With a wicked twist on the prim and dainty tea-things we’re accustomed to seeing in dusty china cabinets or adorning lace-covered tables in costume dramas, Miss Havisham’s Curiosities bedecks beautiful antiques in refreshingly poisonous wit.
These aren’t your granny’s teacups, yet they were inspired by Melissa Johnson’s restless antique dealer/entrepreneur of a grandmother, whose influence is felt and seen in every exquisitely ironic piece offered by Miss Havisham’s.
Johnson, the lively mind behind Miss Havisham’s famous Vintage Insult Teacups, had a childhood like something out of a gothic novel, growing up in the home of her great-grandparents, which she describes as “filled with dark wood, chandeliers, and worn-out deco furniture,” not to mention secret passages used by bootleggers during Prohibition.
A veteran animation producer and writer, Johnson upholds the passion for “decaying elegance” shared by all the women in her family. It’s an obsession that manifests itself in a love of antiques, horror movies, Halloween, taxidermy, old books, and abandoned places.
This quick-witted businesswoman’s life is so jam-packed with the weird and fascinating, it’s difficult to know where to begin.
Should we talk about her epic, Halloween-themed wedding to puppeteer Tim Lagasse? Her teacups’ appearances on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert”? That time she faked a possession at Catholic school? Or her job in a literal Russian troll factory?
Thankfully, Johnson isn’t shy about sharing the particulars of her adventurous existence as the “goth Martha Stewart.” Read on for all the morbid details.
Your business, Miss Havisham’s Curiosities, is famous for selling “vintage insult teacups” with phrases on them like, “Kindly f—- off,” “No one likes you,” and “I hope you choke.” I understand you took your inspiration for your wonderfully ironic wares from your grandmother, who was an antiques dealer. Tell me about her.
She wasn’t the happiest lady, she had a bad temper and a mouth like a sailor. One of her many ventures was as an antique dealer. Her specialty was china and glassware. The house was full of mismatched pieces, essentially nothing matched.
She used to write offensive things on broken or chipped pieces, often in nail polish. Never underestimate the usefulness of nail polish. I once glued beads in my hair with it.
She moved from project to project constantly. She also embroidered funny sayings into intricate quilts. At one point she wanted to be a cake decorator so she and I took an ill-fated cake decorating class. My sister had to take a class with her on being a clown. Neither were particularly suited to that line of work.
Her art projects were her way of expressing her dissatisfaction with the world.
Your grandmother was an “entrepreneur at a time when women weren’t.” What did you learn from her?
You couldn’t label her with one career. She’d once owned a hair salon, she’d worked for the local government, she was an antique dealer, she sold real estate. One day she was taking French classes and the next day she was embroidering ducks on pillow cases. There really wasn’t much rhyme or reason to it. She was just looking for something to keep herself occupied.
I’ve had a lot of different jobs along the way myself and I share her short attention span. At one point she had a terrible fire and lost most of her antiques in it. The first thing we did was look at one another and ask, “Is grandma an arsonist now too?” She was definitely a character.
You spent a lot of time with her at auctions and estate sales. Was that also an influence for you in starting Miss Havisham’s?
She never paid the ticket price. She always bargained. She loved the hunt as much as I do. I remember at one point I had a school play and needed a costume. She went into her closet and pulled out a Victorian mourning gown and a stole dyed bright blue. She just had these amazing pieces that would come and go as she bought and sold them. I’ve always wanted to own an antique store so, yes, I think that was her influence, though all the women in my family love a good estate sale. It’s part collecting, part voyeurism.
How and when did you decide to start the business?
I’ve always collected antiques and china. All the ladies in our family do. Vintage jewelry too, we’re magpies. When I lived in New York I started considering opening an antique store with a focus on china. Then I remembered my grandmother’s pieces and began considering what I could do with all the antique pieces I owned.
I did a lot of research, years of it. I looked at all the ways you could use china in art and how others were doing it. I’m not the first person to add an image to a plate or put an insult on a cup but I knew I wanted mine to be different. I wanted to be able to drink and eat off of my plates and cups and I also wanted them to have a slightly more refined one to the insults.
