“BARBARA PLEASE! PLEASE BARBARA!”
I FIRST SAW JOHN EPPERSON PERFORM AS LYPSINKA IN 2003, IN HIS THEATER SHOW LYPSINKA! AS I LAY LIP-SYNCHING. I HAD NEVER HEARD OF LYPSINKA BEFORE, BUT A FRIEND HAD SNAGGED FRONT ROW SEATS, AND KNEW JUST HOW MUCH I LOVE A GOOD DRAG PERFORMANCE. HOWEVER, I HAD NO IDEA WHAT I WAS IN FOR. JOHN EPPERSON’S SHOW WAS A MASTERPIECE OF REFERENCES AND ONE-LINERS FROM BETTE DAVIS AND JOAN CRAWFORD TO ETHEL MERMAN AND JENNIFER HOLLIDAY, EXQUISITELY EXECUTED WITH EXPERT LIP-SYNCHING SKILL. I NEVER LAUGHED SO HARD—I WAS HOOKED.
THANKFUL TO MY FRIEND FOR INTRODUCING ME TO THIS BRILLIANT PERFORMER, I SET OUT IN SEARCH—AS I OFTEN DO WHEN I CATCH ON LATE—FOR JOHN EPPERSON’S OEUVRE. EIGHT YEARS LATER, HERE I AM, ANOTHER DIE-HARD LYPSINKA FAN.
IN HOMAGE TO HER UPCOMING PERFORMANCE IN ONE OF THE WINDOWS AT BERGDORF GOODMAN FOR FASHION’S NIGHT OUT (SEPTEMBER 8TH), WE ARRANGED A SHOOT IN THAT VERY WINDOW STARRING LYPSINKA HERSELF. THE CROWD THAT FORMED ON 5TH AVENUE WAS INSANE; IT WAS CLEAR TO ME THAT WE WERE MAKING SOME SORT OF NEW YORK HISTORY.
A WEEK LATER, WE CAUGHT UP SO I COULD LEARN MORE ABOUT THE MIND BEHIND LYPSINKA, AND HIS VARIOUS ACCOMPLISHMENTS IN SHOW BUSINESS, FROM HIS VERY FIRST SOLO PIANO RECITAL, TO HIS ROLE IN ARONOFSKY’S BLACK SWAN.
TEXT Paul Bruno
PHOTOGRAPHS Eric McNatt
HAIR Karmela Lozina
MAKEUP Joey Sanchez
WARDROBE Bryant Hoven
Special thanks to Chip Duckett & Bergdorf Goodman
DIRTY: HOW WAS YOUR WEEK?
JOHN EPPERSON: It was busy! I’ve been very busy getting ready for my Fashion’s Night Out performance at Bergdorf Goodman.
D: ARE YOU EXCITED?
JE: Well, if I get excited then I won’t sleep!
D: CAN YOU TELL ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT WHAT YOU HAVE PLANNED, WITHOUT GIVING TOO MUCH AWAY?
JE: I’ve known for a while that this event was going to take place, and they requested a 10 minute performance. I usually work to a recording, and I was trying to think what recording I had that was already made and 10 minutes long, and was appropriate for performing in such a small space… And the only one I could think of wasn’t appropriate! So when I was on vacation in Vermont this summer, driving around in the car listening to CDs, I heard something by a singer that I like a lot, named Marilyn Maye. There were a couple of songs on that CD that I thought would be good, and so I made a new recording using two of her songs, but they are, to use the popular term, deconstructed. I rarely ever do anything straight through. But I won’t tell you any more than that!
D: HAVE YOU BEEN REHEARSING?
JE: Yes I have been! I just made the recording, so I’ve been rehearsing a lot, just to get it in my head, and in my body.
D: I READ THAT YOU WERE BORN AND RAISED IN MISSISSIPPI?
JE: I was. I grew up in a small town called Hazlehurst, Mississippi. Did you ever see a play or movie written by Beth Henley that won the Pulitzer Prize called Crimes of the Heart?
D: I’M FAMILIAR WITH IT ALTHOUGH I HAVEN’T SEEN IT, NO.
JE: The movie stars Sissy Spacek, Jessica Lange and Diane Keaton, and it’s set in Hazlehurst, which is where I’m from. The movie was not filmed there however, it was filmed in North Carolina, but it is described as being in Hazlehurst.
D: WHAT WAS IT LIKE GROWING UP THERE? WAS YOUR FAMILY RELIGIOUS?
JE: Well, it was a typical 1950s growing up! I came from a small family. I had two sisters, and I say “had” because when I was 14, my oldest sister died in a car accident. And that was a real change in my family when that happened.
And, everyone’s family is pretty much religious in Mississippi.
