The Story of V

Photo: Andreas Laszlo Konrath. Hair and Makeup by Roberto Morelli for NARS at Link NYLA.

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.”

Bond as Kiki in 1998.Photo: Mark Tusk

One of the difficulties of writing about Bond’s reality flux is very basic: the pronoun. His friends mostly refer to him as “he,” though many go back and forth depending on the context or the fraughtness of their relationship (the musician Rufus Wainwright notably seems to use “he” just to irk Bond). For the record, he would prefer to not be referred to as he or she but rather the faux-noun v, which references “Vivian,” the new middle name he gave himself early this year. He’s also never liked being tagged as a drag queen: Alex Ross in The New Yorkeronce solicitously described him as “simply a svelte person who looks stylish in women’s clothes.” Certainly he’s never been a conventional transvestite showboat, a surface exaggeration of cartoonish hyperfemininity. He has too much interior life to be anything like the standard drag queen.

Another challenge is that Bond is constantly milling his experience into stage patter. There’s little distinction between the confessed Bond and the private one. “Never tell Justin Bond a secret,” observes Sammy Jo. “It’ll end up in a show.”

Bond’s told this story before: When he was in first grade, he took to wearing his mother’s Iced Watermelon lipstick to school, figuring that she never left the house without it on. “Boys don’t wear lipstick,” his mother told him. But Bond wasn’t comfortable being a boy, at least as a boy is ordinarily constructed; he just assumed that he’d grow up and be male from the waist down and still get breasts. His mother, protective of both her son and herself, worried about how this preposterous notion would affect his getting along in life, and derided him. Bond says he later came upon a porn magazine in the woods that showed that exact physical formulation, confusing things further for him. At this point, he was known as Stanley Huffman Bond III. His family called him Chip, as in “off the old block.” This fey, dreamy child wasn’t what they had expected, dancing around the house on his toes.

After years of weaving these disclosures between songs onstage, he’s written them down in a short memoir, Tango, coming out this fall. Like the new album, the book is about the necessity of inventing who you ­really are: His family—and pretty much every­body else—wanted Bond to be something he just couldn’t see himself being. When he was 9 and a girl told him he walked like a girl, he thought, “Well, I’m a boy, and this is how I walk. So I don’t walk like a girl, I walk like a boy.” That’s defiant Bond, but it wasn’t that simple. “I was simultaneously flattered and confused. I hadn’t been aware that I walked like a girl. I don’t even know that I aspired to walk like a girl. But I’m sure I never tried to walk like a boy. I didn’t like boys. I’d never really liked boys.”

Bond and his sister, Carol, were raised Christian, in the Church of the Brethren, and at various points in his childhood Bond was quite religious, going to camp and wearing large crucifixes, as if to ward off the devil in his difference.

He discovered sex with some older boys at camp (“I felt I had some power over them. They were so insistent,” he writes). He felt guilty and decided that he should tell his mother, who confronted the older boys’ parents. “From that day on, I was branded a fag.”

And he never got over it. For most of his life, he has been at war with everyone. Carol always thought he just liked the attention. But Bond says, “I feel like I got too much attention.” He would skip gym because his very presence was too disruptive. “I think a disproportionate number of queer people have ADD, and it’s because we’re hypervigilant. So it’s not attention deficit, it’s hyperattention.”

At a gala on April 25 for the 30th ­anniversary of the performance-arts space PS122 in the East Village, an early mentor of Bond’s, the transsexual playwright and gender-­theorist Kate Bornstein, recalled meeting his mother, who she says “berated him, making Justin feel small about being fabulous.”

Awards were being given out to fellow stars of the demimonde Danny Hoch and Carmelita Tropicana, and when Bond got up to accept his, he said, “I did speak to my mother yesterday and told her I was being honored tonight. And she said, ‘Isn’t that just great. Carol! Your brother’s on the phone!’ ” The audience laughed knowingly; what downtown arts appreciator doesn’t resent his uncomprehending parents? “I’m very sad that she couldn’t be here tonight. But if it wasn’t for my family and the rage they engendered in me, I wouldn’t be here.”

Bond with Kenny Mellman as Herb, on Broadway in 2006.Photo: Carol Rosegg

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!”).

