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Beth Lapides: The Joke's on Voters : Comedy: Performance artist kicks off shtick to make America's top female position elective.

March 21, 1992|JUDITH MICHAELSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At the drop of a hint from a photographer and with an eye to her best profile, Beth Lapides drapes herself in the American flag, puts hand over heart and tosses her upswept hair-doed head with an air of defiance.

One thing you can say about this comedian-performance artist who is about to announce her candidacy for First Lady: She knows photo opportunities.

Running for First Lady?

"First Lady is such an important position," explains Lapides in her compact East Hollywood apartment that doubles as a campaign headquarters of sorts with pink First Lady buttons, campaign letters and, of course, the flag. "She has global influence. And how does she get her job? By sleeping with the President. And it seemed to me the American people should have a choice for who holds (that) position.

"So I decided to be the one, always being so far ahead of my time."

Lapides, who announces tonight and next Saturday night at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica, insists her candidacy is "an act of citizenship." She couldn't just stand on the sidelines having "conniptions" over the political situation, "and I knew I wasn't going to be able to shut up about the election."

So what "started out as a joke" in her one-woman shows, this "First Lady thing" ripened this presidential season into a full-fledged gig. "Like any creative thing, it wouldn't go away.

"Just to clarify," says Lapides, she's not about to disrupt the marital relationship between President and spouse. She too is married--to Gregory Miller, who defines himself as "campaign manager, husband, masseuse and screenwriter."

Rather, Lapides sees the First Lady as a kind of co-President who will keep the Chief Executive "on his toes--or her toes." Forget a Constitutional Amendment; this is "grass roots." Even winning isn't that important.

"I don't really care if it's me," she says. "But since no one else is running, I have to. If it's me, fine. Gloria Steinem, fine. Madonna. In fact I believe (First Lady) could be a man. It could be Ted Turner. He'd probably colorize the White House. Turn the White House into a multiculti home," she says. "Multicultural. The Rainbow House."

"You know, people think this is an anti-Barbara Bush thing," Lapides continues. "I say, 'Free Barbara.' That's one of my campaign slogans. Equal pay, equal work. It's not anti- her . . . ," though Lapides quickly adds she finds the President's wife "too conservative . . . love Hillary (Clinton). Wish she could be President; she's spunky . . . And I love the fact that Jerry Brown doesn't have a First Lady."

Behind Lapides' humor lies a woman who, in the long tradition of political comedians, wants to use her art to effect change. Or as her press release says, "to address serious issues of gender and national politics."

"The whole posse of them--the (Sen. Jesse) Helms, (Cardinal Roger) Mahony, Bush posse--if they're going to use politics to control culture, we should take culture and control politics with it," says Lapides, lumping the National Endowment for the Arts controversy with the cardinal's campaign to alter movie codes. "If they're trying to make art political, then let's make politics artful ."

Her performances will benefit Highways, recently denied a $5,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant. Tim Miller, Highways' artistic director and a gay activist, is one of the "NEA 4" suing in federal court over grants that were at first approved, then vetoed, in 1990.

Naturally, Lapides has a platform--some of which evolves as she speaks. "I don't mean to make a joke of politics, but why not lighten it up?"

The very word change needs changing, says Lapides.

"As First Lady, I'll try to focus taking the idea of change and thinking of it as a make-over because the idea of make-over isn't so scary to people. . . . The steel plants are closing. Forget the steel plants, and let's finally have solar power. . . . The President's agenda has always been to avert the bang. But what about the whimper? Will the world end because of nuclear war--or because of ecological destruction or slowly repressed freedoms of expression?"

As First Lady she would change the National Anthem. "I think the whole idea of 'rockets red glare, bombs bursting in air' is over. Do we really need to bond over that? I'm thinking either 'Que Sera Sera' or 'Smells Like Teen Spirit,' a Nirvana song--a rousing rally cry that you totally can't understand the words, so everybody can just sort of think what they want and feel roused together.

"Do we want to support space stations?" she continues. "As First Lady, I think this space program really needs to be rethought. Our whole approach to space has been very male. We went up to the moon. We walked around on it. And we never came back. We never called. We never wrote. It's the typical one-night stand."

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