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Lypsinka Speaks: Interview with a Surrealist

The tall, diffident, Mississippi-born performer discusses the genesis of his mute but oh-so-expressive alter ego.

Lypsinka Speaks: Interview with a Surrealist
Photo: Peter Palladino

You don’t easily forget Lypsinka—those eyes, the hands, and the rubbery lips that give new life and meaning to the mashed-together snatches of songs, dialogue, or just screams, previously voiced by other larger-than-life divas. The man behind this fabulous creature is John Epperson. “I’ve been called so many things over the years, none of them that I really like,” he says. “Drag queen is offensive to me, and performance artist is kind of ’1980s nonprofit’—and I need to make living at this! So I call myself a ‘surrealist,’ which is, I think, the same word that people use to describe Barry Humphries, who plays Dame Edna.” Over lunch at his favorite Italian bistro in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, the tall, diffident, Mississippi-born performer spoke about the genesis of his mute but oh-so-expressive alter ego, and about Lypsinka! The Trilogy, currently playing in repertory through January 3 at East Village’s Connelly Theater.

Can you tell us a little something about the nature of Lypsinka! The Trilogy?

Doing three shows in repertory is what makes it an event. I mean, repertory theaters do it all the time with Shakespeare, for example, but one solo performer doing it—granted one of the shows has another actor in it as well—is, I think, unique. Lypsinka! The Boxed Set is a traditional Lypsinka show where I’m standing up the whole time; it never stops moving and it’s fast-paced, a real roller-coaster ride. It’s an abstract show and doesn’t have a conventional linear narrative, but there’s also this theme through it of a woman boxed in by something, but she doesn’t know what it is. The Passion of the Crawford is very non-traditional. I’m sitting mostly and I enjoy that, not only because it’s physically easier, but because it’s more of a challenge to keep the audience engaged by just using my eyes and my hands.

The Passion of the Crawford is based on a 1973 interview Joan Crawford gave at the Town Hall. How did this show come about?

I had just moved to New York in 1978 and Crawford had died the year before. I saw this big display for a double-set record album in the window of the Sam Goody store, which was across the street from Radio City Music Hall. It read “Joan Crawford Live,” one after the other after the other—like a series of Warhol paintings. I wasn’t thinking about lip-synching Joan Crawford at all, you know? I just liked her. So I got the album and listened to it over the years. Then in 1998, Christina Crawford, I guess after the rights to her book Mommie Dearest reverted to her, put more information into the book and started to sell it online; she traveled to various cities to promote it, starting in San Francisco. The guy who produced the event there at the Castro Theater said they were going to come to New York and do an event at the Town Hall where Crawford did the actual interview. So I did an 18-minute version of the interview for that event; Christina saw it and presented me on stage with a wire hanger that she had decorated! Six years later I thought of a title for the show—a send-up of the Mel Gibson movie—and we did a full-length version of the interview.

I admire Joan Crawford a lot. I think the fact that she survived as long as she did in the entertainment business, which was run by men, is kind of a miracle. And yes, she wasn’t the most tasteful person in the world, and maybe not the most intelligent, and maybe not the deepest actress in the world, but she knew she had a brand. Some people who knew her say she was the nicest person you would ever meet, which is the opposite of what her daughter would say. Ultimately, the show isn’t about my impersonation of Joan Crawford, because I don’t really look like her; it’s about giving the audience a dreamlike experience. I try not to play her as a crazy cartoon monster, but to play her as very vulnerable, older, woman who is feeling fragile about her identity.

The third show in the trilogy, John Epperson: Show Trash, is a personal memoir. What was it like to come out from behind Lypsinka?

I did a version of this show in Washington, D.C. 10 years ago, so I knew what that felt like—to go in front of an audience and be that exposed and that vulnerable. I’m very happy with the response that I got from the performances I’ve done so far in New York. Though it’s frightening for me, I’m feeling much more confident about my singing now. I’ve been going to a singing teacher, which has been great. People are being moved by it, I think, because even though the show is about myself, I try to make it so you can find your universal self in there somewhere, especially for New Yorkers. A lot of us come from the hinterlands, and a lot of this show is about what it’s like to come from a place like Mississippi and adjust to a place like New York.

Speaking of your childhood in Mississippi, didn’t you originally study to be a pianist?

Yes, I talk about how I started to play the piano in Show Trash. My sisters, who were older than me, played the piano, and I watched them. After a while I just started doing it myself and when my mother saw that she took me to the same teacher that my sisters were going to. My teacher was an old lady when I met her, and now I realize that I was the student that she had been waiting for her whole life. She really thought that men should play the piano. She would put a Haydn sonata in front of me and say, “Now, I want you to learn this because it requires a man to play it.” Of course, this was in a small town in Mississippi, and so sexuality wasn’t even discussed, but she lived with another woman, who was more masculine than she was. Everyone in town knew that they shared this house together and no one questioned it. It helped because the more masculine woman had a lot of money. She gave so much money to the church that she could sit in the back with her partner and if the preacher went on too long, she would start rattling her keys for him to wrap it up!

