Justin Vivian Bond: ‘Now’s The Time, More Than Ever, To Let Your Freak Flag Fly’

The inimitable Mx. Justin Vivian Bond, perhaps best known for their role as Kiki Durane in the comedy duo Kiki & Herb (with co-star Kenny Mellman), comes to Joe’s Pub this September for A Star Is Borned: The Adventures of Chipra. Bond is also recognizable from Shortbus, High Maintenance, Difficult People, and countless other roles on TV and film. Their memoir, Tango: My Childhood, Backwards and in High Heels, won a Lambda Literary Award in 2011.

INTO sat down with Viv for a peek into the plots and schemes behind their newest solo show.

Tell me about A Star Is Borned: The Adventures of Chipra.

I was actually trying to figure out what I wanted to do this September, and do you know Christeene? Christeene is a drag performer, who’s amazing, and they were visiting me upstate, and we were driving around in my car, cackling like we do, and I started telling her about when I was in seventh grade, there was this kid in my class and I was obsessed with Barbra Streisand and A Star Is Born, and so this kid did this cartoon strip of me with Barbra Streisand’s nose and a Superman T-shirt on. And it was called The Adventures of Chipra. And [Christeene and I] were having a laugh about it, and then he said, “That’s what you need to do: The Adventures of Chipra.” And I said, “You’re right! That is what I’m gonna do.”

So then, I went home and started thinking about my obsession with A Star Is Born, and I googled it, and then I saw that Lady Gaga’s got A Star Is Born opening next month, and I said, “Well, Judy, Barbra, and Gaga are sort of these queer icons from three different generations. And how much fun would it be to contextualize it with The Adventures of Chipra and what it’s like to be a star-obsessed teenager who grows up to be a performer?” And then I just took it from there, and so that’s kind of what the show is about, and I’m going to be doing music from all three of them.

 

So you’re not performing as Judy or Gaga or Barbra.

No, I’m not impersonating anybody. I’m doing their music and how it flows through me in the way that it will. [cackles] I’m not doing any impersonations, but I’m definitely homaging.

 

What do you think drew you to Barbra Streisand?

I think it’s the same thing, probably, that drove people to be interested in Judy Garland or Gaga. Their vulnerability and their quirkiness. They’re not traditional stars. Judy was, as you know, a hyper-emotional actress who started out in The Wizard of Oz, and that iconic role was being somebody who had to go away to find out who they really were, to leave their family, to go and go on this Odyssean journey to find out what really matters to her. And then, you know, her whole life being kind of ostracized and struggling to be respected as an artist, and being kind of an outsider, even though she was a huge Hollywood star.

And the same thing with Barbra Streisand, being this non-traditional beauty, who somehow managed to just own herself so fiercely that she became a big star in spite of everything, against all odds. That kind of thing that makes you think, “Well, maybe I can do that! Maybe I’m a person of value. Maybe there are possibilities for me that other people aren’t seeing, but by believing in, and being witness to, what these people are able to do, I can do that.”

And when Lady Gaga was starting out, “Oh, I was bullied in high school” — you know, her thing about being not-a-rich-girl on the Upper East Side, just a regular girl who had to struggle because she was not this WASP-y, beautiful girl. You know? [laughs]

So, their exploitation of their own outsider status, which gave people like us the ability to empower ourselves to do things that we didn’t necessarily know what we could do. I mean, role models like that are good.

 

How do you see this concert being in conversation with your memoir, Tango, which covers this period in your life?

I didn’t really talk about it too much in Tango. I think I did mention A Star Is Born, in that I was going to this guidance counselor, exhibiting tendencies of becoming difficult, and so they sent me to a psychologist. And one of the things my parents wouldn’t let me see was A Star Is Born, because it was rated “R,” and that became a great big point of contention. And so my rebellion was sort of instigated by the fact that I wasn’t allowed to see A Star Is Born. And I felt, in a way, that that was them putting the iron fist down on my queerness in any way they could, and so I think that is the way in which it relates to that period in that book.

