Musician, playwright, and performer John Epperson, who is better known as his lip-synching drag queen alter-ego Lipsynka, was born April 24, 1955, in Hazelhurst, Mississippi. In 1978, after training in classical piano from a young age and attending Belhaven University in Jackson, Epperson moved to New York City, where he took a job playing piano for the American Ballet Theater and began performing in drag. Epperson’s character Lipsynka is a renowned drag artist who lip-syncs to the songs and dialogue of iconic screen sirens and to more obscure audio clips (such as a makeup commercial from the 1950s). Epperson has been praised for the pastiches of dialogue he creates as Lipsynka’s shows bring new meaning to the lines she ventriloquizes through juxtaposition and gender reversal. One critic estimated that thousands of audio pieces are culled together for each Lipsynka show, calling them “expressionistic and hallucinatory one-act audio wonders.” By 1991 Epperson was able to pursue a career as Lipsynka full time, taking her shows around the country and receiving glowing reviews even from serious theater critics. Lipsynka’s blend of drag humor and performance art—in addition to her skill as a comedian—resulted in unique shows that appeal to fans of drag and comedy, as well as theater and performance art.
Lipsynka’s takes on Joan Crawford, Gloria Swanson, Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor, and Lauren Bacall have earned praise from critics and a fervent fan base. Her performances are complex and schizophrenic as she careens between emotional extremes cued by intense lighting changes and the sound of a ringing telephone. In shows like “As I Lay Lip-Syncing” and “The Passion of the Crawford,” Epperson creates a new narrative out of sound clips. Some of these pieces of audio are meant to be recognized by the audience, and some of them are not. Part of Lipsynka’s appeal is her ability to bring elements of drag humor and camp to her performances without disrespecting the figures she emulates—often the screen queens of Old Hollywood. Epperson refuses to bring sexist humor into Lypsinka’s shows, saying, “It’s so easy to do misogynistic drag humor” but he “deliberately trie[s] to avoid that.”
Epperson also works in theater and film outside of performing as Lipsynka, and he has played male characters onstage and in film. He has appeared in several feature films, including Black Swan and Kinsey. He referenced his roots in his update of Euripedes’s Greek tragedy Medea, which he adapted to a Jackson, Mississippi, setting. In Epperson’s campy southern gothic version, titled My Deah, the protagonist who cooks her children to get revenge on her husband batters the kids up in a fried chicken recipe. The New York Times wrote, “Although Lypsinka herself is absent from the stage in My Deah, Mr. Epperson brings the same deconstructive and reconstructive skills he uses to showcase that grande dame to his Mad magazine rewrite of Euripides. [H]e has found clever Deep South analogues for the workings of fate that ruthlessly hem in our desperate heroine.”
While Epperson has described growing up in small-town Mississippi as stifling, saying that he “felt like an alien” among his family and experienced bullying from his peers, Mississippi’s culture and artists have clearly influenced some of his work, from My Deah to the title for “As I Lay Lip-Syncing.” A gay bar in Jackson, Mississippi, was the first place Epperson remembers seeing drag queens perform lip-syncing routines, an experience that deeply inspired him although he did not begin performing in drag until he moved to New York years later.
Lipsynka is now considered a foremother of today’s most popular drag artists. She continues to appear and perform at drag events and fashion shows regarded by fans as a legend who influenced contemporary drag performance.
- Charles Isherwood, “Tale of Woe Seems Like a Greek Tragedy,” New York Times (October 25, 2006)
- Joe E. Jeffreys, “The Soundplay’s the Thing: A Formal Analysis of John (aka Lipsynka) Epperson’s Queer Performance Texts,” in “We Will Be Citizens”: New Essays on Gay and Lesbian Theatre, ed. James Fisher (2008)
- Michael F. Moore, Drag! Male and Female Impersonators on Stage, Screen, and Television: An Illustrated World History (1994)