That name though! How did you arrive at it?
Miss Havisham is a terrific character. I think there’s a little Miss Havisham in all the ladies in my family in one way or another. Decaying elegance, obsessive collecting and preserving of the past, even her machinations and eventual repentance spoke to me. I’d seen all of that. I grew up surrounded by beautiful but often very broken things and women who wore their pasts like Miss Havisham wore her wedding dress. That character rang true for me.
Where do you find inspiration for the hilariously poisonous phrases you emblazon on your teacups?
Miss Havisham. The Dowager Countess. My own rabid indignation tempered by Midwestern politeness.
You said your grandmother’s art projects were a means of expressing her frustration with the world. What are you expressing through your projects?
Most women are taught to be nice, to be polite, to smile and not make waves. You don’t have to look much farther than the women’s marches to see that most of us were crushed by Trump’s election. I wanted to turn the notion of feminine politeness on its head. I also needed a creative outlet. As a producer, most of my work the last few years has been about crisis management, personality management, and logistics. It started to take a toll on me.
Where do you find the teacups and china that become the canvas for your creations?
All over. I’m always on the hunt.
Your website says “each cup is insulted by hand.” Tell me about the process that goes into designing one of these cups.
They’re made with good old fashioned witchery by a very small team.
What sort of reactions do your teacups tend to inspire?
Mostly laughter. Some people find them a bit cruel. I always say that you have to know your audience. While most of the people in my life wouldn’t be offended by them, some would and therefore I know who and who not to give them to. I hope they’re being used to put dreadful people in their place or to make someone smile.
For me, it’s all about intention. When they appeared on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” I did get a few Trump supporters who said among other things, “Miss Havisham is a liberal asshole,” to which I reply yes, sir, I imagine she would be.
How would you describe your customer demographic? Do you tend to cater to a lot of anglophiles and tea fanciers? I know your work is popular with the Drunk Austen community.
It’s a fairly broad spectrum, actually. Everyone from tea drinking grand dames to young goth girls. Anglophiles to sassy gay men. Parents seem to love the “We hate your baby” one which I find surprising and delightful. I’ve always loved the juxtaposition of highbrow and low. In graduate school I wrote about burlesque and vaudeville while studying for a PhD. Highbrow and low brow!
So it pleases me to see so many different people buying them. Internationally, the UK seems to be a fan. That’s a nation of witty people so I’m flattered. I’ll be in London this summer so am looking forward to insulting that whole country.
You sell your wares at some very unique popups, events, and conventions. Can you tell me about some of those?
Yep, I’m a fan of horror conventions like Monsterpalooza or Midsummer Scream in L.A. The Edwardian Ball in San Francisco is another favorite. I decided to try to vend at the horror conventions because I’m a huge horror fan and noticed that there really weren’t any products that spoke to me as a lady of a certain age and certain tastes. I don’t need another plastic skull necklace. I’m not 15.
While I do appreciate a darker aesthetic, I also like pretty and delicate things. The Edwardian Ball is another wonderful fit because it’s one part Edward Gory and one part circus which pretty much sums up my house.
Your cups have been featured on the #Tea4Tuesday segment of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” How did that come about?
The producer of that segment, Cory Schaub, is an encyclopedia of tea knowledge. He even has a portable tea setup he travels with so he can serve tea anywhere, anytime. He loved them and bought them for Stephen. Turns out Stephen liked them too, which was a dream come true. Stephen Colbert is all the things I love: liberal, fair, nice, smart, gutsy. I also have a thing for funny brunettes in glasses (like my husband).
Miss Havisham’s Curiosities also features a wide variety of vintage antiques and oddities, including tea towels, art, paper products, jewelry, Fortune Telling Teacups, and dinner plates. How do you decide what objects you want to showcase?
