It's a Tuesday night around 10 PM, and it's obvious who the preschoolers in this bar are. They're the ones wearing costume jewelry and animal hats, the ones led by the woman with the silver lame dress, feather boa, and pipe cleaners and macaroni woven into her bright pink hair. This is Michelle Joni Lapidos—Miss Joni to her charges in adult preschool—and she looks like what would happen if Ariel from The Little Mermaid grew up on the Lower East Side. She's got that unmistakable charisma common to all good preschool teachers, an aura, though I couldn't say what color that aura is. Is glitter a color?
The idea for the Preschool Mastermind class came to Lapidos over New Year's, when she was at a lesbian wedding. The 30-year-old enlisted the help of her friend Candice Kilpatrick, a.k.a. Miss CanCan, who has a master's in teaching, and together they hammered out the details: Students would apply for a spot in the ten-person class, pay anywhere from $333 to $999 if accepted, and attend about a month's worth of weekly classes. The first day of class was March 3, and the next week led them to Freddy's Bar—an odd place to roleplay as four-year-olds, some might say. In fact, that's what I said to Miss Joni. But she told me I was missing the point.
"It's not about acting like you're four," she clarified while paying for her preschoolers' drinks. "It's about remembering how to explore and be excited."
I wasn't the only one who was confused by the premise, if not downright annoyed by it. Media outlets immediately jumped on Preschool Mastermind as soon as the Village Voice wrote about it in January, mostly to deride it as another gauche happening in bizarre, bourgeoisie Brooklyn. Local blog Brokelyn was skeptical, and Jezebel described Lapidos as a "manic pixie dream girl." Not knowing what to think, and expecting there was probably more to the story, I went to meet them at a South Brooklyn bar to see these adult preschoolers for myself.
The first one I ran into was Steven Chu, a diminutive man with a spiky fauxhawk who laughs into his hands like the Stefan character from "Weekend Update" and does a very funny impression of Tyra Banks as a reality show judge. He knew Miss Joni before becoming her pupil—to him, she's a friend and spiritual adviser, and he's taking the class as part of an endless path to better himself through weekly events.
It became immediately apparent that this wasn't a group of strangers. Although early press for Miss Joni's preschool made note of an application requirement, it seemed like no one really filled one out. Miss Joni does tons of similar projects, and I got the impression that she could get her fans to sign up for whatever pops into her imagination. Chu, for instance, met Lapidos at a self-empowerment workshop, followed her on Facebook, and started coming to events she hosted, like an early-evening dance party called the Get Down.
"Generally I'm interested in anything she does," Chu says.
Packaging and selling saccharine goodness runs in her family. Michelle's dad, Mark Lapidos, started the Beatles Fest to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the group's arrival in America and has been heading the business ever since. Besides a five-year stint at Sam Goody, it's been his only job. After graduating from the University of Delaware with a degree in fashion merchandising, Joni started looking for creative ways to make money too. She bounced around various fashion magazine internships, she says, before becoming an editor at Spa Week, where she would post videos in which she'd get a colonic or review various beauty treatments. (Her résumé also includes an appearance in Wet Hot American Summer when she was 16.)
In 2009, she started NYC Game Blog—a creative project in which she interviewed local celebrities about their favorite places in the city, and then document her going there. In 2012, she started another blog called Before and Afro, which consisted of her wearing a giant fake afro to understand the world better or something. Not surprisingly, people found this idea very offensive.
Looking to bounce back from this controversy, she started the club that would eventually define her oeuvre. Her Skipping Club, which got written up in the New York Times last year, charged participants $20 for a curated, rhythmic romp around town. She's trying to turn her passions into a full-time job, just as her dad and his idols did.
"I'm a serial creator," Lapidos explains. "When the Beatles phenomenon happened, everything they did was original."
And just like her dad created an entire festival for Beatles devotees, Lapidos has assembled a series of events based around the idea that adults need to become more childlike, that there's something noble and maybe even spiritual about finger-painting or skipping or seeing the world with a sense of cynicism-free glee. She's proven to be very good at generating publicity for these schemes—and though they might sound bizarre on the surface, they always seem to attract some customers.