Bond with his boyfriend, Nath Ann.Photo: Mark Tusk

The central narrative was that, after a motley career, Kiki and Herb were trying to get back in the game. They’d known each other since they were children in a mental institution, where Herb was picked on for being gay. Probably the most memorably intense medley told the story of when Herb was raped in the boys’ locker room. It worked itself up into a barely controlled crescendo, culminating in a frenetic, spellbinding, sung-spat version of the “horses” part of Patti Smith’s “Land” (“When suddenly Johnny gets the feeling he’s being surrounded by / Horses, horses, horses, horses / Coming in in all directions / White shining silver studs with their nose in flames”) before quieting itself again, Kiki flat on her back. “That was sort of based on something that happened in my life,” says Mellman. Kiki and Herb, he adds, “was like Gestalt therapy.”

They moved on to other venues, and a community began to coalesce around the show. The novelist Michael Cunningham would go every week “without fail,” but found himself a bit intimidated: How do you talk to Bond? Later, he took his writing students to show them that “a character doesn’t need to be sympathetic but deeply real, and God knows Kiki was ­unsympathetic but deeply real.”

One of the onstage jokes about Kiki was that she had traveled in star-studded worlds, getting to know everyone from Picasso to Princess Grace. In a way, Bond and Mellman had too. In 1998, Christopher Ciccone invited them out to L.A. to play his sister Madonna’s 40th-birthday party; when Kiki slammed down a cocktail—a signature move—in front of the singer D’Angelo, he kicked her. Things went downhill from there. In the middle of the set, Madonna asked, “Don’t you have happy songs?” The aged Kiki replied, “I hope you’re performing happy songs when you’re my age—oh, you already are.” Yoko Ono has played onstage with Bond. Deborah Harry introduced him to her vocal coach. Sandra Bernhard became a collaborator. Bond grew so close to Rufus Wainwright that he became, in Martha Wainwright’s phrase, “really a family member.” When the Wainwrights’ mother, Kate McGarrigle, was ill with cancer, Bond, visiting her in Canada, “put on the apron just like an older woman, assembled the sandwiches, spread the mayonnaise, cleared the table, and put the dishes in the dishwasher.” (He’s playing in the McGarrigle tribute at Town Hall this month.) A pre–Scissor Sisters Jake Shears, then known as Jason Sellards, saw him play and decided that he, too, needed to be onstage (they’ve opened for each other, and Sammy Jo remains the Scissor Sisters’ tour D.J.). He’s friends with Tilda Swinton and Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons), and avant-garde musicians Casey Spooner and Nico Muhly. John Cameron Mitchell cast him as the unflappable, all-knowing pansexual orgy host (named Justin Bond) in his 2006 erotic liberation film, Shortbus. Mitchell helped introduce Bond to the sensitive heterosexual pianist Thomas Bartlett, then an undergraduate at Columbia and today an artist known as Doveman. Bartlett, who produced Dendrophile, sometimes has Bond over for dinner at his parents’ apartment uptown (Bond and Bartlett’s mother have not-dissimilar hairstyles).

Despite the attention he was getting as Kiki, Bond began to lose interest. “There was always this sort of love-hate tension with that character,” says Sammy Jo. “The intensity of it being a reaction to the whole AIDS epidemic. Then people began living. It changed from that—his voice against this horrible disease—to the internal conflict of him playing this dilapidated woman. He couldn’t get onstage and be glamorous and sing pretty songs.”

“You take on a lot of toxicity to get people to feel the emotions,” says Mellman. “We made a decent living”—Bond even could afford health insurance, something he doesn’t have at the moment, which means he has to get his hormones from the subsidized Callen-Lorde clinic in Chelsea. “But we were doing hundreds of shows a year.”

After a well-received 2003 run Off Broadway, Bond went to London to get his masters in scenography at Central Saint Martins, where he learned to be a director, partly so he would never have to be directed again. But before he left, Kiki and Herb had a “farewell” performance at Carnegie Hall. That night, Kiki slurred sentimentally to Herb, “I just want you to know that you’re terrific, and I don’t know what I’d do without this fella … We’ve been working together a very, very, very long time.”

“It just keeps going on and on and on and on,” Herb cooed back.