They have to be items I’d personally own. They have to be made by independent artists and have the right mix of creepy and pretty. I have some new products I’m about to debut that have a literary theme. I also throw literary teas with author Shawna Kenney so I’m hoping to open those up to the public soon. Right now, they’re invitation only while we finesse the programs.
As a child, you spent time living in your great-grandparents’ home, which you describe as a “huge, drafty, old house filled with dark wood, chandeliers, and worn-out deco furniture.” The house contained tunnels and trapdoors from your family’s time as bootleggers during Prohibition. That sounds amazing! Tell me about your experience living there and what influence it had on you.
Aesthetically, it imprinted itself on me. If you look at everything I love, it can all be traced back to that house. I still love old houses, dark wood, creepy Catholic imagery, which was all over that house, Art Deco furniture, old bottles, anything that’s old and spooky. That house terrified and thrilled me at the same time. I was scared of the attic and basement which held all the family artifacts.
Again, the decaying elegance comes in because the house was really falling apart at times. It actually doesn’t even exist anymore. In fact, the street is no longer on the map. Youngstown has a policy of leveling abandoned houses and letting the forest take over rather than paying to maintain streets no one lives on. It’s a shrinking city being swallowed by nature.
You’ve also said your childhood was “odd,” that you spent most of your time with adults, and your friends were largely books and pets. Tell me more about that.
The short version is that my family is full of odd characters and old antiques. It was a truly unique experience growing up as one of the few Lebanese families in a failing industrial town. Youngstown, Ohio, is famous, or I should say infamous, for being a rough place to live with high crime rates, high unemployment, and a legendary corrupt government. Think of it as Detroit’s younger knocked-up sister in jail. Pair that with an eccentric Lebanese family with lots of family feuds and secrets and you’ll get a good picture.
As a child, you watched horror movies “way too young and those also imprinted” on you. What are some of the films you remember watching and how have they influenced you as an adult?
Well, I really loved “Amityville Horror” because when I was a kid I was convinced the house I grew up in was haunted. I also loved all the Dario Argento films. I wanted to be a ‘70s era witch and live in grand European houses. Who wouldn’t? I liked the movie “Who Slew Auntie Roo” when I was a kid. Shelly Winters menacing orphans while she kept her daughter’s corpse in an elaborate casket in her room? Yes, please. Anything related to demon possession and the Catholic church. I went to Catholic school and hated it. I wanted to be possessed. I faked a possession once in fifth grade.
Do you still enjoy horror movies? What are some of your favorites?
I liked “The Witch.” I definitely still watch horror movies. The witchier the better. Give me a good coven or an exorcism. A haunted house is a happy house.
You graduated from Oberlin College and spent 20 years as an animation producer and writer. How did you get into the animation field? What were some of your favorite projects?
Animation was the perfect mix of my interests. I got to develop the concepts, work with the writers, cast and sometimes direct voiceover talent, work with designers and animators. All my favorite things. After 20 years, I needed a break though.
What was your experience like as a woman working in that field?
I was spoiled in that my first job in the industry was working with brilliant women developing and producing 13 animated series for women by women. In the two years I worked on that project, I got to work with some of the most talented animation people in the business. It was really animation boot camp. I went from knowing nothing to producing a series by the end of it.
Another project I loved was working with Nathan Love Studios producing an animated horror short. My time at Curious Pictures also gave me the chance to do a lot of stop-motion and to work with a stable of really talented directors, both men and women. I worked on the Dante’s Inferno video game animated segments and that was a blast. I still love animation.
It’s important to note that there are amazing women in animation and we’re kicking ass. My advice would be to find the other women, work with the other women whenever you can and as a recruiter, seek out the talented young women. They’re going to change the face of animation and design. They already are, I promise you.
You worked with puppeteer, writer, and comedian Robert Smigel on projects that appeared on “Saturday Night Live” and “The Colbert Report.” Tell me more about that.
I also produced the animated series “Tek Jansen” for “The Colbert Report” and that was my first time meeting Stephen Colbert. It was a short-lived project but I just remember loving every minute of it. I remember how gracious and kind Stephen was throughout. I had a crush. You can imagine my excitement at having my teacups appear on his show more than 10 years later. He’s good people that Stephen.
