Becca Kauffman On Being Jennifer Vanilla

Photos by Olimpia Dior
Text by Jillian Billard

Who is Jennifer Vanilla? Chances are you know her––even if you’ve never witnessed first-hand her bright pink get-ups and can-do attitude. Part pop-star, part fairy-godmother, part Jane Fonda-circa the early ‘80s––Jennifer descends upon us to offer insight into all that’s holding us back. Jennifer wants you to be your best self. She believes in the power of kindness, of positivity, of letting it all go on the dance floor. In many ways, Jennifer is the reflection of an uninhibited version of all of us.

Perhaps the better question, then, is who is Becca Kauffman––the artist behind the “mask”? Kauffman conjured Jennifer just over two years ago. She came to life organically––following a foray into writing and performing a series of ensemble performances. Formerly an actress and musician, most known as a front-woman for the New York band Ava Luna, Kauffman’s affinity for the stage appears natural and effortless––she moves and speaks with such grace and poise. So I was surprised to learn that Jennifer was created as a way for the artist her to let go of her inhibitions, and essentially shirk responsibility for whatever happened onstage. It too became an invitation for others to do the same.

Since her inaugural performance, Jennifer has taken on a life of her own. She is continually evolving; and never fails to deliver a truly is a one of a kind experience. In anticipation for her upcoming JVL@b (Jennifer Vanilla: Live at the Bar) at the Windjammer Bar in Ridgewood, we caught up with Becca about the Jennifer Vanilla experience; finding a balance between herself and her character; and what she’s working on right now.

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 Becca Kauffman, Photo by Olimpia Dior

Becca Kauffman, Photo by Olimpia Dior

So we had been discussing how to conduct this piece, and whether you would be interviewed and photographed as Jennifer or as Becca. Can you explain your decision to speak as yourself (Becca) today?

Because Jennifer is sleeping.  When she’s not on stage, she’s really just a shadow, storing up energy until the spotlight turns on again. Her hobbies include birdwatching. I think she’s doing that right now.

Jennifer responds to crowds, special occasions, and telephone calls. One of her primary purposes is to bridge social gaps and create sites of celebration and interpersonal realness. She’s very out in the open––she wants you to know her, and she wants to know you. Of course an avatar is a protective layer. Ironically, it has the effect of, in a way, shrouding my own identity. Which I realize now was a subconsciously intentional part of the strategy all along. There’s this weird space between her and I––she started as this way of protecting me from feeling like I was giving too much away––but as it turns out, she’s really just my psyche turned inside out. Sometimes the bigger Jennifer gets, I feel a little bit shy, because I’m like, this is revealing a lot about my internal wants and needs. But ultimately Jennifer is like a built-in security blanket, because Jennifer can’t fail, by design. It’s part of her personality makeup. She’s a recipe for success, because success to Jennifer is to just be Jennifer. I think that’s an encouraging mindset for all of us to have toward ourselves. It’s a self-reflexive truth. The way I’ve chosen to present her is as this universal confidence, which I think has somehow opened up a path for people to agree.

Jennifer has taken on a life of her own and become her own entity. Now I have to figure out where I sit in relation to her, and people’s understanding of who she is. In Jem, I don’t know if you’ve ever watched that…it’s a cartoon from the ‘80s about two battling all-female rock bands. Jem is this glamorous, rock n’ roll superhero figure. But she leads a double life, public and private. Offstage, she is a humble young woman named Jerica running the Orphanage for Girls that her father left her. And no one, not even her own lover, knows that she’s Jem. Every Jem must have her Jerica.

So how long ago did Jennifer come to fruition?

2 1/2 years.

What was your original idea for the character?

I was back up dancing one night for a [tongue in cheek] Guns N Roses tribute show put on by my friend, the artist Toby Goodshank. We smoked a joint right before we stepped onstage. As my cascading Axl Rose wig swayed from side to side, I realized how much story could be discovered and conveyed through organic, off the cuff movement. I experienced the mutual feedback between narrative and dance, this kind of unstoppable, natural evolution that happens when you start moving and don’t stop. My mood ring is turning purple as I tell this story.

