book excerpt

The History of Lip-Syncing

An excerpt from Legendary Children: The First Decade of RuPaul’s Drag Race and the Last Century of Queer Life.

Photo: Loew’s Inc.
Photo: Loew’s Inc.
Photo: Loew’s Inc.

Some queens become legends over a lifetime and some become legends in the space of a minute.

At the 2001 Miss Gay Black America pageant, as the opening notes of Bonnie Tyler’s classic 1984 hit from the Footloose soundtrack “Holding Out for a Hero” played over the waiting crowd, a dancer in a sleeveless sequined Superman outfit shielded his eyes and scanned the waiting crowd, setting the stage for what has been called the greatest drag queen entrance of all time. Just as the song intro reached its crescendo and Bonnie Tyler’s raspy voice screamed of her search for the perfect man, an ambitious, focused, and clearly hellaciously talented queen by the name of Tandi Iman Dupree wowed the crowd, made herstory, and passed into legend by unexpectedly dropping from the ceiling and landing in a perfect split timed to the first syllable. The crowd roared and Miss Dupree, in a fringed Wonder Woman costume, went on to give them five minutes of stunningly choreographed and perfectly executed lip syncing, the likes of which would have had Ru and Michelle weeping. Four years later she would be dead from AIDS complications, her dreams of becoming the greatest pageant queen in herstory denied her. She would have passed into whispered legend among her drag comrades, the story of her iconic performance retold year after year until it either faded or warped into unrecognizability, but in a twist that reveals just how much modern forms of media and social media have forever altered the drag world, a video of her performance wound up on YouTube, where it has been watched more than two million times — an audience Tandi herself might never have dreamed of. Willam, who revealed in his web series Beatdown that this was the first video he saw that made him realize how amazing drag can be, said of Tandi Iman Dupree’s legendary performance, “This bitch doesn’t just pick the apples, she fucking plows the field the apples were planted in.”

A drag lip sync is about providing those unforgettable moments, and some of the best uses of the lip-sync format, like Tandi Iman Dupree’s, offer something most singers could not manage while singing. The point is to lean into the artifice while still making it appear seamlessly real. When you produce that perfect lip-sync moment — and you’re lucky enough that someone recorded it (as someone always is today) — you can secure your own legendary status with one perfectly executed drop to the floor. The lip sync is the ultimate form of drag expression because beauty and art being wrung out of artifice is at the very heart of drag.

This idea of lip-syncing as a format for jaw-dropping drag moments is at the heart of the Lip Sync for Your Life showdown that ends every episode of Drag Race and seals the fate of the two queens standing before Ru. To force two queens to lip-sync simultaneously to determine their fate, after having gone through a usually exhausting set of challenges, is perfectly executed reality show drama crossed with queer sensibilities— and it’s not a coincidence that some of the show’s best moments tend to come from this feature.

A good lip sync isn’t merely about artifice, however. A talented lip- sync artist will find and express their own truth, separate from the original vocal artist’s intent. A truly masterful lip-sync artist will remix the emotions of a song, filter them through their own character and life experiences, punctuate them with exaggerated flourishes that almost act like a conductor’s movements, and play with the audience’s emotions and expectations like a virtuoso. It’s like a remix without actually remixing. As we’ve tried to show throughout this book, drag is often about repurposing or remixing from the dominant culture. Whether it’s delivering a pastiche of Hollywood tropes or commenting on more important matters with political parody, whether it’s serving realness or skewering social norms, the art of drag is constantly taking something “normal” and making it something … else.

The Qualities of a killer Lip Sync

The first truly epic Lip Sync for Your Life occurred in the fifth episode of the first season of Drag Race, when BeBe Zahara Benet faced off against Ongina lip-syncing Britney Spears’s “Stronger.” Both performances were so grandly executed and laden with meaning (Ongina had revealed her HIV status in a tearful meltdown the previous episode) that they left the judging panel stunned and Ru walked off set to compose herself. This was the first time two queens understood what the lip-sync challenge could be, understood that the show’s focus on vulnerability and sincerity wasn’t just reality TV babble.

