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In 1987, four teenage girls from LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan founded a band, Lunachicks. Over the next dozen-plus years, they put out a handful of albums, starting with Babysitters On Acid, toured the world (opening for the Ramones, the Go-Go’s, and No Doubt), and became generally notorious for raucous live shows featuring an array of costumes and a take-no-prisoners approach to performance.
A new book, Fallopian Rhapsody: The Story of the Lunachicks (with Jeanne Fury) tells the story of the band—and, perhaps even more interesting, the story of the girls who made the band what it was. (And is—several live dates that were postponed by the pandemic are now happening in September and November.) We sat down with the band's lead singer, Theo Kogan—who was also shot by Richard Avedon for a Calvin Klein ad, acted in a handful of films, founded a lipgloss line, and now works as a makeup artist—to find out more about why the Lunachicks weren’t Riot Grrrls and how seemingly every one of her friends texted her about the Linda Lindas’ video.
Reading this amazing book, I was surprised to learn that more or less your entire extended family were musicians, artists, performers. Did that seem odd to you growing up, or was that just the family you knew?
I thought it was cool that my uncle played the drums and my aunt was a flautist and my dad was playing cello and conducting—music was just so important to everybody. I played flute as a kid, and I was good at it, but I found it very frustrating at the same time. And then I connected with ballet, and I loved that—but ultimately I think I just had this big need to be onstage, to be in the spotlight just playing the ham. My sister and I staged these performances for my parents—there was just so much silliness, and I got tons of attention, and yet. . . [laughing]. . . clearly it wasn’t enough!
But it doesn’t seem like that classic case of punk-rock kids who grew up in an environment that was just keeping them down and they had to break free from it—you seemed pretty free to do what you wanted to do at a very young age.
When I was a teenager, my parents were really trying to get me to behave. I was mad, and I was not allowed to be free; I’d tell my parents I was being honest with them, but they’d come back with “No, you’re too young; you’re grounded.” I mean, I was doing plenty of illegal things by this point, but a lot of my friends’ parents were a lot more lenient than mine were, and it made me so furious—and yes, I know these are very privileged problems to have. But I was mad. [laughs]
Let’s talk a little bit about your third grade. Maybe the most mind-blowing thing in this entire book—and there’s a lot of competition—is the part about how your parents converted your entire family to Sikhism for a year when you were seven or eight. I mean, for starters… Did you know what that even meant?
They had started going to an ashram in Brooklyn Heights, and we would go there sometimes as a family and do yoga, and we started waking up at 4:30 am, and then one day my parents went to some place outside of DC to see the big Yogi Bhajan guy, who later got in a lot of trouble—there was a lot of drama—but yeah, they came back and were like, We’re going to be Sikhs; here’s your new name.
Do you remember your name?
Ram Kirtan Kaur. Every woman has Kaur at the end and every man has Singh. Binary. But I just showed up to school after Thanksgiving with a turban on—and yeah, it was weird! At the ashram they thought I was some kind of super-spiritual golden child and started talking about sending me to India to a Sikh school, and I was just like “What?!” A year later, we were done. I mostly just remember my mother saying to them, “You can’t tell me what to do!”
You—well, the whole band, really—became pretty well-known for their onstage costumes, but your instinct for fashion was on fire early on—as early as second grade you were putting together very specific looks for school, and at one point your dad says to you, “This is not a fashion show.” And your thinking seems to be more like, “Oh yes it is!”
My first instincts were for all these sequined tutus that our grandma bought at rummage sales and gave to us, but at the time my dad said that to me, I was obsessed with Pinkie and Leather Tuscadero from Happy Days—Leather was played by Suzi Quatro —and I would stand in the mirror and see myself as them and try to get the outfit as close to them as I possibly could. I had this vision, and I was trying to execute it to perfection—but of course I never could get it quite right.
Later on I’d save my babysitting money and go to Fiorucci—this very 80s New Wave store that sold spandex pants and neon stuff, flamingo earrings. I ended up with one pair of blue corduroy pants with yellow underneath—I’d fold the cuff and boom: yellow cuffs. And my first pair of Jordache jeans I wore. . . no, they weren’t even Jordache, they were Sasson! Wait, no they weren’t—they were Gloria Vanderbilt. But I. . . never. . . took them off. I was so proud to have them, I wore them every day for way, way too long.
As you got a little older but before you started a band, you and your gang seemed to be this weird contradiction: You were fearless and you did pretty much what you wanted to do when you wanted to (pending a grounding from your parents), yet you had a lot of things to be scared of, or freaked out about—creepy guys, and a lot of danger around New York City; you had both fear and invulnerability going on at the same time.
I think it’s almost a developmental thing. We were 16 when we started playing in the band, and we felt indestructible. And certainly I was trying to get attention, and part of that was seeing how far I could push it until I got in trouble. But we almost intentionally put ourselves into these very dangerous places. It was just part of our makeup. Stupid? Yeah, but we were young; it was just part of our makeup.
What made you and your friends [the Lunachicks began with Theo, Gina Volpe, and Syndney “Squid” Silver] start a band?
All our favorite bands that we used to go see broke up—it was like we needed to fill the space, and we felt that if they could do it, we could do it.
Why not start with a cover band?
I don’t think I knew what a cover band even was. We wanted to make our own thing—even if sometimes that was us trying to make a Black Sabbath song and something else just came out that we called our own.