You’e also married to a successful puppeteer, Tim Lagasse, who worked on “Sesame Street” and Disney’s “Crash & Bernstein.” What’s it like to be married to a puppeteer who is also apparently a magician and total nerd?
Oh man. There’s never a dull moment with that one. When I married Tim I knew I was signing up for a lifelong fun pass. You never know what you’re going to get or where any day is going to lead with him. Oh, we’re flying to Haiti to work with orphans? Sure. Oh, you’re building the Skeksis for “The Dark Crystal”? Ok. Oh, you want to make a secret door behind a bookcase in our hallway? Go for it. What are you doing? Building a miniature set with alien pandas that explode? Of course you are.
If you would have told me 10 years ago that the love of my life was going to be a children’s television star who did magic I’d have punched you in the face but it’s true. I spent years dating mopey or angry people thinking that unhappiness was somehow tied into intelligence. It doesn’t have to be, my young goth girls. Sometimes happiness is a choice.
He doesn’t require me to be relentlessly upbeat and I don’t need him to be broody and dark. His weird fits my weird and that’s really the key to any happy relationship. That and cats, all the cats.
I read about your Halloween-themed wedding in the New York Times. Please, please describe that special day for me in detail. Why did you choose that theme?
A lot of our friends are costumers and puppet builders, magicians and burlesque performers. It seemed a crime to not have a wedding that would showcase those talents. We got married on Oct. 30th, mischief night. It was an adult only, costume mandatory affair. We essentially threw a giant Halloween party where we paused for a half-hour and got married in the middle of it.
We had a Balkan marching band, a burlesque performer in a giant balloon, acrobats, a magician and, yes, even puppets performed. We’re show folk so we made the decorations and did all the setup and producing. The woman who makes Miss Piggy’s costumes made my wedding dress. Tim had a Gomez Adams velvet suit. We had hundreds of carved pumpkins set up in the middle of Prospect Park in Brooklyn at night.
It was the best wedding I’ve ever been to. We had a blast planning it and all I could think was that the wedding planning was a perfect microcosm of what our marriage was going to be and I was right. I haven’t stopped laughing since I met that man.
You and Tim moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles about five years ago. I understand it was quite a culture shock for you.
Yeeeeeah, turns out I hate driving and constant sunshine. Ooops. I do love my garden and having a house to tinker with though and I have met some really amazing women here in L.A. through my teacups. There’s a terrific horror and effects makeup community here and I’ve been lucky enough to weasel my way in. I’m meeting other writers now too. And there are a lot of puppeteers here so we have our people, but NYC will always be my home.
Tell me about the home you share, which is apparently filled with weirdness.
It’s full of taxidermy and cats. I dragged all my antiques across the country so everything had to fit somewhere. Our house is a hodgepodge of decades and styles. If I like something, that’s enough for me. It doesn’t have to match everything else.
One room looks like an Art Deco bordello and the next one is filled with collectible toys and bright colors. The hallway is all black and white horror prints. Tim’s office is all magic books and puppets.
The house itself was built in 1948 and has an early Mid-mod look to it. Someday I’ll own a creepy Victorian or at the very least a Craftsman. I troll listings online all the time. Someday.
You’ve had many interesting jobs over the course of your life, some of which I need to hear more about.
You wrote obituaries! What was that like?
When I was in graduate school, I worked in the Public Affairs office and had to write obituaries for some of our faculty so we’d have them on hand for when we actually needed them. It’s morbid, I know. The New York Times, for example, has obituaries standing by for notable public figures just in case. I should write my own. That would be a fun exercise.
Tell me about your time as a sex researcher in Canada.
Well, it was for the Canadian TV show called “The Sunday Night Sex Show” and then later “Talk Sex with Sue Johanson,” which were both call-in shows where people could anonymously ask their sex questions to Sue Johanson. Sue is a nurse and sex specialist and Canadian national treasure. Think Canadian Dr. Ruth with more pizzazz.
