For those unfamiliar with the brilliance of Jennifer Vanilla, do yourself a favor and book a trip to Jennifer-land immediately. (They have cake!)
Jennifer Vanilla is the alter-ego of multi-disciplinary performance artist Becca Kauffman. The character was born circa 2015 when touring with her band Ava Luna. While you may have experienced Becca’s vocals and musicianship in her work with the New York art-funk group, her work as Jennifer Vanilla shines a light on her more theatrical side.
Creating an atmosphere that reverberates can-do positivity yet critiques human behavior, Jennifer Vanilla blends music, comedy, and dance into a transportive experience. Her shows range from straight-forward musical performances to acting as more of a host for cabaret-style vaudeville shows. Last time I saw her at Ridgewood’s JVL@B (Jennifer Vanilla Lab aka The Windjammer), she had members of the audience take turns cutting off locks of her hair.
Following her performance at DC’s Comet Ping Pong, I spoke with The Artist Known as Jennifer Vanilla. The show and Kauffman were great as usual, but I could tell something was on her mind. At times it seemed as though Kauffman was battling herself to stay in the Jennifer mindset. The small audience and stress of technical difficulties also showed a more vulnerable layer of her that I had never seen.
She ended her set a bit short but we spent some time talking after. You can read the full interview below.
A: Do you identify more with Jennifer than yourself and do you find it difficult to differentiate between the two? Where is the line drawn for who's who when you're performing or are you fully Jennifer?
JV: On a good night, I’m fully Jennifer. Becca, or “the host body,” as I sometimes refer to her as, is just along for the ride. Jennifer is a coping mechanism for a lot of things - a lot of difficulties and things that I view as shortcomings in myself. So it is sort of like a superpower that allows me to push through those roadblocks and face them with bravado. I guess it's like drag confidence.
A: Do you think that you're not a confident person as Becca?
JV: I certainly struggle with that. I always have.
A: I find that surprising after having seen you perform multiple times. Was tonight a good or a bad night for you?
JV: Tonight was a very difficult night for me.
A: So how do you cope through your coping mechanism when you're having a rough time?
JV: I try to have a good relationship with myself on the stage-- to have an internal dialogue going. When I know a show’s going poorly for me, I tend to incorporate more turns away from the audience so that I can basically commiserate with myself. When I'm facing upstage, I'll be like “Man oh man. Alright, let’s get it together. Put it on!” and then I’ll turn around and grin and bear it. It's like I watched the musical Gypsy enough times to know how to Stage Mom myself. I've always sympathized with Mama Rose.
A: I've never seen it but now I'll have to.
JV: Also Mama Rose is a classic musical diva role played by some of the biggest names in the biz like Ethel Merman, Rosalind Russell, Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters, all the greats in my book.
A: Is that who Jennifer looks up to do you think?
JV: Mostly, yeah. I'm mostly interested in legendary women. That’s who inspires me. I don't really care what they did, necessarily. I just care that they're legendary.
A: What do you think Jennifer thinks of Becca?
JV: On the one hand, the experientially virginal, ingenue version of Jennifer is very modest and grateful. She’s like, “Thank you, thank you host body. Thank you so much for having us.” And the other one’s like a lush, entitled diva. She’s more like, “What are you thanking her for? We were meant for this!”
A: So it's almost like Jennifer herself is split as well.
JV: Oh yeah. She’s as prismatic as all of us.
A: Are you by any chance a Gemini? I ask because I am.
JV: It's not that easy! Well, I mean I’m sure there’s part Gemini in all of us. I'm a Scorpio, Sagittarius Rising and a Pisces Moon. So there’s a lot of water. Sometimes you can get lost at sea when you're over dominated by a certain element. Jennifer, I guess, is like my life raft. She’s the fifth element.
A: I love that movie so much! Do you ever feel like you’re LARPing* in your real life or like you're just like acting all of the time?
JV: On the good days. I love LARPing. LARPing is how I live. LARPing is how I cope. So that's why Jennifer is a LARP. It’s an agency-producing power move and I highly recommend it to everyone. Keep the things you love, invent the things you lack, shake the things you loathe.
There’s the formal Jennifer, who is the staged version that you would see on a night like tonight, but I also LARP in the everyday world. It's sort of like being a dandy or a “handsome woman,” as I like to call it. I suit up and call in “jenniferness” when I engage publicly. And I live in New York City, so that tends to be a lot of the time. It’s a small but genuine performance. I think of it as a public service, peacocking around town like the pied piper. It’s an act of showmanship that I view as an offering. Making yourself a conversation piece. It invites social connection. It’s my favorite way of interacting with the world.
