The Bitch is Back

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.

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.”

When I ask Bernhard about her “reluctant lesbian icon” status, circa late eighties, she says, “That was when the gay community was very p.c. and everybody had to come out, and now Sarah Pettit, who used to be the editor of Out, is writing freelance articles about her hair for Elle. I’m like, ‘Honey, who predicted this shit? Who predicted it?’

“At the end of the day, it’s all about fashion. So that’s why I wouldn’t buy into it and that’s why I still fight it. Everybody knows; it’s inferred; it’s all there in my work. I’m not here to make you feel good as a performer and a person. That’s not what I do. I just leave it completely out. Which to me is a throwback to stars of the thirties and forties. You didn’t see those people talking about this shit. It’s nobody’s fucking business.”

Bernhard detests the high-wire act of Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Heche’s intensely public romance, calling it “shtick … I think they’re targets for every imaginable kind of hatred, and who wants to expose yourself to that? They look like they’re ready to break apart at the seams. I just find it very bizarre. I don’t understand it at all.”

Sandra Bernhard was born in Flint, Michigan, and raised from the age of 10 in Scottsdale, Arizona. As she says in Without You I’m Nothing, “My mother’s an abstract artist, my father’s a proctologist.” A beat. “That’s how I view the world.” She has three older brothers, all of whom had creative leanings (photography, music, writing), though they all eventually opted for professional careers (dentist, doctor, sales), a fact that seems to disappoint her. She qualifies her relationship with her brothers as “very close,” but when I ask if her family “gets” what she does, she shrugs: “We don’t really talk that much about it. “My mom’s very cool with it, but she doesn’t always understand who I’m talking about. I don’t really get away with too much in my family. Keeps me grounded.”

In high school, Bernard spent a lot of time “scowling in the corner” with her two best friends, Dan and Tom. She was a mediocre student and not much of a joiner – except for the chorus. “I loved singing,” she says, “but they never let me in the best chorus, the one where you got to do all the musicals, which is pretty ironic, I guess. I wasn’t the class clown, I was the class commentator. I always had some smart-ass observation about the world that I had to, like, let everybody in on.”

She graduated from high school a half- year early and went to Israel to work on a kibbutz for eight months. On May 5, 1974, at the tender age of 19, she moved to L.A. and became a manicurist in a beauty salon, where she would eventually tend to the cuticles of seventies superstars Dyan Cannon and Jaclyn Smith, beginning in earnest her peculiar relationship to fame. Within a year, she was onstage.

“My first performance was at an open- mike night in a club in Beverly Hills called the Ye Little Club on Cañon Drive, and it consisted of a Mary Tyler Moore impression and a really bad joke about being a medium: ‘This is a small. This is a large. I’m a medium!’ I was wearing a pair of khaki shorts, a safari jacket, a straw hat, and some espadrilles – a bad fashion moment. Two very pivotal people in my life – Lotus Weinstock, who passed away a year ago, and Paul Mooney – were there that night, and they kind of took me under their wing and raised me in this business. My goal was to be somewhere between Lily Tomlin and Bette Midler: I wanted to sing and be really original and audacious and outrageous.”

For five years, Bernhard worked at the salon by day, performed at the clubs at night, and disco-danced into the wee hours. “I was a fag hag,” she says. “That was my favorite thing to do: go dancing with gay guys.” While she no longer spends her nights dancing in clubs, she is, it would appear, still a fag hag. When I ask who her best friends are, she lists a handful of guys, all gay men in the business of fashion or decorating.

Bernhard is sitting in a chair across from me in her den. Just above her head on the wall is a photograph of her and longtime pal Isaac Mizrahi in Budapest. Richard E. Grant took the picture during the filming of Hudson Hawk, a film distinguished mostly by being a spectacular failure. Bernhard has had a very strange film career. After brilliantly inhabiting the creepy, predatory groupie in Scorcese’s The King of Comedy in 1982, she never lived up to her original promise. Other than that performance – one that she admits was “so close to me” – Bernhard has never been very good with anyone else’s words but her own coming out of her mouth. “I don’t really consider myself to be an actress,” she says. “I don’t really like it that much.”

In 1992, after seeing her perform in her one-woman show Giving Til It Hurts, Camille Paglia enthused, “By her gutsy insistence on singing … Bernhard has rejoined stand-up to its origins in vaudeville, where music and comedy were brassily interwoven.” “Singing’s my first love,” says Bernhard. “If I could be anything, I’d definitely be a rock singer in the league of Linda Ronstadt, Marianne Faithful, Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell. But … I get to do it enough so that it’s satisfying.”

At a Laura Nyro memorial at the Beacon Theater last year, she performed a dead-on mimic of “Lonely Women,” and earlier this year, she sang on the same bill at a Walden Pond?benefit concert with two of her heroes, Stevie Nicks and Joni Mitchell. “Bernhard delivered a surprisingly forceful and full-bodied take on George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward’s ‘Summertime,’ ” noted the Los Angeles Times. Perhaps more important, she has become “good friends” with Marianne Faithfull.

“Sometimes I want her to provide the alternative to some of the things she makes fun of,” says John Cameron Mitchell, “because she is so unique herself that I think of her as the alternative to the ridiculous rock stars. She is, to me, as much of a rock star as they are. She’s like the Cassandra – warning of the ridiculous, the hubris, the troubles – but sometimes I want her to be the heroine, leading the vanguard of the alternative to those stupid things. She likes the mind-fuck, but the ultimate mind-fuck for her audience would be for her to force them to take it completely seriously, force them to cry.”

Perhaps Bernhard’s newfound, Cabala-inspired “inner peace” and the addition of a child to her life will give her the necessary empathy/sympathy to connect with an audience on that level and move them past seering sarcasm to actual tears. Who knows. When I ask Steve Aturo, Bernhard’s best friend, how motherhood has changed her, he says, “I think the big change came even before she was pregnant. It wasn’t that she was an unhappy person before, but she let go of a lot of anger, which made her relate to things in a different way. She’s really let her guard down.” He starts to laugh. Though she’s still the edgy Sandra we know and love. She hasn’t lost her edge, that’s for sure.”

No kidding.

“People are afraid of me,” says Bernhard, when I mention that some people really dislike her. “People don’t like the truth. They don’t like to be called on their bullshit. They’d rather be nice. They’d rather hide behind the pretension of being nice, and being nice doesn’t really get you anywhere in this world. It’s a cop-out. It always has been. Being nice is bullshit. Being real, being concerned, being passionate, loving, all comes from very strong emotions. Being nice is a weak emotion. It’s not even an emotion. It’s just a weakness, period.”

The Bitch is Back