By Margot Dougherty
Updated January 25, 1988 12:00 PM

As lead singer for the New York Dolls, David Johansen was flashing Maybelline lips and fishnet stockings before Boy George ever plucked an eyebrow. Trouble was, that was back in the safe-rock early ’70s, and Johansen’s protopunk band never really sashayed into mainstream acceptance. Nor did Johansen himself, during a so-so solo career that followed the Dolls’ demise in 1975. So…what’s an aging rocker to do when faced with the showbiz boneyard?

Reincarnate! Meet Buster Poindexter, Vegas-style lounge lush and cabaret showman extraordinaire.

Poindexter (né Johansen, 38) sings his tunes in a tux these days and wears nothing more shocking than sheer black knee-highs beneath his trousers (okay, so they’ve got polka dots). The name comes from childhood cronies: “On the street, they called me Buster,” he says. “Then they’d catch me with books and call me Poindexter, so it’s kind of an intellectual punk or something.” His act stretches from Louis Armstrong blues to happy-hour saloon standards, and it’s so old-fashioned it’s slick. His new LP (Buster Poindexter) has been dubbed “the party album of the year” by Rolling Stone, his video for the single Hot Hot Hot plays all day on the TV music channels, and even the Staten Island [N.Y.] Cat Shelter requested a benefit performance. (“Don’t worry boys, I told them we couldn’t make it,” he assured his band.) Proof positive that he’s not just another parody, Poindexter habitually scoops up New York Music Awards, even beating such old-school vets as Margaret Whiting and Blossom Dearie for Best Cabaret Singer honors. With guest shots on The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live, and his mug grinning out from Amaretto ads in magazines everywhere, Poindexter is hotter than an electric blanket.

“I know some people think, ‘Oh, Johansen puts on a tuxedo and thinks he’s somebody else,’ ” he says in a rock-worn rasp. “But it’s me, really. Sometimes I’ve found that by getting into a certain drag, or a certain feeling, you can cast off your mortal coil and really do something. I don’t know if it’s important, but it’s something. It’s entertainment.”

And it’s entertainment of the time-tested variety. Poindexter culls his reggae and retro repertoire from a “nutty little collection” of 1,500 albums. Onstage, backed by his five-piece Banshees of Blue and an endless stream of Bombay martinis, he acts the soul of seedy sophistication as he steams through his high-energy set.

Between songs, in his joking patter, Poindexter recalls a rock ‘n’ roll past in which days began with an oversize Bloody Mary, a dunk in a bucket of ice and a dab of Preparation H beneath the eyes (“the dependable Detroit eye-tuck”). He tells tales of sitting in a Jamaican bar awaiting reggae star Eek-A-Mouse (“who would have made a fantastic basketball player if not for his sinsemilla problem”) and spotting Noel Coward: “He looked familiar, like maybe he’d been a fourth at my mother’s house for bridge.”

Not likely. Johansen grew up in middle-class Staten Island, the third child in a family of six. His Norwegian-born father, who died two years ago, sang light opera before becoming an insurance salesman. His mother, Helen, an ex-librarian, is Irish. Johansen admits that he “was on another planet” during most of his school years but says that he bypassed adolescent angst by knowing early that he wanted to sing. He bypassed college by joining the late Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company, a campy, avant-garde acting troupe, and soon after, the New York Dolls.

While Poindexter is pushing his new album, Johansen is plunging into an acting career. Cameos in director Rudy Wurlitzer’s Candy Mountain and Jonathan Demme’s Married to the Mob are in the can, and he’s now working with Bill Murray in an update of A Christmas Carol, due in December. “Bill saw the show and became a devotee,” Buster chortles. “He’s my guru.” (Murray also appears in Buster’s Hot video.)

Away from the cameras and cabarets, Poindexter shares a cramped one-bedroom Manhattan apartment with his wife, Kate Simon, a portrait photographer. The couple is scouting the realty ads for larger quarters and plans to start a family soon, says Simon. For now, though, her hubby’s dual personae will have to be company enough. “I’m doing exactly what I want to do, and I’m having fun doing it,” he says. “Buster can have this great life in the public eye and take the rap for everything, and then David can go home. It’s the most brilliant thing I’ve ever done.”