Get intimate with Emily Allan, Ruby McCollister, Leah Hennessey, the stars and creators of cult-favorite web series Zhe Zhe, as they disclose how they make it happen on a shoestring budget with their closest friends.
Whether you saw us feature Zhe Zhe back in the fall, or are just hearing about it now, now’s a good time to catch up on this one-of-a-kind web series as they gear up for season two. Zhe Zhe is an original web series crossing illuminati aesthetics with old Hollywood, drag, and camp. Needless to say, we’re big fans. So when we heard they were doing a Kickstarter, we figured it was time to sit down to talk about how they make the magic happen on the interwebs and IRL.
Leah Victoria Hennessey, Emily Allan, and Ruby McCollister are the stars of Zhe Zhe, the absurdist web series about two fame-whoring friends, Mona De Liza (Ruby) and Jean D’Arc (Leah), living in New York City of an alternate reality, trying to make their band the next big thing. Jean and Mona’s former bandmate and wealthy-benefactor-turned-genderfluid-popstar and arch nemesis, Chewie Swindleburne (Emily) is a part of a larger conspiracy that reveals itself throughout the course of season one.
It’s desperately uncool to call something “ironic” now, and either way, that’s not how I would describe Zhe Zhe. The web series is its own brand of surreal, one where extreme earnestness sits next to the offensively rude and “hashtag problematic”. You’ve probably never seen anything like it.
The Zhe Zhe team is made up of all-native New Yorkers (with the exception of Ruby, who grew up in Hollywood, California), and also includes Director EJ O’Hara and Cinematographer Max Lakner. Zhe Zhe have put out six 15 to 20-minute episodes, all of which are usually uploaded onto Youtube in the middle of the night with little warning. From the beginning, the team has hosted intimate but very packed events for their friends and family in community spaces to celebrate the release of new episodes, and they still do.
This past month, they set out on their next great adventure: launching a Kickstarter campaign to fund their second season, which is promised to bring the show to cult-classic status.
Zhe Zhe is just the next notch in the belt of a group of young people who have been working together for almost ten years (and yes, they’re only in their mid-twenties!). From taking editorial photos inspired by Joy Division and Greek mythology in their teens and directing their own editorial spread for Paper Magazine, to starting the literary magazine Fakehead and putting on a community production of Jean Genet’s The Maids, Leah and company have been at this for a while. For as varied as their projects seem, the crew considers them all to be re-iterations of the same idea. And Zhe Zhe they’re calling the best iteration yet.
Leah, Emily, and Ruby are not the only people writing, directing, and starring in their own web series or a TV show, nor is Zhe Zhe the only web series exploring what it means to live in a fame-obsessed society. However, what’s makes Zhe Zhe so unique is how truly DIY it is – it’s the result of many sleepless nights, using very little resources, handmade costumes reminiscent of elaborate theater productions and glamrock shows, and the close friendships that come with pouring your heart and soul into a project.
We sat down with the three Zhe Zhe stars to talk fame, desperation, influences, and the exciting world of crowdfunding.
Zhe Zhe developed out of your close friendships and the various projects you’ve worked on together over the past ten years. Can you tell us the story of how it all ended up coming together?
LVH: I feel like there’s not a wide variety of things that I really, really enjoy doing. I pretty much have liked doing the same thing my whole life. Like when I was in kindergarden I would come in every day with a story I wanted to tell. I would say to my friends, okay, you’re the bad guy, you’re the medicine woman... Then we’d spend all of story day cutting out paper crowns, dressing up with stuffed animals, and putting on a play for our our parents when they came to pick us up at after-school. That was the first thing I ever liked to do.
In my next round of education I didn’t have the opportunity to do that anymore. But as soon as I was not in an oppressive educational environment, as soon as I started to have like-minded friends who didn’t mind putting on a wig, making up a story or acting out a myth with me, I was immediately doing that. I guess this was when I was 16 and going to Bard High School. I just like to do the same thing over and over again. I have the same ideas over and over again. I like to work with the same people, and I like to kind of copy myself. People think that by not referencing something, they’re doing something original, but really, that’s the best way to make something generic. For me, style is copying the things you love and then you start to copy yourself.
I don’t really have any friends who I don’t collaborate with. If I do, they are former collaborators and I’m just trying to find a new way to collaborate with them. I don’t have other kinds of friendship really. I’ve known Ruby since she was born. Ruby and I started working on stuff before we were friends. We became friends working on stuff. We were forced to be family before we had the choice.
RM: Our parents went to college together. We were family friends at the kids table.
