Artists are exactly what we need during the pandemic
If you’re looking for a fun and fabulous Philadelphia success story, look no farther than the Bearded Ladies. Founded in 2010 by John Jarboe in her living room, this collective of artists has since taken the country by storm.
They’ve worked with, among many others, the Lincoln Center, Opera Philadelphia, the Seattle Symphony, MoMA, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and even Eastern State Penitentiary.
John herself has had a momentous year and a half, full of professional successes and a recent internal coming-out about her gender identity. “I called the company the Bearded Ladies ten years ago, but it took me 10 years to fully identify as a bearded lady,” she said. With the pandemic still upon us, there has never been a greater need for the Bearded Ladies. “Artists are exactly what we need during the pandemic because artists offer metaphor, develop ways to process grief, and give relief and pleasure,” she explained.
The Beard Ladies Cabaret has seen incredible growth. How did you go from peach fuzz to a full-on beard extravaganza in a relatively short period of time?
John Jarboe: I think it has to do with the moment in art that we were founded. People were and—maybe even more so now because of the pandemic—are needing experiences in our lives that are insistent on their liveness; you can’t just perform for someone anymore. You need to sit on their lap and tell them, “I’m not a cell phone ringtone. I’m not a TikTok video. I am here with you. I can hear what you say. I will talk back to you. I will stop the story and have a conversation with you.”
These are spaces that are really insistent on their liveness. I think that’s why drag performance has really blossomed in the past 10 years, and our work is porous and like a cabaret and a playmaking love and having a monster baby. We tell stories, we take you on a journey, but we’re also sitting on your lap and creating an environment where you can see yourself and see each other. It’s a space of accountability, connection, and conversation.
And, yes, we are a snowball case. I think that has to do with how promiscuous we are in partnering with other organizations. “We have slept around a lot” is what I like to say. We love to cross-pollinate. We love a one-night stand. Since we’re pleasure-based, we’ve opened a lot of doors with organizations just by being pure joy. It’s spectacle-driven and pleasure-driven, and once we’re in the door, we can do some real work, right?
Is that why the Philadelphia Gay News has described your events as “politically threatening?”
JJ: We think of our work as Trojan Horse performance, as “poison cookies.” (Laughs).
(Laughs). Sounds yummy. What do you mean by that?
JJ: There’s pleasure, but we weaponize that pleasure and spectacle. For example, at Eastern State Penitentiary, we used to do a Bastille Day celebration, which was a long-standing tradition even before we inherited it. At first, we were performing for roughly 6,000 people, and by the end, after the seventh year, there were over 10,000 people. Every year, they “stormed the Bastille.” The Beards took it, and we made it into a piece that was exploring what revolution looked like in Philadelphia. We used a bunch of campy characters—Joan of Arc, Napoleon, Édith Piaf, Benjamin Franklin—and we had them all explore real things that were happening in Philadelphia: problems in education, problems of incarceration, and uplifting Eastern State’s mission to talk about how messed up the criminal justice system is. Because we had a Bastille Day mob, we were able to get everyone worked up about all those important issues.
What about your current project, the fabulous Beard Mobile? Is it “politically threatening”?
JJ: The Beard Mobile is a 15-foot pretty old box truck that we converted into a stage. It can perform in three different orientations. It’s got a big built-in sound system, a keyboard, a drum set, and all these audio lines so that we can have a whole band playing or just have a small group playing. It’s equipped with lights along with protective shields meant for pandemic performance. One thing that’s very funny about the Beard Mobile is it’s super gay! The truck has lashes, glows, and has music notes painted all over it, complete with glittery black paint. Part of the mission is just queering the city and being who we are with integrity and not having to adjust. We’re making public spaces feel queer— and we’re owning it.
I think of the Bearded Ladies as an anti-assimilationist organization in the spirit of the Radical Faeries. We’re being visible and not compromising even though we’re partnering with a lot of different organizations, which are not all queer-led. We’re trying to really be clear about who we are. For example, we were in a meeting with an organization that wanted to use our truck, and we were asked why it couldn’t be “more neutral.” We answered, “Well, her neutral is high-femme. She gets out of bed in the morning and has lashes on. What do you mean by ‘neutral’?”
I don’t think the performances themselves are politically threatening, though. The Beard Mobile is about supporting pandemic performance and uplifting and amplifying other organizations’ work. The Beards’ job and artistic creation is as a host, as a sort of amplifier. It’s pretty rad. We have a team of seven different hosts that rotate.
The organizations that we partner with get to choose the host who resonates with their mission. And then, the host works with the organization to decide what happens on the show. For example, we’re partnering with Project Home, which is an organization that supports people struggling with houselessness, including LGBTQ youth. We’re also promoting the Asian Arts Initiative with Skate Day, which will explore the intersection of queerness and skate culture, and we’re doing the same thing for so many other organizations.