And then, you know, my art thing, my show that I did that was at The New Museum, My Model | Myself, was about how I formed a kind of identity through being obsessed with [Karen Graham]. It’s how we escape ourselves through our fantasies, and of who we could be, or who we want to be when we’re trapped in this reality that we don’t really enjoy, and so I think that is another thing: Me and this queer kid in seventh grade, both hating our lives, but he makes this cartoon, which is his outlet, where he somehow was able to subvert my identity, and his, through this comic strip, The Adventures of Chipra, that only we could really, truly appreciate, because we were such outsiders in our own little way, and how we form community around these celebrities or stars or artists that we rally around so that we can share who we are through them when we’re looking to connect with people in that way that only queer people do, I think.

 

Given that the Internet gives us much easier access to the people in our community we might want to emulate, what does that change about the ways we, as outsiders and queer people, find each other?

Right. But we don’t “meet” each other on the Internet. You know, when I went to see Lady Gaga when she was at Madison Square Garden, I went because I was friends with the Scissor Sisters. I wasn’t all that… I mean, I like Lady Gaga, but I was never Lady Gaga-obsessed. But then you see all these gorgeous kids walking around in the different Lady Gaga looks, and she has this number up on the Jumbotron for them to text and then, you know, some kid in the audience calls, and then they’re on the phone, and all the other kids get very excited about it. It’s just so adorable. And so they do have their ways of meeting each other. They’re at the Lady Gaga concert, and they look around, and there’s all these other kids just like them there, and that must be some sort of comfort to them.

How do you think the way fans relate to Lady Gaga now is different than how we would have related to Judy or Barbra growing up?

Well, I think, [with regard to Judy], for adults, her most legendary moment was at Carnegie Hall, when every gay in New York City was there that night. You had to be there. That was the thing. And with Barbra Streisand, it was probably a little bit more at the movie theater. But I mean, the gay people are still completely obsessed with Judy. Barbra announces her next “final” series of concerts, and everybody has to pay two gazillion dollars to go and see Barbra drink tea and wear a Donna Karan dress. But the kids are more, you know, active, I guess. It was that whole thing with her being Mother Monster or, you know, that one kid who committed suicide and did that “paws up” thing on YouTube that was so heartbreaking. They have access to each other in a way that we never did.

 

David M. Halperin talks, in How to Be Gay, about how certain archetypical women (like Judy Garland or Joan Crawford) become “queered” for little gay boys because of the way they epitomize feminine affects to which those boys don’t have ready access, and how queer culture is built around how we “queer” cultural artifacts through that kind of misrecognition. As queer people become more and more visible in the media, do you think there are negative consequences for the formation of queer culture?

That’s a very broad question. I don’t exactly know how to answer it because, of course, the person in this show that I’m the most attached to is Barbra, because that was my person from when I was young. I’m an adult now, so I don’t really form my identity around depictions of femininity in the media so much anymore, but it’s about how that was formulated for me in the first place, which is kind of in the past, because I’m myself now. This is kind of a way of exploring how I became myself. So I don’t know exactly. I don’t think I could answer that question in an accurate or informed way about the younger generation.

 

I hear something every once in a while that gives me pause — something along the lines of, “Oh, we don’t have a need for queer culture anymore, because it served a certain function in the past, and for our forebears, when we didn’t enjoy recognition in the media.”

But I don’t know if that’s really true, because I think that young people need to do that. Still. It might not be necessarily Lady Gaga — might be, you know, smaller pockets, more specialized. I mean, even that Barbra Streisand thing was one thing for me, but then, of course, you had people that were goth. There’s always little subcultures of the culture. And they find each other in those little areas.

And now there’s the nonbinary kids or the kids that are coming out as trans and transitioning very young, and they have their identity that they form themselves around, and their communities and ideas and their forums and all of that, where they get very heated and passionate and are constantly commenting and parsing and thinking about and being outraged by, and it’s very real and very intense for them.

 

As someone who has gone through all these battles to figure out who you are, do you see yourself as having a role to play when it comes to the way the younger kids are finding themselves?

