What’s in a name? More specifically, what’s in the name Mel? We’re not so sure ourselves, but our new series, the MEL Questionnaire, is an attempt to find some answers — by asking a set of overly personal (and sometimes goofy) questions of Mels of all shapes and sizes.
The first to take the plunge? Mel Shimkovitz: the comedian, actor, writer and artist who’s made a career as a creative shapeshifter. She’s stolen scenes on both seasons of Transparent, hosted parties around L.A. under her DJ name Macho Mel, appeared in web videos alongside Nina Hartley and the voice of Wanda Sykes, and launched a line of ceramic bolo ties. In the 2000s, she founded and ran the record label Voodoo-Eros, which put out music by “freak folk” artists CocoRosie and Devendra Banhart. Her latest project is a short film she wrote and will star in alongside her brother Brian (who’s behind the blog Awesome Tapes From Africa) that’s hitting the festival circuit this summer.
How’d you get the name Mel?
My mom had, like, eight friends who named their kids Melissa the year I was born, so I also got that name. The late 1970s were big for Heathers, Jennifers and Melissas. My parents were Jews in Chicago, but they had really pastoral, WASP-y leanings. I grew up right outside of the city in Skokie — the most populated Holocaust survivor town in the world at one time. I always thought it was funny that I have such a WASP-y first name and such a Jew-y last name: Melissa Shimkovitz.
It was hard to make it work, especially looking like this. I don’t mind Melissa, but it bristles other people when they have to look at someone so masculine and they have to call me Melissa. If I say Mel, you’re at least less surprised when I walk in a room; it’s just easier for people.
Nickname growing up?
I was a tiny kid so when I played sports they couldn’t fit Shimkovitz on the back of my jersey. My dad just ironed on SHIMKY instead, so I got that a lot.
I got a lot of “Lez-bovitz” and “Shimko-dyke” as well. Those were really popular nicknames. And also Marvin. I guess that was more of my nickname: I had an alter ego named Marvin, my identical twin cousin. I would dress up as Marvin, go into show-and-tell, tell all these lies about my ’57 Chevy at McDonald’s and things like that.
I was allowed to do that until I was 9 — at that point my mom looked around the room and was like, “No one else is doing this.” Marvin was forcefully estranged, but now I’m part Marvin, part Mel.
My first memory is crawling out of my crib, lowering myself onto my diaper pail, falling to the floor and crawling to my bedroom door. I couldn’t actually open the door so I would just scratch at it and squeak. My family would call me the little mouse because that’s what I did. This went on for weeks. They pulled the diaper pail away so that I wouldn’t do it anymore, but I would just do it anyway and fall onto the ground.
My friends with babies tell me that you can figure out a kid’s personality in that first year. I was about a year old when I was doing that, and that’s my personality today: kinda tenacious, kinda stupid, both at the same time. I keep going for it; it doesn’t matter.
Last time you wrote a letter?
I’m a serial thank-you-letter writer so I probably wrote one a couple days ago to a friend of mine who had me over for dinner. People love thank-you notes. They will say, “I have to thank you for your thank-you note.” They never forget it, so much so that when you do something later that seems suspect, they’ll go back to the memory of the thank-you note and say, “I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. She’s not that shady because she sent that thank-you note for almost nothing.” And I do send them for almost nothing. That’s almost a better time to do it.
It’s Tramadol, also known as Ultram. It was a favorite for a very long time. Sometimes you have a favorite that you can’t let go of and can’t get rid of it. I had back pain all the time. Lower back pain. Sciatica. They call it Jew poison, yeah? It’s from your financial chakra or possibly connected to your psoas muscle, which is your deep fight-or-flight abdomen muscle that pulls on the nerve. Usually it happens to someone who’s on edge all the time.
Do you have a rival?
My sister, who is three years older — she was definitely my rival growing up. Everything that I am was in reaction to who she was. She was the sorority girl, quieter, cerebral, liked to go to bed early, not that social. So I was the opposite. We continually battled over ownership of my little brother. I don’t know if I have a rival now… the patriarchy, that’s my rival.
If you had to pack up everything and relocate, where would you go?
Maybe just a few blocks north of where I live now, more up the hills in Mount Washington. I was in New York City for 12 years, and I thought I could never leave. I think it was Annie Leibovitz who said, “New York ruins you on every city in the world, including New York.” But then I came to Los Angeles for the first time for a couple months. I stayed on the East Side, and I met some people. I was like, “Oh, you, we can be friends. I’m a 35-year-old adult, but I think I can make new friends.”
The art scene was so optimistic and everyone was so welcoming, positive, fun and celebratory. Things were joyous. The effect of darkness and skepticism was really just New York, and I was ready to feel different. It’s easy to do that when you surround yourself with people who are feeling different, and in Los Angeles, we all look around like, “Let’s only work 40 hours a week. Let’s treat our bodies well and bury our skepticism and talk about distance healing sessions in crystal bowls. Let’s agree that we’re all gonna be nice to each other and support each other’s work. And let’s not care if people in New York care about what we’re doing.”
