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Homage Department: Being Joni Print-ready version

by Ariel Levy
The New Yorker
August 10, 2009

On one hand, it's easy to understand why John Kelly gets called a drag queen. His best-known and longest-running work is his performance as Joni Mitchell. "It's become my 'Bolero,'" he said the other day. During these shows - the first was at the inaugural Wigstock festival, in 1985 - Kelly channels the Canadian queen of singer-songwriters at different points in her career, borrowing lines from her interviews for his between-song banter, playing a dulcimer that was a gift from Mitchell herself, and singing everything from "Chelsea Morning" to "Sex Kills" in a lustrous contralto, all while wearing a dress and a blond wig.

"My sisters used to listen to her music a lot," Kelly said. "There was a certain lyricism, wanderlust, soliloquy... which I was able to dive into." Though his physical and vocal likeness to Mitchell is hardly uncanny, the intensity of his portrayal achieves a spooky depth: Mitchell has said that the first time she saw Kelly's act she "came braced for a lampooning," but the performance made her feel instead like "Huck Finn attending his own funeral."

But, given Kelly's thirty-year career as a painter, opera singer, actor, fashion illustrator, tightrope walker, musician, and ballet dancer, it's also easy to understand his mild frustration at being reduced to the cross-dresser who "does" Joni. "Do you think people say to Cate Blanchett, 'Oh, you do Dylan - who else do you do?'" Kelly asked, smirking as he walked through Chelsea on a hot afternoon on his way to Alexander Gray's gallery where a show of his paintings, called "The Mirror Stages: Self-Portraits, 1979-2009," was on view. Over the years, Kelly has embodied dozens of artists. He has told the short life story of the Austrian Expressionist Egon Schiele through dance. He has performed at Carnegie Hall as Dagmar Onassis, the imaginary love child of Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis. And hanging on the walls of Gray's gallery were Kelly's paintings and drawings of himself as the Mona Lisa, as Caravaggio's Medusa, as van Gogh and, of course, as Joni Mitchell. In one of the paintings he appears just as himself, perhaps when he was a bit younger: handsome, muscular, with a shaved head. "That's my Dorian Gray portrait," he said. "Well, in a way they all are.

Kelly, who is forty-nine, grew up in Jersey City, and, at seventeen, he entered the American Ballet Theatre School. Asked if his parents were pleased to have raised a ballerina, he replied, "Jersey City? No. What they said was: 'What'll you do when you're forty?'" He added, "If there were one thing that would brand a man or a boy as gay, it would be ballet, maybe more than being a hairdresser. Maybe not. Maybe fifty-fifty."

But drag is even gayer, and in the eighties Kelly fell in love with it. "When I first started doing drag, it was the most fucked-up thing I could think of," he said. "It was venting a lot of rage... It was punk. It literally changed my life." Toward the end of the Joni Mitchell show, which he will perform this week at the River to River Festival in Battery Park, Kelly suddenly sheds his costume, creating a moment that is strangely profound: when he steps out of his role and faces the audience, you find yourself unsettled, affected. He often gets a standing ovation. "I'm very proud of that moment," he said. "It's a really old theatrical device gender performance. The trapeze artist in the twenties, at the end of his act he would take off his wig." (Kelly abandoned his own trapeze career in 2003, after he broke his neck.) "It does mess with people, even though it's a clichéd device - 'Victor/Victoria,' the whole thing."

After leaving the gallery, Kelly took a stroll along the High Line. "The recession has cleared out some of the traipsing hordes of yuppies," he noted. "It's like, 'You're arrogant and obnoxious and I'm... old.'" Asked why he didn't contribute to a recent Mitchell album (it included songs from Bjőrk and Prince), he said, "I would love to have done it, but I wasn't asked." Having so many different vocations, he fears, makes him invisible. "It's not lauded, its suspect," he said. "Connecting the dots, that's the challenge for an aesthetic octopus like me."

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