I think it was a pretty typical growing up, although as I look back on it, I see how different I was, not just from other people in my family, but different from the other kids at school. And this is something I always discuss with my friends: there are some people that say that being gay is genetic, more than it is socialization. That very well may be, speaking of the sexual desire for the same gender. But what is genetic about loving show business the way a lot of gay men do, and loving to be entertained, and loving female divas? No one told me that I should, and yet when I was 7, I was obsessed with Natalie Wood and Ann-Margret and it was as if I was the only person in town who was. I was the only one who felt compelled to do impersonations of them at recess the next day at school!
D: SO YOU WERE AWARE FROM A VERY EARLY AGE THAT, AT THE VERY LEAST, YOU HAD VERY DIFFERENT INTERESTS THAN THOSE AROUND YOU?
JE: I couldn’t articulate it like that at the time, but as I look back now I can see that I was just like a changeling— Is that a good word?
D: I GUESS YOU COULD SAY THAT, ALTHOUGH I THINK THAT AGE 7 IS QUITE YOUNG TO HAVE SUCH AN AWARENESS. A LOT OF PEOPLE DON’T REACH THAT STATE OF AWARENESS UNTIL MUCH LATER ON IN LIFE!
JE: You mean they don’t want to impersonate Ann-Margret until they’re 21? (Laughs)
D: HOW OLD WERE YOU WHEN YOU STARTED PLAYING PIANO?
JE: I think I was about 4 years old. My sisters played and took lessons before I did, and I would sit and watch them and listen. Then one day I just sat down at the piano and started playing. That’s the way I remember it! When I was in the fourth grade, I started taking group lessons for about a year, until my mother realized that I was probably more talented than the other kids I was studying with. So then I was taken to a very formidable woman who taught solo piano, and she was kind of legendary—there were rumors that she would rap you on the knuckles with a stick if you hit a wrong note. But she was always good to me and many years later, people who still live there say, “She always said you were her star student!”
D: SO NO KNUCKLE RAPPINGS FOR YOU?
JE: Never any knuckle rappings, no! When I was about 14, she even arranged for me to have my own solo recital every year, until I graduated and started college a year early at 17. I was so innocent and green, but I was excited about it, too! And now, my youngest niece has decided that she wants to be an actor also, and she just left Jackson, Mississippi, at age 16, to go to a performing arts school in Michigan.
D: THAT’S EXCITING! YOU MUST BE VERY PROUD.
JE: Yes, although I am a little scared for her, because I know how crazy show business is, and there is so much more at stake than just talent. I never pursued a traditional route, and if I had done that, I may never have gotten anywhere. I don’t know what route exactly she’s considering, but right now she’s on a traditional route. I created this character Lypsinka for myself, and that’s really what gave me my experience. If I had just gone to auditions I would have gotten nowhere.
D: SPEAKING OF WHICH, WHEN YOU FIRST STARTED PERFORMING IN DRAG, HAD YOU ALREADY CREATED LYPSINKA, OR WAS THERE LOTS OF EXPERIMENTATION WITH CHARACTERS THAT LEAD UP TO HER “BIRTH”? DID YOU HAVE EARLIER CHARACTERS?
JE: Well, the first tacky drag show I ever saw was around 1973 in Jackson, Mississippi, at a place called Mae’s Cabaret. It was a drag troupe from Memphis, and in this tacky little gay bar, and the guys came out—I remember that one of them had on a poodle skirt— and they were lip-synching. I was already freaking out that I was at a gay bar, but then to see this tacky drag show, it really set my head spinning! I didn’t go back to Mae’s for over a year. The reason I went back was because I had seen an article, either in Time or Newsweek about Charles Ludlam, who created the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, doing his version of Camille, in drag, but you could see his chest hair, and I thought, “Well, he’s in drag, but he’s not on some tacky little stage in Mississippi. He’s in Time Magazine!” Then, you had to be in New York if you wanted to call drag “art”, as he was being called an “artist.”
I had also learned by then about [Eugene] Ionesco and absurd theater. A friend of mine at the time who lived in Jackson, who was very flamboyant, his name was Dwight Adcock, said to me, “You’ve got to go back to Mae’s Cabaret, because what they’re doing there is theater.” And I realized, I guess they were doing theater, but they didn’t even know it—it was actually absurd, or ridiculous theater—but they didn’t even know they were doing it! They thought they were just doing a drag show! And that was when I started looking at it as Art, with a capital “a”, and not just tacky drag.
A few years later, I was living in New York, and I had this idea that I wanted to do some kind of drag performance, but what will it be?! One of the first things I saw when I moved to New York in the summer of 1978 was a huge Richard Avedon exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum, of these gorgeous fashion photographs, where the models had names like Veruschka and Dovima, and I was so fascinated by them. Then I saw Dovima in Funny Face, with Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire. Kay Thompson, who I was also a fan of for the Eloise books, was also in that movie. Dovima was tall and skinny, Kay was skinny and I was tall and skinny, so I started thinking, “What if I did some kind of fashion model thing, but with the kind of energy that Kay Thompson had?”