LVH: Emily had been in my extended community for years before I grabbed her and pulled her into the orbit. We worked together on a lot of things, including an acting workshop that scaffolded the characters we use in the show. I always wanted a theater company, but the web series is definitely the best and most successful iteration of the group.
RM: Before we started Zhe Zhe, I think we were looking for something that could be an expression of joy and excitement rather than sadness or pain.
LVH: We were taking ourselves too seriously. We did a Jean Genet play [The Maids]. I’d been obsessed with Lars von Trier and Dogma filmmaking. I think we kind of got burnt out and thought, let’s just put on some wigs and sing some songs. But somehow that unleashed all of this intensity.
EA: I think everyone who’s in Zhe Zhe has this idea of taking the things that we hold dearest, the most sacred things, the things that make you feel the most vulnerable and just destroying them and violating them and trying to make fun of them. And I think that’s why the show can be so offensive and irreverent. But I don’t think it comes off as just a cheap parody. Ultimately, I think it creates some other world that we might like to live in.
LVH: It’s like some kind of positive horcrux making magic.
EA: Yeah, it’s some kind of alchemy.
LVH: I think the most intense thing about the Zhe Zhe process – which starts with an inside joke or an obsession or a reference – is when we touch upon something that feels too sacred or special or beautiful. I’ll say, no no no, I don’t want to make fun of that! For instance, my character Jean becoming prog. EJ, the director really pushed that to happen with my character. I’m not particularly into 70s progressive rock but it is true that my interior world of magical woodland creatures and white face paint and the dragons and unicorns and the English countryside is my genuine happy place. I wasn’t ready to make fun of it, even though it’s so campy. EJ kind of pushed it there and was like, “Jean is a prog, this is a part of you,” and it was really horrifying. It was the part of myself that’s weirdly private and self-serious and child-like.
I don’t know how other comedians feel about this kind of stuff. I wanna know what Trey Parker and Matt Stone feel when they make fun of something they believe in or love. Because I don’t know if it’s always so alchemical and painful. Maybe we’re just not mature enough.
RM: Maybe we don’t drink enough beer. It is definitely scary sometimes.
LVH: It’s very dark, it’s very hateful. We always say the word “exorcism” when we describe Zhe Zhe. But it’s important to me that it makes people laugh and that it makes people happy. At the end of the day, it is a comedy, and it doesn’t matter what people get about our bigger ideals or ideology. I just want people to think it’s funny and weird and laugh.
EA: When we screened episodes four, five, and six at the 6th Street Community Center in the Lower East Side, the director Howard – who’s a grumpy curmudgeon who only cares about rent control laws and community gardening, he was my after school teacher when I was a kid – was giving me such a hard time about the whole event. He did not believe people were coming. He didn’t understand. He was like, “I can’t believe you roped me into doing this again.” He’s someone who did not get one reference of the million references of the show – he didn’t get the prog references or the Hollywood references or the contemporary illuminati reptilian references or anything. At the end of the screening, he came up to me in tears and said, “That was the first time in 30 years I’ve been in a room with people laughing together. This is medicine, you need to get this into the auditoriums.”
I can watch the episodes over and over and find new things that I hadn’t noticed before and laugh at different parts. It’s comforting in the same way that it’s comforting to watch my favorite movies or read my favorite books or go on my favorite websites. But what I’m really interested in is seeing something that feels so niche, esoteric, and insider act as a starting point for bringing people together.
In terms of the madness of the project, I’m sure a lot of the conceptual and detail-oriented parts are done in moments of mania. What personal experiences makes you pursue such an absurdist project?
LVH: Part of what seems so intimate and unmentionable and exhausting and scary about what we do with Zhe Zhe is how intense all of our relationships are. This isn’t a Tarkovsky set, you know. We’re not Herzog in the jungle, we are in the city, usually in my apartment, in a pretty controlled environment. So why does it feel so dangerous, so extreme, so arduous? It’s because of the relationships we have with each other.
For the whole first season, it was the five of us (we recently added another couple friends into the mix working on costumes and other behind-the-scenes tasks). We always joke about being the Fleetwood Mac of web series. The core team are the four most intense relationships in my life outside of my blood family. Shit gets really crazy. There are no boundaries, that’s the least professional thing about the project. I’ve worked on very exhausting and arduous projects before where there were more boundaries between the collaborators, and it was a breeze! Just getting a paycheck. This team is more like a band, in terms of where it exists in our collective psyche.
EA: Which is its own particular strain of madness.
LVH: We’re five huge, needy personalities. No matter what’s going on with us, between us, Zhe Zhe is always more important. That’s what feels so crazy. We’re able to get through stuff that would tear most people a part.
