I caught up with John Epperson – the man behind Lypsinka – to talk drag and divas.
You’ve said that you started lip-syncing when you were growing up, performing with your sisters to entertain the family. What pushed you to take it to the next level and perform publicly?
There’s probably a very complex answer to that, and a lengthy one. Like Mama Rose says at the end of Gypsy - ”I guess I wanted to be noticed.” Don’t we all?
I think, looking back, that getting in drag was a rebellious act – rebellion against the social norms of the place where I grew up, Mississippi. Rebellion against the repression. A desire to be an individualist. I remember thinking that whatever I chose to do, it should be rooted in a gay tradition.
I’d seen lip-syncing drag performers at the gay bar in Jackson, Mississippi. I wanted to take lip-syncing to a new and absurd level.
I’ve read that your first public lip-sync performance was in 1980 at Club 57 in New York City, performing to Pepper Hot Baby – one of the tracks that you used to perform with your sisters. What did that performance feel like?
Over the years I’ve tried to remember. I suppose it was probably very amateur-ish. Although recently some photos from that performance have popped up, and in the photos it looks as if I know what I’m doing. I look angry and ‘punk’ – it was, after all, 1980 in the East Village.
What made you realise that you had a talent for lip-syncing?
In the summer of 1981 I went to a club in Paris called Michou. I think it’s still there, in the Pigalle neighbourhood. The performers there lip-synced and I thought they were very good at it. That was a very influential evening, and I thought I could be just as good. I also felt that being a trained musician would help with my lip-syncing skills, and I suppose it has.
Did you ever get into Studio 54?
Yes, but not in its heyday. A few years later. However, when I moved to NYC in June 1978, Studio 54 was the place. I stood outside and watched other people try to get in. But I didn’t want to be rejected, so I just watched. Isn’t that sad? If I’d shown up in drag, I probably could have waltzed right in.
What do you think Joan Crawford would make of the shows in which you channel her?
She might be puzzled, maybe offended. Maybe amused. Charles Busch thinks that she would have liked him and me. I was in NYC for several weeks in 1977 and I remember her building being pointed out to me. Very glamorous to remember that. She died a couple of months later.
Some women must be harder to lip-sync to than others? Who are some of your favourites?
Well, it’s fun to lip-sync Crawford, she had such an expressive and beautiful and deep speaking voice. The singer and actress Dolores Gray is a great inspiration.
Anyone that you try to avoid?
Some audience members are frustrated that I don’t use more familiar voices, but my argument is, what’s the matter with hearing something or someone you’ve never heard before? I try to avoid the obvious such as Garland or Streisand – although, of course, I think they were and are great singers.
Your performances seem to have defined the genre of lip-syncing as performance art. You’re referenced on RuPaul’s Drag Race, and I’m seeing shows in London where young drag queens are creating pieces that are straight out of the Lypsinka play-book. What advice would you give to someone who was thinking about creating a spoken word lip-sync performance?
I’m told that I created modern drag performance. Maybe I did! My advice is – be witty but also have a point of view. Also, challenge yourself.
In 2014, you presented Show Trash – a show that allowed you to explore your life beyond Lypsinka. How did that feel to have a different version of yourself on stage?
I very much enjoy doing performances out of drag. I want people to know who the person behind the facade is. I was in a straight play with Matthew Broderick and Wallace Shawn and some other fine actors. That kind of work is vocally demanding, and you have to be in good vocal shape.