That night, I met the owner of the venue––it was Palisades––and, long story short, wound up producing an ensemble performance there a month later, on Halloween night: The Jennifer Vanilla Scratch n’ Sniff Pageant. It makes a lot of sense that Jennifer Vanilla was born on Halloween, by the way––she’s the essence of masquerade. Two months later I wrote and directed a dance play as an artist in residence at Otion Front Studio in Brooklyn and created a character named Leora. She was a Youtube personality who made therapeutic dance videos and guided dance meditations. The play was about transcending ego and over-awareness of self on the dance floor through repetition of movement. I had been on assignment from a now-defunct publication to summon “the next viral dance move,” so I had been going to the club every night, just trying to lose myself. I wanted Jennifer to be a facilitator of that type of transcendence.

The elements of improvisation, sociality, organic growth and transformation inherent to the dance floor became a part of her DNA. All of that is still happening now, it’s just that those original points of inspiration have been absorbed and live a bit deeper under the surface. She’s taken on a life of her own. She’s become more conversational, and more herself. A Jennifer performance is always about the alchemy of the room. Listening to it, watching it, responding to it, working with it, manipulating it. Just like a dance floor.

 Becca Kauffman as Jennifer Vanilla, Photo by Olimpia Dior

Becca Kauffman as Jennifer Vanilla, Photo by Olimpia Dior

I started hosting these “experiences”: improvisational performances that were pretty honest about their impromptu nature. Over time I found structures for these performances that worked for me. Music has always been the grounding element. And humor, because it is admittedly foolish to get onstage not knowing what you’re going to do or what’s going to happen.

Now a Jennifer Vanilla Experience takes on many forms. It can be on my home turf at The Windjammer for JVL@b (‘JV Lab’ aka Jennifer Vanilla: Live at the Bar)––which is a theatrical, theme-based “experiential performance laboratory” with a rotating lineup of interdisciplinary artists from the NYC performance/art/music scene–– and then I’ll also do bigger shows with an ensemble like I did opening for Yaeji and at PS1, which harkens back to the Halloween pageant.

Can you talk a bit more about your JVL@bs? Do you have a specific idea of how it’s going to go each time, or is it more of an improvisational happening based the space and whoever shows up?

JVL@b is improvisational within a predetermined structure. It began as a somewhat traditional variety show format, and it was a place for me to start workshopping in-progress song and dance numbers and also invite other artists to do the same with their work. This was before I really had a live solo set, so I would perform a few bits and then call up a special guest. People either performed outside of their usual genre (the artist Angelina Dreem did stand up comedy once), or they would perform something that was in their niche but in a nascent state (Teeny Lieberson of the band TEEN debuted her solo project, Lou Tides, there). The idea was to give people a safe place to be amateur (impossible in New York), or unrehearsed, or at the very least to perform without the pressure of having to define it. Since then the show has grown into a more elaborate theatrical production, taking the form of a massive group therapy session (Group Jennifer), an Off-Broadway vaudeville club, (Everything’s Coming up Jennifers) and a reworking of Being John Malkovich (Being Jennifer Vanilla). I think about it all month and then usually crank out a loose script or show structure right under the deadline. It’s filmed for The Jennifer Vanilla Hour, a one hour slot I have on Queens Public Television.

You went on tour back in February. Can you talk a bit about extending Jennifer Vanilla’s reach beyond your home turf? What was that experience like for you, and what sort of venues do you play when you’re on tour?

It was so much fun. I was on tour with my friend Hannah Hiaasen. She is a textile artist who also performs as the slow moving, monotonal character Chartruisa, a representative of the land of Monochromania (she wears only chartreuse). She’s pretty much the antithesis of Jennifer Vanilla––subtle, stoic, languid. But there’s crossover, too: we share sensitivity, observation, attention to physicality. Hannah comes from the visual art world, whereas I come from a music scene through my experience with my band (Ava Luna). So for the tour we patch-worked together this combination of art galleries and DIY music venues. It felt like we were a little vaudeville duo. Just the two of us driving together, all day, every day, watching each other perform every night. Almost immediately we realized that our acts needed to fuse together for the tour. So we conferenced during these car rides and figured out how to make our worlds collide. We concocted a back story (met in a chatroom, roomed together at the Monochromatic Summit) and every night had an opportunity to put the plan into action. We’d debrief on the drive the next morning, tweaking and revising. It was like a live process. I’m not too interested in being steadfast about having a fixed script. It’s more fun that way.