But if you want to talk about legendary lip syncs on Drag Race, Latrice Royale’s face-off against Kenya Michaels in season 4 passed into the annals of high drag almost immediately and to this day tends to appear at or near the top of most listings of the best lip syncs in Drag Race herstory. What makes Latrice’s performance of Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” so iconic is not just the stunning depth of emotion she brought to the performance — enough to get most of the judging panel to cry. It wasn’t just how she used the natural shape of her body combined with acting and mimicry to get the audience to see her as a pregnant woman singing to her unborn child. It was how the performance represented the end point of drag’s evolution over the past century. Here was a plus-size black man mimicking a pregnant woman and lip-syncing a popular song. Fifty years earlier, it would have been seen as a raunchy comedy act, the performance would have likely had more than a bit of a misogynistic undertone to it, and instead of being received as high art by a tearful audience, it would have been derided as cheap entertainment from a talentless person off the street who didn’t know how to sing. No, really. We’ll show you those receipts in a minute. For now, we want to highlight some more high-drama moments in Drag Race lip-syncing herstory.

Photo: Vulture

Every queen who finds herself lip- syncing for her life on Drag Race wants to prove her worth and bury that other bitch, but no two ever wanted to reach those goals more desperately than Alyssa Edwards and Coco Montrese. In season 4, they brought a ton of emotional baggage with them to sit neatly alongside all their costume trunks. Alyssa had been crowned Miss Gay America and Coco was her first runner-up. For reasons that aren’t particularly clear, Alyssa was forced to give up her crown and Coco took over the title. There was resentment on both sides and a history of shade- throwing that had escalated into real anger toward each other and had overtaken the Werk Room with shouted and shaded confrontations. These two queens had had it — officially — with each other and each wanted the other one out of her line of sight and stripped from the competition. And that’s why the show forcing them to lip-sync Paula Abdul’s “Cold Hearted” in order to send the other one home was like the freaking Apocalypse Now of lip syncs. It wasn’t so much the performances themselves that made it so dramatic — although they were both on fire and the song could not have been more perfectly chosen for the showdown — it was how weighted with emotion, grudges, and questions of self-worth they were.

But anger and maternal love aren’t the only emotions available to interpret, and sometimes a lip sync on Drag Race becomes elevated simply through the sheer joy of watching a queen really nail the hell out of a song, like DiDa Ritz firing off the nearly impossible lyrics of “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)” right in front of its singer, Natalie Cole, who was brought to cheers and YAASes at the sight because she was so swept up in the emotion of watching a queen interpret her song with such life and precision. Latrice, who knows a few things about an epic lip sync, rightly said of this moment, “That is high drag at its finest.”

Those are some of the most fun lip syncs to watch on Drag Race, when a performer gets so worked up through the power or emotion of the performance that it elevates them. This is when it truly becomes magic — when the artifice and the improvisation build and rise on a wave of confidence. Put in concrete terms, there is simply nothing like watching Peppermint dressed as Madonna in her “Material Girl” video, in the iconic pink gown Marilyn Monroe wore to sing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes over a half century earlier, perfectly miming a shotgun blast timed to the beat of Madonna’s “Music” and aimed at the floundering Cynthia Lee Fontaine. Precision, improvisation, a remixing of the meaning of the song — and all while paying homage to two of the most iconic blondes of all time as a transgender woman of color. There are so many layers to that, so many aspects working both on and beneath the surface of the performance to turn it into something viscerally exciting to watch. It’s the very definition of slaying the lip sync.

Like Peppermint’s shotgun blast, Kameron Michaels and Eureka’s facing off in season 10 to Patti LaBelle’s “New Attitude” and going into simultaneous impromptu side-by-side jump splits so perfectly timed you’d think they’d spent weeks rehearsing it is a specific type of drama that arises out of the lip-sync challenge — a more kinetic, body-based kind, the kind that Tandi Iman Dupree pulled off so brilliantly. Those sorts of sublime moments of interpretation are what make the lip-sync challenge so exciting — and in the case of Eureka and Kameron, got Ru to take the highly unusual step of not sending anyone home.

From wig snatches to dips to “Swiffering the floor with [one’s] taint,” in the immortal phrasing of Willam, to “pounding my vagina into the stage so hard the building shakes,” to borrow Katya’s, the lip syncs on Drag Race tend to center an increasingly acrobatic and melodramatic style, imbuing a half- century-old tradition in drag with more meaning and dramatic stakes than anyone could have predicted, let alone imagined, in the hazy, back-of-the-bar days when lip sync and drag were introduced to each other.
But before we talk about how lip-syncing became a tradition in drag, we have to take a moment to look at how it developed in mainstream culture. Why? Say it with us now:

Drag is all about repurposing mainstream culture into something uniquely queer. 

