None of us knew anything about the cult "sport" of air guitar before last night. "I wonder if it's anything like figure skating?" asked Anna when she learned that I had signed myself up to cover the U.S. Air Guitar Championships, held last night at New York City's Fillmore Irving Plaza, after having discovered that [gasp!] two of this year's fifteen finalists were women! Women?! Playing air guitar?! Duuuuuuuuude! Turns out, air guitar is a lot like figure skating (same scoring range, lots of eye make-up, glittery costumes) But it's also an unexpected area of peace, love, and overwhelming sisterhood. Who knew, right? (Seriously, the whole thing was started by a bunch of Norwegians as a means of promoting world peace.) There were 17 contestants from 17 different American cities, and two of them, we learned, were women. Awesome! But what is it like to be a woman in a male-dominated realm that started off as the hobby of Black Sabbath loving, basement-bound teen boys and turned into a faux power chord competition? We talked to the competition's two female finalists, "McNallica" and "Psycho Airapist", about what it's like to be a girl in a guitar-geek's world.
The first of the two female contenders was Cami "Psycho Airapist" Phillippi, 29, the champion from Minneapolis, Minnesota (pictured above). Petite, bubbly, and downright gorgeous, she is not the kinda gal I expected to come across at, uh, the U.S. Air Guitar Championships.
Q: Can you tell me a little about yourself? What's your day job? How did you get into air guitar?
A: Should I answer in character?
Q: Sure, why not.
A: Well, about 6 months ago i was diagnosed with bipolar disease. So I saw this as a sign: Went and got my bachelor's degree in psychotherapy and here I am today!
Q: Okay, now answer out of character.
A: Well, I've always loved rock 'n' roll. Always. I know everyone always says that, but I really, really mean it. So maybe I first started thinking about this about a year and a half ago? But this is the 1st year I've entered the competition! I had been sorta thinking about [entering] and my friend actually registered for me [in the Minneapolis regional competition]! And y'know, if you win, you get $1000. But if I win, she gets $1000, too — for having been the one who made me be here!
Q: Okay, and what's your day job?
A: I'm a girls gymnastics coach and dance choreographer in Apple Valley, Minnesota. I coach girls ages 2-18. So it helps that I'm good with the backbends and the splits. And air guitar is an amazing work-out: I totally encourage my girls to do it.
Q: Do your students come out to watch you compete?
A: They totally do! When I competed in Minneapolis, I had more students and co-workers there than, like, family and friends. They are amazing. They all come out and watch. They're all so into it. They're very proud of me.
Q: Do you play real guitar too?
A: No! No real guitar at all. Only air guitar. I don't even know how to play Guitar Hero. I have it and it's still sitting in the box at home. Why would I want to play Guitar Hero when I could play air guitar?!
Q: You're one of two women competing. Do you have beauty rituals? As in, do you have to take care of your hands for air guitar competitions?
A: It's really about the rock when it comes to beauty. Y'know, the fake lashes, the black nail polish. teasing your hair as big as it will get.
Q: How did you get your name? How did the name change [from Airosol to Psycho Airapist] occur?
A: After I won in Minneapolis, I was just brainstorming about my performance, ways to be better. And than it hit me that it would be fun to have a character to work worth, to perform.
Q: Favorite song?
A: It's all about the G&R. I'm the youngest of my siblings, so I grew up influenced by their music. One of my sisters is like 41 now. So from her I learned to love Poison. And then one of my brothers — it's because of him I love Scorpion. And then me, I love Guns & Roses and Poison, of course.
Q: How do you practice for a competition?
A: I practice all the time. I'm always doing air guitar at home. Being a gymnastics coach helps with that, too: You can hear the beats in your head easier.
Q:What would you to say to young girls who want to get into air guitar?
A: I think more girls should. It's so much fun! One of my students in gymnastics, at her school at the end of the year they each got to pick a competition they wanted to participate in. And this little doll — she's so cute, she's one of the 7-year olds — picked air guitar. She won, of course. And she was so proud! I was so proud! More girls should do it: It's a great work-out and anyone can do it — you don't need to have anything special — no equipment — to play air guitar.
Q: Do you feel like you get treated different for being a woman in the guy-dominated world of air guitar?
A: No, not so much. I mean, there are more guys who play real guitar than girls, it seems. So it just trickles down to this. But all the guys here are amazing: They're so encouraging — and very protective of us!
