Reverend Jen: Art Star for the Masses
By Amy Zimmer
"My name is Reverend Jen, and although I'm an elf, I live on Manhattan's Lower East Side where I am a poet, preacher, painter, prophet, performer, literary giant, upcoming celebrity/personality, Patron Saint of the Uncool and Voice of the Downtrodden and Tired."
This is how Reverend Jen Miller greets people who visit elfpanties.com, a Website peddling her "gently worn" panties. It is an over-the-top fetish sitepink background with blue text, Japanese Kanji characters, and inviting pictures of Jen in her underwear, her pointed ears sticking out between strands of her long brown hair.
"I was poor and unemployed. I thought selling panties was a great idea because it's so wrong. Normal people won't do that. A lot of people care about their careers." For Jen, this is part of her career, part of the character she plays. Reverend Jen wears elf ears, and not just casually.
Reverend Jen welcomes me into her Troll Museum situated in the front room of her tenement apartment. The elfin 29-year-old is ready for the spotlight, dressed in tight turquoise leopard print pants and a tube top with a giant glittery blue star, a testament to her art stardom.
The Troll Museum, a room no more than 60-square-feet, is jam packed with a motley collection of trolls. Brightly colored shocks of hair pop up distractingly against a backdrop of chipping blue walls, but the exhibit is organized meticulously. Placards describe each troll's size, brand and place and date of acquisition. Reverend Jen presents an hour and a half long tour of her museum by appointment only.
Reverend Jen likens her museum to little Elvis shrines people down South have in their homes. "The other day, my friend called it white trash, which it is," she says. "Budweiser is the official beer and the museum pays homage to Led Zeppelin." She points out an installation in her troll doll house featuring a bedroom littered with miniature Bud cans, tiny Led Zeppelin posters, and two rock n' roll trolls making out.
Although Reverend Jen now embraces her kitsch sensibility wholeheartedly, she struggled to accept it. In 1990 Reverend Jen moved from Silver Springs, Maryland, "khakis country," as she refers to it, to study sculpture at the School of Visual Arts. "A lot of guys at SVA were making absurdly giant phallic structures, covered in leather that spun around and cost $10,000 to make," she explains. "I tried to fit in by making big stuff, but I knew I was being dishonest. It wasn't the aesthetic I loved." So, while the guys were making monoliths, she made precious outfits for her trolls.
"People may have more fun here than they do at the Met," she says of her tiny museum. "If you're looking for a true New York experience, you'll find it here." Or perhaps at one of the Lower East Side performance venues where Reverend Jen performs.
Since 1995, Reverend Jen has been hosting an Anti-Slam and establishing herself as a performance artist in the Lower East Side. The Anti-Slam is the antidote to poetry slams at such places as the Nuyorican where poets are rated according to specific formulas. At the Anti-Slam, everyone receives a 10, no matter how outrageous or awful, and the audience is supportive. "It's a friendly community down here. At the exclusive uptown comedy clubs where you have to bring at least five people to get onstage and drinks cost at least six dollars people only do safe work." She's seen everything at her Anti-Slam. Someone once pulled an onion out of her vagina.
As host of the Anti-Slam, Reverend Jen Art Star was born. Since no one else was going to ordain the "Art Star" title unto her, she claimed it for herself. "I think if you wait for someone else to call you an art star, then you're totally missing the point," states Reverend Jen. "That's what Warhol did. He found people who weren't famous and he called them superstars. No one had ever heard of Brigid Berlin or Edie Sedgwick, but according to Warhol, they were superstars. That's one thing I like about the people who come to my open mike and who hang out at downtown performance scenes. I think they're the real art stars right now because they're not waiting for anybody else. They form their own community."
The Lower East Side has become a Mecca for performance art-based comedy - Monday nights comedy at the Luna Lounge, Wednesday nights Reverend Jen's Anti-Slam at Collective Unconscious, Sunday nights Faceboyz Open Mike at Surf Reality.
When I visit Reverend Jen's Troll Museum it's Sunday night, which meant that at 8 pm, we have to head two blocks over to Faceboyz Open Mike. Reverend Jen religiously participates at Faceboyz Open Mike, and her friend Faceboy reciprocates at her Anti-Slam.
When Reverend Jen walks in, she immediately attracts the attention of her many followers. One of her fans is David Ackerman, a fellow Lower East Side performance artist who collaborated with Reverend Jen on one of his Sunday Subway Brunches. (He wears a tuxedo and serves brunch to subway riders.) Ackerman calls Reverend Jen a legend. "What she has done for New York is a treasure. For so many years she has created a space that is comforting to performers experimenting with free form," Ackerman beams.
At Faceboyz Open Mike, Reverend Jen's performance celebrates her glam, self-deprecatingly kitschy comedy. Reverend Jen stands under the lights, a satire of an art star, lipstick applied messily in the dark moments before she goes on. She fiddles for her monologue in her Birken knockoff as she stands at the mike. Finally finding the crumpled pages, she reads a piece about a recent trip to the Chicago Underground Film Festival. "Chicago is the elf murder capitol of the world," she says. "Elf ears are equated with Satanists."
Then reading takes a serious tone. It's the first public renouncement of her single status. She went to Chicago with her boyfriend, Nick Zedd, originator of the "Transgressive cinema," who she had met on the set of the Troma film Terror Firma in 1999. (Despite meeting in 1999, they only started dating a few months agoafter Nick took a tour of the Troll Museum.) Though she had kept this secret from her adoring fans, much like the teen idols in Tiger Beat, she reassures the audience that she still remained downtrodden and clinically depressed.
The piece is for next month's "Urban Elf," a column she files in the New York-based magazine Shout. She landed this job fortuitously last year. She was in a bar on Avenue A, dressed as one of her alter egos, Doo Doo, the fifth teletubbya foul-mouthed, cockney-accented, chain smoking teletubby in a brown suit. She had no cash, so she traded a copy of her self-published memoir Sex Symbol for the Insane for a beer. (Her book is a collection of essays, monologues, poetry, love letters and hate mail and is available only at Printed Matter.) Unbeknownst to Reverend Jen, the man she bartered with was the managing editor of Shout, and soon enough her book was featured in Shout's "Don't Miss" section. She called the magazine asking to write a piece, and they immediately gave her a column. The column gives the art star the joy of self-promotion in being published and a supplemental income source. It also gives her a way to expand her audience beyond the Lower East Side.
She feels that she and her coterie of avant-garde performers have much to offer mainstream America and that their philosophies will trickle up gradually. Sure, sometimes Reverend Jen feels like she lives in Mayberry. After all, most of the performance venues she frequents are in a three-block radius of her apartment, and she recently started working one block away at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum shop, an additional job to increase the cash flow.
"It feels like a small town, but what we do affects culture at large completely. Sometimes I watch TV and see ideas from open mikes ages ago being spewed forth. That's the way it always is with anything really goodit's usually ignored and marginalized and then it gets co-opted by culture at large and they water it down and it becomes counter-culture lite." She adds, "But that's okay."
At Faceboyz Open Mike, one performer, a petite redhead, precedes to down six shots of tequila with Tabasco sauce and then sing the Foo Fighters "Everlong" karaoke style, wildly tossing her hair around. Reverend Jen overhears a woman in the audience saying, "That's so sad," which fills Reverend Jen with a bit of pride. "It's nice when normal people come to these things."