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Lip Shtick

The story behind “Lypsinka! As I Lay Lip-synching.”

NEW YORK — At one o’clock in the afternoon some years ago, John Epperson woke up, having slept 13 hours, and decided he had to do something about his depression. Of course, one of the women in the Fifties films Epperson exploits as his drag stage persona, Lypsinka, would have dusted off a pretty dress and swanned her way outside to a glamorous life on the edge — the cutting edge of fashion, or the razor’s edge. But Epperson simply wrote a show.

“Depression is a luxury that none of us can afford,” he says cheekily from a corner table in a quiet Chelsea lunch spot. But for $35, a few of us can afford the bleakly hilarious “Lypsinka! As I Lay Lip-synching,” which runs through Sept. 7 at the nightclub Show on 41st Street.

More than Lypsinka’s other evenings, “As I Lay Lip-synching” takes a cold, hard look at fashion and objectification, and should thus be considered required viewing up and down Seventh Avenue.

“It will appeal to your love-hate relationship with clothes” is how Epperson puts it.

For 20 years, the Mississippi-born Epperson, who served as rehearsal pianist for the American Ballet Theatre from 1978 to 1991, has been building sonic collages out of snippets from old films and TV, cabaret, musicals and anything else that suits the ambivalent world of Lypsinka. The result is Postmodernism at its funniest: a show about shows, a drag queen impersonating drag queens who impersonate legendary fashion plates.

“I’m just hair and legs — no face, no feeling. All they want is my body,” wails Lypsinka midway through “As I Lay Lip-synching.” (It’s a line from “Funny Face.”) This pretty much sets the tone, and the show moves on to address such stylish topics as hair and makeup, gloves, dressing for a glamorous night out or for a funeral, and how to pose attractively for the camera.

“Fashion offers the promise of happiness,” Epperson says. “And that’s a promise that’s constantly being broken. I’m sure there are women who feel, when they buy a new dress, how I used to feel when I did drugs. Ultimately, neither is very good for you.”

This story first appeared in the August 19, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

But when was anything fun any good for us? Lypsinka herself is a drug enjoyed by fashionable folk from Christian Lacroix to Gloria Vanderbilt, Michael Kors to Blaine Trump to Madonna (who once financed an L.A. show). Thierry Mugler even flew Epperson to Paris to walk in his spring 1994 ready-to-wear presentation.

People in fashion, in the U.S. especially, are so wrapped up in marketing — that’s why they’re desperate to see somebody working in fantasy,” Epperson says. They will find it cathartic to watch Lypsinka’s catalog of vamps and virgins falling in love and tearing their dresses, confessing their sins and mugging for photographers.

“I always think of Ma Rose in ‘Gypsy,’ when she realizes that everything she wanted was her undoing,” he continues. “Why did she do it? ‘I just wanted to be noticed,’ she says. Isn’t that also why the prostitute in the back of the Village Voice might try to dress like Nan Kempner?”

And that’s why Epperson is fascinated by the notion of chic — that vapid abstraction to which he devotes several hilarious minutes of the show. Garbo, Dietrich and Jackie Kennedy had it, Lypsinka instructs; Elizabeth Taylor and Rita Hayworth did not.

Of course, Epperson is just as fond of the bad girls in red nail polish. And Lypsinka herself — whose own style might be described as New Look in its last gasp — is one of them.

“She may be stylish,” Epperson says, “but she’s not chic.”

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