I’d imagine it must be a whirlwind––traveling by day as yourself and then getting into this performative modality by night. Do you ever have moments where you don’t want to go into character? How do you get into the headspace of Jennifer?

I’ve come to understand that I need to have everything in place before it’s safe for her to come out. And then she happens in a flash, like a tornado touching down. I can only summon her in a moment where there is a dire need for her to show up. In the case of JVL@b, I’m also booking, writing, directing, producing, so there’s a lot of leg work involved. That’s a different type of mindset. I enjoy that part of the process as well, but that’s no place for Jennifer. I’m basically Jennifer’s manager.

Anyone who’s ever been to JVL@b knows that I always run late, because we need to make a little bit of extra room for Jennifer to come out. It’s not like I’m in the bathroom staring in the mirror being like, “WHERE ARE YOU?” Or maybe I am.  I live half a block down from The Windjammer, so I usually run back there to take a moment. But Jennifer really surprises me sometimes––I talk about her in the third person because she is a separate entity. She’s sort of immaterial––the way that you present yourself in pictures or your imagistic form is not material. It can’t be grasped or held. So I think of myself as a container for her. It’s like a very deep LARP (live action roleplay). It’s the playing out of a fantasy. I think that’s why she often has an effect on other people, too; I think people feel that lightness and that liberty. Jennifer is a state of mind.

Do you think that she’s allowed you to grow in any way by breaking down any personal barriers, or has taught you anything?

It’s funny, it all happens in a flash. It’s like a total takeover. Like while I’m inside I’m like “I can’t believe she’s saying this.” I’ll watch back footage from a show, and be like: when did that happen?

Is it like you can’t remember that it happened, or is it more that you can’t believe that you, or she, did that?

I kind of black out a little bit. But I do also think that Jennifer is a manifestation of that state of being onstage that I bet a lot of performers are very familiar with. It’s that sustained electric energy, so deeply white hot and in-the-moment that you’re not thinking intellectually, you’re just plugged in and you go. So she’s just sort of that, with a name, you know? She’s a muse or a good witch who visits you while you’re doing that, and gives it guidance. I think that it’s cracked me open as a performer, just being able to embody her, but I’m kind of too close to it for her to be like a constant inspiration to me. I need to build up a lot of energy to do it, and sometimes I’m not in the mood, you know? It always winds up working out and I’m happy I did. In a way it’s like, I really should be doing this every night! It has a therapeutic effect. Sometimes I feel locked in to what I perceive as people’s expectations of Jennifer, and I feel a great desire to give them what they want. One thing embedded in here is my people-pleasing tendencies. But I’m trying to find ways to show different sides and faces of her, to follow through on whatever feels true.

Have you thought about ways that in your performance you would bring yourself more into it? How do you think you’d go about doing that?

I’ve always wanted my public-access show to be more than what it’s turned out I have time for, which is usually the footage of last month’s JVL@b. What I’d really like to do is use the slot to produce an actual TV show, with an onstage/offstage dynamic––what goes on backstage, in the dressing room, the moments leading up to the show, the moments after the show. Seeing the guts of the production is always interesting to me. It would be equal amounts of Jem and Jerica for everyone. Like how every episode of Seinfeld, for example, opens and closes with his standup set, so we’re anchored by his life and perspective as a working comic. But then you also see all the goings-on between those punctuating moments.

One thing I’ve thought a lot about is the value of celebrity; its potential utility and value. Not just in feeding the ego and actualizing a personal fantasy that one might have, but also what “The Celebrity” can do for the culture and the community, how it could shift the social experience. Jennifer-as-celebrity would mean being a universal neighbor. In this hypothetical, everywhere Jennifer went, someone would recognize her and say hello. She represents this human interaction. I like thinking of her as this portable neighbor that becomes a mutually shared piece of knowledge or experience that people can have with one another. Especially in New York there are these certain types of public spaces that I’m interested in shifting or sculpting. The idea of promoting physical and psychic harmony in group settings is appealing to me.