So in 1981, I was working as pianist for the American Ballet Theater, and I was asked to go with a troupe of dancers to Europe. In Paris, I went to a nightclub called Michou, it’s still there. At the time, a waiter would come and take your order and then thirty minutes later he’s on stage, in drag, lip-synching as Zizi Jeanmaire, and I was really impressed by that! They were better lip-synchers than the drag performers I had seen in Jackson. It got me thinking that I wanted to do something that has some kind of gay performance tradition to it, but I wanted to do it in a unique way. That, as it turns out, is called postmodernism, but I had no idea!
Then I started thinking about a name, that’s going to tell my audience what my act is, and also that I have a sense of humor about it. Then I thought that maybe the name should also sound like an exotic one-named fashion model like Dovima or Veruschka. And that’s sort of the long version of how Lypsinka came to be!
D: DO YOU REMEMBER YOUR VERY FIRST PERFORMANCE, AS LYPSKINA?
JE: It was at a nightclub that’s no longer there, called The Inner Circle. There was a theater in that building that Hedwig And The Angry Inch performed in actually, all the way west on Jane Street. They advertised in Backstage for an act, as lots of nightclubs did and still do, sort of like an open mic night, where you’d show up and they’d put you on stage. I had seen on a bulletin board at the gym a flyer for someone doing a drag performance at the Inner Circle, so I thought perhaps I should try to get a job there! So I went and met the woman who owned the building, and she was nice enough to give me a booking without knowing what I was going to do— I DIDN’T KNOW WHAT I WAS GOING TO DO!
So I did the show, and a few people showed up. I’m sure it was extremely primitive what I did, I don’t completely remember. Vera, who was the owner of the building, came to see what I did and I guess she liked it because she gave me another booking! She described me as a drag queen who impersonated drag queens, which I guess is also a sort of postmodernist idea.
I should also mention that I don’t like the term drag queen! (Laughs)
D: SO I’VE HEARD! I WANTED TO ASK YOU ABOUT THAT!
JE: Well, I have heard the term drag queen used disparagingly, not only at other people, but directed at myself. I’ve heard one of my own kind speak to me in a very disparaging manner as a “drag queen”— and when I say one of my own kind, I mean another gay person. Also, the term connotes a kind of amateurish person or act that gets in drag once a year for Halloween. It’s really a matter of semantics. I don’t mind the term “drag performer,” it’s the word queen.
D: I WOULD IMAGINE THAT LYPSINKA ATTRACTS A FAIRLY INTELLIGENT, SOPHISTICATED AUDIENCE THAT GETS AND APPRECIATES YOUR REFERENCES, AND FINDS THE HUMOR IN YOUR PERFORMANCES.
JE: The concern is, is the whole world getting dumber?
JE: I would assume that your Dirty audience is smart! I’d go even further and dare to call myself something that sounds pretentious & non-profit. But I realize more than ever, that what I am is a surrealist performance artist. I think Barry Humphries also calls himself a surrealist. But there is a way to present surrealism in a commercial way, and he has done it very well! That’s also what I try to do— I’m interested in the surrealism of performance. Performing is a surreal act! We were not born to perform! We were born to just be! Humans were not born to be actors. And yet there are many of them!
D: WHAT DO YOU THINK THERE IS TO BE SAID ABOUT THAT DESIRE TO PERFORM FOR AN AUDIENCE NOT NECESSARILY BASED ON ONE’S OWN PERSONAL HUMAN EXPERIENCE?
JE: I think it’s what Mama Rose says at the end of Gypsy, she says to her daughter, “I guess I just wanted to be noticed.” As I look back, I realized that’s what I wanted, I wanted to be noticed. I’m not so compelled to be noticed now, I mean, I love performing, but I like knowing that I did it, I got noticed, and now I can go on to another part of my human life. And still be noticed!
D: WHO WERE SOME OF YOUR FILM AND THEATER INSPIRATIONS?
JE: Actually, seeing Judy Garland on her variety show on television was very compelling for me, beyond The Wizard of Oz. When I was around 8, our tv antenna only picked up two networks. One was CBS and the other was NBC. Bonanza was on every Sunday night at 9pm, on NBC. But the last 10 minutes of the show was just clips for the upcoming episode, which my parents didn’t want to see, they wanted to be surprised, so they’d switch the channel for the last 10 minutes, and there would be Judy Garland. And then I’d really perk up, like, “Who’s that? I wanna know who that lady is!” Oh, and my sister used to tease me because I knew who all the movie stars were!
