Growing up in a big, bubbly, close-knit family with six brothers and sisters, Robert Suchan’s role models were his beautiful mother Janene (“like Barbara Eden meets Grace Kelly meets Carol Brady and June Cleaver”), whose picture he keeps in his wallet, and his Aunt Barbara (“Eve Arden meets Jo Anne Worley meets Mrs. Roper, with a touch of Bea Arthur”).
In time they would provide the ruggedly handsome Irish Catholic Long Island native — he looks like a cross between Alec Baldwin and Vince Vaughn — inspiration and a livelihood.
The awakening came with the Dawn. As in dishwashing liquid. Suchan (SOO-hahn) was pushing 40 and earning peanuts as a social worker.
“My credit cards were maxed out; I was spraying my clothes with Febreze because I’d run out of quarters for the laundromat; I had no soap or shampoo,” says Suchan, now 44. “One day I had to shower and shampoo with Dawn.”
Around then he remembered his sister Janene (named after their mom), who used to host Tupperware parties. They were tragic.
“Five people would show up,” Suchan recalls, “three of whom were us and the Tupperware saleslady. My sister was always in tears. ‘Nobody’s here!’”
Suchan loved the products and thought the demonstrator could sell more if she jazzed up her sales pitch. He had been a communications major at the State University of New York — graduated with a 3.9 in 1992 — and loved drama, excelling in comedic character roles.
“I could do that, but as a comedy routine, Like Dustin Hoffman as Tootsie.”
As “Aunt Barbara,” Suchan has in four short years become the highest-selling Tupperware consultant in North America.
Suchan racked up about $275,000 in sales in 2012, a “milestone for Tupperware,” said Nora Alonso, a spokeswoman for the Orlando-based company. “Bobby is witty, has a great business mind and is fabulous with people,” she said. Alonso also noted that of the 10 top-selling consultants — who are independent contractors — three work in drag.
On a winter night at Abbe Estevez’s house, the 6-foot-1 Suchan is holed up in the upstairs bathroom, transforming himself into herself: a massive black beehive wig, a ton of makeup (Aunt Barbara favors MAC products), a faux Pucci dress in a hot pink and black paisley print, two pairs of L’eggs pantyhose to cover leg hair.
(Suchan is a moderately hairy guy who draws the line at shaving anything beyond his face: “I have to maintain some of my manhood; Aunt Barbara has enough of my life.”)
When a reporter suggests a photographic before-and-after, Suchan demurs. He’s him. Aunt Barbara is her. “You want to believe in Aunt Barbara the way you want to believe in Santa Claus. Some people may think drag queens are mean-spirited and raunchy. But Aunt Barbara is always a lady.”
Thanks to her Facebook presence and hilarious YouTube videos — don’t miss “Aunt Barbara Italian Style!” — she’s amassed a cult following among New York City hipsters who rent Zipcars and drive into deepest Jersey to see her.
People like Max Wier, 30, a bass at the Metropolitan Opera. “Oh my God, I love her,” he says. “She’s like your favorite aunt — a little drunk, a little bipolar, and she can cure anything with hysteria.”
On this night in Paramus the guests drink cocktails and nibble on Mad Men-era snacks: pigs in blankets and deviled eggs. They tap cigarette ashes into ashtrays the size of punch bowls. Betty Draper would feel right at home.
Hostess Estevez, 48, who works in the garment industry in New York, spent years trying to lure her idol to Bergen County. Tupperware hostesses get free and discounted Tupperware for throwing the parties.
“Aunt Barbara was always booked,” Estevez says. “But it was worth the wait. She’s the Second Coming.”
This Second Coming descends to the family room like a middle-aged Long Island homemaker circa 1972 — in a waft of Aqua Net and Jean Naté, a long stream of toilet paper stuck in the back of her dress, trailing behind her. People giggle but nobody points this out. That tells Suchan which way to riff, since there’s no script.
“Hi, everybody!” Aunt Barbara shrieks breathlessly. “I just lost everything in Hurricane Sandy. I named it Hurricane Sandy Duncan because the storm too only had the one eye. Don’t you feel bad for me? Would you like to help? Please place a larger than usual order.”
It’s true; back in October, Suchan’s waterfront cottage in Freeport on Long Island was destroyed in a saltwater tidal surge. He’s since moved inland to Massapequa to rebuild his life.
Suchan proceeds to push a device called the Chop N Prep Chef ($45), with a patter that, while not obscene, is full of double-entendres. With three quick pulls on a string, he demonstrates how to chop nuts.
Oohs and ahs ensue.
“You can make salsa with it too, and your crystal meth goes right in there. Chop and seal in one container. Crystal meth to go. I’m not here to judge you.”
Between howls of laughter, people scribble in their Tupperware catalogs. In one hour, 27 Chop N Prep Chefs are spoken for. Hundreds of other tempting must-haves get scooped up as well.
Manhattan media director Jonathan Welch, 29, who drove in from the city with Wier, walked up to Aunt Barbara. “I love you so much,” he tells her. “I could become a stalker.”
“I’ll get the Harvey’s Bristol Cream,” she replies. “But remember, I sleep with the Grate N Measure Grater under my pillow. I may not be able to kill you, but I could give you a very nasty abrasion. God bless Tupperware.”