You do a lot of your shows in Ridgewood, and it seems super important to your practice. Can you talk a bit more about that?

Being in my neighborhood in Ridgewood and having a show here and a local community here is really important to me. The Windjammer has been this amazing and very generous space for developing Jennifer Vanilla. They have this beautiful back room that I call the “secret ballroom.” It’s the kind of space that is just so rare. A choose-your-own-adventure. It’s a big empty room with a lot of chairs, and there are these two huge mirrors mounted from the Yayoi Kusama exhibit that I procured through a friend. You bring your own sound person and lights. You can’t and don’t really do that in too many places. There’s something blank slate-y about it that makes it safe to take chances and also not be competitive in any way––hard to do in New York.

I’ve booked a show series there this June, called “Jennifer Vanilla Presents.” There’s a night of queer performance art curated by Hannah Hiaasen, a screening of Friday the 13th: IV hosted by the Ladies Horror Night podcast, the legendary musician Alice Cohen is headlining one night, and then it all finishes out with a wild 10-piece band called Sloppy Jane, poet Alaina Stamatis’ music project Ogg Myst, and Brooklyn performance artist Greem Jellyfish. So that’s an extension, a real life application, of Jennifer philosophy––which is just creating experiences for people. What I really enjoy doing is hosting. I think of performing as, “I’m having a party and you’re invited.” So I won’t be in character as Jennifer, it’s more like the spirit of Jennifer casting a wider net and holding that space.

 Becca Kauffman as Jennifer Vanilla, Photo by Olimpia Dior

Becca Kauffman as Jennifer Vanilla, Photo by Olimpia Dior

Well that sounds like a venture into bringing yourself into the project! What’s amazing about this project is how it spans so many mediums and disciplines. I’m curious to hear about your experience of hosting and performing with different artists and in these different spaces. I saw you have a show coming up with Jerry Paper, for example, and I know you have a background in music from playing in Ava Luna. How does the experience differ when you’re performing with musicians as opposed to in a performance or DIY art space?

Honestly, I have a difficult time with genre. “Genre is over if you want it,” is a phrase I like to repeat to myself. At the same time, don’t we all want to belong? I think of Jennifer Vanilla as a musically-oriented performance project, rather than purely a music project. The music provides the foundation, the launch pad, for the performance––which is what I’m really after. My songs are what I call “jv edits”––mostly reworked 90’s house tracks. I’ll start out with, say, an old 8-minute instrumental dance song, add vocals to it, then edit it into a three and half minute pop number. I like thinking about Jennifer Vanilla music as taking part in the tradition of DJing and dance music, where music is open source material, and your output contributes to an ongoing aesthetic conversation. Like a dialogue between artists; an exquisite corpse. You could probably call my songs long-form samples. The music is secondhand, just like the Jennifer t-shirts I sell.

The process has resulted in some interesting outcomes. I used a track by this Italian producer, Onirico, for a song called “Do It (Emphasize Your Strengths).” He must have received a Google alert for his name in the credits of the Youtube video, because he wound up posting a video of his cat, purring along to my version of the song. He was very pleased. And now we’re pen-pals. Much better than a cease and desist letter. [laughs]

I have mixed feelings about performing alongside bands, because, while I feel a kindred connection to musicians, and I’m used to it from all the years with Ava Luna, by default shows like those naturally frame JV as a music project, and I’m not trying to masquerade as a producer. It’s a soundtrack. A performative DJ set. In an art context, I think there’s less of a taboo around using “found materials,” and the conceptual idea behind the choice is already on the menu.

A lot of what Jennifer is seems to be this generosity, like “you too can be a Jennifer,” meaning a confident version of yourself. I think a big part of that is this apparel that you make and share with others. Can you talk a bit about the Jennifer apparel?

Yes! I have a line of text-based t-shirts, turtlenecks, and berets. The process is actually quite similar to how the music gets made. In the same way I “jennifer” those instrumental house tracks, the clothing I use for my merchandise is all secondhand (except for the hats). So the human touch, a human experience, has been passed down through these garments. They’re like mysterious heirlooms. Life has been lived in them. They held meaning, then lost their meaning and were discarded. I think of them fondly as found objects; orphans looking for a home (aren’t we all?). Ripe for jennifering.