On the eve of this tour, I smoked a joint and got on the train to Macy’s an hour before they closed to exchange some shoes last minute. Afterwards, I realized I was right at the foot of the Empire State Building. I wanted to really soak up the city on my last night in town. You know, really give it a proper farewell. So I bought some candied peanuts from a street vendor and made my way to the Observatory entrance. On the way, I started talking to the doormen… there were so many doormen, one at each door to the building, and there are a lot of doors. By the time I got to the top of the Empire State Building, I realized: I'm that New York City woman that talks to all the doormen. (We are a certain breed). So yeah, social engagement is very important to me. I've really overanalyzed how to do it my entire life. LARPing Jennifer mediates that challenge for me.
A: Did you have any siblings growing up?
JV: No. I suffer from only child syndrome.
A: That's hard though. That's the reason why you think about it so much or feel like you don’t know how to do it.
JV: I'm fully isolated in that way.
A: Are you comfortable with isolation now?
JV: It's very familiar to me. But I do tend to self-isolate a lot in my life, and I don’t think that’s always healthy for the psyche. Jennifer is one way I can pencil in the social time, and that social time becomes hyper social. But yeah, I was actually a very conscientiously created child by my mother who was a single lesbian in the early 80’s and wanted to have a child. She approached a gay friend of hers, they struck up this self-written contract, and my mom self-inseminated and got pregnant with me. There was a lot of active work that went into having me. So it is sort of like a strange isolated incident; unconventional. There's a lot of lesbian and gay families that have done it that way, and there will continue to be all sorts of other creative alternatives to making a family. One thing I am always wondering about is, what is family, and what are relationships? The things that are so hard to actually have and keep. And intimacy. Knowing someone, what it means, what and who the “real” you is.
For whatever reason, maybe because I was born into such a specifically-crafted, alternative path, I've always wondered about “normal.” I’ve kind of romanticized it in this way. I've always been curious about it and sort of strived to attain it. But for the life of me, I just can't figure it out. So this is like how I make it okay, through Jennifer.
A: I'm sure you make it okay for a lot of other people.
JV: I hope so! That would be a cool outcome.
We then discussed chicken nuggets, cults, surveillance cameras, and ran into some cute dogs before continuing the interview in the backroom.
JV: I mean, being an only child is a lot of solitude. Dogs were really great partner in crime, but they're also not human. You really can't talk to them. I remember asking for a magical stuffed animal that could talk to me for Easter, which is, by the way, so bratty of me that I was like “I'm going to make a gift list of things I want for Easter!” I do love presents though. I got a lot of presents growing up because I had three different family units. When I was one, my mom got involved with the woman who eventually became my second mother. They were together until I was four and then split up. So I spent the rest of my childhood traveling back and forth between their houses, and seeing my dad on the days between. There was a lot of moving around; I was basically always carrying a duffel bag.
A: Where did you grow up? Were they all in the same area?
JV: In Cambridge, Massachusetts and Jamaica Plain (a part of Boston). Everyone lived relatively close to one another. And then, crazily enough, my moms both split with their long-term partners when I was a sophomore in high school. At that point they were really good friends, and we wound up all living under the same roof again for the first time in ten years. Soon after, they both found new partners and have been with them ever since. Now everyone lives in the same neighborhood, basically. They’re still friends but don't spend as much time together anymore. They see each other when I come back to visit.
A: That's really nice though, that they're able to be in the same place for you. That’s family! You have some sense of normalcy.
JV: Oh, yeah. I guess in a way, family just feels very random to me. Like, it’s random that my gay mom asked my gay dad to have a kid with her. That’s a pretty radical proposal. And then he said yes. And then a bonus parent, who wasn’t in the original plan, came into the picture out of nowhere.
We were then politely kicked out of the venue as they were closing up but continued our conversation outside. We took some pictures and Becca told me that she had cried all her makeup off after the show.
JV: I had so much more to offer.
A: Did it have anything to do with the sound guy or was it really technical difficulties?
JV: I actually did have technical difficulties. I'm using a CDJ as my player. It’s half of a digital turntable a DJ would normally use at the club, if you're ever wondering what people are doing up there. Some of my tracks were corrupted, apparently, which I learned onstage during the show. I rolled with the punches but I was pretty blindsided by it, and I feel like I shorted the audience a bit.
A: Have you DJ'd yet?
JV: Only in my apartment.
A: You need to DJ elsewhere. The venue but I also, I meant anywhere outside of your apartment.
JV: That's the ultimate goal. That's what I'm working on this year. My New Year's resolution was to learn how to DJ.