Also because the story of lip-syncing in all its forms makes a perfect jumping-off point to discuss issues of artifice and realness as they’re defined in both the queer world and the mainstream one, and to point out the bigotry, classism, homophobia, and transphobia underlying lip sync’s elevation as a drag art form.

Yes. All of that.

A Short History of the Non- Drag Lip Sync

In 1929, MGM studios was about to make history by releasing its first sound picture and the first in what would become an iconic and genre-defining string of musicals. The film was called The Broadway Melody and it was historic in a whole bunch of other ways as well. It had what some film historians have called the first clear and obvious-to-the-audience portrayal of a gay male character: a costume designer, complete with lisp and obvious-at-the-time references to lavender, which was a slang allusion to homosexuality. It was also the first film utilizing the songwriting and musical talents of composer Arthur Freed and the first MGM film to utilize a Technicolor sequence, shot for the big production number for Freed’s song “Wedding of the Painted Doll,” which leads us to the film’s most important innovation. MGM execs weren’t happy with how the footage and sound from the “Painted Doll” number was coming across but they didn’t want to scrap such an ambitious number, with the potential to dazzle audiences with not just the novelty of sound but also the total shock of Technicolor. The studio’s sound supervisor, Douglas Shearer, made what would seem like a no-brainer suggestion to any of us, but was a total game changer and a boldly modern way of understanding the medium of film. He suggested that instead of simultaneously recording the sound while shooting the performers, they should not record sound at all and have the singers and dancers perform to a prerecorded track of the song. In other words, he invented the lip-synced musical performance. His simple but brilliant innovation not only saved the number, it may have helped snag the film the first Best Picture Oscar ever awarded to a musical, and it established the industry standard for filmed musical numbers to this day. Arthur Freed would eventually be named a producer at MGM and go on to head his own eponymous department, the Freed Unit, which turned out an astonishing string of legendary movie musicals from the 1930s all the way through the 1950s. They were all legendary productions in their own way, but the most famous and well-regarded of them all was 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain, with a plot that hinges largely on … the development of lip-syncing in the early days of sound movies, which brings this little origin story neatly full circle for us.

But lip-syncing wasn’t a development that was going to stay limited to the movies, what with television just sitting there by the 1950s. An instant novelty that very quickly became a major trend and then a total game changer for the culture by the end of its first decade, TV was a medium that was largely considered a lesser form than that of theater and motion pictures in its early years, which is partially why so much of early television was turned over to attempts at placing well-acted theatrical productions and full- blown live variety shows in the living rooms of America. There was an instant need and desire in the television industry to prove its artistic worth, which may be why, despite the vast array of musical entertainment options in the first decade of TV, lip-syncing wasn’t a common practice on the medium in its early years. It was the series of seismic changes in popular music during the 1960s that got TV as a medium to embrace it. But first, let’s have a cocktail.

In the early 1960s, a device for exhibiting early precursors to music videos called Scopitone was installed in hundreds of cocktail lounges and nightclubs throughout America. In essence, they were a jukebox that played filmed or videotaped singers lip-syncing to their hits in usually highly stylized settings on a screen mounted to the top of the unit. They never quite became the explosive new medium that television did, nor did they ever break out of a relatively limited market. But for most of that decade, dozens of pop music acts filmed some form of theatrical, lip-synced performance, most of which still survive today, some of which actually passed into legend. Nancy Sinatra’s 1966 Scopitone short for “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” is legitimately a classic and wound up getting rediscovered in the 1990s when it went into heavy rotation on VH1. Debbie Reynolds’s short of “If I Had a Hammer” went on to become something of a modern camp classic when it was rediscovered in the YouTube age, if only for her total unsuitability to the material and the incongruously glamorous staging, which had her descending an enormous space-age suspended staircase in a cocktail dress, heels, and bouffant hairdo while perkily doing her best to let us know she’s planning on hammering for justice all over this land.