Each shirt proffers a unique philosophical Jennifer slogan. They are souvenirs––a souvenir being an object that acts as a keepsake, a reminder of an experience, a feeling, an attitude that you want to hold on to. It’s a way of taking Jennifer with you, so she can keep you company and help you take care of business. Your body is real estate only you can occupy, and it’s where you always are. The t-shirt is like a wearable billboard. It has this history of being a promotional item. I think it’s an interesting place to advertise yourself. The t-shirt is a demonstration of personal choice. It can hold so much personal and cultural value and yet it also sometimes creates this funny loophole in the commercial system where it’s as disposable as a pen or a matchbook––a free giveaway. That idea of “One Size Fits All”––it’s sort of a universal piece of clothing. You could argue that it can be a very radical garment! When you wear a t-shirt with intention, it’s a visual indication of who you are and what you’re about. I think something wearable helps connect the experience of Jennifer, with your own identity. You can step into the fantasy. That’s what costume is for.

One Jennifer motto is “commerce, not capitalism.” Commerce is about human relations, social contact. The exchange of goods has the power to forge connections. Whereas capitalism creates competition, greed, an oppositional mentality; commerce has the potential to bring us together, it could be a social event. I’m interested in what can happen when a lot of women get together in a room. There are certain references I hold in mind––from Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous Stains, and also this lesser known movie called Times Square, which is the story of two best girl friends in NYC in the late ’70s running around midtown honing their act. They have a rock band and a look. Both films have a climactic scene in which hundreds of young girls––fans––come to the rock show dressed in their own riff on the band’s signature garb– the hairstyle, eyeliner, fishnets– in Times Square they event sport trash bags fashioned into like, belted punk tunics. I think it’s interesting to reflect each other back and forth in this way, to show visual support. Dress and style and aesthetic is a really interesting way to claim yourself and also support other people. Jennifer Vanilla souvenirs are, most importantly, conversation pieces. The slogans are cryptic, but perplexing enough to invite inquiry, and add to a “people’s definition” of Jennifer Vanilla. “Jennifer is My Co-Pilot.” “Jennifer Happens.” “Dance Like Jennifer’s Watching.” Who’s Jennifer? You tell me.

You could draw parallels between the blankness of a discarded t-shirt and a name like “Jennifer Vanilla.” Vanilla is practically unflavored. You can add anything to it and make it something else. It’s always ready to be dressed up. Who do you want to be today?

 Becca Kauffman, Photo by Olimpia Dior

Becca Kauffman, Photo by Olimpia Dior

So what is your definition of a “Jennifer”?

There are a couple of go-to terms that I use. I call her a “social custodian,” like she’s literally cleaning up social situations, smoothing out kinks in the fabric. Like if there was a wrench thrown in a wheel she would take it out. It’s this concept of housekeeping. I want to make sure that everyone’s comfortable, and everyone’s spatially aware. I also call her my “entrepreneurial fantasy vessel.” One thing that I like to express via Jennifer is unbridled ambition, and guiltless control, work-ethic, and power. I think that for me personally a lot of the things that have hindered me from fully realizing a lot of my ideas is confidence. Jennifer is the way that I can make these things happen. I can play confident and for a moment rest from this internal wrestling I experience with the role of being in power in any particular moment. I direct and produce these shows, but as myself I’m constantly wanting to apologize for being the one that’s telling people what to do. What business do I have giving anyone direction, or even having an idea that’s worthy of pulling other people in to spend their time working with me? I’m always weary of “stealing” other people’s time because I know that that’s our main currency. So I have this troubled relationship with being in charge. But I know that I want to be. Jennifer allows me to glide past the psychological hindrances. It’s just already written into her history: she’s been around the block and she knows how to do this, so we all trust her. She blazes ahead without letting the noise get in the way. That’s a good mantra for me.

I think it’s a learned gender thing––where women never feel like they’re experts in anything.

