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The Story of V

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Bond with Kenny Mellman as Herb, on Broadway in 2006.  

In 1981, Bond headed to Adelphi University, on Long Island. “My parents were nervous about me going directly to New York, and to be honest, I was too.” He wanted to be an actor but was quickly discouraged. “The reason I quit acting is not because I don’t like acting,” he says. “It’s that I spent my whole childhood trying to be what people were expecting me to be, so that I wouldn’t be abused. I thought I could be an actor so I could be something else, and then I find out, ‘Well, if you want to work in this business, you gotta pass as straight.’ And I was like, Oh fuck, I thought I was going to be able to be Bette Davis.

Soon he moved to San Francisco, where he dropped Chip and conjured up Justin. It was there that Bornstein saw Bond in a “mediocre musical” about Friedrich, a gay Prussian king.She convinced him to take a role based on a nineteenth-century French hermaphrodite in her play Hidden: A Gender. In it, Bond had to play both a teenage girl and a 25-year-old man who ultimately kills himself out of despair for “failing to live up to either gender,” as Bornstein puts it. “He wasn’t sure how his gay male friends would react. On top of that, he was not sure he could really pull off playing a girl.”

The Bay Area Reporter wrote, “Remarkably, Bond never appears as that most familiar sight: a boy in a dress. Instead, he dissolves distinctions and actually accomplishes the illusion of becoming an individual whose gender is neither only male nor only female. It is a nifty piece of work.”

Bond, meanwhile, was experimenting with cabaret. He’d met Mellman, then a 20-year-old pianist who’d dropped out of Berkeley to study poetry. “Before I even knew Justin, I would see him on the Muni, and was like, hmmm,” Mellman says. “Just the androgyny.”

Before Bond began taking the sterility-inducing estrogen, he had some of his sperm frozen in New Jersey.

The character Kiki was inspired by a friend’s mother, a “flamboyant, opinionated, high-strung, very strong woman who drank a lot, very left-wing, who had been a showgirl,” says Bond. “Then she got cancer, and when I met her she had missing teeth and chemo-radiation pencil marks on her neck, and part of her jaw was missing, and she was wearing a turban, and we got there to the house and she was standing at the top of the steps”—in a raspy voice—“‘You’re late!’ and starts doing a soft shoe. She was hot. Flaming-red nails. So I thought, What would she have been like if she had never given up show business?

On Gay Pride Day in 1993, he told Mellman he wanted them to play a show as the characters Kiki and Herb. “We knew we were going to be drunk and tired,” says Mellman. “We showed up dressed that way, talking to people in the audience. We got a standing ovation.”

Whether intentional or not at first, Kiki and Herb transcended what might have been seen as the more superficial qualities of their act—let’s dress up and sing silly cover songs. “There was some real pathos about it,” says Mellman, whose virtuosic piano-lounge stylings drove the act. “All our friends were dying of AIDS, and it was a way to get out all our rage.” Young people speedily desiccating, becoming old people like Kiki and Herb, and at the same time losing their opportunity to become old people like Kiki and Herb.

“In retrospect,” says Mellman, “we were playing people who were a good 30 years older than our friends who were dying. It was like an alternate future, what could have happened to all of us.”

In 1994, Bond moved to New York. He found a gig working at SqueezeBox, the punky gay music night at Don Hill’s that incubated John Cameron Mitchell’s ­gender-bending rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Then he got Kiki and Herb the back room at the unchic Cowgirl Hall of Fame on Hudson Street, and Mellman moved back East as well.

“It was unbelievable,” says Mitchell. “Attention had to be paid.” Kiki and Herb was a merciless, bathetic punk encounter session over many cocktails (Kiki’s was ­Canadian Club and ginger ale). “If anyone was talking in the room, they’d get a highball in the head.” Kiki, says Mitchell, “was so thrillingly righteously enraged by what he saw in the world. You felt he was a witch. A good witch. It was incantatory.”

The show consisted of medleys, linked together often by nothing more than a shared word, as well as whatever story Bond was concocting about Kiki’s past. “It was like a mini-­opera, using other people’s songs,” says Mitchell. It was also fiercely interactive, with Kiki dancing precariously on the tables, demanding tongue contact while belting out PJ Harvey’s “Rid of Me” (“Lick my leg! I’m desire!”).


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