In the men’s bathroom of a Long Island fire station, Jennifer Bobbi Suchan puts on a black wig the size of a small raccoon. The 48-year-old tucks in pieces of her short dyed-blonde hair, shifting the cloud-shaped bob into place before securing it with a few bobby pins. She leans over the counter to touch up her powder, eyeshadow and blush before applying bright pink “wild rose” lipstick. In sparkly black heels and a rayon dress covered in bright purple swirls, Suchan looks like she belongs on the Studio 54 stage instead of in a beige bathroom.
It’s election night and in just ten minutes, she’s transformed into Aunt Barbara — the foul-mouthed, booze-loving retro housewife who for seven years was the top personal seller of Tupperware in North America. She purses her lips in the mirror, thinks of a few political jokes — I hope yous all voted for Jimmy Carter today! — and waits for the party’s organizer to knock on the bathroom door and say it’s showtime.
At 7:30 p.m., forty suburban women are waiting for Aunt Barbara to emerge and start selling them Tupperware in a fluorescent-lit, wood-paneled room. Dressed in oversized sweaters and comfortable shoes, many of them are part of the ladies’ auxiliary that fund-raises for the Nassau County Fire Department. Instead of eating nachos and watching the election results at home, they sit in rows facing a table filled with robin’s-egg-blue, dark purple, bright orange and mint-green containers and other kitchen utensils. They know an Aunt Barbara show is worth their time.
Lisa Williams, the event’s organizer, stands at the front of the room and says: “Aunt Barbara is going to be coming out in a minute or two. She is the highest-grossing Tupperware consultant in the Northeast. Um, I believe she does this as her full-time job.”
“In North America!” squawks Aunt Barbara, pushing open the door to the main room. The audience cracks up. “I’m not coming out if I can’t get a proper introduction!”
In her Long Island accent, “proper” sounds more like “prawper.” She screams “Hi everyone!,” her voice shrill and Elmo-like as she moves in front of the Tupperware-filled table. Unsatisfied with their enthusiasm, she says, “Okay, that kind of sucked, let’s try that again!” and unleashes the Aunt Barbara laugh, a series of “haw, haw, haw, haw”s descending down a musical scale.
Aunt Barbara plucks a piece of toilet paper hanging from the back of her dress. “I hate when that happens every night,” she says. “I don’t like to waste paper products. I’ll just leave it over here and use it when nobody’s lookin’.” More laughter. Many of the women have already seen her at previous fire department fund-raisers and convinced their friends to come.
“You were so good in ‘The Partridge Family show,’” Aunt Barbara says to an old woman in the front row with Shirley Jones-like short red hair. She calls the youngest lady in the crowd “Kim Kardashian,” repeatedly telling her to Google old-timey references like the soft drink Shasta and Jean Nate, an “after bath splash” introduced in the 1930s. She refers to the audience as a group of “attractive, alcoholic wives.”
Women, no matter who they are, seem to love Aunt Barbara — even the more conservative, Trump-supporting women among the crowd tonight. But since she came out as a trans woman in a Facebook post last April, changing her name from Robert to Jennifer Bobbi, many clients feel uncomfortable or disappointed by the fact that Aunt Barbara shows up and leaves as a woman, not a man. Drag queens are hilarious. But a trans woman in drag? “Too real,” summarizes Suchan.
* * *
In 1946 inventor Earl Tupper began selling his plastic containers with airtight seals in stores, but they weren’t popular until consultants began to sell them at house parties featuring games, hors d’oeuvres and booze in the 1950s. Ladies liked the experience of gathering at a friend’s house to watch a consultant “burp” the Tupperware seal by lifting the lid, letting out air and pushing down the top. Tupperware parties quickly became a popular side hustle for housewives who wanted to earn some cash at a time when women weren’t welcome in many careers. By the 1990s, ninety percent of U.S. homes owned Tupperware products; last year, the company did $2.3 billion in sales. Consultants make a 25 percent commission and are still in demand: A home party happens somewhere in the world every 1.4 seconds.
While the typical sales lady might earnestly explain how Tupperware makes life easier for homemakers, Aunt Barbara plays the part of a woman you’d want to get drunk with but wouldn’t necessarily want as a mother. She refers to her audience as “hot messes” who drink martinis out of disposable cups while they watch their kids’ soccer games. She greets them by the names of their retro pop-culture lookalikes — “How’s it going, Mary Tyler Moore?” “Nice to see you, Jan Brady!” She jokes that Tupperware’s vegetable chopper could mince anything, including “margarita ice” or “crystal meth on the go.”
“I take those products and tell stories around them,” she explains. “I talk to these women and say ‘You’ve done this, haven’t you?’ And they are like… ‘I’ve totally thrown a head of lettuce into the crisper drawer and watched it rot over a month.’”
Once the women have grabbed some wine and snacks, Aunt Barbara starts her presentation in the living room. It lasts about 45 minutes and is more stand-up comedy than sales pitch. The audience usually only stops laughing to breathe. Then she sits down to take individual orders while guests share personal stories. “Most women who are older want to talk about the past and… remember a time when women dressed like Aunt Barbara,” she says. “They like to reminisce about, ‘My children were little and we used to have Tupperware parties with women on the block.’”