The farewell was premature. When Bond returned, they kept going, but this time they were playing Broadway. In the goofily expanded narrative, they had become immortal after drinking the milk of a cow that consumed Jesus’ placenta. (The Catholic League was not amused.) Kiki later would compete with Mary Magdalene for Jesus’ affections.

Bond backstage at the Bowery Ballroom last month.Photo: Andreas Laszlo Konrath for New York Magazine

Kiki competed with Bond’s sense of self, too. “I felt that when people met me they were let down I wasn’t this character.”

In 2007, they were nominated for a Tony, and the next year, they played Perez Hilton’s 30th birthday. There was talk of taking it further. But for Bond it was too late.

Mellman has all of Herb’s costumes in the basement of his partner’s parents’ house in Brooklyn. “The relationship between Kiki and Herb is so co-dependent,” he says. “It’s easy for it to get blurry.” Mellman nonetheless hadn’t wanted to shut down the act. “I haven’t really talked to Justin in years.”

One day I meet Bond and some friends of his around the corner from his apartment; they’re finishing up a slightly boozy Saturday brunch in the middle of the afternoon, admiring the waiters, and talking about how perfect next fall’s Lanvin collection is for him. When the talk turns to exercise, Bond jokes that since he doesn’t, his body looks ­exactly the same naked now as when he was 4. Then we walk to his apartment, which is above the proudly filthy and soon-to-close Mars Bar on Second Avenue. It’s cluttered with books and records and memorabilia: Edie Sedgwick’s pillbox hat (Ramones manager Danny Fields gave it to him); a painting by Tilda Swinton’s husband; a sunflower painting by Bond’s mother; autographed records by Barry Manilow, Plastic Ono Band, and Anita O’Day. There’s a sign that reads I AM A MANNISH MUFFDIVER AMAZON FEMINIST QUEER LESBIAN FEMME AND PROUD! In his yellow-walled room, Joan Didion and Jean Genet preside over his bed, and there’s a how-to-stop-smoking book on the floor. “I quit for a year and a half, and then I started again. I swore I would never quit again, and I’m still not convinced that I’m going to,” he says of his Marlboro Lights. “But my doctor told me I should, because if you take estrogen, it increases your chances of blood clotting if you smoke. So I, you know, I’m giving it consideration.”

He has roommates, but they’re out, and Bond makes us coffee. He is going to have to leave this apartment next month. The ramshackle building is surrounded by the dormlike Avalon Bay apartment complex, and will soon be demolished to make way for more of the same. Bond still isn’t sure where he’s going.

A few years back, “Antony and Tilda Swinton and I were having girlfriend chit-chat over tea,” says Bond. “We were talking about how so much of the art in the nineties was apocalyptic. Kiki was very apocalyptic: Everyone was dying, our world was ending. Now everyone knows the world is ending—to do apocalyptic art just seems a little redundant. So Antony said the idea is to do art where we acknowledge that we’re standing on the precipice of hope. That ­really inspired me.”

“He’s at heart a hippie under that punk rocker,” says John Cameron Mitchell. Bond has long been involved with a group called the Radical Faeries, which gathers ritualistically in the woods in Tennessee to celebrate a kind of free-love paganism.

Michael Warner, an English professor at Yale, first went to the encampment with Bond in 1999. For Bond, the Faerieland is a place where he can, for once, blend in. He doesn’t have to be hypervigilant. When they arrived, a Cajun dinner was in the works, says Warner. “Someone had gotten up in a bridal dress and was being carried kicking and screaming up to the front of the serving tables. And they asked Justin to be the voodoo priestess for the ritual sacrifice. He said—well, his first reaction was, ‘Sacrifice? I thought you said sack of rice!’ ”

But Bond, for all his shoe shopping, has also always been a bit of a dendrophile—church camp, Boy Scout camp, the treehouse he used to meet a middle-school lover in—and in any case, as Sammy Jo observes, there’s a Victorian quality to the Faeries. “They love a dignified tea party. Something you can wear hats to.”

He wrote his first song at a Faerie gathering. It began as a chant, or an incantation to himself, as the pagan May Queen: “Answer to the May Queen, baby / Listen to the May Queen now! … Rise up as the deadwood comes a-crashing to the ground.”

