She is beautiful. For some reason, this shocks me. I'd never seen her without the bouffant hairdo and large-rimmed glasses circa 1984. Before I can introduce myself, she is hugging me, telling me I look fabulous in my rhinestone encrusted pink shirt. Leslie Hall, the Keeper of Thy Gems, is pleased with me. I want to squeal like a teenage girl at an Elvis concert. There is some discussion about the possibility of me holding a long piece of wood and then she's gone, off to don her infamous gold pants.
It's her first show in Long Beach and the Ly's are not with her. I'm worried. The opening band is performing their first gig and the venue, Que Sera, is disturbingly empty. Is my beloved California unaware of the comedic genius here to grace us with her lady jams? Thankfully, my concern is short lived. Soon, she is on the stage, the place is packed and fans covered in gem magic are screaming. I watch a girl walk by with the word LESLIE glittering across her deliciously ample ass. I feel ashamed to have doubted the home of Snoop Dogg.
Speaking of Snoop, a supposed representative from his label is sitting next to me. He was sent to scout the opening act, but I've convinced him to stay by shoving more beer down his throat. Throughout her performance, he calls his boys, holding his cell phone up in the air while he shouts in my ear, "This girl's gonna be famous. Just you wait."
Leslie Hall is already famous. Often referred to as an Internet sensation, her list of appearances includes a commercial on MTV. She hasn't made the cover of Time yet, but it can't be far behind. The woman has more talent than the Bedazzler has gems.
You probably already know her story. A student at Boston's Museum School of Fine Arts, she discovered a discarded gem sweater while thrift shopping. Like any female child of the plains, the Iowa native was impressed with the time and care it took to craft the sweater. For those raised in the urban jungle, the power of crafting may be foreign. In rural America, the female crafter is a mighty force. If you are in possession of breasts, you had best know your way around a sewing machine at the very least. Anything less and you have disgraced your entire gender.
She rescued the discarded sweater, beginning her Gem Sweater project and her career as an internet phenomenon. While home from art school one summer, she discovered the garage band program and realized, "I have the gift of the lady jams." In a cross-marketing scheme that can only be described as pure brilliance, the jams and gems combined, "creating a giant robot machine I could eat people alive with. It's like when hot air and cold air meet, creating a tornado." Leslie & the Ly's was born, ripping the roof off the internet.
Leslie & the Ly's is a family business. Her father is "in the door business," thus lending the title to her latest album, Doorman's Daughter, and cash when needed. Her brother Arecee, a formidable rapper and musician, mixes the beats and another brother runs her websites and helps book shows. Her touring Mobile Museum of Gem Sweaters is a family effort as well. But don't let the glimmer fool you, Hall is serious about the art of crafting. She wants mobile museum visitors to appreciate the craftsmanship that went into each of the beauties displayed. Most importantly, she wants the power of the gem visible again in mainstream clothing. Apparently, the fashion industry has taken note, as jewel-laden fashions fill suburban malls once again. If you're prone to insomnia or sitting in front of the tube on weekends, you've probably seen the Bedazzler reemerge in an infomercial.
Like any good rags to riches story, Leslie's mother is also a driving force, cheerleading her children to fame. "Mom wanted us to go for the dream. She was a farm girl in the middle of nowhere who put herself through college. She got married and had big dreams but didn't get there. It's very similar to Jonbenetand Lindsay Lohan." Songs like Gold Pants pay tribute to Hall's mother with lyrics like, "thank you Mama for making me gold pants/ones I can dance in/and make romance in." True to rural American women's heritage, Leslie's mama sewed her 16 pairs of gold pants.
Hall's stage persona combines the comfort and familiarity of a best friend with the insanity of a drag queen hyped on caffeine and nose candy. Her shows are interactive, fans are hoisted on stage to assist with certain numbers (the long piece of wood I encountered when first meeting her was incorporated into a limbo scene), and a screen displays "educational videos" of some insanely funny shitÃ¢â‚¬â€like a workout video specifically tailored for fat women given to her by an aunt one Christmas. She has Presence and can work a crowd like no other performer I've witnessed.
Speaking of fat, Leslie asserts that she will be "the next pop star princess. And the next pop star princess is going to be 200 pounds." Hall would only be considered fat by Hollywood lunatics hell bent on creating neurosis among the masses for profit. But she doesn't hide her size 16 (read: average American woman's) frame on stage. In fact, she accentuates it. Where other performers would pump their breasts up and try to hide their stomachs, Leslie wears tight spandex complete with gaudy belts that draw attention to her belly. Her outfits are one part hilarious, one part liberation. For once, we can scream and dance and, as Leslie hopes, "sweat to my sounds," without the usual image of a half-naked, emaciated chick trying to symbolically fuck us through finely choreographed, asinine moves.
When asked about other aspects of her creative life, she is mildly dismissive. Her website features a link to some of her paintings. Expecting crazy abstract pieces, I am surprised to find serene images. Her paintings, like Leslie without her shimmering stage persona, are soft and breathtakingly beautiful. Hall is not simply a comedian with the gift of the lady jams; she is an impressive artist with a creative maturity astonishing for her age. When I asked why she had not included her paintings as part of her merchandise for sale, she verbally slaps me back to the land of hilarity with, "Yeah, I should do like Anna-Nicole Smith has done and put some prices next to my work." Who else in one conversation could compare herself to Jonbenet and Anna-Nicole Smith?
After lamenting losing a spot in the Iowa county fair, Hall notes that her hip hop shows are fit for such venues because they're "clean." In a genre laden with words like bitch and ho it's refreshing to hear phat beats that refer to the power of sewing and the fierceness of being a "lady rapper."
But I wonder, is all this hustling worth it? When I ask her if she's happy and what her vision of the future is, she nearly jumps out of her skin. "I'm a hundred percent happy. No, thousands and thousands percent happy. I don't know if I dreamed of doing this, but I had no idea I could go this far. Moons and comets are aligning in my favor." As for her future, she envisions "riding the pony train of celebrity fashions as long as I can" and having her own internet show. "That's where it's happening. It's the future." I can't hear another word about her internet show dreams because fans standing near start shouting, "No! A show on Comedy Central! You need a show on Comedy Central!"
Regardless of the specific path of her growing fame, it's clear that Leslie Hall's tornado isn't even close to finishing eating us alive. My prize from the evening is an autographed poster that reads, "Seek the river of Gems and drink the magic of Jams. Boo-Yea nation is covered in Gold." If anything in life is dragging you down, my friend, seek the Keeper of Thy Gems and be born again. Watching Leslie Hall perform is like having a gem tourniquet tightened around your soul for a shot of pure heroin joy.