Within two years of starting her business in 2006, Suchan became North America’s top Tupperware personal seller, a title she maintained through 2014. In 2012 she sold $275,000 in products — which a spokeswoman for Tupperware called a “milestone” for the company — and she’s done more than three thousand Long Island house parties and fundraisers. After New York magazine wrote about Aunt Barbara in 2009, other media outlets took notice. Now she regularly appears on ABC News to talk about Tupperware before the holidays. To build a fanbase beyond her in-person appearances, she posts YouTube videos where Aunt Barbara samples food oddities, including bacon-wrapped Twinkies, single-servings of Spam or spaghetti and meatballs, served in a plastic bag.
Growing up with a brother and five sisters in a Long Island village, Suchan always knew she was a girl. “My heroes as a little boy were middle-aged housewives,” she says. “I just loved being around my mother and her friends and my aunts.” She was very close to her mom, who was always in “full makeup… running around with a cigarette and a bottle of Tab.” And Suchan idolized her Aunt Barbara, a “very direct” woman who sounded like a combination of a Jewish housewife and Bette Davis. “I thought of her as a movie star because her voice was so distinct, her gestures so distinct [and] she always put herself together,” she says. “And then add in the fact that she was funny… and it was, ‘Wow, I want to be you.’”
Suchan wanted to hang out with the women of the family, but instead was expected to help fix her dad’s boat or participate in other torturous masculine activities. “I wanted to avoid my father because I felt like I didn’t want the pressure of, ‘Are you going to play football?’” she says. “It made me very quiet and reflective and I turned inward.”
Aunt Barbara emerged as an outlet for Suchan at age 24, when she first did the bit at comedy clubs, while studying acting. It was the mid-90s and Aunt Barbara was based on Suchan’s own aunt mixed with elements of her mother and grandmother. “It came so natural to me,” she says of the character, who started to gain a local following, especially among older gay Long Islanders. “I had spent my whole childhood just mesmerized by all of these women around me.”
It wasn’t until a few years later, when Suchan attended a Tupperware party at her sister’s house, that she realized Aunt Barbara would make a good saleswoman. The consultant her sister hired was a “wholesome and waspy woman” who was very “by the book.” When Suchan made a joke about using a Tupperware shaker to bring martinis to the beach, the women cracked up. She realized Aunt Barbara’s sense of humor could sell a lot of plastic.
But it took eleven years for Suchan to return to the idea, while struggling to pay the bills on her salary at a nonprofit. She started doing house parties and found Aunt Barbara to be an instant success, earning on average $300 in one evening, thanks to her knack for connecting with women. “I’m around women all the time. I hear it, I get it, they talk to me,” she says. “I know you have three kids driving you crazy, plus a job, plus a husband who’s a piece of shit. Whatever it is you have in your life… I want to listen and I’m an ear for them.” But most importantly, Suchan offered a damn good show. “In direct sales you gotta offer something more,” she says. “You have to separate yourself from Susie and Joanie and Marie and all the other ones selling those products… Let me tell you, for a while there it was such a status thing to have an Aunt Barbara party.” By 2009, Suchan had quit her old job to sell Tupperware full-time.
* * *
Beyond the career aspect, Aunt Barbara gave Suchan an outlet for her demons. While friends considered her the life of the party, she was battling depression and would often drink a bottle of wine alone at home. But as a performer, “I got to bring out that inner identity in me and blast it out there. And people loved it,” she says.
Even so, the thought of transitioning was daunting. Three years ago, still living as Bobby on her 45th birthday, Suchan was suicidal. “I didn’t want Bobby to grow old because I never wanted to be Bobby,” she says, choking back tears. “I said ‘I have two choices: I can transition or I can go.’ And I was ready to go.’” That day Suchan wrote her siblings an e-mail that she admits “sounded like a suicide note,” in which she said, “I tried to make the most of my life… I’m going to take some time to consider transitioning to female.” By her next birthday, Suchan had decided to see a therapist and start the transition process. “I was like, ‘Well, they like Aunt Barbara, they’ll like Jennifer Bobbi.”
But not everyone did. After she made her announcement, people unfriended her on Facebook. Within a month, eight clients canceled with no explanation or request to reschedule. One woman sent her a remorseful private Facebook message explaining that her friend’s husband was a “jerk” who said he “didn’t want someone like you in [their] house.” Since she became Jennifer Bobbi, her father hasn’t spoken to her, even though he once bragged about her fame as a Tupperware-selling drag queen.
In October, Suchan took a day job as a receptionist for a human services organization. She wants to re-enter the workforce as a trans woman, but she also needs more income now that the Tupperware business has dipped. The procedures and surgeries required to fully transition will cost $100,000. Rather than nightly parties, she’s down to a handful a week. Next month, Tupperware will take away Suchan’s company car, since she’s fallen below the monthly sales minimum of $12,500 three times in a row.