The point of this happy diversion: Pop music of the sixties lent itself to lip-syncing for reasons of style and performance aesthetics (it allowed for a lot more dancing by the lead singer midsong), and to a lesser extent, in response to a wave of untrained singers whose style fit the times taking over the charts. Scopitones were an early method of normalizing lip-syncing as something that can be appreciated in forms other than a classic movie musical. Highly popular television shows of the late 1960s and early ’70s like The Monkees and The Partridge Family portrayed “live” performances in-story each episode where the entire cast was lip-syncing. At the same time, pop music showcases like American Bandstand and Soul Train featured weekly appearances of some of the biggest pop stars of the day, pretending to sing their songs into prop mics while teenagers got their groove on, completely unfussed by the artifice so long as it had a good beat and they could dance to it.

In 1981, MTV was launched and the slow normalization of lip-syncing popular music in staged settings or in front of a televised audience achieved full saturation. Music videos indulged in the artifice of lip-syncing in a way previous forms didn’t try, sometimes making the artificial aspect of the performance the entire point of the music video. Gay singer George Michael may have taken the form to its lip-syncing heights with his 1990 video for “Freedom! ’90,” which featured a string of the most iconic supermodels of the era lip-syncing to his voice.

All these forms of mainstream lip-syncing — classic Hollywood musicals, Scopitone shorts and music videos, variety show performances and sitcoms, even the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade — normalized the idea of lip-syncing as a performing style in the mainstream. There have been times over the years when audiences and the public reacted negatively to singers making live appearances and lip-syncing the words, the most famous in recent years being the performance of the national anthem by Beyoncé at President Obama’s 2012 inauguration, a charge she and her team vehemently denied. The only times it was ever seen as a serious scandal was when a singer was discovered to be lip-syncing to someone else’s voice. That is a level of artifice the mainstream public doesn’t like, and there is usually a significant backlash, to such an extent that it ruined the careers of 1980s pop group Milli Vanilli and at roughly the same time landed the producers of C+ C Music Factory in court because Martha Wash (late of Sylvester’s backup singers Two Tons O’ Fun and her own group, the Weather Girls) sued them for depicting another woman mouthing her iconic vocals (“Everybody dance now!”) in the music video for “Gonna Make You Sweat.” The case settled out of court and Martha Wash was given more prominent credit going forward. But the point was clear: The public doesn’t like “fake” lip-syncing, which is, of course, exactly what drag lip-syncing is.

So Why Did Drag Queens Start Lip-Syncing?

Like so many aspects of queer culture, the roots of lip-syncing specifically as a form of drag entertainment are not particularly well-documented. We can tell roughly when the practice started on a professional level. If nothing else, we have the development of sound recording and its climb toward ubiquity to give us a rough guide. And there are reasons of money, harassment, and bigotry that can be highlighted as the cause of lip-syncing’s prominence in the drag oeuvre. There are approximate dates to circle on history’s calendar and rough outlines as to why, but there is no “pioneer” of the origins of lip-syncing in drag. There is no one queen or even one dozen queens you can point to and say, “There she is. There’s the queen who put on a dress and a record and called it an act first.” This isn’t exactly surprising since, as we’ve mentioned, so much of twentieth- century pre-Stonewall queer culture developed in the away spaces and undergrounds of the United States — and there were no historians on hand to record most of it.

For most of the early to mid-twentieth century, public transvestitism and cross-dressing was against the law in one form or another and varied from county to county, metro area to metro area, making the working life of a traveling drag queen a never-ending litany of stressful situations. Working queens and their establishments had to figure out ways around the police raids and harassment. They didn’t always succeed, of course, and plenty of drag queens and performing transgender women had police records for plying their trade or living their truths. A result of this constant threat to establishments that hosted drag shows was a collective reluctance on the part of many musicians to play such venues. The tendency of the culture to accept queer performing and then reject it based on the shifting sands of politics and social mores was highlighted by the rise and fall of the Pansy Craze, the literally violent rejection of disco, and the petering out of the grand 1990s drag moment outlined in previous chapters.

