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They are festive, bright knit garments in solid colors or, at their jazziest, maybe an animal print. Their most distinguishing characteristic, though, is a neckline crowded with all manner of shiny baubles, mainly rhinestones and bugle beads. And these tops are often abandoned by the dozens, criminally forgotten in the dustier sections of the local thrift store.
There is an official term for them, according to Leslie Hall: They are "gem sweaters," and their rare beauty and craftsmanship have been overlooked, she says. So the 24-year-old is dedicated to preserving their visual range and history through tinny, Keytar-backed rap songs. Of course.
If Hall were from Williamsburg, Brooklyn; wore an asymmetrical haircut; and were pasty, skinny, and pierced, the spectacle of her band, Leslie & the LY's, would be a nauseating exercise in irony. Instead she prefers a ponytail that looks as if it were teased skyscraper-high just in time for a fitful nap. Gigantic, square, aquarium-thick glasses frame the garish blue eye shadow she favors. And, yes, that's her real, ample flesh poured into metallic spandex tights and jumpsuits. It's the getup for a woman who bellows lyrics like: "Line the pan with Crisco while I dance this disco."
Is she from outer space? No, rather Ames, Iowa, boasting a population of just more than 50,000 and no state highway. Surely such a rare creature, apparently so oblivious to mainstream pop culture, would be easy prey for bullies in the sticks. But Hall's entire existence seems to defy easy stereotypes. And guess what? She actually liked high school. Not only does she run an alumni Website, ameshighschool.com, but also she was the class-of-2000 prom queen, with pictures to prove it.
Cynics who approach Hall looking for the catch will be disappointed. Although she might be shy offstage, there's no turning off what at first looks like an act. She is disarmingly sweet and apparently lacks any modicum of self-consciousness, qualities that quickly boosted her Web presence. Besides posting music videos and tracks on social networking sites like MySpace and YouTube, Hall maintains an astonishing array of personal sites. Besides the high school page, there's her band's homepage www.leslieandthelys.com a dizzying portal to a store, fan club, and more. Then, of course, there's the original site that launched a thousand rhymes www.gemsweater.com an online archive for Hall's creation, the Mobile Museum of Gem Sweaters. Yes, she might hail from the rural Midwest, but thanks to the Internet, she has garnered a small legion of fanatical followers nationwide. You can spot them at a show by what else? their gem sweaters, which Hall individually christens during the climax of her live show. Although she doesn't tour often, the upcoming Poplife party marks her second appearance in Miami in the past year. Head on out before she returns to Iowa or the mother ship.