But tonight at the fire department, Aunt Barbara puts these concerns behind her as she cycles through each Tupperware product’s very non-domestic use with comedic flair. The blue sippy cup is perfect for soccer moms. “Sometimes Susie goes to Michael’s game and she sits on the hot aluminum bleachers pretending to like the other mothers,” says Aunt Barbara. “But now, what’s Susie drinking while she’s watching Michael play that little game?”
“Alcohol,” the women respond.
“And nobody knows!” she calls back.
Aunt B begins imitating the drunken soccer mom, stumbling around with the straw in her mouth. “‘Hi Michael!’” she wails, “‘I love coming to your games!!!’ She’s a hot mess.”
The ice-cream scoop doubles as a weapon that can be used on anyone “cat-calling and trying to molest me,” Aunt Barbara continues. The cheese grater can shred an intruder’s face. To explain that fruits and vegetables should only be washed right before eating, a metaphor of vaginal hygiene is deployed: “Think of it this way: I’ve got a date on Friday. It’s Monday, I’m not cleaning things up today. … Same is true with vegetables. Put them away when they’re dirty and naked, and wash them when they’re ready to go out and have fun.”
Amid the jokes, Aunt Barbara skillfully inserts sales pitches, telling the audience: “Tupperware hired the same people that design surgical equipment to make this ice-cream scoop. It’s made from a highly polished chrome coating…” In a game-show host’s voice, she will end anecdotes with: “Ladies, don’t leave here without it!”
Since transitioning, she’s started to sell the cake container with a bit about a thirteen-year-old boy who comes out as trans on his birthday. “Call me Caitlyn!” he tells his mother, who takes a toke of weed to try to stay “free-thinking.”
“She runs to the cupboard and grabs the Cadillac of cake containers,” says Aunt Barbara. “Ladies, let me tell you something, you pull up to a party with this, it’s like pulling up in an Escalade. On one side of the tray she can fit a nine-by-thirteen sheet cake for Caitlyn — and all of Caitlyn’s three friends.”
The ladies chuckle. But for Suchan, that story has some truth.
* * *
Half of the women in the audience had seen Aunt Barbara perform at the same fund-raiser a few years ago, but they had never met Jennifer Bobbi. Before Suchan changed into costume she said, “You look familiar” to the woman who organized the last fire department event. “I do?” the woman responded, confused.
After the show, some of the ladies noticed a difference. “I can see he’s doing the change from last time,” says Maria Kuczinski, who used to sell Tupperware herself. “Boobs. Just when he bent over.”
The women fill paper plates with baked goods such as brownies, cookies and bundt cake and sit around in clusters, noses buried in Tupperware catalogues. Others line up to give their orders to Aunt Barbara, who is seated like a celebrity giving autographs at a long wooden table piled high with plastic containers.
For the next hour Aunt Barbara fills out more than 25 orders totalling $2,000 in sales. It’s been a good night. Some women become nostalgic about the products. “When my children were young I used to make them orange ice pops in Tupperware,” says one woman. “They give me childhood memories,” says another of the salt and pepper shakers. Others compliment her profusely. “I’ve never laughed so much in my life,” says a 94-year-old attendee.
“I’ll never forget you, that’s for sure,” says a woman with mousy hair and glasses.
“I’ll never forget you,” Aunt Barbara responds. “Whoever you are.”
Around 9:30 p.m., almost everyone has left, other than the evening’s organizer, Lisa Williams and another member of the ladies’ auxiliary. Suchan packs up her Tupperware and goes to the bathroom to become herself once more: She reattaches her blonde hair extensions, puts on gold hoop earrings and changes into flowy black clothing. Suchan’s personality isn’t a huge departure from Aunt Barbara’s — while her voice is a few pitches lower, she maintains the thick Long Island accent and direct manner.
Before the women leave the room, Suchan turns to Williams and says: “Did it bother you that I didn’t show up as a guy? Does it bother you? Be honest. You can be honest. Were you shocked or do you care?”
“No, I wouldn’t say — ”
“I mean, you can say, ‘Holy crap!’” interrupts Suchan, holding the handle of her Tupperware-branded carry-on luggage.
“I went to a college where weird stuff happened all the time,” says Williams.
“Okay, so it’s weird?” Suchan says in a challenging tone. “No, I’m just kidding. It’s fine,” she continues with a small laugh.
She stands in front of the doorway while Williams, clearly caught off-guard by the question, stammers to explain that she doesn’t think “anyone really thinks anything of it anymore.”
“Oh, okay, good,” says Suchan in the curt tone of someone who doesn’t think everything is okay. “Just wanted to make sure… ’Cause the show wasn’t any less funny, right?”
In the parking lot, as Williams drives away, Suchan smokes a Parliament between perfectly straight index and middle fingers, flanked by her white car with a hot-pink “Tupperware” logo across the side — the car she’ll lose next month.
“I think she was shocked that she showed up and I wasn’t some guy,” Suchan says of Williams’ facial expression when she arrived at the fire department dressed as a woman rather than a man. “Whatever, fine. They’ll never call again.”