Leslie Hall answered the door in almost-complete costume. She invited us in and asked us to wait as she went upstairs to put the finishing touches on her outfit. Gavin and I had come to take a tour of the Mobile Museum of Gem Sweaters, which is parked in a barely used storage lot behind the house where Leslie lives with her parents. A few moments later, she returned and now she was fully costumed.
Never one to miss the opportunity for a photoshoot, Leslie wore gold spandex pants, a thick white belt, and a shiny golden-collared shirt left unbuttoned at the top to accommodate a black-and-gold spotted silk scarf. A rounded bulk of her brown hair was pushed up into a tall, bouncy bouffant above her forehead, like a 1970s Country and Western diva, and the rest was left to fall in curls over her shoulders. Though she has long celebrated her plus-sized body type, these days she looks rather lean and fit. And though she often contorts her features into slightly frightening mask-faces and scrunches up her neck to create multiple chins, when her face is relaxed she has soft, pretty features and a mirror-in-the-sun alertness in her eyes.
The three of us walked through the Halls’ park-like back yard – complete with a fountain and a mini-pond – and passed by a solitary, ornery chicken that had been left to entertain itself in the spacious yard. “Maybe we could get a picture of you with the chicken later?” I suggested before we passed through a privacy gate and into a gravel lot that was once used as a work and storage space for the Door and Fence Store, a business owned and operated by Leslie’s father Dick Hall, before the operation was moved elsewhere. Today, the lot is populated only by scattered industrial objects – part of a chain-link fence here, some abandoned sheets of metal there. And on the east side of the lot there is an RV painted in decadent colors and imprinted on both sides with nearly life-sized images of Leslie holding a dramatic pose, wearing an outfit very similar to the one she was wearing on this day.
Leslie conceived of the Gem Sweater Museum as a sanctified archive for the sparkling garments that she single-handedly popularized in the first half of this decade through a website that became a huge cult hit. The museum was to be an extension of the website’s mission: an educational tool, a traveling show, and a tour vehicle, too. But not long after the used RV was purchased, redecorated, and stocked with sweaters, bedazzlers, and historical information, it broke down.
I had wanted to tour this museum for years. I had once seen the RV in its working days, parked near the stage of an outdoor show that Leslie was playing with her hip-hip band Leslie and the Lys. When the Gem Sweater website was still young, I loved to show the site to the uninitiated and see their reactions, see if they “got it.” As the website and its spastic music videos grew in popularity, I was proud that I remembered Leslie from the old days, the Ames High days. She was two years older than me and we were never friends or even acquaintances, but still I would say, “I went to school with her,” whenever her sweaters or her videos came up in conversation.
Leslie was a staple of the art wing of Ames High School, where she took numerous classes with the art teacher Dorothy Gugel. Leslie remembers that the teacher’s attitude stimulated creativity. “She was just, ‘Make it, make it, go ahead and skip that class because you’re gonna come here and make something.’ She was just ridiculously supportive.”
After flunking a few of her classes, Leslie began to take classes with students in the grades below her and among these new classmates she found an appreciative audience for some of her wilder creative notions. “And that was when it was time to perform,” she said.
She had long worked in the visual arts and with handmade works, but her work gradually became more performance-based. Among her first performances was the creation of Titanic Club, an after-school meeting for people to dress up and re-enact scenes from the movie Titanic. A Titanic Club performance that I saw featured a group of period-costumed students huddling together under a spotlight, grasping floating devices and melodramatically delivering snippets of dialogue from the film.
Leslie felt a level of competitiveness with the other stars of the high school art program, especially with gifted students in the grades above her. “It was competitive. That was the drive, to equal the people ahead of you, to prove what you could do,” she said.
Leslie channeled her competitiveness into what was becoming her primary medium: performance art. In her senior year at Ames High she staged an ambitious and prolonged project when she began an elaborate advertising campaign for Leslie for Prom Queen. “I just fought for it, subliminal messaging. Like in Batman Returns with Jim Carrey as the Riddler, when he put TVs in people’s houses and sucked their brains, you remember that movie? It was just like that, but with posters, banners, and gifts to the prom committee.”