The Beard Mobile is a socially distanced hug to Philadelphia. Attendees decide what they want to contribute; no one is turned away for lack of funds. Most often, the performances will be free for people, but they can donate if they want. The point is to take art out of the commercial exchange space and just offer it as a gift. Ultimately, our long-term goal of the truck is to let people in Philly know about it so that they can use it in protests that align with our values. Also, if there’s a performance by a group that doesn’t have the resources, we can step in and say, “Hey! Use this Beard Mobile.” It’s going to be pretty incredible.
Wow! It sounds like it. I understand why Visit Philly featured you as one of the many reasons to visit the city. How can we Jersey folk keep up with all that you’re doing and come see you?
JJ: If you can’t make it down to Philly to see a truck show—and because of COVID, we are limiting audience sizes and being very strict about social distancing—there will be content on Instagram and on Facebook. There will also be documentaries coming out that show you some of the performances and also include interviews with the performers.
To increase accessibility, we’re also starting a community supported art project based on Édith Piaf with a group of international performers. We’re working with an artist from Paris who’s been described as “the living voice of Piaf,” with an artist from Mexico City, four artists locally in Philly, as well as a whole team of filmmakers, and each artist is designing their own online music video. It’s something that is very accessible to anyone in [New] Jersey. We send you a sort of drag kit with materials to do Édith Piaf eyebrows and to build a Piaf altar, complete with Ikea-style instructions so that you can play along. Every month, we’re going to release a new video, a new segment. By the end, everything will line up into a 50-minute video, and it will all lead to a live show in Philly in 2022.
That sounds like fun! Why Édith Piaf, though, and not another French gay icon like Dalida?
JJ: Édith Piaf is like Judy Garland. She lived a very, very hard life. And, for her, the audience was everything, and singing was everything. Her autobiography, Ma vie, is so dramatic—even the chapter titles, like “Men: My Death.” It’s all so dramatic, so heightened. You’re like, “God! This woman was so alive,” even reading her writing after she’s dead. This woman really lived, and I want to live like her—just not the morphine addiction part.
I think there’s something about the way Édith Piaf sings and the way she lived that makes putting this on all the more relevant within the context of a pandemic. It feels really delicious to put on a black dress and draw your eyebrows really, really big like big McDonald’s arches, speak in a silly French accent, and talk about your life as if you were a legend.
There are also many lessons about loneliness that Piaf teaches. She had so much loss in her life yet had a cabaret connection to her audience. This is once again a Trojan Horse. It’s an excuse to talk about loss and loneliness through the armor, the protection, and the warm embrace of Piaf’s music.
I love how you mix what many might view as high culture—Edith Piaf’s music—with low culture—McDonald’s arches—and playing these two aspects off of each other. I probably should have asked this question earlier, but is that cabaret, or is it your particular version of cabaret?
JJ: Cabaret is kind of a dirty word. It means many different things to many different people, cultures, and time periods. When cabaret was birthed in Paris in the 1800s after the French Revolution, a bunch of middle-class to lower-class artists were performing in a shitty bar in Montmartre for a group of very poor people and very rich people and turning class on its head. At the heart of this form is queering, flipping hierarchy, and, at least in France, having the class battle without weapons—or where the weapons become words, art, jokes. I think the Beards continue in that tradition, in that definition of cabaret, but we are also redefining it and welcoming many different definitions of it.
Hence Edith Piaf’s music and McDonald’s eyebrows! (Laughs).
JJ: That’s life, right? (Laughs.)
May 19, 2021
A performance hosted by Cookie Diorio featuring T-VOCE, Opera Philly’s all-city youth choir.
May 22, 2021
Tak Kenal Maka Tak Sayang (To Know Is To Love)
Sinta Storms, Modero & Co and Bearded Ladies offer an evening of Indonesian Dance, Gamelan, and poetry all devoted to the saying: Tak Kenal Maka Tak Sayang (translation: To Know Is To Love), featuring Modero Dancers, Katherine Antarisko, and the Gamelan Orchestra, hosted by Anthony Martinez-Briggs.
May 27, 2021
Love Tour Host Show
Hosted by the Beards’ own John Jarboe and introducing the Beardmobile host team.
May 29, 2021
Unity at the Initiative: Queer Skate Day
A queer skate day celebrating Asian Arts Initiative’s Unity at the Initiative with live music and performance, hosted by Sam Rise featuring Vichte Boul Ra, Icon Ebony Fierce, and Messapotamia Lafae.
More information on ticketing and reservations can be found across the Beards’ socials (listed below). Another Beardmobile tour is slated for this fall.