A: Do you have any other ones or is that the one?
JV: That was the main one. I wanted to be concrete this year.
A: What was yours last year?
JV: Um, what did I call it? What was it? “Room to build.” A mantra for patience. What was yours?
A: It was to be more present. I tend to just be in this web of thoughts all the time and and sometimes people will be talking to me and I'm not there. Then I'll have to be like, I'm so sorry I wasn't here. What did you just say? It makes me feel like a bad listener and a bad friend.
JV: At least you’re being honest!
A: Yeah. That's the part that makes me feel okay.
JV: You’re like, “I’ve redeemed myself. At least let me really hear you this time!”
A: But it's hard. I didn't make one this year. I had a really tough year last year, so this year I was just kind of like “I don't want any expectations, but I do want to try my best.” So I guess that's one.
JV: I like that. It's light and it's not defensive. Like, no fear. That's what I think falling in love might look like.
A: Have you fallen in love?
JV: Yeah, but not in a while.
A: How long has it been?
JV: Since I was in love? (laughs) I guess, about five or six years ago.
A: You need it again in your life. Are you looking?
JV: Yes... cautiously. I've been burned a few times since that last time I was in love, and it all ended kind of violently, with a car crash that was no one’s fault. But I fractured a vertebrae in my spine which was like, right in the middle of me. It was like I was halved. It felt as if an energy got punched out of me or something. I feel like I've been trying to get that back ever since. In a way Jennifer Vanilla is the master of that stirring up, that cultivation of a renewed power source. She’s also like... my imaginary friend or something.
A: Almost like a partner at times too. Is she your ideal person. Would you want to be with Jennifer?
JV: I just want to be Jennifer. She is my ideal, yes. And we do have a relationship. It's hard for me to take responsibility or credit for what I do. So in a way she exists as my surrogate. I call her “the ultimate guide to soothing imposter syndrome.”
A: Do you feel that when you're performing with your band (Ava Luna)? Do feel that imposter syndrome taking over you or is it different because you're surrounded by other people?
JV: Yeah, I definitely feel that way in my band. That [false and crumbling] mythology of the “rock band” casts a shadow and certain sheen over things that feels hard to escape-- like you’re either failing because you’re falling short of traditional success (a constantly moving target), or you’re lying by trying to uphold people’s fantasy of success and what you imagine they imagine that looks like.
Jennifer, on the other hand, is more of a choice. I am suiting up to so-called “imposter” someone who I made up. But really, I can’t imposter it, because it's my own invention. I wrote the game. I think I just wanted to create a little gem that I could polish and be proud to call my own and share with other people eventually. That's what it's meant to be. It’s an exercise of agency.
A: Well, thank you for doing that! Has it ever been, I don't know, a strange thing to try to describe to someone? I'm sure you've met someone or if you’ve dated and they ask what you do, what do you say?
JV: In general, I try to describe it and it always results in, “You just have to see it.” I can talk about what my intentions are, but I don't like to describe what it is because that's not really for me to decide-- not to mention, I probably have the least amount of perspective on what exactly it is that’s happening up there; it comes from such an internal place. I basically black out. So I know what it's about for me, what strategies I'm employing, what I'm curious about. It's like a field study for me. And I think it can be experienced as a field study for others, too.
A: What do you think you've learned about yourself through it?
JV: I think I'm still learning about that. I tried for a while to, I don't know, pay attention to myself for a little while, rather than Jennifer. Because it did start to wear on me at a certain point, about a year ago-- I felt subsumed by this other identity and it freaked me out. A comedian at a show I recently played said, “If you fake it long enough, you forget.” That definitely started to happen. But I have a healthier perspective now. I feel like I've become more Jennifer and Jennifer has become more me. There’s a symbiosis. I feel like I'm gaining understanding of myself via Jennifer because she materializes c/o my natural instincts. And so those are the things I know to be true about myself. So I guess that's what I've learned.
A: What is your ideal partner? Like what are you looking for? This can be like a personal ad. What would you say?
JV: [As Jennifer] Jennifer Vanilla, historically, has been chaste, by choice. I’ve been in an exclusive relationship with myself. As the story goes, I have no genitalia. How convenient. But at times I've also thought, “I don't want to be impenetrable!” I've had therapists tell me I need to “develop my phallus.” So I've decided the time has come. I've got to offer myself up to just one person. Just one of them. Not a teeming crowd of people I only sort of know. But one person who really knows me. So they must be romantic. And they must be very smart. And they must treat me like a Jennifer.
*Live Action Role Playing