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The Bitch is Back

A new baby and a Broadway show may have rounded off her roughest edges, but don't expect Sandra Bernhard to be . . . nice. Okay, Madonna?


It's two days before her 43rd birthday and exactly one month before she will give birth to seven-pound-ten-ounce Cicely Yasin, and the usually skinny, bitter Sandra Bernhard is -- at least for now -- fat and happy. It's an early-June day, and Bernhard's sitting at her favorite window seat at Tea and Sympathy, a tiny sandwich joint on Greenwich Avenue just across the street from her apartment, spooning chicken soup into that preposterous mouth of hers. She has about her an air of introspection and peacefulness -- a glassy-eyed, almost narcotized quality. It's as if nothing, or no one, could rattle her. Not today.

"People always say when you're pregnant, you're hormonally imbalanced and freaking out," she says. "I feel more centered and more focused and less neurotic and fearful than I ever have in my whole life. For me, it's been a really great stabilizer." Bernhard has eaten a small meal just an hour before this lunch, and she will enjoy another small meal an hour after this lunch. That's what being pregnant is all about, she says: "Snacky moments."

Our lunch -- brief, pleasant, mellow -- is interrupted several times. Bernhard surveys the scene distractedly, until Nicky and Sean, the proprietors of Tea and Sympathy appear. They're young, attractive, married, British, and very tan -- just back from a two-week vacation on a tiny island off the coast of Puerto Rico, a place Bernhard visited, loved, and recommended to the couple. "Baby, how was your triiip?" Bernhard coos. "I just said to Mitch, my keyboard player, 'I wonder how Nicky looks with a tan.' You look gorgeous. I was thinking about you so much. I was sending you such good vibes. I kept saying, 'I know that they're relaxing, recouping . . . rejuvenating.' " She freights that last word with so much over-the-top breathlessness -- like a Vegas lounge singer -- that, for a second, you question her sincerity. "Look at you, honey. Just what the doctor ordered, huh? How about that pool? And the beach? How divine was that?"

"So," she says, turning back to me, "continue. Where were we?" Before she can answer my next question, her attention drifts away once again, this time to an exceptionally beautiful young blonde woman who has entered the restaurant with an older woman -- also beautiful and blonde. "Hey, honey!" says Bernhard, louder than necessary. "How are you? Good to see you. You look cuuute." People are now looking up from their menus. The blonde girl -- a model, it turns out -- seems a little embarrassed; Bernhard, too, squirms slightly. Then, turning to me, she laughs -- a satisfyingly rich version of her very excellent laugh. She leans in closer as the women are seated just two tables away. "Well, she is cute," she says, quietly defensive. "She's gorgeous, I might add."

Bernhard sneaks a look at them. "That must be her mother. The mother's almost prettier than she is. Jesus, that apple didn't fall far from that tree. Shit!" She shakes her head. "By the way, if you're wondering who that model is, it's Sarah O'Hare," she says, in a self-conscious burst of insidery name -dropping. "It'll be fun to throw her in."

On November 5, Sandra Bernhard's blistering one-woman show I'm Still Here . . . Damn It! opens on Broadway at the Booth Theater, the final stage of a comeback that began quietly in the summer of '97 in a club called Luna Park in Los Angeles. That Bernhard needed to make a comeback at all may come as a surprise to some, but after watching Sandra recover from Madonna for the past five years, playing one too many so-so, seventh-fiddle roles on television (Roseanne, Chicago Hope, Ally McBeal), spending too much time hanging around supermodels, and generally being too much The Celebrity and not enough the brilliant ironist/ crank-chanteuse, her faithful audience had all but lost hope.

"I needed to get back to my roots, of what I do best, which is perform live," she says. "At Luna Park, I got up once or twice a week and said whatever was on my mind and wrote these pieces onstage, and it was just super-satisfying." Last fall, Bernhard brought her new material -- songs, monologues, characters, complaints -- to the intimate cabaret setting of the Westbeth Theater for what was to be a brief, limited run; she ended up holding court nightly, for three months. Partly because of a rave in the New York Times ("Her irresistible new show . . . is an angst-driven, foul-mouthed, poison-laced joy ride . . ."), the show became one of those rare, right now downtown-New York theater experiences. Usually jaded fashion and media people went back two and three times, as if they were going to see a favorite local band.

"After the Times review," says Shelly Schultz, Bernhard's new, very showbizzy William Morris agent (who talks like a Bernhard character), "we started getting the Broadway theatergoers -- blue-haired ladies, even! Dressed up! New York theatergoers! That's what turned it around."

"There were a lot of people I had never seen in my audience," says Bernhard of her Westbeth run. "It was kind of trippy. They weren't necessarily the most verbal or expressive, which was a little frustrating, because I like a crowd that whoops it up, like the drag queens and the gay, young freaks. But at some point, if you want to move on with your career, other people have to come see your work."

What made the show so compelling, so delicious, was the sheer audacity of Bernhard's riffs. The show was ruthless -- "a mean little cocktail," said The New Yorker -- and utterly up-to-the-minute.

On Princess Di: "There was so much I wanted to say about the princess, but when I saw Steven Seagal speak so eloquently on CNN, I said to myself, 'What do you have to contribute to this moment?' It was such a rare and unique opportunity for so many stars and celebrities to express the repressed grief they've felt for things we can't even begin to imagine. When Tom Cruise described how many times he drove through that tunnel, it gave me the chills. I said, 'It's the edgy shit that needs to go into your work, baby.' "

On Courtney Love: ". . . She's gone full Hollywood. She's hanging out with Amanda De Cadenet, wearing vintage dresses and matching tiaras and going to the Oscars. Subtle changes . . ."

On Madonna: "I'm studying Cabala . . . and, you know, a lot of other people are studying as well. I don't take direct responsibility for that. But you know, Madonna is studying Cabala. Honey, if it's given her wisdom and insight . . . I would rather run into her at a Cabala event than in a disco in Miami. We recently had an event, and Madonna brought her little girl. Smart as a whip. And not impressed with her mother. Kept a healthy distance all night."

On Mariah Carey: "Now she's trying to backtrack on our asses, gettin' real niggerish up there at the Royalton hotel suite with Puff Daddy and all the greasy, chain-wearing black men. 'Oooh, yeah, Daddy . . . I got a little bit of black in me, too. I didn't tell you that?' . . . Do not try to compete with the fierce ghetto divas. Because they will go down, in, around, and off on your ass! . . . So don't fuck with me, phony white bitch!' "

Some dismiss Bernhard as simply mean, bitter, jealous. Laurie Stone famously described her as "petty and bilious" in 1988 in The Village Voice in her review of Without You I'm Nothing, Bernhard's brilliant, breakthrough piece of theater. Bernhard responded by humiliating Stone in the show for six months. When Stone got word of the attack, she called and left a cloying, back-pedaling message on Bernhard's answering machine. Bernhard responded by playing the message onstage every night (and on David Letterman). Stone eventually called in a lawyer.

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