and offensiveness, Posa feels he is less confrontational by nature.
“I’m not as opinionated in that way. I’m not as out there with Facebook postings: ‘Don’t vote Trump, do this, how dare you…’ I’m a little lighter in that vein, not as soapbox-y. The thing for me with impersonating her is that it enables me to get lot of stuff out that maybe I am thinking that I don’t go through life cramming down people’s throats.”
So he doesn’t find it hard saying the things that are often classed “unsayable.” “I’m in her head when I’m performing. I am her. I feel like I am channeling her. The experience is bigger than us. It’s not about me. I’m a vessel for her work and her voice.”
Posa has felt Rivers’s presence a couple of times, both involving the presence of a bee.
“It was her favorite QVC piece of jewelry (from her own collection). The bee, to Joan, should not have been able to fly, anatomically speaking. The fact it did was an example to her that she, we, could defy whatever odds. The bee, when I saw one the first time in Mexico, felt like a blessing. I knew she was happy, or happy with me. Now I ask for her help. If we’ve done four or five cities in six days, I say, ‘Joan I need a little lift.’”
The show is an intense and demanding 50 minutes, with Posa soon wiping away rivulets of sweat. The costumes are replicas of those designed for Rivers by William Ivey Long. Posa has not had the plastic surgery that Rivers was famous for, though does have Botox twice a year.
“I don’t want to be her when I’m not doing her,” he says. “I don’t think that’s a healthy approach. It’s a role.” (Posa has been with his partner and manager, Frank Ribaudo—the founder of Boston’s famed gay venue, Club Cafe—for 16 years; they married two years ago and live in Fort Lauderdale.)
Posa last saw Rivers in Provincetown in July 2014. Both were performing their acts; she for the first time in the long-standing favorite LGBT holiday spot.
“I said to her, ‘I do you in my show respectfully.’ She said, ‘You could do me disrespectfully.’”
He says he always gave Rivers a $25 Starbucks gift card: She traveled so much, and Starbucks was her favorite coffee on the road. The last time they saw each other, he gave her a kiss on her cheek.
A few weeks later she was dead, and Posa’s shows were still going on in Provincetown. For Rivers, the show always went on—edgy jokes at the forefront. “To be honest, I feel as though I haven’t grieved in the right way,” says Posa. “I didn’t want to be disrespectful by performing, although after Edgar’s death she was making jokes about it. People shouted at me, ‘Why aren’t you in Hell?’ I said, ‘Yeah, fuck you.’”
Posa sighs. “If anyone asked why I was there performing, as I was dead, I said, I hope as Joan would have replied, ‘There’s a check at the end of the evening.’ For Joan, you got through all kinds of times by embracing them, and just getting through it.”
Posa imagines Rivers in Heaven maybe with Edgar—“although she may still be as furious with him for committing suicide,” as she said so volubly when she was alive. Maybe, Posa says, she’s at the gates of Heaven welcoming people in: “Who are you wearing? I bet you’re glad you’re dead. Now you don’t have to deal with what was going on down there.”
He laughs softly. “She’s up to something.” And down here, she’s up to something too.