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Epperson, John (b. 1955)  
 
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John Epperson has had an extremely successful career performing as the glamorous and hilarious drag character Lypsinka. In addition, he has appeared, both in and out of character, in several plays and films.

Epperson was born April 24, 1955 in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, not a particularly gay-friendly place to grow up. He said in a 2002 interview, "I was always like a changeling in my home . . . like an alien among them." He wondered "why I was so fascinated by show business, when no one else in my family was."

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From an early age Epperson took lessons in classical piano, but he was also intrigued by popular music and culture. By the age of four he was lip-synching to his father's records and soon gave dancing a try as well, mimicking Ann-Margret's moves in George Sidney's Bye Bye Birdie (1963).

School days were a trial for the boy seen as a "sissy," who was "teased, taunted, [and] physically threatened." He had to teach himself to be less effeminate in order to cope with the schoolmates' cruelty.

After high school Epperson enrolled at Belhaven College, a small Presbyterian institution in Jackson, Mississippi. While there he went to a gay bar—a "sawdust-on-the-floor-dump" as he recalled it—for the first time and saw drag performers doing lip-synching acts. He called the experience "totally frightening because I saw myself up on stage." He realized that drag performers might draw enthusiastic audiences but were also subject to ostracism. Not wishing the latter fate, he stopped going to gay bars for a year.

When Epperson graduated from Belhaven he landed a job playing piano in Colorado, but in 1978 he moved to New York, where he became a rehearsal pianist for the American Ballet Theater. In addition, despite his earlier misgivings Epperson began doing drag performances at nightspots such as Club 57 and the Pyramid.

When Epperson went on tour with the American Ballet he had the opportunity to see sophisticated drag acts in Europe. Modeling his performances on those, Epperson wrote and starred in two drag pieces—Dial "M" for Model (1987) and Ballet of the Dolls (1988), a send-up of Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls—before beginning to perform as Lypsinka.

In creating the Lypsinka character he "chose a one-word name to show a sense of humor, but also as an homage to European models with one name." Epperson has said that Lypsinka owes much of her look to 1950s super-model Dovima, and that stage actress Dolores Gray was also part of the "prototype for Lypsinka." Among others who influenced his work he cites Ann-Margret, Charles Pierce, and Charles Ludlam.

Lypsinka first met her public in late 1988 when Epperson's act was a late-night addition to the bill of Charles Busch's Vampire Lesbians of Sodom at the Provincetown Playhouse in New York. I Could Go on Lip-Synching is the story of Lypsinka's rise from modest beginnings in Louisiana to the status of diva.

The show, which soon moved to the Theater Off Park, was a resounding success, running for slightly over a year in New York. It then went to California, where the production was financed in part by Madonna.

Epperson quit his job with the American Ballet Theater in 1991 in order to devote himself full-time to performing as Lypsinka. His repertoire includes The Fabulous Lypsinka Show, Lypsinka! Now It Can Be Lip-Synched, Lypsinka! A Day in the Life, Lypsinka! As I Lay Lip-Synching, and Lypsinka! The Boxed Set. For the last he won the Los Angeles Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Sound Design, the L.A. Weekly Theatre Award for Best Solo Performance, and the Helen Hayes Award for Best Non-resident Production in 2003. He was also a nominee for Outstanding Lead Actor at the Hayes Awards.

The Lypsinka shows are technically complex, as Epperson weaves together scores of source materials to tell a story. Ringing telephones, bringing matters that demand immediate attention, are a staple of the act as Lypsinka expends extraordinary energy in coping with the exigencies of life. Scenery and lighting designer Mark T. Simpson calls Lypsinka "a 'schizophrenetic' character" whose "cueing requires rapid-fire color-wash changes and flashing strobes." He praises Epperson for his planning of the productions: "He's aware of everything. His attention to detail feeds the whole process. In a certain sense, if you can keep up with him, you can't go wrong."

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Top: A portrait of John Epperson by William Claxton (copyright © 2000).
Above: John Epperson as Lypsinka. Photograph by Russell Maynor (copyright © 2000).

  
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