Erin McNally is also 29 years old. She's from Portland, Maine and got the moniker "McNallica" from working the karaoke circuit. She is imposing figure: Tall, large, fierce, wildly tattooed. Until she starts talking, that is. Then, she is all smiles, laughter, and many, many hugs.
Q: What's your day job?
A: You're not going to believe this looking at me, but I am Projects Manager at a mortgage firm.
You gotta balance it out. Work at day, Rock 'n' roll at night!
Q: Clearly. So how did you end up here? How long have you been playing air guitar?
A: This is my first year competing. I'm from Portland and they were doing a screening there one night of Air Guitar Nation and I didn't even go in to the movie that night, but after the screening there was an actual competition. So I snuck in to compete. I didn't let anyone see I was there 'til the moment I performed. And I was the last performer to go. And I competed — and won! I got a bloody lip: I split it open on stage performing and was apparently bleeding everywhere and the crowds were going fucking wild and I was thinking to myself, "Um, I'm not playing that well — and then I found out afterwards that I had bled all over the stage. They love that shit. Then I went and saw the movie tand it was totally inspirational. Almost religious. So I traveled to Boston to compete. I knew it was what I had to do.
Q: So do you know how to play real guitar too?
A: No, can you believe that? My dad is a major music freak — so I just grew up surrounded by music. So I learned everything. He plays guitar, but I don't.
Q: What's it like being a girl in the male-dominated world of air guitar?
A: To tell you the truth, I mainly keep to myself. I really have no interaction with the guys. Listen, at these things I'm always going up against guys. So I need an edge. You always need an edge. And I need any edge I can get. So I just keep to myself, don't let them learn anything about me. But you have to have an edge. I had my tattoo artist bless my hands before I came here today. Seriously. I went to her and asked her to bless me. Anything you can do. And did you know that today's Madonna's birthday? Listen, I know Madonna's not, y'know, Slash. But that's gotta mean something, right? That it's Madonna's birthday today? That's why I'm wearing to earrings with the letter 'M.' One for Madonna and one for Metallica. Keepin' it real.
Q: What about beauty rituals? Pampering? As one of the only females here, do you feel you have to focus on aesthetics?
A: Well, my best friend Justina is my hairstylist. His real name is Justin but we all call him Justina. Full name: Justina Aguilera. So he does my hair. Appearance is everything. How you look is how you feel, right? So, yeah I have a hairstylist, a make-up artist, a GPS navigator — that's crucial, couldn't do it without the person reading the GPS — someone doing crowd control, and two personal assistants.
Q: You have an entourage.
A: Fuck yeah! It's all about having an entourage.
Q: What about your style? How do you decide on this kind of look?
A: I haven't washed this shirt, this bandana, or these gloves since I won in Portland. I've changed the jeans. But I haven't washed any of the rest of it. You've gotta have an edge.
Q: What kind of family do you come from? Did they influence your air guitaring?
A: Yes, I'm the oldest of four. And my dad plays guitar. So I've always been rockin! AC/DC, Pink Floyd — all of it. My dad is just a rock geek, so I was so lucky. I got exposed to all of it. And being from Portland: Biggest influence of them all. Portland has such an amazing music scene. Like Covered in Bees, they play death punk. You would not believe my MP3 player if you went through it: I listen to everything: Feist — right now I can't get enough of Feist. That girl rocks. Ella, Mastadon, Pink Floyd. I just love music. I listen to it all.
Q: So what would you say to young girls who want to get into air guitar?
A: Go for it. Fucking just go for it. There are a lotta dudes doing this... So you gotta just do it. Oh my god! I forgot to tell you this! I contacted Sonic Rock [the 2004 world champion, a U.S. competitor, and a woman] before I cam here today! I emailed her. And I was just like, Sonic — you are amazing. You inspire me. And then I asked her for her blessing. And no shitting you — she emailed me back immediately. She blessed me. Fuckin' awesome. But you gotta. I said to her — it's gotta be a female again. You're a female and you're from Boston — we gotta do it again if we want to be world champs. I can't believe I got blessed by Sonic Rock. Yeah — so girls: Just don't give a crap. When I play, I want everyone out there right there with me. Fuck all these boys! Seriously, I have butterflies in my stomach right now, I'm so nervous.
McNallica came in 4th out of 15 in the first round of the competition, which earned her a place in the championship-making round 2. Though she did not win, she earned a 6.0 from New Yorker writer and air guitar judge Malcolm Gladwell, who thought she was the most rockin' contestant of them all.
Photos by Lily McKeage