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The Bitch is Back

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While a bit cruel, Bernhard's sly incorporation of the criticism into her show served to expose the often duplicitous nature of the media's relationship to performers: suck up, then tear down. Or in Stone's case, tear down, then suck up. Oddly enough, last Wednesday -- ten years after the squabble -- Stone and Bernhard ended their public feud when Stone interviewed Bernhard for Interview magazine and essentially apologized. She was very cool about it," says Bernhard, later. "It was nice that she came clean with me. It was nice to put that to bed."

To simply indict Bernhard as petty and bilious is a bit facile -- and misses the point entirely. In an America where celebrities are royalty, Bernhard functions as a court jester. Though she lives inside the kingdom that is show business, she identifies with the outsider, the audience. Her dual function is to report to outsiders how absurd, fake, and nasty life can truly be among the kings and queens, even while sometimes displaying those qualities herself.

That said, she can be uncommonly savage and poisonous -- not everyone's cup of gall. For those who love her, though, there is nothing more satisfying than Bernhard's unleashed id. "I think of her as a Joe Orton for right now or like the modern equivalent of a Punch magazine humorist from the turn of the century," says John Cameron Mitchell, the writer and star of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the ingenious, head-banging Off Broadway show directly inspired by Without You I'm Nothing. Mitchell and Stephen Trask, Hedwig's musical director, worship Bernhard. "She can perfectly limn a public figure," Mitchell continues. "She worships the figure and, at the same time, realizes how ridiculous they are. Some people might not even bother to portray such a phenomenon because it's giving the person too much credit, but she's able to see the value in some self-important rock star; she can see the camp value, or even the projected value that we give them -- we project things onto Mariah Carey, and at the same time, we see how ridiculous she is. Sandra sees their value and their harmfulness."

At Tea and Sympathy, when I ask Bernhard if she's been catching any grief for her send-ups of Mariah, Courtney, Madonna, et al., she says, "Yeah, it's weird. More this time than ever. Mariah Carey never saw the show, but she heard about it. Sandy Gallin called me -- he was her manager; he used to be my manager. I said, 'Sandy, it's not coming out of the show.' " She takes a second to process. "You know . . . it's never really about that person. It's really more of a comment on MTV and videos and the culture and how people really don't even know themselves. They'll pretty much do what they're told to do because they have a gift -- a good voice -- but above and beyond that, they don't really have a point of view. Which is okay, but it's ripe for making fun of."

I question her use of the word niggerish. "I have carte blanche to use that word from my friend Paul Mooney," she says of the black comic who wrote for Richard Pryor. "I'm a card-carrying white-black girl. Plus, I have a huge black following, so, you know, it's like a black person saying niggerish." On cue, two fortyish black guys walk by the window, double-take, backtrack, tap the window, and wave -- all smiles and thumbs-up. Bernhard waves back and shoots me a withering look: "I rest my case."

In Bernhard's 1993 book of essays and short stories, Love, Love and Love (she has another, similar book coming out next month titled May I Kiss You on the Lips Miss Sandra), there is a nakedly honest, moving piece very obviously about Madonna. "She never loved me," it begins. "I swear to you nothing ever happened . . . She adored me in public more than anywhere else, where maybe someone would overhear our conversation and imagine that something was really going on between us."

Whatever happened between these two -- Bernhard will say only that "she betrayed our friendship" -- they remain estranged, though they occasionally run into each other at fashion shows and parties.

"It's like being a teenager," says Bernhard of these awkward encounters. "Throws you right back into that weird, insecure mode. It's been a long time now, but those kinds of relationships leave a mark. I don't really have much ego about it from my end. It's never really, to me, been set right, but you know what? Maybe things just don't get to be set right in your vision of it.

"Madonna came to my show toward the end, and I guess she was really offended on behalf of Lourdes, which is ridiculous, because I totally give it up to the kid." She laughs. "The point of the whole story is, she's studying Cabala, and I think that's great. But the bottom line is, if you're studying Cabala you know that with everybody that comes into your life, especially a child, there is some unfinished tikkun, or correction, that you need to make in this lifetime, and usually that kid is bringing you some experience that's gonna bust your balls. Okay?"

Here, the old wound opens up a bit. "She never even called me directly, she just told a couple of people I know that she was deeply offended. But you know, she's been studying the Cabala for two years, and the whole point of that is to get fucking real. I've run into her. I've been cool with her. When she's ready to pick up the phone and get real with me, she knows where to find me."

Where to find Sandra Bernhard: drive up Laurel Canyon, deep into the heart of North Hollywood -- a.k.a. the Valley -- and into L.A.'s weird suburbia. One can't be too sure whether the muscle cars parked on Bernhard's block are owned ironically by the hip, young writers who've recently discovered the neighborhood, or reverently by the teenage children of working-class couples who've always lived here. "The red Mustang belongs to the 17-year-old next door," says Bernhard as she meets me at the gate. "He's a cute kid." She lives in a two-bedroom Spanish bungalow. Her gold Acura is parked in the driveway. Her lawn is meticulously groomed and landscaped -- the prettiest on the block.

It's late August, about six weeks since the C-section birth of baby Cicely on July 4, and Bernhard is back to her old skinny self. The dewy mellowness of Tea and Sympathy has been replaced by what is probably her usual unpredictable moodiness. When I ask for a tour of the place, I am pointedly not taken into the kitchen, where Cicely and the nanny sit at a table, though I can see them from across the living room. A month later, a full-page picture of Bernhard nuzzling Cicely turns up in a big spread in Harper's Bazaar.

When I ask Bernhard why she decided to have a baby at 43, she deflects the question with a joke: "I just thought it would be fun to have a little sidekick of my own." (Questions about conception and father are met with steely No comments.) Cynical trendspotters have been anxious to lump Bernhard, Madonna, Rosie O'Donnell, and Jodie Foster -- all famous moms of about the same age and sensibility -- together with a meaningful, pre-millennial, feminist and/or lesbian, nurture fest. Don't look to Bernhard for any insights. She is fiercely private to the point of being, at times, obtuse. Of her love life, she will say only that she's been single for a year, after a breakup of a serious, reportedly tumultuous five-year relationship. "I've been on my own," she says. "Just hanging out by myself."

Back in the outing eighties, Bernhard was a popular punching bag for a gay press that was a little more desperate for icons than they are today. Bernhard has always resisted being labeled or called into action. In 1994, at the Stonewall 25 celebration in Central Park, before hundreds of thousands, lesbian activist/journalist Ann Northrop used her bully pulpit to thunder away at Bernhard for making jokes at the expense of lesbians for the amusement of gay men. More recently, Bernhard said in I'm Still Here . . . Damn It! that when the director of Ally McBeal suggested she take her character in a "gay direction," Bernhard resisted: "Quite frankly," she said, "I'm not that thrilled about being gay in my real life."


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