Chris Tyler is Obsessed

Chris Tyler is Obsessed

Photo by Mars Hobrecker

It’s Friday night in Greenpoint, the epicenter of the Brooklyn brand of cool. Warehouses line West Street where, deep within a massive building full of gritty studios, a reception is taking place for yet another edgy-smart gallery opening. Snap-back hats and dirty skinny jeans are aplenty and a PBR costs a few bucks. After closer inspection, this show is unusual. Large portraits of Taylor Swift line the dusty walls. Then there’s the mannequin in a red-sequined dress accompanied by an image of a man—red lipstick, a trucker hat, and quotes from the Riot Girl Manifesto scrawled down his arm—in the dress. That's Chris Tyler.

The show is a celebration of la Swift, interpreted by artists who share curator Elizabeth Grammaticas’s fascination with celebrity culture and its effect on the national dialogue. That enthrallment is at the heart of what Tyler’s work is all about. The red dress references Swift’s Jenny Packham slip dress, which is on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Chris Tyler grew up in the sleepy town of Suffern in Rockland County, NY.  He received his undergraduate degree at Brown in the department of theatre arts and performance studies, and he'd considered himself a “director”—until he was turned down for the fellowships he applied for in his senior year, leading to his final thesis. “It ended up as this piece of, essentially, Lady Gaga fan fiction,” Tyler explains. “But is was also the truest thing I had ever done and that set the ball rolling in a more experimental direction without me being conscience of it.”

His interest in Lady Gaga runs deep but, when explained, it is clear he has a more intellectually advantaged take on things. “I remember the fall of ’09 with the 'Paparazzi' VMA performance and the 'Bad Romance' video, everyone was going crazy.” Tyler says Gaga was the gateway for him within which the concept of queer culture, celebrity influence, and performance began taking hold.

“She's like a wild drag queen, but I didn't realize that actually there was this entire performance tradition that she was borrowing from,” Tyler says. “It wasn’t until I got to New York that I realized this has been happening forever; it used to happen a lot more and a lot more visibly and then everyone died of AIDS. It was then that I realized there was this huge void, not only in myself, but in the creative world at large.”

Christyler Group

In May of 2013, Tyler was invited to create a show at This ‘n That, another popular Brooklyn gay, bar, which is where the concept for “Total Rejects Live” was born. Now featured as a monthly event, “Total Rejects Live” is a cabaret set to the world of the ’90s icon, Total Request Live. Tyler created the drag personality, Ashleigh Nicolle Smith, a 13-year-old fan girl and aspiring pop star.

This is not the type of drag now made more popular due to RuPaul's Drag Race. Rather, it's an exploration into the character of America's youth and the effects of celebrity-driven culture. Each night of TRL, as Tyler refers to it, recalls one episode and recreates the set list. Collaborators and friends are assigned a video or live performance to reinterpret. This is where it gets fun. For example, Ashleigh and her two preteen pals sing Hillary Duff’s “Why Not” while stoned on pot brownies after getting kicked out their after-school church group. Another evening, a performer uses Bon Jovi’s “Its My Life” as the backdrop while giving a blowjob to a man dressed as a Williamsburg Hassid. Literally anything goes.

Tyler works with a core group of collaborators to create TRL, including David Bernstein, Derek Smith, Ryan Streit, and Jaime Wright, the latter of whom came to an event dressed in drag as Chris Tyler. The two met after Wright’s hit show, “Too Many Lenas,” which was a read on Lena Dunham’s body of work. “We’re both interested in this idea of celebrity influence and watching this person rise into something that is the opposite of what they were originally,” Tyler explains. “Total Rejects Live” eventually made it to the Public Theater, due to curator Ben Pryor, who was in attendance on the night of the holy blowjob.

April has Tyler busy. The next TRL will be Celebrity Death Match-themed and will take place on April 23 at This ‘n That. He’s also starring in the play Family at Columbia University, which is a new take on the family drama model by friend Celine Song, which will run from April 17 through 21 at the Pershing Square Signature Center. On any given night, you can expect nudity, precise-yet-butchered impressions of pop and Broadway divas, training bras, and lipstick-smeared faces because, when it comes down to it, Chris Tyler has no interest in making you feel comfortable.

Tags: Popnography

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