Justin Vivian Bond ’85 takes no prisoners and holds little sacred—at least when the spotlight is on.
The outspoken author, actor and songwriter, who caused a sensation in New York City as the better half of the cabaret comedy act Kiki and Herb, wrapped up the “25th tranniversary season” of performing with a year of monthly shows at Manhattan’s Joe’s Pub at the Public. The run ended in September with a weekend under the banner The Golden Age of Justin Vivian Bond, featuring cameos from such celebrity friends as Sandra Bernhard and Molly Ringwald and a final night benefiting the nonprofit art gallery Participant Inc and the Gender & Family Project, which seeks to enable understanding of gender variance in community and family settings.
Dressed in a loose-fitting, off-the-shoulder black tunic and black skinny pants, Bond (who uses the nonbinary pronoun “they,” or more simply “V,” rather than the traditional “he” and “she”) spoke easily, sometimes about difficult issues, from the stage of The Public Theater’s lounge during the September 9, 2016, show. With a small band of piano, violin and clarinet, and partner Nath Ann Carrera on acoustic guitar, Bond spoke with sincerity and wit about such things as not being let into the family home because of disagreements about gender expression that didn’t end until V’s father died.
“I got a great deal of satisfaction looking down at the casket and seeing he had on more makeup than I did,” V said. Later in the show, V extolled, “I’ve never considered myself a drag queen—but I’ve played one in nightclubs.”
Watching Bond on stage, gender issues start to seem simple. Singing songs made famous by iconic women and men—Jeff Buckley, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Nicks, Carly Simon—as well as original songs, Bond seems comfortable hovering between genders. V doesn’t seem to be trying to take on a female body type (either by costume or surgery), but is entirely comfortable with a flip of teased blond hair and the flash of a winning smile.
With a persona developed from within the gay communities of New York and San Francisco, Bond got a perhaps unlikely start in the performing arts as a student in the Theatre Department at Adelphi University, where V and Rent playwright and composer Jonathan Larson ’82 became close friends.
“While at Adelphi I performed in many wonderful cabaret shows directed by Nick Petron with music written by Jonathan Larson and had a lot of fun doing them,” Bond said. “Jonathan and I remained friends until his death. I formed so many lasting friendships at Adelphi and I am happy to say I remain close with many alums today.”
But in the early 1980s—when gay rights was still considered a fringe issue and homosexuality was still illegal in some states—Bond encountered some minds at Adelphi that weren’t altogether open.
“When I was a freshman, I was put on warning that I would be kicked out of the Theatre Department if I didn’t ‘butch up,’” V said. “I somehow managed to graduate, but I have never let anyone in the business speak to me like that again and get away with it. Hopefully, that kind of homophobic nonsense is now a part of the past at Adelphi. That aside, I had a wonderful solo performance teacher by the name of Martha Schlamme and it was in her class that I began to write the blueprint for my career as a performance artist.”
Nicholas Petron, M.A. ’7,1 was a new faculty member when Bond was attending Adelphi. Now the chair of the Theatre Department, he acknowledged that there were some problematic attitudes in the past, issues and ideas that have since been disposed of.
“There was a regime that thought men should be men and women should be women and never the twain shall meet,” Petron said. “It was upsetting to me then, but we’re talking about 30 years ago.”
Petron remembers Bond fondly and even took a group of students to see Kiki and Herb on Broadway.
“Justin was always quirky, and I use that word in a good way,” he said. “They loved musical theater and, of course, this is not a musical theater program but the training here reinforces voice and movement. They were finding a voice and wanted to be a good solid actor who could create soulful characters you believe in.”
On stage today, he added, Bond creates “a character that you want to have a martini with—and maybe slap in the face.”
While the road may have been rocky at times, Bond found the way to stages uptown and downtown as well as to Carnegie Hall (documented on the double-CD Kiki and Herb Will Die for You: Live at Carnegie Hall). V has appeared in several films, including John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus, and has won an Obie and a Bessie award along with a Tony Award nomination. V’s 2011 memoir TANGO: My Childhood, Backwards and in High Heels won the Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Nonfiction.
And last fall, that career path led Bond somewhere less expected: to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia as a commentator for Towleroad, a gay politics and culture website.
“I’m not really a journalist, but I was offered the opportunity and it seemed so once in a lifetime I didn’t feel like I could say ‘no,’” V said. “In the ’90s, I had an award-winning column in San Francisco covering cultural events within the LGBT community and, ultimately, the reason I ended up as the ‘wo/man’ in the street was because I couldn’t get into the convention due to a security clearance mix-up with the Secret Service. It turned out to be a blessing because I ended up covering a bunch of grassroots events happening in Philadelphia.”
Journalist, performance artist, singer/songwriter or star of stage and screen, covering politics in one way or another has been a constant in Bond’s life as a performer.
“When I was at Adelphi, Ronald Reagan had just been swept into office by the religious right, the federal education budget was slashed to make way for trickle-down economics and it was the beginning of the AIDS crisis,” Bond said. “I’ve never felt that my community wasn’t under attack and I’ve never created any art that I didn’t think was political.
“People have called me various things at different times in my career: actor, comedian, drag queen, transgender, painter, writer, singer. But I hate to be labeled—especially by others,” V added. “As I have said many times before, I am everything.”