For the 2001 Homecoming she scheduled herself to be a float in the parade down Main Street and rode in the back of a convertible in full prom dress attire and a tiara, waving to the crowd. “Turns out it’s pretty easy to make your own float,” she said. “Just get a float, just show up lookin’ good. I wore a dress and a crown and you’re not gonna argue with someone like that.” The day after the parade, a photo of her float was published on the cover of the Ames Tribune, which she still considers to be one of her greatest triumphs.
She also began photographing herself wearing a neck brace and smiling grotesquely, her head cocked to one side. “I kind went for the sympathy vote, eye-catching, just like, ‘You gotta give this girl this crown because clearly TV just isn’t doing it for her.’” But though the campaign was very much a performance – a performance complete with a “Leslie” character that wore certain costumes and had an injured neck – she also legitimately wanted to win. And she did. The night of the prom was the ultimate performance of the Leslie for Prom Queen character she had invented: she wore the neck brace, donned a gaudy prom dress, and posed for photographs with a bouquet of flowers and an off-kilter smile throughout the evening.
Leslie began to develop a strange personal aesthetic that, like the Prom Queen, was both glamorous and bizarre. Her character gives the impression of being self-deluded, thinking that she’s looking good while really looking awkward; yet still owning this look so much that it actually does look good . . . in a way. A creative breakthrough for her new look occurred when she was browsing through the sweater collection at the West Ames Goodwill and came across a gem sweater, a gaudy garment decorated with shining sequins. This sweater perfectly embodied the Leslie Hall swagger: it was both decadent and tacky; its eye-catching sparkle just drew the eye to how out-of-style it was.
She fell in love with these garments and began to photograph herself wearing all of the best gem sweaters she could find. This was in the late ‘90s, when the Internet was just beginning to become a part of daily life and there were an explosion of websites made by individuals who had taught themselves HTML. At first, Leslie wanted to make a fan site for the movie “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Helen Hunt. But www.girlsjustwannahavefun.com was already taken. “I was trying to think of something else I could do that was literally just original, just an original website, and ‘gem sweater’ was available,” she said.
She decided to make a website to celebrate and exhibit gem sweaters. And she did it in her own way, as a performance. She envisioned the kind of woman whom she imagined would pose in these sweaters and she became that woman. Gaudy, I’m-young-at-heart eyeglasses, a pair of gold spandex pants, and an unwaveringly serious demeanor were the hallmarks of this character, this woman so self-possessed that she can repeatedly model sweaters that, on anyone else, would look ridiculous. And they looked ridiculous on her, too, but she presented them with an odd poise that was all her own. She had her own way of wearing the sweaters that was funny but not ironic, both mock-sincere and sincere.
The website was an underground hit and traffic to her site exploded. Eventually, she received so many visits to her page that it exceeded her bandwidth and she was slapped with a huge bill from her internet service provider. The website had become so popular that she needed it to generate income simply to cover the costs of all the traffic it received.
Her solution to this problem was to make a product by crafting a new performance. “I thought if I were to have a product and if the gem sweaters and lady were to sing, she would be singing about how good she looks and singing about her favorite lotion flavors. I mean it’s just basic, basic stuff.” And this particular gem sweater lady was a supremely self-confidant diva – and a rapper.
Leslie determined that she would make and self-release a hip-hop album and then promote and sell it on her website, where she already had a built-in following. Her hip-hop act was a direct outgrowth of her gem sweater website and so it is only natural that her early songs tended to sing the praises of her garments and her style. In her diva mode, the gem sweater lady celebrates glitter, glamour, and gold. In the early song “Gold Pants” she raps, “Ain’t nothing better than a pair of gold pants / skin tight with enough room to dance.” In “Beat Dazzler” she sings, “Sequined baby, bring me dollar bills / for one night of pleasure, rhinestone thrills.” In the song “Gem Sweater” she presents herself as an inspiring leader for the imagined legions of people who love such garments, “Night or day / you must run away / from the people who disagree / with this gemology / of shizzling, dazzling, dreaming the night away.”
