Now, see, this is why Angela "Big Ang" Raiola is so charming: She'll talk straight up about anything you want. Her 2003 conviction for drug dealing. Her son's arrest last month for same. Even her age. Say what you will about her extensive and perhaps not entirely flattering plastic surgery, say what you will about that Harvey Fierstein voice, but darned if you can't help respecting this cartoon character come to life for unapologetically embracing who she is.
As the breakout star of VH1's "Mob Wives," Raiola, who turned 52 Saturday, now has her own spinoff show. "Big Ang," premiering Sunday at 9 p.m., takes us to her Staten Island bar, Drunken Monkey, to the homes of her sister, Janine, and her 23-year-old son, Anthony "A.J." D'Onofrio, and to such assorted doings as dinner with her estranged sanitation-worker husband, Neil, 39.
Remarkably, Raiola wasn't in the original "Mob Wives" cast of six, though series creator Jennifer Graziano did know her. "I'm her aunt's best friend," Raiola says. "She told me I should have been there from jump start, but everybody thought I was too old to be in the cast with the girls," who mostly are in their 30s. "I basically knew all their parents. Jennifer said [to the network], 'Let's give her a chance -- trust me, you won't regret it. Try her for six episodes, see how it goes.' And now they all love me!"
Born and raised in Brooklyn, she was married briefly at 18, Raiola says. She had her two kids -- A.J. and his older sister, Raquel, a seventh-grade teacher who does not appear on the show -- with a man she lived with for years. Raiola, who says she's been a bartender for 35 years and has lived on Staten Island a decade, opened Drunken Monkey with her cousin Sally in 2007.
The premiere's joyful tackiness does get tasteless when Raiola has a little person dressed in a monkey suit at the bar's grand reopening. But, says Raiola, "Listen to me, that's what he does for a living. His name is David, he's 23, he goes to college and does parties and stuff on the side. He happened to come to my bar and he goes, 'I could get dressed and dance on the bar."
"That's my little David!" Raiola says warmly, surrogate godmother of all she surveys.