As anyone who has seen Justin Vivian Bond live can attest, the performer is a true force of nature. Lisa Connell catches up with the veteran of the New York cabaret scene to talk about performing, laying to rest old alter-egos and life in the spotlight as someone who is gender non-conforming.
The New Yorker describes Mx Justin Vivian Bond as “the greatest cabaret artist of their generation” and Time Out have paid homage to “the Trans-Atlantic cabaret messiah.” This year sees Bond celebrate 25 years of performance with a year-long retrospective planned in NYC.
“Justin Vivian Bond: A Season – Celebrating 25 years of booze, pills and patter,” Bond laughs raucously down the phone.
It’s 10am in New York, Justin Vivian Bond is having v’s (rather than use ‘he/she’ or ‘his/ her’, Bond prefers to be referred to with the genderless pronoun ‘v’) first coffee of the morning with a soundtrack of traffic and sirens in the background. I’m a little nervous and excited to interview such a hero of performance, creativity and activism. Happily, v is instantly warm and funny and within minutes I feel like I’m having a catch up with an old friend.
For the uninitiated, Justin Vivian Bond is a writer, singer, painter, and performance artist. V is perhaps most famous for being one half of the Tony Award-nominated cabaret duo Kiki & Herb. With Kenny Mellman taking on the role of Herb, Bond shone as as Kiki DuRane, an aging, alcoholic, female lounge singer. Kiki & Herb were a wildly successful critically-acclaimed act with a reunion show that saw them gracing the stage at Carnegie Hall.
Referring to how this persona of Kiki evolved, Bond explains that Kiki actually grew from an anxiety after v’s first forays into cabaret.
“I did a show in San Francisco in 1990 called Dixie Mc Call’s Patters for Living, which was inspired by Julie London (the woman who made the song Cry Me A River famous),” recalls Bond.
“That was a personal show where I shared autobiographical stories and sang lounge songs, lounge versions of pop songs and vice versa. I recently found all of the tear sheets from the first reviews, which were very interesting.”
Although the reviews were overwhelmingly positive Bond recounts one review that included the line, “Justin Bond is so charming he almost makes you forget he’s a 6-foot man in a dress!” As a trans person who is gender non-conforming, Bond found that description very “hard and mortifying”
“Anybody reading that today would be absolutely horrified by it but at that time I was supposed to be grateful,” v muses. “And so, it set up that anxiety of how I was going to be perceived. It made me feel really vulnerable and that evolved into creating this character of Kiki that I ended up hiding behind for the next 15 years.
“I didn’t take anything anyone said about Kiki personally because I tried to make her a very intimidating and challenging person. I wanted to create a character who was kind of offensive and who would be seen as this really unlikeable character but who you just couldn’t help but love so I could help feel that people were learning how to get over judging other people by creating this character who was so lovable in spite of her flaws.”
Bond retired Kiki 15 years later. “What had liberated me was stifling me so I knew it was time to make a change.” By then, the world had changed a lot in that time and v was “stronger”.
“I went back to what I was doing initially which was sort of giving my own personal spin on the world,” Bond explains.
Closer to home, the show that Bond will bring to Dublin’s Fringe Festival is a culmination of this creative evolution, Mx Justin Vivian Bond And Things Of That Nature!
“It’s a show of all original songs and musings and it’s the first show I’ve done that consists entirely of songs that I’ve written myself. I’m really excited to come and do it for you.”
Due to recent milestone moments, transgender visibility is at an all-time high. In Ireland, there has been the long-overdue passing of the progressive Gender Recognition Bill. Meanwhile, in the US, Laverne Cox has graced the cover of Time magazine, while Caitlyn Jenner came out as trans to a global audience of millions. I’m curious to hear Bond’s take on this “transgender tipping point”, as well as its effect on for the community and wider society.
“I’m watching the narrative unfold right now,” Bond says. “It’s being driven by Caitlyn Jenner, which is kind of fascinating really. It’s this powerful story that has seized the imagination of the entire country and it is interesting because Caitlyn is somebody who has been so sort of isolated from the trans community and from language around the trans community so in a way she is at about the same education level about what it’s like to be trans as most of the public.
“She’s taking the opportunity to learn about trans issues on the show I Am Cait,” Bond continues. “She’s so excited about being a girl and being able to wear what she wants and be who she wants to be, but I don’t know if she’s really gotten far into any philosophical underpinnings. It’s just all new and so I’m hoping, a few people have mentioned ‘gender non-conforming transgender’ in the show, but they haven’t really pursued what those things are yet.
“It’s interesting because I feel like that is probably, hopefully the next real area of exploration for the public I think it’s happening more in other countries with the use of the word Mx and acknowledging trans people both as men and as women but also as something other than male or female, that there are those of us who don’t want to be thought of as. I don’t have a woman’s soul trapped in a mans body but I don’t believe the soul is gendered. That’s where I’m at.”
“YOU HAVE YOUR NATIONAL TREASURE IN PANTI AND WE HAVE OURS IN LAVERNE (COX).”
Despite many positive developments there are still very worrying realities for the trans community in the US. A frightening fact is that 17 transgender women of colour have been murdered in the US so far this year. Actress Laverne Cox is one of the leading activists and creative’s calling for awareness around this shocking reality and urging people to respect and understand trans peoples’ experience.
Bond has known Cox for many years: “Her biography is so compelling – having been raised by a single mother in the South, and coming to New York and being a dancer”.
Needless to say, Bond is very proud of Cox’s achievements.
“You have your national treasure in Panti and we have ours in Laverne. They are both so incredibly articulate and really have done so much it’s kind of amazing to see how really strong articulate voices of one or two people made such a huge difference in the lives of so many,“ v reflects.
Our allotted time to talk is up and I reluctantly mention this to Bond. True to form, v replies, “I’ll hang up when I’m good and goddamn ready.”
Mx Justin Vivian Bond… And Things of That Nature! Is part of the Tiger Dublin Fringe,
Sept 15 at the Spiegeltent, Wolfe Tone Square. Tickets here.
This interview originally appeared in GCN, Issue 309 (September 2015)
© 2015 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.