“This is a business card for the website, this performance,” she said, explaining her initial attitude toward her act. The songs and their videos were a perfect complement to the visuals of her gem sweater page and her site continued to grow in popularity. Most musicians begin by creating a live musical performance and then use the Internet to promote their act. Leslie inverted this timeline: she began by creating an Internet presence and then invented a musical performance to promote her website.
Leslie Hall is Ames through and through and she has always emphasized her Iowa roots in her music and in television interviews. But many of her most famous videos, including “Gem Sweater,” “Beat Dazzler,” and the legendary “Zombie Killers,” which she said looks cheaply made to her now, were filmed while she was attending the School for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The Boston art scene supplied her with a competitive atmosphere and the creative pressure of developing performance projects for school, as well as a large population of potential fans. Boston helped her hone her act but something was missing. “I was meeting people in art school to be in the band and you know, it’s hard singing about corn and Dairy Queen and your love of television because sometimes they don’t get it,” she said. After her stint on the east coast, she returned to Ames.
In 2004, Leslie and the Lys began to schedule performances at the Boheme’s open mic nights on Sundays. “I did think she – I’m gonna talk in third person – I did think she would have a band,” she said of the gem sweater lady she had created. “I just wanted it to be bigger than a chick who just wrote some goofy songs. I wanted it to be like, ‘Take us seriously, cuz we practice in our basement,’” she said.
So, for her live show, she surrounded herself with two band members who more or less acted as live props, dancing mildly while holding fake keyboards and turntables and, most importantly, keeping a completely straight face. The first two band members were named Emily and Kelly – they performed as Obese E and Classy K – and the fact that their names both ended in the letters “LY” gave the band its name: Leslie and the Lys. “Those girls just showed up and danced. I asked them to learn the words, but they didn’t.”
The early live shows were confined to the 15-minute slot required by the Boheme’s open mic format. But the band treated each short performance as their own show and the performances featured hallmarks of Leslie’s aesthetic: elaborate costuming, excessive bravado, and unpredictable comic touches. At the end of a song at one of her first Boheme shows, she cued a pre-recorded clap-track to play over the clapping of the live audience. Not until the clap-track died down did she say, “Thank you!” Each early show had new props, new dance moves, new costume touches, and, soon, new fans.
By the time the band released their first self-recorded album “Gold Pants” in 2005, the varied elements of her Internet act had transferred to her live performance. Leslie had always named the gems in her collection and when fans started to come to shows wearing their own gem sweaters, Leslie initiated the much-loved practice of bringing sweater-wearing fans onto the stage and christening their garments with a unique name. (A gem sweater on display at Hannah Johnson’s recent multimedia art show at the Ames Progressive Office was named “Little Children Cookie Hungry” and was ratified by a certificate of authenticity, also on display, issued by the Keeper of the Gems.)
Like the Leslie for Prom Queen performance, Leslie and the Lys were both comical and sincere. The prom queen hopeful was both playfully mocking the prom queen tradition while also genuinely campaigning to win. Similarly, the gem sweater lady’s hyped-up diva status is both deliberately contrived and genuinely deserved. Her beats are unforgettable and her best rhymes, like the super-catchy chorus of “How We Go Out,” are brilliant: “All I wanna do is ziggaziggah / little louder now cuz I can’t hear ya / you get me hotter than a stick of hot glue / and I’m scrapbooking everything with you. / Rang rang rang, that’s my cell / bring the bling when I sing, of course I will! / Leave it to me to get the people stopped / to MySpace when my lovers wanna hear my beats poppin. / It says ‘I love you!’”
Leslie and the Lys incorporate many of the crucial elements of the hip-hop genre, especially the outsized swagger of the bandleader. Leslie brings an infectious and empowering confidence to her act. Her costumes and her rhymes often celebrate her size. She is by no means obese, but she’s a big woman and she’s comfortable enough in her skin to wear skin-tight suits. In the song “Blame My Booty” she sings, “On my giant trampoline I go bounce bounce / you fall in love with every ounce ounce.” Her gold spandex suit gives a display of her curves and her dance moves deliberately accentuate her “bounce.” And she genuinely works it, she owns it; it’s not a joke, this woman can really dance.