I don’t know. I mean, I try to be accessible in a way, to be somebody who’s not uncomfortable just being a visible presence as somebody who is out, open, and comfortable being trans living my life. But I can’t and don’t know what other people really think about me. [laughs]

I don’t know! And I don’t think I’m somebody that necessarily a lot of kids are keyed into. I think they’re more into, you know… there’s a lot of the kids that are into RuPaul’s Drag Race, and they all have their favorite, who they think is amazing, and that they argue about, and get worked up about, and get inspired by. And there’s all these Instagram people that do their tutorials and everybody learns from and all of that. But I don’t think I’m necessarily one of those people.

 

Are you still friends with the boy who drew The Adventures of Chipra?

No. I don’t know, really, whatever became of him, because that was in middle school. I think he did go to my high school, but we were in different crowds or something. I don’t know what happened to him. I would be curious to know.

 

What about Michael Hunter, your notorious middle school lover/bully? Is he still around?

I believe so, yes. But I don’t… [chuckles] again, I don’t have any contact with him. He used to mow my best friend’s mother’s lawn, but that was years ago, once he got out of prison or whatever. [cackles]

 

What else are you working on these days?

I’m in Wigstock next week, and I’ve got those nine shows [at Joe’s Pub] opening right after that. And then, I’m working on a new record, but that’s not quite ready, and I haven’t figured out how I’m going to put it out. But I’ve got a lot of projects sort of cooking right now, but the big focus right now is this show coming up.

 

Is there anything else you want to want to add about the show?

I just think that it’s important for people to know that I might be intellectualizing [the show], in the explanation, but [laughs] I think it’s going to be a fun show, because I’ve got all this material to choose from, between [Judy, Barbra, and Gaga]. I know I’m going to have a blast doing it.

And the other thing is, you know, I put up this picture of myself that I’ve found recently, on Instagram, and all the people really responded to it, and in a certain way, I think, for me, it’s kind of been fun to go back. And I think of those years as being such miserable years, in a way (the teenage years), and you know, being this really uncomfortable teenage boy who was unable to acknowledge the trans person within me, and not sure what my life was going to be like, but who was, in a certain precocious way, kind of adorable.

And so, through this, I think I’m kind of finding a way to reintegrate this little person that I didn’t love at the time and love them now. So it’s kind of really fun! [laughs]

And then, just know that I’m going to be a big goofball doing this show. I’m not going to be Barbra, Judy, or Gaga, I’m going to be Chipra, a big goofball, having a great time as a grown-up, living out this insanity, which should be fun for everybody, hopefully.

 

For those of us who are figuring out our identity around gender and any number of things, what do you think, short of putting on a show at Joe’s Pub, people can do to get back in touch with that person that we didn’t like in our teenage years?

Love it. You know? I think we’re all, especially now, people are, on one level, expressing themselves in a way like they never have. But I think we’re also in a moment where everybody’s taught that the language is the language of fear. You know, everybody’s saying, “Oh, Trump’s president! I’m so scared! I’m so scared!” And I’m just like, I’m not scared — I’m pissed off. And it makes me feel rebellious.

But I think the temptation is to, you know, put your head down and hide and just be very sensible, and… I don’t know. It’s like, now’s the time, more than ever, to let your freak flag fly. And it’s a time where people want to do that, but it’s starting to feel a little dangerous, and I think there’s safety in numbers, so we all just have to stick together and be as fierce and wonderful and we can possibly be. Like, the most fun version of ourselves.

I always use the tagline, “Glamour is resistance,” because I think there’s something really powerful about allowing yourself to be the most divine creature you’re capable of being.

 

A Star is Borned: The Adventures of Chipra plays at Joe’s Pub Friday, September 7 – Sunday, September 16 at Joe’s Pub (425 Lafayette St New York, NY 10003), every night at 9:30 PM. There is no performance on Monday, September 10. The evening features music direction by Matt Ray and the musical stylings of Nath Ann Carrera (guitar) and Claudia Chopek (violin). For more information, click here or visit joespub.com.

Image via Getty


Karl Saint Lucy

Karl Saint Lucy is a composer, countertenor, and pianist living in lower Manhattan. He wrote the music for UCB’s Fucking Identical Twins and sings like a girl.

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