You also started lip-synching at an early age.

My oldest sister was very imaginative and my mother was very grateful for this because she would keep her two younger siblings entertained. She was always dreaming up stuff for us to do. My father had this album called For Men Only. It had a picture of Jayne Mansfield on the cover, and it had all these covers of famous songs from the 1950s, like “Whatever Lola Wants,” “Hernando’s Hideaway,” and “Mr. Sandman.” My sister started lip-synching to these songs and then my other sister started doing it as well. I didn’t know what it was called, but just like watching them play the piano, I watched them and started doing it too. I remember going to a family reunion and doing it there and everyone was crowded around me and just loving it. I think that was the moment when I realized, “Oh, I can get attention this way.”

When you moved to New York City in 1978, was your plan originally to become an actor? How did you get started on your lip-synching career?

Well, I had acting as one my dreams, but when I got here the thought of going to a real professional audition was too scary. I had auditioned in Mississippi and in Denver, where I got a job, but there was something about New York that made it really scary. And I hadn’t been trained. Now kids go to school and they learn how to audition. I was frightened of a lot of things. I would not try to go into Studio 54; I would stand outside across the street and watch people trying to get in.

Then I discovered this fire-trap in the East Village called Club 57; they showed movies and there was also the opportunity to do live performance, so I became a member of the club. I saw this notice in the club newsletter that John Sex [John McLaughlin]—a very unusual personality—was doing a show called “Acts of Live Art.” It said anyone could be in it so I contacted John, but I didn’t hear back from him until the day before the event. This was 1980, and that was my first public lip-syncing. I hadn’t planned anything, so I lip-synched a song called “Pepper Hot Baby”; it was from that same album my father had. I felt safe at Club 57, because I was accepted there and I was hiding behind someone else’s voice. After Club 57 closed, I bumped into John Sex again and he introduced me to the Pyramid Club. I did my first performance there on a Sunday, which was their gay night. It was a built-in audience—you couldn’t do anything wrong—and it was such a high for me to have that experience. I would go back every three months and it just started building and building. I became aware, after a while, that the Pyramid Club was the 1980s version of what the Continental Baths had been for Bette Midler, that it was a springboard for something else.

How did come up with the persona of Lypsinka?

I thought, “If you are going to do this you have to think of a name for yourself to tell the audience what you are doing and that you have a sense of humor about it.” When I first came to New York, there was a big Avedon exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum. I loved those photographs and finding out the names of the models; there was one named Dovima and another named Veruschka. So I decided to make up a name for myself like an exotic one-named fashion model, because I was tall and skinny with a big nose, like they were.

At the same time, I saw Dolores Gray for the first time, in a movie called It’s Always Fair Weather, where she plays an unctuous TV hostess. I didn’t want to impersonate someone that everyone knows, like Cher or Liza or Barbra, so I decided to impersonate Dolores Gray, who as it turns out now, a lot of people do know, but her career was on the wane at the time. I also saw Kay Thompson in Funny Face. I had read the Eloise books when I was kid and I was fascinated. Then when I saw that crazy energy she has in the movie, I thought, “I’m taking that too.” The fact that she and Dovima are in that same movie was kind of a brain explosion.

How did you perfect your lip-synching style? Do you find it difficult not to vocalize the sounds when you are on stage?

I just remember saying to myself, “Well you’re a classically trained musician, it’s music—so just do it.” When we speak, a word doesn’t suddenly come out. Before we speak, our lips have to be parted. That’s one thing that I concentrate on when I am on stage. It’s difficult to avoid making plosive sounds like the “p” sound or the “b” sound and sometimes I catch myself whispering the words and I stop myself from doing it. That’s one of the reasons I like it really loud on stage—so that I can’t hear myself. If I can’t hear myself, I think, then the audience can’t hear me either. And the loudness is part of the illusion, just like the follow-spot, the circle of light around me.

Your performances as Lypsinka are highly stylized and abstract…

Yes, it’s totally artificial and totally distancing. As an audience member you have let the experience happen for you.

You’ve indicated that this trilogy might be a kind of farewell to the Lypsinka that we know. Is that true?

It is, but the producer who’s the primary angel behind this project wants to do it in other cities and that could be fun. But at this point, I’m not interested in doing another show based on preexisting material because I think I’ve done that. So there’s a plan is to do a show. I can’t give you details, because it isn’t ready to be announced publicly, but I can tell you that it will be a Lypsinka vehicle and that there will be other actors on stage. It’s going to be more like a traditional book musical with an original book, original songs. The writers are on board and a very important nonprofit theater company in the city is ready to commission it. That has been a dream of mine for a long time. In the meantime, a year from now, if the Transport Group can raise the money, we’re hopefully going to do Once Upon a Mattress with Jackie Hoffman playing the Carol Burnett part and with me playing the Queen. I will not be lip-synching, but we’re going to be using the name Lypsinka.

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