Her swagger and her skill are on their most full display in the video for “How We Go Out,” which has been viewed almost 2,000,000 times on YouTube. The rhymes pop with ingenuity and the video is filmed through a fish-eye lens, which gives a very DIY-meets-MTV look to the low-budget video and enhances the viewer’s focus on her strong, controlled dance moves. The video has four settings, all of them in Ames: That’s Entertainment and Craig’s Photography on Lincoln Way, the Salvation Army on South Duff, and the Boheme, where her live act was born. Filmed in one marathon day, the video captures the self-confidence and poise that make Leslie and the Lys a legitimate hip-hop phenomenon, an act that transcends the performance-art novelty of its original conception.
Leslie attributes her confidence, in part, to her experience growing up which, unlike many childhood experiences, was almost entirely free of bullying or name-calling. “I can kind of see how if someone was calling you negative names all the time how that would make you question yourself and bring you down,” she said. “I made it through the system without having that and I think I was just lucky. I think a lot more people would feel like I do if they didn’t have that experience.”
But maybe people didn’t pick on her because of a natural, in-born confidence, a level of self-respect and grace that she projects. Because even among kids who weren’t bullied, it’s hard to imagine anyone else who would be able to embrace – and make beautiful – garments as gaudy and seemingly unstylish as those she wears. That is to say that she has her own style; she supplies a personal grace to the outfits she loves. A lifetime of enacting her own style has immunized her against insults. “Now when people say, ‘You’re fat,’ it’s just like, trust me, I know, I look good. It’s not a problem.”
Leslie is certainly the center of attention and the source of creative energy for the act. But she has had a few particularly influential collaborators over the years. The most consistent collaborator has been Rena Hall, Leslie’s mother. Mrs. Hall is responsible for making the gold pants, Leslie’s signature outfit. Her mother gets a well-deserved shout-out in “Gold Pants”: “Thank you Mama for making me gold pants, ones I can dance in and make romance in.” She trusts her mother’s judgment and taste and, besides, “technically, she is forced to stand by me on this lifestyle that I’ve chosen,” she said.
Another fruitful workmate was Ramona “Mona Bonez” Muse, a Boone native, who spent years working, crafting, and touring with Leslie. The two women share artistic and comic sensibilities, as well as the knack for massive creative productivity. “I’ll be like, ‘What rhymes with chili?’ and she’ll say, ‘Dilly,’ and I’ll be like, ‘You’re right,’” Leslie said. “Someone like that has been really important. And she really gets the Iowa thing.”
“The Iowa thing” is one of the most prominent and enduring features of her work. The band consistently expresses its pride in being Iowans and the work ethic of Leslie and the Lys is rooted in deep Iowa values. Above all, Leslie Hall is a crafter, a maker, a woman who has created an entire lifestyle on the strength of her ingenuity and abilities. And she always uses the materials at hand, from found fabrics to self-taught web design skills to inexpensive home recording equipment. Despite their money-making power, Leslie and the Lys have never had major – or even indie – label support. Leslie Hall has been on the cutting edge of the do-it-yourself movement for more than a decade.
The DIY ethic of her art is part of a continuum with folk art and Midwestern values. “The whole project is just a girl from Iowa who just wants some attention,” she said. “So of course she’s gonna wear homemade outfits, of course she’s gonna sing about the simple things.” Her act is Iowa-pride meets woman-power. “Us Iowa girls, we’re the same. I think a lot of the girls can relate to the crafting and being able to get dressed up in something really tight. Even though it’s probably not flattering or doesn’t fit, I just feel liberated and confident,” she explained.
Leslie and the Lys applied numerous times to be a part of the Iowa Women’s Festival, but were repeatedly denied. “I mean: Iowa, women, we’re feeling women power, Iowa power, it’s perfect for us,” she said. Finally, the band decided that if their hip-hop act was unwelcome at the festival, then they’d try to be more accommodating. “Okay, we’ll make a country album, we’ll start a new band that’s country then they’ll let us in,” she said. “If that’s the sound it takes, absolutely.”