It’s been such a relief. I’ve made better work in this part of my career than I ever have before. I feel like California really welcomed me, opened up its arms. Every day I wake up I see a palm tree. Being from the Midwest, I feel like I’m always on vacation. There’s never a bad day.
What were you in a past life?
I’ve been told twice I was a shtetl clown, a two-spirit shtetl clown in the Old World, probably in Poland. This was a jester character in the Yiddish community that would perform at events. The first time I heard this was during a past-life trip when I was 19 at a vortex in Sedona. The next time I heard it a friend was like, “Hey, I had this vision of you when I was taking nitrous at the dentist.” So you do the math.
What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
I was working for a notoriously grumpy film producer. This was right out of college. I was an actor and also a writer, and I loved computers and edited all the time. I was new to New York and I got an opportunity to do this job and I just wanted to be in the industry and see what was going on. This was 2000 when someone who looked like me really couldn’t get a part. So I decided, let’s see what this side of the business is like. It was so horrible that it knocked me out of films for years and years. It really took a lot for me to come back after that.
And really the influx of independent filmmakers making films without the backing of powerful, rich, grumpy men allowed me to come back. It’s easier to come back now and have a lot of experience, success and failures in other realms and be able to do this and not take everything so personally. It’s a lot of rejection, acting. It’s like going on job interviews and getting rejected every week. Constantly.
What’s the worst piece of advice you’ve ever received?
You shouldn’t try and sing. I was told at a young age just not to sing, yeah. Nobody is a bad singer. Neil Young has a terrible voice… amazing singer, right? Singing is about selling a song. That’s what it’s about. Doing your own thing in your own style. It’s also the most vulnerable thing you can do with people. That’s why every religion has that; it takes you to that other place. Have you ever been in a room full of people and started singing and everyone joins in and it feels like a magical thing every time? It’s this thing, this common joy that as a species, especially in a place like Los Angeles, we don’t experience with each other anymore. My mom talked about Cronkite announcing that JFK died in a cafeteria, everyone watching the same television together. We really experience so little together anymore. Singing really does that.
Have you peaked?
No. Definitely not. I thought I had like three other times in my life. They weren’t at the moment when I thought I was peaking; it would be months later, like, “Y’know what, it’s downhill from here, that time a few months ago, that was it.” But I had so many phases — I keep reincarnating — so I haven’t hit my peak in this phase of my life at all. And if I had, I have no idea. You won’t really know until the end. I think my life is a mountain range. Like Everest or Denali, like a range. I’ll keep coming back.
What’s the highlight of your life thus far?
I’ve done a lot of stuff that feels really big, special and important, but if I think about a moment in my life — the happiest, the highlight, on a weighted scale — when I was 6 years old I won a raffle to be in the pumpkin in the Ice Capades “Cinderella,” and I got to ride around on the pumpkin. I remember it so clearly. I was never happier in my entire life than being pulled by a bunch of mice on skates at this huge Rosemont Horizon stadium in suburban Chicago. I remember giggling and not being able to stop. I couldn’t stop it. I don’t think I’ve felt like that since… sober. I’ve always been chasing the Ice Capades.
Best nap you’ve ever had?
You want to feel really safe when you’re napping, under the covers. Sometimes I don’t like to take naps because if I go to sleep when it’s light and wake up when it’s dark I want to kill myself. I missed the whole day; I don’t know what’s going on.
I have this place in New Mexico on the Rio Grande, and there’s this huge, huge iron boulder down there on the river that heats up during the day, and the river’s really cold — it’s ice water from the Rockies. So I go for a bracing dip and I lay on this rock; there’s nobody anywhere, way off the grid, you and a bunch of animals, nobody ever around. And you can take this nap, usually naked, outside, by yourself and feel that safe in that wide-open area. Those are my favorite naps.
What do you do with your free time?
I don’t even know what this is because I don’t really have a real job, so I feel like all of my time is free time, but since I’m always busy, every moment I’m awake I want to be producing something. I want to be productive. I’m either making ceramics, acting, helping a friend do something, plumbing, working on my house, on my car. I want to be always doing something. That’s why I don’t like naps; why I don’t smoke weed during the day or drink during the day. I want to be super productive until like 10 at night and then all I want to do is y’know, eat a huge meal and drink whiskey and watch documentaries. I mean go out and be social. But I mean, stay home and watch documentaries.
Do you talk to your exes?
I talk to my exes about my current girlfriend, that’s not even a joke, and dog custody matters. You have to find out what’s wrong with you from the old girlfriend to satisfy the new one. Usually it’s like, “Do more nurturing things!” Like cooking. And, “Let them finish their sentences!”
What do you compulsively hold onto and never throw away?
Art supplies, even when the ink is dry, even when the nib is broken.
What do you think about in the moments right before you fall asleep?
Ideas for car customization. I want to do a big tribal thing on the back of my truck, like the cheesiest tribal thing I can find, maybe in glitter and really flashy, ’cause all the paint is falling off. There’s a big old dyke in New Mexico who drives a truck that says “Casual Dream 2” on it, and I think about how I want to be that woman, driving a truck that says “Casual Dream 3.” And I also think about what “Casual Dream 1” looked like.
Zak Stone is MEL’s executive editor.