Kind of a Drag
John Epperson is more than a man in a dress. He's Lypsinka, a man in a dress whose off-Broadway, award-winning act (Lypsinka! Boxed Set, playing this weekend at Scottsdale Center for the Arts) is a post-modern commentary on men in dresses. And women. And homos. All of it lip-synched to a playback of intricately woven audio clips drawn from film, TV, and the stage.
New Times: You've kind of upended the whole drag thing -- which usually means a guy in a dress lip-synching to old Dolly Parton records.
John Epperson: I hope I have. I set out to do that. Lypsinka is many things, but one of the original things was a commentary on performance in general and drag performance specifically. I didn't know that what I was doing was called post-modernism when I started doing it. I was young, and all I knew was I'd go see drag in Mississippi, where I'm from, and the queens would put on a Connie Francis record and just stand there. I'd heard of Charles Ludlam and the Ridiculous Theater and Ionesco. And I looked at drag and I thought, "They're doing ridiculous theater and they don't know it, but Ludlam knows it and Time magazine knows it." I figured I'd better get out of Mississippi and into New York, where you can call walking down the street "dance" if you want to.
NT: You can talk about commentary and post-modernism all you want, but isn't it true that most people just think you're another drag queen?
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Epperson: I tell people like yourself that I don't like the term "drag queen," because it describes an amateur. Why not call me an actor? I suppose drag artist would be okay. But I've accepted that there will always be people who aren't savvy and will only see a drag queen, and not the commentary on drag queen.
NT: So much of the guy-in-a-dress thing is ironic. I thought irony was dead.
Epperson: You're wrong. The truth is, there's too much irony. When you've got John Waters movies being made into Broadway musicals, irony is everywhere. So what's next? I think it's time to get more real. Irony needs to be put on the back burner for a while, so that we can go back and enjoy it again later on. Same thing with camp.
NT: Couldn't we please just have a world without camp?
Epperson: Well, maybe. Susan Sontag needs to redefine camp. The old definition she gave it no longer applies.
NT: I wonder if you have a kinship with drag queens. I mean, are they your people?
Epperson: No, they're not. I don't have a kinship with them. I don't care for a lot of drag. Most of it is loud and tacky and trashy and has no sensibility or thought behind it. Having said that, I have to admit that some of my best friends are drag performers. But I distance myself from a lot of it because I don't want to be lumped into that boat. I wish I could say that I was generalizing about how drag queens are perceived, but I don't think I am. Some of them are just messes. I saw this rotten piece of crap called Flawless that stereotyped the drag queen as sordid and out of control, but the truth is that a lot of them are like that.
NT: You're not like that.
Epperson: I was asked to be the centerpiece of a reality TV show, like Anna Nicole Smith's. They couldn't find anyone who was outrageous but could also turn it off and be businesslike. I told the network, "I wouldn't be good, because I'm not outrageous the way you want me to be."
NT: I want you to explain to me why drag queens are so scary. I mean, I've met a few, and they have personalities like no other living creature.
Epperson: (Laughing.) I think there's a lot of self-loathing among drag performers. Part of the problem is that gay men look up to them and down on them at the same time. They want to look up to them onstage, but when it comes to being represented by them, they run.
NT: Your Web site, Lypsinka.com, goes on and on about Dolores Gray. Who the hell is Dolores Gray?
Epperson: Who the hell is Condoleezza Rice? Dolores Gray was a stage actress who became a big star in England. She was this fascinating creature, very unusual-looking, very different. When I was preparing the Lypsinka character, I studied her. She's the prototype for Lypsinka.
NT: Your act uses a lot of quick sound clips from TV shows, songs and obscure old movies. Do people recognize these clips?
Epperson: I certainly don't know. Some are so obscure that I'd defy anyone to recognize them. But I have to ask you this: Why do people think they need to come to my show -- or any show -- to see or hear something they already know? This baffles me.
NT: The world has changed. It used to be that homos mostly hid in dark toilets. Today being gay is trendy. What do you think of all this Will & Grace and Queer Eye stuff?
Epperson: I have to admit I'm very ambivalent about a lot of it. I hesitate to say that because Megan Mullally from Will & Grace is an acquaintance of mine, but it's really how I feel. I've never seen Queer Eye, and I don't need to. I get it -- they fix up a straight guy who apparently can't clean his own apartment or cook his own food. I got it. I don't need to watch it. The whole thing with this "gays-on-TV-every-night" movement is that it looks like they're laughing with the gay people, but of course straight audiences are laughing at the gay characters. I'm very ambivalent about gay people assimilating. If George Bush really wants gay people to disappear, he should let them marry because then they'd disappear like straight people do -- into the military, into parenthood. On the other hand, I don't want to be a messy, repressed, closeted fag, so I'm ambivalent. I'm a good liberal.
NT: You've been on Broadway and in movies and on TV, and you tour the country with your one-man show. Is your career really about revenge on all the kids who beat you up for being a sissy?
Epperson: I don't know that my career is about revenge, but I do sort of enjoy the irony that the thing people made fun of me for, which is being effeminate, is the thing I've made a living doing. When I performed in Mississippi and I got standing ovations and the show was sold out and all that, it made me feel like Sissy Spacek in Carrie. If I ever win a Tony award, I can say, "All the people who poked fun at me, look at me now!" You know, I did win the Helen Hayes award for Best Touring Show, and I beat out four Broadway shows to get it. I guess that's revenge.
NT: How is it that you've never performed in Phoenix before? I mean, you've opened for John Davidson.
Epperson: At Disney World, no less! My only image of Phoenix is from the opening scenes from Psycho. I want to stay in that hotel where Janet Leigh and John Gavin stayed. Will John Gavin still be there? Seriously, I'm coming to Phoenix because this is the first time I've been asked to. I just hope you guys are ready for me.
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