One of my first dramatic looks, when we were still teenagers, was a hospital dressing gown that I’d burned and then smeared fake blood all over.
Your onstage look was. . . memorable! What were you trying to do?
We always wanted to make each show exciting and something of a surprise—we’d hide backstage until we went onstage, that kind of thing. One of my first dramatic looks, when we were still teenagers, was a hospital dressing gown that I’d burned and then smeared fake blood all over, and I was like a mental patient. That was really fun, and as things went on, we each built our own outfit for our own character—it was like ourselves, but amplified, and we all drew from so many things—our grandparents, John Waters movies, drag culture. Once I discovered drag, it was like I found myself and my look. It was like finding my real family. Was it the queerness of it? Yes, but it was also the humor in it, the clowniness and the dryness and sarcasm.
You seemed to be playing with a lot of tropes and stereotypes about women—playing with them, mocking them. It was a kind of Barbie-on-steroids thing, with a little acid in the mix as well, yeah?
It was very much about fucking with every code. There was also this big grunge thing going on, which seemed to be about everyone trying to look as ugly as possible, and so we thought, Let’s turn the tables on this: We’re women, we’re attractive, and we’re going to go way over the top and twist ideas of beauty, of feminism, of drag. We had various waitress outfits, nurse outfits—one of which I first wore in a Patricia Field show that my friend designed for. Sometimes the outfits weren’t even thought out; they just happened.
At some point in the early '90s, a kind of movement coalesced centered around girl groups in the indie rock scene and the punk scene, and that came to be known as Riot Grrrl—yet you’re pretty outspoken about Lunachicks not being a Riot Grrrl band, and the notion of Lunachicks as a feminist band seems to be a tricky question—
We were so clearly feminist as a band, though we didn’t really use that label—and then Riot Grrrl happened, and sometimes we played with bands or at a place that was more directly branded as a Riot Grrl thing. The difference, as I see it, was the feminist theory that went along with a lot of Riot Grrrl, which we were just completely oblivious to—none of us had finished college, and we didn’t talk about our trauma; we were just doing our thing. But because we were all playing loud music, or something, people generally lumped us all together into the same scene.
Did you consciously set out to write about intense things like bulimia, or was that just a word or a storyline that came out?
I had a friend who was bulimic, and there was a lot of anorexia in my family. I certainly knew that eating disorders were a part of life, and then seeing this after-school special about bulimia… those after-school specials were so funny, and so shitty, and so melodramatic—as a writer, I loved being able to take things like that and play around with them.
How did you come to be shot by Richard Avedon?
Eventually I started modeling—I was also go-go dancing in gay clubs during the Disco Bloodbath time—but at one point I was cast for a shoot for Ck Be, which was a Calvin Klein fragrance. That whole year was like the year I really became myself: I did that campaign, and I broke up with my boyfriend, and we had our biggest Lunachicks tour with Rancid and Offspring. It was like a blossoming moment. But shooting with Avedon… I was just blown away, and he was so cool. Such an amazing person. We shot a commercial after the shoot and after I was interviewed by Doon Arbus, Diane Arbus’s daughter. I just felt incredibly lucky. And the pictures are like—I look terrible. [laughing] It was either Kevyn Aucoin or Francois Nars doing the makeup and Orlando Pita doing hair. It was horrifying.
For a punk-rock girl, you’ve had some intense brushes with celebrity: You did aerobics with Madonna—I think your mom dragged you to the class, if I recall right—and Lady Gaga opened up for your later experimental band Theo & the Skyscrapers.
She used to come to this party I had with Michael T and Peppermint GummyBear called Rated X: The Panty Party—it ran for seven years in the early 2000s at various places downtown—and we played together at the Knitting Factory. It was just her and my friend Lady Starlight, who was spinning records while Gaga was singing and dancing. I was like, I don’t get it. But we were talking backstage and I remember her saying, “Yeah, I mean I’m going to LA, they kind of want to make me into an Amy Winehouse or something, I don’t know.” And this was less than a year before the whole world knew about her.
I think giving your kid an instrument is the best thing you can do as a parent.
Is it weird to raise a daughter now, having grown up with your own creative, musical parents and having wildly rebelled against them—is the chicken coming home to hatch?
There are times when I’m like, Oh my god, I just sounded like my mom. But we’re raising her in a way that’s incredibly honest and open. She’s very into fashion; she’s making her own solo music. She made me a song for Mother’s Day—she sings and writes and made this song on GarageBand all by herself. She has a band called Food Disorder and she plays guitar and keyboards with that. She’s 10, and she’s got star quality in her blood. She’s got this combination of Sean’s star quality and wildness [Theo’s husband, Sean Pierce, is the guitarist in the legendary Toilet Boys] and my humor and common sense. And she does roller derby, and she’s amazing at it.
I also really just want to say that my generation was given Barbie Dolls and a bunch of other things that contributed to poor self-image, and I think giving your kid an instrument is the best thing you can do as a parent—whether they love it or not; just try. Especially with girls—give them drums or a guitar.
Last question: Have you seen the Linda Lindas video?
[laughs] Oh. My. God. So many people sent that to me—I was like “Thanks! OMG!” “Thanks! OMG!” “Thanks! OMG!” Scroll, scroll, scroll. It’s incredible, though—they’re so amazing, and I’m so happy they got signed.
Originally Appeared on Vogue