Best in Sew

Photos by Dawn Frary
Video by Lisa Edwards with graphics by Nelle Dunlap

Most people became aware of Leslie Hall a few years back, when her YouTube videos went viral. People forward links to all their friends for, as they say, the LULZ. Laughing at the unselfconsciously ridiculous people on the internet always has a cruel edge to it, but Leslie was never oblivious to her ridiculosity. In fact, it’s been the unifying attribute of her public persona.

Beginning with her campaign to be prom queen in high school (wearing a neck brace and an unfortunate thrift store gown), Leslie has fearlessly accentuated the less flattering aspects of her appearance for attention and laughs.

If that was all there was to Leslie Hall, she wouldn’t be onstage at the Englert for the Iowa Women’s Music Festival. She’s successfully transitioned from being last year’s Internet meme to becoming a one-woman cottage industry. Her entertainment empire includes music, videos, live performance, the world’s first Mobile Museum of Gem Sweaters, and a sideline selling custom-made spandex stretch pants. Along with her band, the Ly’s, she’s toured the US and sold out shows from coast to coast. She’s been interviewed on radio and television, and fulfilled a lifelong dream to appear at the Iowa State Fair. And since the Iowa Supreme Court lifted the ban on same sex marriage in Iowa, she’s been entertaining at gay weddings. It’s a natural fit for her unique combination of high camp and joyous sincerity.

But there’s more to Leslie Hall than just humorous hip hop and scissor kicks. She went to art school after all, so hidden beneath the gurning and Jane Fonda Workout dance moves is feminist subtext. She reminds me of my Grandmother and her sisters, who never left their houses without first putting on their faces, teasing and spraying their hair into airy nimbi that seemed to float around their heads like a halos. They were hardworking, god-fearing, plain-spoken women, yet they were conditioned to build an elaborate facade to present to the world. And in the ‘70s and ‘80s they wore the gaudy, decorated sweaters Leslie is so fond of completely without irony, because they really believed they were festive and fun. Leslie Hall both parodies and celebrates that idea of womanhood: “putting on your face” is an act of self-invention.

Like my grandmother–a relentless knitter, baker, gardener and crafter–Leslie is also a committed practitioner of the domestic arts. Her increasingly elaborate stage shows feature props and sets with a charmingly homemade look. She designs and constructs them herself with assistance from her friends and family. With her mother’s help she designs and sews all the costumes for herself and her band. She also produces all her own music from the beats on up, and I can say as a dance music snob that she does a damn good job of it.

She celebrates the DIY spirit in songs like “Craft Talking” and “Beatdazzler.” Of course she’s always trying to be funny, but decorating and constructing your own useful and decorative objects empowers people to take control of their lives. You might think it’s kitsch (and nothing pleases the ironic hipster more than to celebrate bad taste), but while Leslie might be playing it for laughs, she’s never looking down her nose at that stuff.

The Little Village Posse made the pilgrimage to the Iowa State Fair to see her show. It was at 9 a.m. on a rainy Tuesday, but a hundred or so of her fans braved the elements to check out the expanded Leslie & the Ly’s extravaganza. And what a cavalcade of fabulosity it was–it included a line of sub-teen dancers made up in full Leslie Hall drag, a trio of dancing girls in matching shorts covered in fuchsia flowers and a giant cat on wheels. Leslie sings, raps, and dances with unrelenting energy. While her dancing may be deliberately graceless for comic effect, there’s no denying its athleticism.

After the show, Leslie spent 45 minutes greeting fans, taking pictures and signing autographs. Those fans are a distinctive group–they show up wearing their own gold stretch pants and accessorize with all things glittery. They, like Leslie, may not be the prettiest or the skinniest, but they’ve embraced her philosophy of do-it-yourself superstardom. Leslie stays resolutely in character when she’s in costume, but the connection her fans feel with her is genuine and emotional. She inspires them to find their own bliss without caring what anyone else thinks.

The interview we did upstairs in the quilt room at the Applied Arts Building was even more surreal than her show. Leslie loves the camera and was cutting poses like a supermodel the whole time she formulated her deliciously cracked answers to our questions. She seems motivated less by vanity than by a pure, childlike glee at being the center of attention.

Later, we ran into her with her posse getting lunch. In her street clothes, minus her up-do hair and big 80s glasses, she looks like a different person. Her strenuous performances and vegan diet have melted off some of her trademark curves and bulges, and she has piercing blue eyes that give Zooey Deschanel a run for her money. When she turns off the Leslie Hall shtick, the mugging and Mae West gags go away, and she’s what Grandmother would have called “a darling girl.”

And that’s the paradox of Leslie Hall–by embracing and exaggerating what others might think liabilities, by dreaming into existence an absurd, cartoonish version of glamour and stardom, she’s actually becoming a superstar like her idols Brittney and Beyoncé. She was a big girl who dreamed big, and she’s gone places she could barely imagine back in high school, when she discovered the unlikely power of a thrift store dress and a neck brace. And she did it all herself, with her Singer sewing machine, her hot glue gun and her bedazzler.

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