Definitely. One thing that I’ve noticed and played with is, in order to be a female authority figure, I want Jennifer to exist in a world in which her identity does not exist in relation to men, or the male gaze. I’m ultimately trying to discover whether this is possible. For me, I decided to attempt to desexualize Jennifer. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with having sexuality play a part in anyone’s presentation, but for me that’s not what I needed to emphasize. It’s personal work too––like I needed to understand what it is to command space and attention as a woman without sexuality being part of the reason why. Like how do you do that? So Jennifer is from Planet Jennifer, like she’s just a Jennifer. But part of her biography is that she has no genitalia. That, I think, is a real kicker, because she’s literally impenetrable. She does provide pleasure and intimacy, but it’s a differentkind of pleasure, a different kind of intimacy. When you take away the possibility of framing her as this sexual object, it changes the relationship. She can’t be your lover, she can’t be your mother. It adds this boundary, and a sense of untouchability. It’s weird, a friend of mine was joking about Jennifer Vanilla doing a nude performance art piece. And I was like, Well, Jennifer doesn’t have genitalia and he was like “Oh, well then, what’s the point?” I was like, “That’s so interesting that you would say that, like that’s the big reveal, right?” Suddenly no one is interested if that possibility is removed, and I like that. I like existing in this totally desexualized space. At the very beginning, my first Jennifer look was this really long ponytail, and it attracted a lot of male attention, because it’s seen as hyper-feminine. But I was never sexual as Jennifer. So there was a real bait and switch, lol.

What hair do you use now?

I’m in between hair. I’m kind of into my own hair right now. I’m drawing a lot of inspiration from ’70s-era femininity these days. It’s like post-hippie, on-the-verge of women blazing into the workforce in Reeboks and skirt suits. There’s something that feels very independent of men in that stage.  

So I’m personally curious how you construct your looks. Where do you find Jennifer’s clothes?

I scour thrift-stores. It’s pretty hard in the city, but when I go out of town, I always make stops. My dad has the yard sale listings out every time I come to visit. I don’t remember why but early on I felt compelled to adhere to a strict pink color palate––something about being in femme drag––and I just stuck with it. I started off with more satins or ’90s daytime-talk show suits, sweat suits. It’s very limiting to only wear pink. It makes shopping easy and difficult at the same time. I know where to look and it’s easy to spot but if it’s pink and not the thing, then you’re out of luck. So more recently I’ve started commissioning things and getting in touch with other artists, which is how I met Hannah, who I wound up touring with. Hannah works in textiles and is known for her “ventilated workwear,” specifically the gridsuit. Then there’s this artist AC Carter in Athens, GA––whose music project,Lambda Celsius, centers around her interactions with an Alexa, by the way––who makes clothing from an assortment of industrial and consumer materials. She made me a costume for the show at PS1––a pink felt jumper and this enormous polyvinyl duct tape cape. That was the real opus of JV style and I don’t know how I’m going to top it. Her look came to fruition in this way, like she became a real life emoji. Now I think it’s time to dial back. When I reemerge I want to be more of like a Jem-Jerica hybrid. She’s not always going to be at that high-octane level.

Can you talk a bit more about that PS1 performance?

I assembled a company consisting of a comedian, a poet, a dancer, an illustrator and an anthropology grad student. The performance was called Jennifer Vanilla Fantasy Factory. I thought of it as a live action cartoon. It was really just like, a Grind-esque VHS industrial space for the psyche where we’re all working out, you know? Working it out. The wheels are turning, we’re ramping up to ecstasy. It’s a shared experience. I like playing to the truth of the room at a specific place and time and with that specific combination of people. Which is why I decided to crowd-surf. I saw it as hosting the moment. Musically it was a live application of this collaboration I’ve been doing with my friend Brian Abelson, known as See Other. We’re working on an EP of house tracks right now. We hadn’t had the chance to perform together live since last year when we did this one-off dance episode of my public television show. For PS1, I wanted to make something really big to fill up the space. It’s about utilizing the materials at hand. To fill a large space you have to have a large show. I like the idea, similar to Rainbow Brite or Power Rangers, of these different super-heroic collectives who band together with a singular purpose––in this case: to Jennifer.