Lypsinka is sugar, spice and a little bit of Joan, Lucille and Dovima

September 10, 1993|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Staff Writer

Tell John Epperson you're having trouble deciding how to describe his theatrical persona, and he generously offers some choices.

"It's not mime, but there is a pantomime aspect to what I do, in the sense of miming voices. And some people have called me a clown, which I also agree with -- but a certain kind of clown, such as Lucille Ball."

Dance is involved, too, and certainly music (from early piano training and more recently work as a rehearsal musician at American Ballet Theatre).

"Then some people have called me a drag queen, unfortunately. Yes, I perform in drag, but she is a lot more than that."

Finally, he offers his own assessment: "I've also called myself a glamorous clown."

It fits as well as anything.

For Mr. Epperson is also Lypsinka, a statuesque apparition who flows across a stage in long gowns and feather boas, her face overly made up in gaudy lipstick and heavy eye shadow and her head topped off with a fantastic wig.

"June Cleaver on acid," a San Francisco reviewer called the character once, her creator recalls, laughing.

Lypsinka has also modeled couture for the likes of French designer Thierry Mugler and posed for magazine fashion photos by Francesco Scavullo. Indeed, Mr. Epperson says the character was drawn most directly upon Dovima, a renowned 1950s model, as he remembers her from Richard Avedon photos.

In the cabaret act Mr. Epperson performs Sunday night at The Hippo -- a benefit for the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Baltimore and Pride Broadcasting -- Lypsinka demonstrates her name. She mouths along with a variety of torch songs and other verbalizations of such 1950s and '60s pop divas as Dolores Gray, Rosemary Clooney and even the Disney cartoon villain Cruella DeVille.

How did Lypsinka arrive at his alter-ego? In a telephone interview from his New York home, the 38-year-old Mr. Epperson speculates with easy candor.

"My mother likes to say, 'Where did this boy come from?' " he says, recounting "a very typical baby boomer kind of house life" in Hazelhurst, Miss. His father was a rural mail carrier, his mother a housewife who later opened a Merle Norman cosmetics store, and he had two sisters.

"When I was a kid, I was glued to the television set," he recalls. He was particularly drawn to Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett and Joan Rivers.

In a recent appearance on Ms. Rivers show, in fact, Lypsinka called the talk-show host/comedian "one of my idols."

But ask the performer why he found inspiration in what he calls "big brassy blondes," and he counters with a question.

"Why could I sit in a movie theater watching 'Bye, Bye, Birdie' and be in school the next day doing all the steps, when nobody else was?

"Maybe it has something to do with being gay," he suggests. But he doesn't seem to really think so.

"Actually, most people just assume I'm gay. But you know, it wouldn't have to be so."

But he definitely created Lypsinka to take advantage of the gay clubs of the East Village, after trying in vain to land straight theatrical parts as an actor. He introduced her at New York's Pyramid Club in 1982.

Mr. Epperson notes that such performers as Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Anne Magnuson and RuPaul sought the same audiences early in their careers.

Lypsinka's appeal is broadening, however. Her creator thinks more and more straight women come to his shows, apparently in sync with his character's satire of the pre-feminist woman archetype.

A Lypsinka book is due soon, too, which Mr. Epperson describes as "sort of a cross between 'Little Me' [an illustrated children's book] and a book that Joan Crawford wrote, 'My Way of Life.'"

At Sunday's Baltimore appearance, patrons can also buy a new Lypsinka coloring book. And moviegoers may also look for Lypsinka in a small part in the coming Tom Hanks movie, "Philadelphia."

"The Fabulous Lypsinka"

When: 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Sunday

Where: The Hippo, 1 W. Eager St.

Admission: $35 reception and show; $25 reserved seats; $20 general admission

Call: (410) 234-0069, (410) 547-0069

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