As Santa Barbara's Bunny, Joe Marinelli is winning the battle of sexes

 Soap Opera Digest, 1989

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"I don't understand high heels." Joe Marinelli is discussing the finer points of women's fashions. Panty hose, bugle beads, gold lame. He's not shopping for a present for his girlfriend or his sister. He's telling me how some of these items fit him - the three-quarter gloves, the evening gowns - and how playing "mobster/cross-dresser" Bunny Tagliatti on Santa Barbara has changed his life.

Understand that there is nothing androgynous about Joe's appearance. He has a broad face and nose, a stocky build, heavy beard, hairy arms - features not usually associated with women, but that's exactly why Marinelli got the part. "I asked the producers if they wanted (Bunny) to be a little feminine," says the actor. Absolutely not was the answer. "They wanted somebody who was absolutely masculine. Bunny's got a heart of gold, but he will kill anybody." Marinelli's research into the phenomenon of cross-dressing gave him an education in one of the strangest of all sexual subcultures: heterosexual transvestites.

"It's hard to understand," Joe admits in his dressing room. "There are men who admire women so much that they enter the world of femininity. With Bunny, he's trying to understand women better so he dresses up like them. If you're rejected enough as a man, you can become the woman who does the rejecting. Bunny doesn't want to be with another man, he just wants to be a woman and have that feeling of power that he thinks a woman has. There are groups, a couple of heterosexual groups, most of them in the East. They get together and talk about gender relief, as they call it, because of the pressure of the masculine world. (Cross-dressing) is a release of anxiety from that masculine role. A lot of them come after marriage, breakups, stuff like that where people feel like, "What did I do wrong ? Maybe I'm not masculine enough." The men usually give the person they dress up as a name and they call her their sister. I call (Bunny's after ego) Bonnie. "Bunny's going to take Bonnie out for a drink." The asexual aspect of this type of masquerade still puzzles the Connecticut-born actor. "For a heterosexual (transvestite), it's a lot more bizarre. It's truly deviant behavior, whereas I think of a homosexual doing it, there would be humor in it. There would be more sexuality in it."

The transformation of Bunny to Bonnie involves some technical magic from Santa Barbara's makeup and costume departments. It takes two and a half hours to make up Marinelli, reports makeup artist John Maldonado. On days where both characters appear in the script, Joe's scenes in drag are taped first. His beard disappears with the help of Max Factor, his eyebrows are blocked out with spirit gum. "I leave some of his own eyebrows and I seal it with wax or with the spirit gum and then a fixative, which seals it so that it won't soak in," says Maldonado. "It's a whole process." It took some time for Joe to get used to the application of all these cosmetics. "At first his eyes kept moving back and forth and if people were talking, he'd move," Maldonado remembers. "And I'd say, "C'mon, you've got to work with me here, we're doing a woman's makeup so I've got to have your full attention. "" John, who had previous experience making up one of the cast as a member of the opposite sex when Judith McConnell (Sophia) masqueraded as Dominic, adds, "It's kind of tough to have a pencil going on your eyelid. Joe's getting better and better at it. I want to make him as pretty as possible."         

Santa Barbara  hair stylists report that Marinelli is very fond of the red wig he wears when he crosses over into female territory as Bonnie. Wigs cover Marinelli's low hair line and the wardrobe has not been a problem at all. Santa Barbara's costume designer, Richard Bloore, terms Joe "a perfect size fourteen. There are plenty of clothes to choose from. The only problem was getting the panty hose on, that was a little difficult." When he was all put together (red wig, bugle beads, and three-quarter gloves to cover those hairy arms), Marinelli reports that the resident actors made something of a fuss over him. "The men reacted with a laugh," he says, "and the women, they were in awe, touching me, touching my gloves, patting me on the ass." He startled delivery boys in the hallway and had his niece believing he was only dressed this way for Halloween. For a guy who never paid much attention to clothes, playing Bunny and Bonnie has given Marinelli an appreciation of fashion. "It's like the first time you've ever tasted a really good wine," he says. "You go, "Ah, forget Gallo."" He loves Bunny's silk pajamas, suits and monogrammed slippers. The role also inspired him to get his first manicure.

His success as Bunny/Bonnie comes after ten years of frustrating unemployment as an actor. Trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, Joe was naturally resentful at being ignored for so long. "Last year I was auditioning for The Sacramento Theater Company," he says. "The auditions were done at The Old Globe in San Diego. I was falling asleep before the audition out on the grass in front of the theater, just dozing off a little, and I thought how the roles that I wanted to play - Macbeth, Othello - had diminished through the ten years and how they seemed so far away. But dreams can turn around. They can come back and happen."

Now that he's proven himself to the show's producers as well as the audience, Joe has been called upon to send up some very butch legends of the silver screen. His Joan Crawford was an absolute hoot. She served as God's receptionist when Mason (Lane Davies) went to Heaven in a memorable fantasy sequence. When Mason mistook Joan (in one of those flaming red wigs that wardrobe reports Marinelli especially likes) as the star of Mommie Dearest, Marinelli derisively snorted, "That was Faye Dunaway !" To prepare for his day as Joan, Joe rented a cassette of Crawford's Oscar-winner Mildred Pierce. "I didn't want to imitate her," he says. "I just wanted to note qualities about her voice, her intensity."

This spring, he played former Cross-Your-Heart bra saleswoman and movie star Jane Russell in a zany reworking of the comedy classic Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Bunny's sometime girlfriend Gina (Robin Mattson) showed up as Russell's co-star Marilyn Monroe. With her beloved sidekick Justin Deas (ex-Keith) gone, Mattson's especially thrilled to have another outrageous companion. "I think Joe's very sweet and fun to work with," she says. "They definitely did not want to bring in someone to compete with Justin or try to take his place. They decided to go in a totally different direction and I think that makes sense. And I'm glad not to be left in the lurch, but to be in a situation where they're trying to find other venues for Gina. My story line has opened way up. I loved Justin Deas, but much of what I had to do on the show hinged on him and what he was doing and his schedule and his projects, and the writers were never 100 percent sure if he was going to be there and it made them, I think, a little afraid to write for us."

Santa Barbara has moved away from the transvestite story to concentrate on Bunny's very own soap opera triangle with Gina and Vanessa (Denise Gentile), the granddaughter of a hitman who tried to kill Sonny Sprocket. Vanessa did her own masquerading as a man - Vance - and Bunny renounced his own mob connections to be with her. Joe notes ironically that while the press has spilled plenty of ink about the romantic angles of Bunny/Bonnie's life, they "never print that I don't have a girlfriend."

Not that he's worried. "I've waited ten years for an acting career to take off so..." For now, it's the "full swing career" that's taking up his time. He no longer has to support himself as a carpenter or cab driver. "As an actor I knew I wanted to create a lot of characters," Joe Marinelli says with a smile. "I never knew I'd be creating a lot of female characters." On a show as unpredictable as Santa Barbara, his next female incarnation is anybody's guess. It could be anybody from Carol Channing to Lady Bird Johnson. There is someone, however, Joe would like to try on for size : Bette Davis. That means more high heels. Joe groans at the thought. "They're fine for a couple of hours," he says, "but at the end of the day, it's like..."