The band – comprised of Mona and Laura De Waal, known as DJ Dr. Laura, a long-time friend from the Boston days – had a marathon session one night and wrote four new songs. Mona transcribed the lyrics as Leslie freestyled. “And it was like, okay, this is the new band; Mona you’re gonna play the keyboards, Laura you’re gonna be the drummer, I’m gonna play the guitar,” she said. The band called itself Back to Back Palz and developed a new wardrobe of costumes to match their new act. The new look replaced flashy and bejeweled garments with long, plain-colored dresses and practical shoes. They spent a few months playing opening sets before Leslie and the Lys shows. But the project was cut short when two of the Palz dropped out. “Both of them ended up moving away and never wanting to do this project ever again,” she said.
But the new material, the new outfits, and the new focus on country living was still there and Leslie decided that she would incorporate the Back to Back Palz songs into the Leslie and the Lys canon. This year, she self-recorded a new album that draws on the country material and will be released under the Leslie and the Lys name. “It was a topic I wanted to talk about,” she explained. “I wanted to wear a bonnet. I mean, with my hair, I can’t wear hats because there’s a giant loaf of hair up there. I wanted to try wearing plaids, things that I would never get away with as the gold pants lady.”
Leslie and the Lys is an evolving act, a slowly morphing series of styles and personalities. Leslie summarized this evolution concisely: “Little prom queen wannabe turned into look-at-me-in-my-gem-sweaters turned into the diva get-dressed-up-in-spandex-tight-and-get-sweaty-for-the-crowd, which is now changing into Iowa peasant woman. I’m trying to bring it back down for this new album, which is literally farm, country, dirt, and cottages.”
The gradual transformations of her performance are a sign of vitality. Especially in the case of an act as novel as Leslie’s, there is a pressure to develop, grow, and change. Leslie understands this and she cares about the longevity of the project. “When you think about it, how many people are gonna show up to see the same act? How many people get the joke already?” she said. “But spinning it, changing it, improving it: it just keeps my ball rolling a little longer. I guess all I’m trying to do is keep it going as long as possible.”
When a performer achieves a fan base as devoted as Leslie’s, the need to change and develop the act must also coincide with a respect for what the audience wants to see. The new earthy focus of her music is a welcome and interesting evolution of her character. But fans will still come wearing their gem sweaters and hoping that the gem sweater lady will acknowledge their mutual love of the garments. “It’s like Britney Spears singing ‘Hit Me Baby, One More Time.’ It’s your classic,” she said. “Creating this gem sweater monster: instead of hating it and fighting it, I’m just gonna love it and keep going with it.”
Leslie Hall, the person, has created a durable character called “Leslie Hall” and this character is continually developing. The distinction is like that between Stephen Colbert, the performer, and “Stephen Colbert,” the performance. It isn’t always clear where one ends and the other begins, yet there are distinct behavioral modes that distinguish the overlapping entities, the person and the persona.
My trip to the gem sweater museum allowed me to see Leslie moving back and forth between the actor and the character. It was Leslie Hall the person who expressed good-natured disappointment at the less-than-glamorous state of her ambitious museum. But it was Leslie Hall the gem sweater lady who, moments later, donned the exaggerated tour-guide voice and elaborated the storied history of bejeweled apparel.
After we had completed our visit to the gem sweater museum, Leslie walked with Gavin and me back toward her parents’ backyard to pose for a few more photos. Her gold pants were a sharp contrast to the warm orange-brown tones of the mid-autumn, leaf-strewn yard. All along, I had admitted to Leslie my fanboy sense of awe at the homegrown mythology of the Keeper of the Gems. But Leslie and the Lys is coming back to earth now, the diva is rediscovering the dirt. “Feel free to say, you know, ‘The RV smelled of urine,’” she encouraged me.
We passed through the wooden gate that separates the gravel lot from the backyard. She looked back toward the house. “Should we try to get a picture of me with the chicken?”