As for Dendrophile’s songs (“May Queen” is not on the album), they’re ­“filtered through my own damage, not Kiki’s,” Bond says, laughing. “And it’s a little gentler, I hope, and is much more pleasant for me. I don’t have to be as grotesque.”

Bond, who’s currently back in residence at Joe’s Pub, has an expressive, hoarsely fragile voice. “He’ll still work up to scream—that’s a very important part of his arsenal—but he can sing a ballad now,” says Bartlett. “He’s become a great torch singer.” Emotionally, the songs on the album run the gamut from defiance to longing. “The New Economy” is all surly anti-bourgeois prophesy (“They say it’s the new Depression, so why am I filled with glee? / everybody’s coming down quickly / now they can all join me”), while his cover of Bambi Lake’s “The Golden Age of Hustlers” does a particularly wonderful job of creating an entire lapsed world in five minutes and seven seconds. One he wrote himself is a jaunty banjo-propelled country number called “Equipoise,” which goes, “A bird that has no feet to land can only just aspire / To breathe more strength into its wings and keep on climbing higher.”

“To tell you the truth, I was very worried when he stabbed Kiki in the hallway,” says Rufus Wainwright. “But I am totally sold. He has made a clear break. And it’s valid artistically. Thank God.”

Bond and Sammy Jo broke up in 2005. Nearly four years ago, Bond met a guitar-strumming boy two decades his junior named Nath Ann (né Nathan) Carrera, whose preferred mode of special-event attire is a brown dress with a turban made out of what appears to be a flattened white bird. “We were doing our gig Kiki & Herb: Alive on Broadwayin San Francisco, and I walked out after the first matinee and he was standing by a parking meter and I ­decided to make him mine.”

It turned out Carrera was an usher in the theater. “Well, he was instrumental in helping me, I guess, get in touch with myself again, ’cause he was no part of my history. He’s 28. It was almost like where he was and who he was, I could go and pick up where I left off. It’s really strange; you’re surrounded by these amazing, young, exciting, exuberant, highly articulate queer kids in San Francisco, so the day after we closed Kiki and Herb, I got in the caravan with like eleven anarchist queer kids and we spent a week at Queeruption, camping in the woods.

“I don’t have to be beholden to anything that’s gone before. I can just keep on changing. I can pretend like I’m 28, and having a boyfriend who is 28 makes it a lot easier.”

Plus they like the same music. “I’m ­listening to the Carpenters with someone who doesn’t think it’s ironic.”

Bond burned the original Kiki dress at a Faerie gathering—as a tribute to the ­ascendence of his sincerity. “After that, Kiki worked for me. I didn’t work for her.”

“A lot of people are surprised” about the hormones, says Warner, who recently had Bond, a Barbie scarf tied around his neck, speak at one of his queer-studies seminars at Yale. “People figured Justin had already solved the problem of people’s perception of his gender.” When we spoke, Rufus ­Wainwright didn’t even know about Bond’s decision to alter himself chemically; Martha Wainwright grasped to figure out what to say. “There was always a confidence in his maleness,” she said. “But maybe that was never true.” Mitchell seemed a bit flummoxed, too, wanting to say the right thing. Mellman just didn’t want to talk about it.

“One of the things we talked about in class was what is the meaning for him of going on hormones if it’s not to transition from male to female,” says Warner. “He doesn’t want anyone to think of it that way. It’s about having a body form that makes it immediately visible to everybody that he’s neither one nor the other.”

And besides, Bond says, it occurred to him that “if I was a real woman, I’d be postmenopausal. I wouldn’t be able to have children anyway. So I can just be a postmenopausal woman now.” For the record, he’s also been known to date female-to-male transsexuals and likes to declare himself a “lesbian separatist.”

So don’t expect a settled answer here. He’s not planning on having an operation. He seems most comfortable trying to find a place in the in-between. “She’s happy,” says Sammy Jo, switching pronouns again. “As happy as I’ve ever known her to be. Especially because it’s no longer moments of happiness.”

Bond now is getting the body he always thought he’d have back when he was growing up in Maryland. And before he began the sterility-inducing estrogen cycles earlier this year, he had some of his sperm cryogenically frozen in New ­Jersey. After all, if his friend Rufus can have a baby (with Leonard Cohen’s daughter, no less), why can’t he?

“I’m not doing this to decrease my ­options.”

The Story of V