After World War II, drag performing spaces and revues like Finocchio’s in San Francisco, the Garden of Allah in Seattle, and the traveling Jewel Box Revue offered high-end female impersonation entertainment to largely straight audiences who were willing to loosen up just a little, what with having survived a Great Depression and a World War. But as the 1950s advanced and McCarthyism took hold as a political movement and social phenomenon, all sorts of backlashes occurred up and down the culture as a paranoid form of conformity became increasingly common and sought to stamp out social heresy. In short, it got harder and harder to put on a drag show in an America that just wanted everyone to act “normal” and was willing to penalize those who didn’t. In 1956, Seattle’s legendary Garden of Allah, often cited as the first openly gay-owned establishment for gay customers, had to close after many years of providing the best in drag entertainment because the local musicians guild started charging more and more expensive rates to play there, eventually exerting enough economic pressure on the club to shut it down. It was in this atmosphere that lip-syncing acts became much more prominent in the drag world. Lip-syncing, like so many queer forms of art and expression, arose directly out of and in response to oppression, bigotry, and harassment.

For many years, “record acts” were seen as the lowest, most amateur form of drag there is. Queens who spent years perfecting their female vocalization skills sneered at lip-sync acts for having no talent and artistry and faking the effect without working for it. This wasn’t mere drag classism on display — although it’s safe to say that’s part of it. Lip-syncing’s sharp rise in the late 1950s brought about a drastic change in the world of drag, allowing for many performers with little or no training in performing arts to take the stage and fake their hearts out.

In lesbian anthropologist Esther Newton’s revolutionary 1972 book about her study of drag queens, Mother Camp, the queens she interviewed are quite clear in their sentiments regarding record acts, noting that such shows are cheap to produce because the queens involved are paid much less than other performers. As she was told by one queen, in a commonly expressed sentiment in the profession, “Anybody can mouth a record.”

But the queens who launched and popularized this type of performance were doing it for reasons of class, gender presentation, and practicality. First, lip-syncing to a popular female vocalist served as another tool for a female impersonator to help them nail the illusion, just like corsets, wigs, and padding. They weren’t lip-syncing to Elvis and the Beatles, after all. The early years of drag lip-syncing were more about big-voiced cabaret and torch singers, whose dramatic vocal styles lent themselves to broad movements and theatrical interpretations — often to deliberately humorous effect.

Second, even before musicians guilds and the cops made it harder to mount live drag shows in more glamorous big-city venues, the tiny underground gay bars and queer house parties in a small town somewhere in the first half of the twentieth century weren’t going to be providing their local drag artisans any musical accompaniment even if they wanted it. Putting on a record — or playing a jukebox — was sometimes all a gay bar or watering hole could offer a queen intent on lip-syncing her way to scattered applause. For this reason alone, we think it’s fair to say that some form of drag lip-syncing was happening in tiny gay bars and far-from-the-city queer gathering spaces with little to no options for live entertainment well before the rise of the practice professionally by the late 1950s and early ’60s.

House parties were common queer gathering spaces from the Victorian era straight through to Stonewall, and they were frequently the only places transgender and queer folks could express themselves in their communities. There isn’t exactly a ton of material left that documents these common social gatherings — everyone attending was breaking the law in one form or another — but private photographic stashes over the years have consistently shown a strong drag element in queer house parties. Since there’s really no point in having a house party without a record player to keep the crowd jumping (live music might get the police called in for noise violations), that combination of elements — a loose and safe space with drag queens, assorted queer folks, music, alcohol, and possibly party drugs — means there were probably plenty of drag queens lip-syncing to applause from their peers going back to the 1930s. They just weren’t professionals or well known outside their social circles. This is conjecture, but ask yourself: Have you ever been to a house party where someone didn’t lip-sync to the music once it got good or they got a buzz on?

Comedy Lip Syncs

But not all early professional lip-syncing was set to music. For a time, the more popular of the record acts in 1960s drag mouthed the words to comedy routines by popular female stand-up comics like Phyllis Diller, whose classic look incorporating wild hair, tons of eyeliner, opera gloves, feathers, and a cigarette holder was about as close to comedy drag as any female performer came in the mid-sixties, making her a very popular choice of female impersonators. In Mother Camp, Esther Newton describes how the queen performing such an act would often use her body and props to impart dirtier or raunchier connotations to the female comics’ jokes, noting how a “typical ploy” of such acts was to “draw attention to the genital area” when the subject of falling in love is worked into a joke and to hold up bottles of lubricant or condoms at inappropriate times. Another common form of recording-based comedy was to perform a torchy heartbreak song while done up in drag as a pregnant “fallen woman” figure, often ending with a baby doll falling out from under the queen’s skirt by song’s end. Hey, remember when we said Latrice Royale’s beautiful portrayal of a mother-to-be lip-syncing Aretha Franklin to her unborn child represented how far the art of drag had progressed in the past half century? There you go — from a cheap gag making fun of women to a pure expression of maternal love and longing, utilizing exactly the same technique to different effects and at vastly different times.

