The first time Justin Vivian Bond sang a song he thought he’d written was in the second grade in Hagerstown, Maryland. He’d heard, maybe in the family car, Karen Carpenter singing “Long ago, and oh so far away, I fell in love with you before the second show,” and he so identified with the mordant heartache of a groupie singing about a rock star she’d slept with that he dreamt about it that night. At school the next day, he told his teacher he wanted to sing a song he’d composed. He sang that song: “Superstar.”
Nearly 40 years later, Bond, dressed in a silky black cocktail dress, is telling this story from the stage at the Bowery Ballroom, recounting how he realized his mistake when he heard the song again on the radio and was “mortified”—he drawls the word with arch, old-Hollywood soundstage grandeur. Bond is a cross-dressing cabaret singer and raconteur of the gay condition who’s become, in his phrase, “a world-class artist to a very boutique audience.” The Bowery show is to celebrate the release of Bond’s first solo album, Dendrophile, as in someone who gets an erotic charge out of trees. His audience—mostly gay men who have followed him for years and formed something of an understanding of themselves through his spinning self-invention—laughs at his grade-school grandiosity and possibly theirs. He tells this story by way of introducing his version of the song, which is on the album.
To the extent that Bond is something like a superstar—which he is in this particular circle; his close friend Hilton Als wrote in The New Yorker that he’s “the best cabaret artist of his generation”—it’s largely owed to an alter ego he’s tried very hard to leave behind: Kiki DuRane. A stage persona developed out of the inchoate anger of the AIDS-plague years, Kiki was a vociferous, alcoholic septuagenarian lounge singer with jarring mid-century hair and crudely drawn-on wrinkles. Along with her compliant piano accompanist Herb, played by Bond’s longtime collaborator Kenny Mellman, his hair sprayed gray, she was on a never-say-die comeback tear. Onstage, as Kiki—the glittery frozen tear of a rhinestone glued under each eye—Bond would bray the unsayable in between songs. Things like “I wish I had cancer, I really do … you can’t be a celebrity without some sort of life-threatening illness” and “If you weren’t molested as a child, you must’ve been an ugly kid.” Or, with imperious want: “If I could love, I would love you all.”
And the audience did love him, for creating a baroquely imagined world out of abjection and tenacity. Kiki was constantly humiliated for her delusions. Bond and Mellman took the act from a lounge in San Francisco back in 1993, when they often performed it on hallucinogens, all the way to Carnegie Hall. Kiki the show was the success Kiki the character always wanted to be. Bond began to think that perhaps he should just become Kiki all the time—perhaps that would be easier, just to merge with this raucous, much-admired self.
Looking around the room at the Bowery Ballroom, it’s clear that Bond has a nearly shamanistic hold on his crowd. He’s very funny, for one thing, a sort of blur of Andy Rooney and Cher. But there’s something thrillingly high-wire about Bond, just this side of embarrassing. Certainly disruptive: He refuses to do what’s expected of him. Despite his success as Kiki, Bond gave up playing her in 2008, deciding instead to try to figure out how to play himself, whoever that was. He started writing his own songs, which he’d never done before in his nondream life.
Earlier this year, he also began taking female hormones. As he grows older—closer to Kiki’s supposed age—he’s decided that some other realignment must take place. Though as his good friend, and ex-lover, the downtown D.J. Sammy Jo puts it, “I don’t know how he is going to get more woman-y.” Sammy Jo was taken aback that Bond, who turned 48 on May 9, was finally doing something he’d talked abstractly about for years. “But at the same time, he’s always done what he wanted to do.”
Today Bond’s ambition is to be both sexes at once. As he said to his faithful from the stage, “I used to be a man, but now I’m a trans person. Nothing has changed, just the words. And the prescriptions.”
A few weeks before the show, Bond arrives for lunch at Prune, near his homey, bohemian loft just north of Houston, as if for a tea in Southampton in 1965. Bond is poised and courteous: He cuts his pastries with a fork and offers me the last deviled egg. His friend, the gallerist Lia Gangitano, says, “Running into Justin at the Boiler Room”—a grubby gay bar—“you feel like it’s like the lobby of the Met.”