Photo by Austin Young
Many drag performers incorporate lipsyncing into their shows, but one has elevated it to an art of the highest form. For almost three decades, John Epperson has been wowing audiences the world-round with his alter ego, Lypsinka. After a nine-year hiatus from the New York City stage, the "goddess of showbiz" is back with Lypsinka! The Trilogy. And with three separate shows to choose from, the two-month run, which ends January 3, allows for fans to make up for all those years of neglect.
As a child growing up in Hazlehurst, Miss., Epperson's first introduction to lipsyncing was watching his older sisters sing along to records. It wasn't until wandering into a gay bar for the first time in Jackson that the connection was made between such a performance and drag. After moving to New York City in 1978, Epperson began exploring the club scenes and, one evening, Lypsinka was born. The following decades would see her star climb, and Epperson eventually found himself with friends like Madonna, fans in cities across the globe, and on the cover of New York magazine.
We sat down to lunch with John Epperson and his sister Kay (who naturally features quite often in John Epperson: Show Trash, the autobiographical show which makes its New York City debut as part of the trilogy) to ask our 10 most burning questions. When not crippled with food-envy brought on by Kay's order of chocolate cake, discussion zig-zagged between drag, Black Swan, and why Epperson would kill Marlon Brando (rather than sleep with him).
Out: For people who may not be familiar with Lypsinka, who is she?
John Epperson: Do you want the psychological answer or the showbiz answer? The personification of pizzaz. The goddess of showbiz. That would be the showbiz answer. Psychological answer... my own rage and frustration, I think, when I was growing up and I had a secret to carry. It was also a way to be onstage and to be hidden at the same time. I didn't even know I was doing [that] at the time, I created this conundrum without even knowing I was doing it. I just thought it was funny!
Moving to New York City in 1978, was that your first introduction to gay culture?
No. No. There was a, I guess you could call it gay culture, in Jackson, Mississippi. There was a gay bar. More than one sometimes! And there were drag shows there, and they were fun. But I knew that it was tacky to be doing it there, so I never did. I would go to the Rocky Horror Picture Show, but I would never get on stage in a Jackson gay bar until I made a name for myself, because I knew it was tacky.
So this "tacky" introduction, is this why you've said you don't love the term "drag queen," instead preferring "drag artist"?
Well, I've told people before that drag artist is nicer than drag queen, but they've used that against me and called me pretentious. But drag queen, it sounds like Halloween to me; it sounds like amateur night. And it is, or has been listed in some dictionaries as being a disparaging term. Even gay people have used it as a disparaging term, in my presence, directed towards me! So I don't like the term. I know that RuPaul calls himself a drag queen, and everyone on that show calls themselves a drag queen, and Lady Bunny calls herself a drag queen, but those people call themselves that because they present themselves as a man in a dress. I see Lypsinka as a female character, the way Barry Humphries see's Dame Edna as a female character. I do not present Lypsinka as a man in a dress. So there's a difference.
John Epperson in 'John Epperson: Show Trash,' photo by Jeremy Daniel
What do you think of the current state of drag?
I don't really know that much about it, because I don't go out to see it. Not because I wouldn't be interested, but things happen so late at night and I'm not a late person anymore. When I was your age, I would've been there at 1 a.m., but that doesn't interest me now. So, I don't really know exactly what's going on. I know that there's a lot going on, how progressive it is, but whether it's taking it to a new level, I don't know.
The Trilogy is your return to the New York City stage after nine years. But you've been busy during that time. What have been some of your favorite projects over the last few years?
Well, the best one I guess was a year and a half ago when Jackie Hoffman and I did a one-night benefit performance of Once Upon a Mattress. Jackie played the Carol Burnett part, and I played the villainess, The Queen, who doesn't want her to marry her son. It was so successful that they [the producers] decided that a year from now they want to do a full production, but they've got a lot of money to raise.
And then, you played a rehearsal pianist in Black Swan.
Oh that's right I did do that! That's good. Best Picture Oscar nominee. I can go to my grave saying I was in a movie that was nominated for Best Picture--that's not a bad thing to be able to say. And it was a pretty good movie, too. It was a hit. The checks are still coming in.
What have the audiences been like this time around? Have they been an older, more established crowd, or younger?
From where I stand, it looks like a very wide demographic. It isn't all just gay guys. It started out like that way years ago. And that feels really great. Because I knew, I was consciously seeking the gay audience when I started out at the Pyramid Club. I said to myself, get your gay audience and then sooner or later everyone else will follow, and that's what happened. There was an older couple in the third row on Friday night, and I thought, How did they get here? The New Yorker? The New York Times?
So one of our fun questions is, what would your spirit animal be?
My spirit animal? What the hell is that? Is that something that I should automatically know? [Laughs].
Something that embodies your spirit. If it had to be an animal.
... Well... I can only think of something glib and clever. I'll say Dolores Gray, and the Dodo bird ... which is extinct.
What about a centaur? Does that count?
Of course. Do you feel like a centaur represents your spirit?
That's what I'll say.
The dualistic nature.
John Epperson in 'The Passion of the Crawford' | Photo by Jeremy Daniel
We also like to play Marry/Fuck/Kill. So I'm going to name three people, you have to choose one to kill off, one to marry, and then one to spend a night with. So I thought we'd go for some old Hollywood: Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Robert Redford.
Marry... kill and have sex with... hmm. Well. I'm not a Robert Redford man. But he's the most stable of the three, I suppose that marrying him would be the right thing to do. And, as sexy as Marlon Brando was... I know that he was a real son of a bitch. I know he was really cruel to people, so I would kill him. And so, that's the answer.
Final question. What's next for Lypsinka?
I'm really not interested in creating anymore of these shows based on existing materials. The plan is to do a Lypsinka show that would be all original material. It would be more like a traditional book musical, and there would be other actors on stage, and it would have a plot or a through-line or a narrative, and whether or not the other actors are going to lipsync, we don't know that yet. It has to go through a workshop process to figure all of that out.
Lypsinka! The Trilogy consists of Lypsinka! The Boxed Set, The Passion of the Crawford, and John Epperson: Show Trash and will be running at The Connelly Theater through January 3. Get your tickets here.