I was the fact checker when Oxygen Media in New York picked up the show. Hilariously, I had just gone through a truly hideous breakup and I was sitting there watching hundreds of hours of footage talking about relationships and sex, fact checking my broken heart out. I thought I was never going to have sex or fall in love again. How wrong I was.
What was it like being a tour guide in Budapest?
I was studying abroad in Budapest and got hired by Julia Szabo, an art historian at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. I gave English language tours to visiting politicians and fancy Europeans and would write the English descriptions of the art and correct the grammar of some truly dreadful academic translations. I got to attend all the schmancy parties and meet the Hungarian elite. The building itself is beautiful so if you’re ever in Budapest, go.
Dare I ask about the time you spent in a factory that made troll dolls?
That is the only job I’ve ever been fired from. I glued hair into the hollow skulls of those horrible troll dolls, then I dipped their little feet into a boiling vat of glue and stuck them on top of jars of candy. Everyone else who worked there was a recent Russian immigrant except for me and my two friends. The three of us were all in high school. Now when I hear the phrase Russian Troll Factory in relationship to the last presidential election, I can’t help but laugh. I really did work in a Russian troll factory.
How do you feel about troll dolls?
They’re PTSD inducing.
Your interests include old books, abandoned places, and history, so let’s talk about those things.
What are some of your favorite old books?
When I was a kid, my mom would buy boxes of old books at auction and give them to me. I just read all the time. I was that pale, delicate kid who rarely left the house.
The books she brought me were about everything from botany to poetry and they all had that old book smell. My mom didn’t discriminate, if it was a book and it was old she bought it for me. A lot of them were too advanced for me.
I worked in the local library in high school and then at the college library while attending Oberlin. I went to graduate school in NYC and the libraries in NY are heavenly. I’m a sucker for a pretty and well stocked library.
What are some of your favorite abandoned places?
Idora Park in Youngstown, Ohio. It was an amusement park that closed down in the ‘80s. I love an old, abandoned house, too. When I was a kid, I would sneak into them and look around. I love old cemeteries. There was one you could reach from a wooded path at the end of my street growing up. I’d go there and read or, you know, be emo.
What type of history most interests you?
19th century primarily. Give me a good period drama. I think one of the reasons I’m so homesick for NYC is the architecture. “Devil in the White City” is one of my favorite books.
You also have an obsession with taxidermy. I’m almost afraid to ask, but how do you express that obsession?
Well, I only buy antique taxidermy. For some reason that makes me feel better about it. I go to every natural history museum I can find. My favorites are in Paris.
I have zero interest in actually making taxidermy and even less interest in having my cats mounted when they die. Trophy hunting disgusts me. I know that’s a bundle of contradictions but my relationship to taxidermy is a weird one.
You’re working on a memoir that you describe as ” ‘Running With Scissors’ but with Arabs in the rust belt.” Tell me more about that.
I’ve been chipping away at it for several years. Memoir is tricky in that it really forces you to face your past, to dissect it and look at it from every angle. I want it to be a celebration of my weird childhood because, even though it was far from idyllic, it made me who I am.
When I was 11 and showed a knack for writing, my mother said to me, “Promise you’ll never write a book about our family.” So there you have it, there’s the conflict. We’ll see if I actually ever publish.
Because Youngstown, Ohio, has a policy of tearing down parts of the city and letting nature take over, most of the places I remember are gone, they’ve been replaced with trees. That sounds romantic but honestly it feels like my past is being erased. My elementary school, my high school, my grandparents’ house, several of my houses and even the hospital I was born in are just gone, so my book is also a love letter to those places.
What advice can you give those of us who want to, like you, embrace their inner goth Martha Stewart?
Ha! Well you should only buy the things that you really love. Even though my house is full of stuff, crammed to the ceiling really, I actually value experiences like foreign travel over possessions. I prefer to buy old things that have a story but the stories I’ve collected traveling are far more valuable. If there was a flood headed my way, I’d grab my cats and my photos and Tim, of course.