In Pudgy Roberts’s 1967 Female Impersonator’s Handbook, the ol’ gal had a few things to impart on the matter of “comic pantomiming” in her typical blunt manner:

Within the field of pantomime, there has sprung into some prominence a type of comedian known as the record comic. (Lately, this is also being done with the glamorous type impersonators, but should, by professional standards, be only for comedy.) As the name implies, phonograph or taped recordings form the basis of his work. A popular comical recording is played offstage while the impersonator silently mouths the lyrics, accompanying them with a pantomime burlesquing of their meaning. This may be a satisfactory means by which a budding comic may make his first venture. However, it should not continue into his professional career as live entertaining puts him in the professional bracket.

Two things about all that: Despite Pudgy’s implication that lip-syncing was purely for amateurs — which was the conventional thinking at the time and still has some resonance today — spoken-word lip syncs have always been an important subset of the form to this day. Second, Pudgy was correct to call it a pantomime, suggesting something that is rarely expressed about lip-syncing: that its best renditions and executions constitute an advanced and highly meticulous form of mime.

Going back to the vaudeville era of the nineteenth century, there were drag performers like Julian Eltinge who provided their audiences an evening of song and theatrical performance. The history of drag, as we hope we’ve proven by now, is one loaded with talented performers and artists of all types — actors, singers, dancers, impressionists, and comics. There have been drag jugglers, magicians, strippers, and fire breathers. If there’s a thing that can be done onstage that people will pay to see, a drag queen has done it.

From that perspective, it might be understandable why lip-syncing was looked down on by performing queens. But without besmirching the memories of so many of our queer drag grandmothers and aunties, they weren’t seeing it in quite the same way as we do today — and we don’t mean that they should have recognized lip-syncing as the art form we recognize it as now. Modern lip-syncing is far more performance oriented, utilizing much better equipment than an old 78 LP on a midcentury record player’s speaker. No, the difference is that those queens of previous generations didn’t necessarily focus on drag itself as an art form. And by that we mean that anyone who gets up in drag is practicing the specific art form of drag. What they do while they’re onstage determines what type of queen they are and how well they can do whatever it is they do.

A lip-syncing queen is performing her art, which is the art of being a lip-syncing queen. Some drag queens chose lip-syncing as part of their act not because they can’t do anything else but because it was the form of drag that most inspired them. Providing the illusion of a woman’s vocals coming out of a man’s mouth is, to many queens, no different than contouring her face and putting on a wig to provide the illusion. And one drag artist in particular is credited with elevating the lip sync to previously unconsidered and unimagined levels, forever banishing any idea that a lip-syncing queen is practicing a lower form of drag.

Lypsinka’s Wild-Eyed Women on the Verge

Lypsinka, the legendary drag creation of musical performer John Epperson, became synonymous with the art of lip-syncing not just because of her name but because of her meticulously lip-synced performances using songs and dialogue from iconic cabaret acts, films, and television shows of the twentieth century, often moving wildly from voice to voice, song to song, and phrase to phrase at breakneck speed, creating an experience that became a scathing commentary on the mediated image of the twentieth-century woman. His characters are brimming with a kind of broad-grinned, wild-eyed midcentury cabaret or TV hostess glamour and lust for life, but they’re also a taut and brittle wire, ready to snap, answering an endless array of ringing phones. To see some of his early New York bar performances in the 1980s is to see the entire reason for lip-syncing — small spaces, no sound equipment or musicians, just a boy in drag, serving up high glamour and female illusion on a stage not much larger than a cafeteria table. He didn’t invent lip-syncing as a component of drag, nor was he the first to turn it into art, but he’s the most well-known purveyor of the form and he championed and exemplified the idea of the drag performer as legitimate artist. Before Lypsinka, lip-syncing was viewed as a cheap form of drag. After her, it’s considered not only a respectable type of performance but a form of expression that can approach high artistic status.