I’m also very lucky to have encountered John Schlesinger as many times as I did. He was a fan of mine—IMAGINE!
D: IS THAT DIFFICULT TO SWALLOW?
JE: It’s not difficult to swallow, it’s a thrill, because I was a huge fan of his! He came to see me perform many times. I also admired Herbert Ross, after his film The Turning Point about a ballet company, and I dared not speak it out loud, but I thought maybe one day I’d meet Herbert Ross, and he’d want to put ME in a movie… Well, seventeen and a half years later I did meet Herbert Ross. He came to see a Lypsinka performance, and he DID try to get a movie made with me! There was a reading of the script in LA with Whoopi Goldberg and Daryl Hannah. The movie was going to be his American remake of Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown. The movie did not get made, but the fact that Herbert Ross tried to do it still means the world to me!
Ultimately I ended up having a small part in a recent ballet movie, Black Swan, so I did get my ballet movie fantasy come true!
D: WHO DID YOU PLAY IN BLACK SWAN?
JE: I played Natalie Portman’s piano player! I auditioned for Darren Aronofsky, and then weeks went by and I thought nothing of it, because you can’t dwell on an audition, you know? You just have to get on with your life and go to the next audition. And then the call came through!
D: HOW DID THAT FEEL FOR YOU?
JE: You know, I’ve rarely gotten a job from auditioning. Unlike my niece, I had no training for anything like that. No one ever taught me how to go to an audition! However, when I did audition, a few weeks earlier, New York Magazine put out their 40th anniversary issue, and there was a large photo spread called something like “Actors We Love” and they had asked me to be in it! So I had this full page photograph in the magazine. On the coverflap, on the bottom it read Streep, De Niro, and below that it said Lypsinka! And so I brought it with me to the audition and I showed it to the director, and showed him this picture of me in drag, and he said, “You’re hot!”
D: YOU WERE ALSO IN ONE OF MY FAVORITE DOCUMENTARIES, BLIND AMBITION, THAT COMPARES THE LIVES AND CAREERS OF BETTE DAVIS AND JOAN CRAWFORD. I COULDN’T HELP BUT NOTICE THAT YOU ONLY TALK ABOUT JOAN CRAWFORD’S CAREER, AT LEAST IN THE FINAL EDIT, WHICH LEADS ME TO QUESTION WHAT YOU THINK OF BETTE DAVIS AS AN ACTRESS?
JE: Oh! Well I think that all the questions that I got from the interviewer were about Joan Crawford. So that’s the only reason I never mentioned Bette! I think I was more fascinated early on with Bette Davis than I was with Joan Crawford, and the reason I say that is because when I was in college I convinced the Dean Of Students to have a Bette Davis film festival! She interested me first. I had also read a book about Bette Davis, written by Whitney Stine, it was basically a biography about her career.
I went to a private, Presbyterian college called Belhaven, and I was kind of defiant there, especially in my senior year… The summer before I had made my first trip to New York and while there I went to Vidal Sassoon and got a perm! (Laughs) And I went to see a play about a gay bathhouse called The Ritz, and I bought a t-shirt from the show. And I had a tote bag with the logo from the old magazine After Dark. So in my senior year of college I was running around campus wearing all three, and carrying that book about Bette Davis called Mother Goddam, which was very defiant for private Presbyterian Belhaven College in Jackson, Mississippi!
D: AND YOU’RE ALSO IN AN UPCOMING DOCUMENTARY THAT’S CURRENTLY IN PRODUCTION CALLED, I AM DIVINE.
JE: Yes! I’m one of several talking heads. But I never knew Divine! And I told the guy before I went to the filming that I could only talk bout myself, as usual, or my experience as an audience member. It’s a miracle that I never saw Divine on the street because he lived not far from me! I never saw him… but, I did see Divine in a play called The Neon Woman at a place called Hurrah, on the Upper West Side. It was not only a theater, but it was a discotheque as well. We sat on the floor, mind you, to watch the show. And what happened was, the show ended, we all got up and the disco ball dropped down from the ceiling and the party started and it was fantastic! That was 1978 for you.
D: AS AN ACTOR, AS AN APPRECIATOR OF GREAT PERFORMANCE, WHO WOULD YOU SAY IS WORKING TODAY THAT’S TRULY TALENTED AND INSPIRING?
JE: Today? Well, I still say the last two great stars are Faye Dunaway and Joan Collins. They’re still inspiring to me, and there may be people that say that Joan Collins isn’t a great actress, but Faye Dunaway certainly is. You can’t say she’s not a great actress! And Meryl Streep of course is always great. But she doesn’t have that glamorous, larger-than-life persona that let’s say Joan Collins has, and I miss that in our culture! Our culture today thinks that Kim Kardashian is a star, well honey chile has NO personality!
LYPSINKA AT WORK