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One On 1: For Performer Justin Bond, Life Is More Than A Cabaret

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Justin Bond, who has been called a "downtown icon," is best known as a staple on the New York cabaret scene. In his "One on 1" interview with Budd Mishkin, Bond explains how his character was an important part of growing up and finding himself within the gay community.

Justin Bond is so prominent on the cabaret scene that he's the subject of a New York University student's dissertation.

"He wrote his dissertation and now he's a university professor," says Bond. "So I'm infiltrating academia."

As the performance group Kiki and Herb, Bond and Kenny Mellman exhilarated audiences for 15 years, had a critically-acclaimed, Tony Award-nominated show on Broadway, and twice sold out Carnegie Hall. The fictional duo, an aging alcoholic lounge singer and her loyal accompanist, were known for eclectic set lists, with songs by artists ranging from Radiohead to Bonnie Tyler.

It's the storytelling which truly stamps a Justin Bond performance. His monologues range from the personal to the political to the provocative.

"I have a structure and I have an outline of what stories I'm going to tell," explains Bond. "But within those stories, it's kind of like jazz in that I free associate and riff.

But, for Bond, what takes place on stage is not just a show.

"My work is really, and what has inspired me most of my life, is this exploration of femininity. And in our culture, femininity in men is really a problem for a lot of people," he says.

Bond created Kiki in San Francisco in the late 1980s. He says the rage he felt watching many of his friends die of AIDS created the need to portray, what he calls "the wounded feminine."

"She is an alcoholic, a bad mother, a show business failure, failure as a woman – all of these things that are sort of looked down upon," he says. "If I can take all of these qualities and still have people love this character, I will have accomplished something."

Kiki and Herb became a hot ticket when they moved to New York, a world away from Bond's home town of Hagerstown, Maryland.

"I called my mom and I was very excited," he recalls. "I said, 'Mom, you have to buy next month's Vanity Fair, I'm going to be in Vanity Fair. They're doing a feature and a photograph.' [And she said], 'Is that another gay magazine?' [And I said], 'No, mom, you could get it at the mall. It's pretty popular.' [And she said], 'Alright.'"

For the first show at Carnegie Hall, Bond says his parents chartered a bus for 35 people from his church.

"People who I love, people who have never made me feel anything other than wonderful about who I am, but who had no idea what my life or what my work was like, all got on a bus, and many of them came to New York for the very first time in their lives and were coming to see me at Carnegie Hall," says Bond. "You shouldn't have to sell out Carnegie Hall for your parents to approve of what you're doing or to understand or to at least try and get it. But in this case, that's what it took."

Playing Carnegie Hall was a far cry from his first job at Dairy Queen.

"My sister, you know, didn't really care too much about me," he says. "But once I got that job at the Dairy Queen, she was impressed. I could get her friends a little dippy cone when they came in."

But there weren't too many laughs growing up as the son of church-going parents.

"They loved me," Bond says, "But they always felt it was their responsibility, as my parents, to change me. And that obviously led to a lot of tension because I didn't really want to change. And I was happy with who I was and I was pretty pissed off at the way I was treated."

But early on, Bond learned a powerful lesson from his mother.

"That's how she got out of being in trouble with my grandmother. As she was coming at her with the switch, she'd make her laugh," Bond says.

He says a high school guidance counselor gave him some good advice: you'll find a greater variety of people in college, if you can just hang on and get through high school. And that's what he did.

"I just played the game," he says. "I let my parents think I was what they wanted to think I was, and I got the hell out of town two days after I graduated from high school."

Life at Adelphi University on Long Island was better, thanks largely to trips into the city. But it wasn't perfect.

"I was uncomfortable with my sexuality at that time because I had a lot of Christian damage to unravel," he explains. "But I was at least able to kind of relax, and let my guard down a little bit."

Bond intended to be a classical Shakespearean actor. But he wanted to have his own voice, and that voice quickly connected with an audience, especially his gay, lesbian and transgender fans.

"My audiences can come and they don't hear the things that I say very often in places where people agree with it," he says. "So it's nice for them to sort of look around and see, 'oh there are other people here who think the way that I do.'"

Bond says playing this psychologically-damaged character started to weigh on him physically and emotionally. As a result, he's retired Kiki for now, and has made a smooth transition to writing and singing his own material.

"I've always had a tremendous amount of confidence," he says. "I'm what my friend Charles calls, 'the most positive nihilist he knows.' I don't believe in anything, yet I have faith in everything."

Bond says his success has also taken the pressure off his relationship with his parents.

"I think it's easier for them now," says Bond. "I think my mother grew up in a family where they expected her to do what she needed to do in order to turn me into a kind of a boy. I feel like she felt she was judged for having a son like me."

It might seem like an anomaly, but Bond says he occasionally escapes the city for the quiet of the mountains of Tennessee. And when he's not on stage, you might find him painting portraits of himself and friends, one of which appears on his debut solo EP.

But he is best known as a performer, especially for his character Kiki Durane. She's even the subject of an essay in a book entitled "My Diva. . . 65 Gay Men On The Women Who Inspire Them."

There is a serious aspect to each performance. In Bond's East Village apartment there is a small shrine to his many friends and fellow performers who died of AIDS.

"I'm carrying their energy and all of the inspiration that I got from them, with me," he says. "That is something that when I go on stage, before I go on stage, summon the spirit of the sisters, 'Come on girls, let go and let them have it.'"

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