Despite his clear love of silver-screen divas, Epperson’s primary inspirations were cabaret performers like Dolores Gray and Kay Thompson, both midcentury singers with big personalities and big voices. The inspiration for her high-fashion retro look came from legendary mid-century fashion models Dovima and Veruschka, who also inspired Lypsinka’s name. Capable of lip-syncing a mid-century chanteuse with verve, style, and precision while performing perfect stage choreography and even making mid-song costume changes, Lypsinka was perhaps more well known for her spoken-word lip syncs — and rightly so. In them, his divas give increasingly hysterical monologues, often shouting snippets into a succession of ringing (but nonexistent, because Epperson is extremely gifted at mime) telephones, their rage, fear, and pain escalating to a primal female scream. The singing portions of her lip sync are served up with brio and bravado, like a belting song-and-dance diva from Hollywood’s golden age, all broad gestures, cocked hips, three-quarter-turn foot placement, and smiles to the back row.

John Epperson has said that Lypsinka was created as a sort of avatar of his own rage and trauma, growing up in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, as a sensitive, expressive gay boy, constantly belittled and bullied by the surrounding community. He felt like an outsider in his own family because of his love of show business, something no one around him seemed to share. He spoke of being spanked for mimicking Natalie Wood in the film Gypsy as a child. He’s called Lypsinka a firebrand and “red-headed monster,” alluding to the idea that she is full of rage but also brimming with confidence. There aren’t many ways you can claim a connection between the two because you won’t find two drag artists further apart in style, but Epperson’s Lypsinka was very much like the alter ego of sensitive, bullied Glenn Milstead, a.k.a. Divine. Both channeled and performed rage through the art of drag but came about it in such different ways. Epperson has called his performances artificial and distancing to the audience. By leaning into the mimicry and artifice, Lypsinka is able to cycle through as many as forty different female voices in one show and still manage to convey a coherent image of one woman, struggling against outside forces and constantly ringing telephones — and often failing to hold herself together.

Lypsinka modeled, walked runways, acted in theater and film, wrote plays and performed cabaret, played the big venues and the tiny gay bars, and occasionally offered impeccable drag impersonations of Joan Crawford and other leading ladies. She did all these things while elevating and centering the art of lip-syncing. In many ways, despite John Epperson’s dislike of the term, Lypsinka can be considered the überdrag queen of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, combining high style, musical talent, acting, dancing, celebrity impersonation, and lip-syncing all in the same fascinatingly glamorous and captivating figure. Very few drag performers have straddled so many different strains of drag and excelled at them to her level — not Ru, not Divine, not Lady Bunny, not Jim Bailey or Charles Pierce, not Leigh Bowery or Julian Eltinge. Lypsinka has been lauded as a great artist for several decades but, perhaps owing to her own reluctance regarding the term, she never truly got her due as a legendary figure in the development of modern drag queens.

Sasha Velour has cited Lypsinka as one of her greatest influences, which should be clear to anyone who saw her season 10 finale lip-sync performance of Whitney Houston’s “So Emotional,” in which she brought the crowd to an ecstatic standing ovation by pulling off her wig in a tremulous fit of what looked like very Lypsinka-esque rage only to have red rose petals fall out from underneath, like some romantic, slow-motion spray of blood. Sasha has gone on since her win to prove herself to be a worthy successor to Lypsinka (who, it should be said, isn’t going anywhere anytime soon), with such projects as her long-running Nightgowns revue in Brooklyn, for which Lypsinka has performed, and her 2019 show Smoke & Mirrors, which revealed the artistry and sophistication of her lip-sync performances. Sasha Velour has credited Lypsinka with inventing modern drag, and that’s not hyperbole on her part. Lypsinka encompassed all the parts of modern drag in her work and then elevated them to a higher status. We were wrong to say earlier that there were no pioneers of lip-syncing. It just took about twenty-five years after the form became de rigueur in drag for someone like Lypsinka to come along and turn it into art.

From LEGENDARY CHILDREN by Tom Fitzgerald and Lorenzo Marquez, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Tom Fitzgerald and Lorenzo Marquez.

The History of Lip-Syncing