EA: As more and more people realize that self-care isn’t an individualized thing, but about taking care of your community, Zhe Zhe is an example of a group of people that use a crazy project to keep tabs on each other and care for one another.
LVH: We’re very much learning how to and when to tell one another to leave personal stuff out of the studio and when to bring it into our work to make it stronger.
Sarah Nicole Prickett says Lana Del Rey’s “rejection of upwardly mobile feminism and/or high-class femininity in favor of fatalistic glamour and female-to-female drag makes her a gender deserter to some, but a godsend to most”. Somehow this really reminds me of the campy girls of Zhe Zhe. Can you talk about how you “do gender” on the show?
LVH: There are a lot of things that we could say about that. For me, the gender stuff has different functions in the show. One of them is that of violating and destroying and caricaturing what is most sacred to us. The parts of myself that are most vulnerable and private, are the very same parts that are tied up with my feelings about performing femininity, the androgynousness of the soul or whatever. I say “whatever” because the stuff that is important and intimate for me gets turned into this clown character of Jean – it might not be translating and it’s not important to me that it does. Stuff that is fragile and beautiful for me gets turned into something brash and stupid and wrong and horrifying.
The other element of the show is that the characters are cultural opportunists. Since we started Zhe Zhe, the wave of progressive ideology surrounding gender in America has happened so quickly. It’s astounding, just in the past two years. So, I think we’ve changed with it. Even if we don’t feel cynical about it, the way it appears on the show is becoming more and more cynical as a reaction. I think Jean and Mona especially are hopping on the gender-fluidity bandwagon. So, are we as the creators of Zhe Zhe also doing that? Who knows, I don’t think so, but the characters definitely are.
EA: I think the main characters have very antiquated ideas about how gender works, and what it means to perform and subvert gender.
LVH: They’re living in another century.
RM: Definitely. Mona is so ignorant. She’s living in like the 40s.
LVH: Chewie is the smartest of all of them. Jean thinks she’s smart but she’s really as ignorant as it gets. Jean and Mona are so dumb I think that they would do blackface, they just do not get it. They have no social responsibility. They have no civic responsibility. They have no political ideology. They are completely narcissistic and fame obsessed. They will do whatever it takes to get famous and be culturally relevant.
EA: Chewie is slightly more terrifying because she has at least a marginal understanding of gender performativity. She has read maybe one book.
RM: Chewie also really gets pop music. She’s current.
EA: Yes, she’s more current, and you can see that in the references she invokes.
LVH: Meanwhile, Jean thinks we’re living in the 70s.
EA: Chewie thinks she can be radical and groundbreaking and can use that cultural relevance to achieve world domination. Quite simply, she’s evil, she’s an evil girl, and I think no matter how much it gets done, performing evil is just infinitely seductive because evil is defiant. Laughing. I think Chewie’s real problem is that she’s isolated and alone because of her class ... She’s part of the 1%.
You’re in the final stretch of what will no doubt be a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign. What’s your impression of crowdfunding campaigns, and what are you looking forward to doing with the money you’re raising?
EA: Success for us is not going viral or getting picked up by Netflix or getting corporate sponsorship. It is $10,000 to make the second season out of small contributions from of our friends and family. So far, most of our donations on Kickstarter have been under $50.
LVH: Based on the options I know about, using this kind of funding scheme is the only way we’d want to make our show at this point. The thing about Zhe Zhe is that it’s an end in itself. We’re really making use of our series’ medium. We don’t want to be a TV show. As will be revealed over the course of season 2, there are a lot of reasons this show is on the internet. It’s so amazing and important to have events like the ones at 6th Street Community Center where we watch the show all together and have this theatrical experience – lots of people say it’s like watching a play and not watching a video at all. But if it wasn’t on the internet it would be about something totally different. I think this show is a reflection of the way we see the world that we live in. It’s about the communities that we are a part of and about the communities that we’re building for our friends. We were talking about a how Zhe Zhe is a public access TV show, not just for a zip code but for a code of the cybersphere. There’s something so adolescent about Zhe Zhe and it always feels to me like when I was 13 and I would get into a band that nobody knew of. I’d make a button or a T-shirt, and it felt good that nobody around me knew of the band, and yet the reason I wore it was as a homing device to find people. I was always looking for that. Zhe Zhe is very much that, it’s the most costume-deluxe band t-shirt or the coolest, most obscure band of my imagination. It’s cool to walk around not having people understand it, but we are looking for community.
EA: Also, we have Zhe Zhe t-shirts available as prize rewards on our Kickstarter!
Photos by Ada Banks.