Customers like Amanda Devereux, a New York attorney originally from rural Western Pennsylvania. The 33-year-old looks like a slightly off-kilter Katy Perry with a little Monica Lewinsky mixed in. Devereux met Miss Joni at the Get Down and instantly gravitated toward her, for reasons she can't quite explain. "She was dressed like Michelle, and I thought she was so high," Devereux recalls. "And I was like, 'How is someone so high at 7 PM?' And I realized that was just her personality."
The attorney told me she has never had more than two drinks at a time, but frequently takes two bags of Pepperidge Farm to the face. Her sugar addiction got so bad at one point that she had to start mixing up what store she went to out of embarrassment. "I started reading all these things about black-out drunks, and it totally made sense to me," said Devereux, who also self-identifies as "an early adopter of the selfie stick." Now that she's cut back to only eating baked goods "socially," she considers the class her main form of relaxation, and compares it to "going to the spa."
Besides Devereux, there's Sarah Fader, a woman who runs a nonprofit that raises awareness about panic disorder and who happens to be friends with Miss Joni's co-teacher, a woman who goes by "Miss CanCan." Then there's Hanna Agar, a portrait photographer who met Lapidos as a restaurant, instantly signed up for her skipping class, and has been an acolyte ever since. There's also a guy named Eco who has one long dread and wears a Barack Obama shirt over very thin paisley pants. When I asked if he was a roommate of Miss Joni's, he cryptically replied "something like that," but I assumed he didn't pay for the class in any case.
"I want everyone to work on coming up with a creative way to stand up as homework."
The week after the bar meeting, I went to Lapidos's apartment to get a better idea of what the preschool experience was like when the participants weren't in public. The first thing I noticed about Miss Joni's Playroom—the fantasy space that's down a spiral staircase in her apartment—is that her personal brand is everywhere. There's a framed photo of her logo, and the same trademark has been affixed to her cell phone case and printed onto stickers that she happily passes out at random. There's also Beatles ephemera everywhere, dim lighting, incense, and notes all over the walls that says things like, "People have forgotten how to trust themselves and play. Routine makes us disenchanted. Cured by freedom and innocence."
The ten preschoolers—along with Miss CanCan's actual child—sat cross-legged on a rubber alphabet mat in a circle. We were ready to begin.
"I want everybody to stand up," Miss Joni said. They stood up, then she told them to sit down again. "Now sit up," she commanded like a drill sergeant. "Now sit down."
Then she asked, "Does anyone like getting up and getting down again?" Miss CanCan's son shot his hand in the air. "See? Preschoolers don't mind getting up and down again because they're so full of energy," Miss Joni pointed out. "I want everyone to work on coming up with a creative way to stand up as homework."
Her next instruction was for everyone to "shake their sillies out." Devereux shimmed in pigtails and a pink sweater while Chu, who was wearing a tye-dyed short-sleeved button-up, hula danced to the YouTube video projecting from a wall-mounted screen.
It was picture day, so Agar, the portrait photographer turned preschooler, let everyone take turns posing with his or her silliest face. Meanwhile everyone snacked on hummus, pastries, and chocolate milk. Devereaux, the pastry addict, distracted herself with a 96-pack of Crayola and a Minnie Mouse coloring book.
Then, when we went back downstairs, the class took a self-helpy turn. Chu read a passage to the class on how to make "commercial for yourself" – basically a short, self-affirming speech that's read in the third-person.
"Can I just say I would join a Steven Chu fan club?" said Sarah Fader, the nonprofit runner, who was wearing a Pusheen hoodie. The class took turns congratulating one another for being so positive.
At this point Miss CanCan's son—the only actual child in the room—got bored and started playing on an iPad.
Later, when I asked Chu what the class meant to him, he made it sound like a quasi-religious experience. It was just before nap time, and the class was getting ready to be read Oh, the Places You'll Go! by Dr. Seuss.
"I'm getting emotional and I don't know why," he told me. As he struggled to articulate his gratitude for Miss Joni, his eyes grew cloudy and red. "The more people laugh at what she's doing, she's like, 'I don't give a fuck what people think. It doesn't matter.'"
He paused for a moment. "There are so many times in adult life where people say you can't do something," he whispered, now fighting back full-blown tears. "To see someone going for it is really inspirational."
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