That’s What Zhe Said: An Interview with Leah Hennessey
If youth is synonymous with exploration and unhindered optimism, and maturity is the inverse older brother called knowledge and dedication, than Leah Hennessey exists in an alternate universe where one can be both the oldest and youngest self all at once, without compensating number of teeth. The step daughter of David Johansen of The New York Dolls, Hennessey grew up backstage at glam punk shows among glitter and the size ten pumps, living in a world where image, age, gender, and career exist in constant flux. Actress (Gimme the Loot), musician (Pornography with Ryan Adams), editor of the literary journal Fakehead, and an uninhibited master of style, Hennessey is above all a writer. But as a native to the city that never sleeps, there’s no time to be just one thing, especially in her most recent exploration of bizarro culture commentary: the gender bending surrealist mystery/comedy/sing-a-long web series called ZheZhe.
How did you come up with ZheZhe?
It’s a better version of a lot of things I’ve done in the past but how it happened was that most of us were all involved in an acting/writing/directing workshop. We wanted to do a web series but we had these pretentious ideas of what it would be. Me (I play Jean) and Ruby (who play’s Mona) always talked about how we both felt like drag queens, and we didn’t feel girly. We both really resented the way Lady Gaga had taken away drag from us and made looking weird or dressing crazy just under the umbrella of looking like Lady Gaga. We felt cockblocked and destroyed and stifled, which had vaguely to do with gender. We wanted to do a drag show that was us, dressed up, performing. And why can’t we, just because we aren’t men? Especially now, since being a gay man is no longer socially subversive, and we are the ones marginalized. A lot of the other girls felt this way too and all of the sudden it was a web series. It was a vehicle to use everyone, to give everyone a place to be.
The show is about young artists (in a sort of surreal, backwards world) but it’s also made by young artists. You can tell that this is a renegade project, but with direction and professionalism. Is it difficult to produce something so DIY?
Well, we don’t have a budget for this, but we all pitch in. I try not to count how much I’m spending because it’s probably way more than I should be, but it all works out. We balance each other, depending on who feels comfortable, depending on who has a job, who got fired, who got a check from their grandparents, who sold some books. It’s collective.
You grew up in New York and this show is obviously very New York, not only in the locations, but the people and characters that are involved. Is this an important theme for you?
Almost everyone who works on the show is from New York, or grew up here, which is a huge thing. ZheZhe is very celebratory but also very satirical. A lot of the things that it makes look glamorous or beautiful are also the things that it aggressively satirizes or criticizes.
One of the things we talk about a lot is this nostalgia for ye olde New York—that back in the dizzay, gritty New York of the 70s and 80s. Growing up in New York we grew up with the spectre of our parents’ New York, which was like a relative in hospice. Like a slowly decaying, loved old person who is just dying. Any day now, she’s gonna go…
So we do have a resentment and an eye roll about that, but, then again, we’re already sentimental about the New York of our childhoods. We all have a serious visceral rage about all the shit that we love getting destroyed—generification is too broad a word. [New York is] no longer a place we can live or have a good time. So ZheZhe is about making fun of mourning an old New York, but also mourning an old New York, and creating a New York we want to live in through fiction.
There are so many young artists that come to New York to pursue that dream and nostalgia you speak of, do you feel like there is a difference if you grew up here or came here?
I think there is a huge difference for us—the native New Yorkers—because we sometimes wish that all the young artists would just leave. They aren’t bringing industry, or opportunities, or really making anything good.
I think our generation, for good reason, has lost faith in the get a job, get a pension prepackaged career life plan. We don’t have that anymore, so people are trying to think outside the box, and they think that being an artist is thinking outside the box. A lot of people who are trying to pursue the artist’s path could be a lot more creative, and make a lot more money, and more money for other people, too, if they just invested in alternative business forms or invented something, instead of trying to become a famous artist. I think that bubble is going to burst and those forward thinking people are over it already. Smart people are realizing that you have to collaborate and you have to create your own markers of success and find new ways to make money doing what you’re doing.
What are your inspirations and obsessions for ZheZhe?
So many things. I just got into this British comedy called Blackbooks. But really, anything BBC. The Mighty Boosh, Sherlock. We’re not trying to make a solely anglophile show, that’s not the number one goal, but we are all so into British comedy and I think trying to do that in an American context with a focus on New York is an inherently funny thing. It’s one of the unifying aspects of the show.
Another major influencer is The Coquettes documentary about the San Francisco drag scene, pretty much a man with a beard and glitter on acid. A real campy Dionysian frenzy. And Hedwig and the Angry Inch, but that’s obvious. I’ve been trying to deal with the way I reacted to Hedwig when I was twelve, my whole life.
I’m also obsessed with fan culture. My mom took me to Forbidden Planet when I was kid because I was a huge Trekie, and she’ll never have me forget that I walked in and said: “These are my people.” There’s a big paradigm shift in our culture and I think that the micro trends are all just assimilating into a big celebration of Burning Man and Comicon. There’s nothing shameful about being a nerd anymore because everyone is a nerd. The Internet has made everyone way less cool. ZheZhe is a fan’s show. I want these characters to be characters that people want to draw, that people want to be for Halloween or dress up as for their wedding. We are making something that we can be fanatic fans of. The Internet is the revenge of the nerds, and we’re part of it.
And what is your WILD Wish?
I’ve made the same wish every time I’ve wished something since I was a kid. It’s kind of a tick. I wish that all things could be talking things.
Check all the ZheZhe episodes here.
All photographs by Max Lakner.