The multifaceted artist and performer JUSTIN VIVIAN BOND greets us on the threshold of their home in upstate New York for a tour – not only of their domestic sphere, but their headspace too
Photography by Daniel Jack Lyons Styling by Beth Fenton
Text by William Van Meter
About two hours upstate and a world away from Manhattan is a stately, three-storey wooden house with a sloped, black-tiled roof. A well-worn, sun-bleached pink welcome mat reads “The House of Whimsy” and depicts seven birds sitting on an outstretched branch with “J Vivian Bond & Friends” written underneath.
It is a hot day in late July and pink and white flowering Rose of Sharon trees reach the second level of the house. “It was initially built in 1830, so part of it is federal, part of it is Victorian, part of it is Second Empire,” says the owner Justin Vivian Bond, who is just as complex and intricate.
A multidisciplinary artist, Bond is equal parts performer, singer, actor, writer, activist, monologist and master storyteller. In December, Bond (whose friends call them Viv) will appear at the Vienna State Opera in composer Olga Neuwirth’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s gender, time and reality-blurring novel Orlando. “I am Orlando’s child, and I’m a non- binary, gender-nonconforming performance artist in present-day New York,” Viv says. “Not too far from myself.”
They add: “I just got the score and the libretto the night before last. I haven’t heard the music yet. I told her, ‘Don’t write me a big part. I don’t really want to memorise a lot of stuff’ – but it’s a big part.”
In the side yard, Viv is barefoot in the grass, sans makeup with hair falling just below the shoulders. They look lovely and still evoke old-world glamour and showbiz. Black leggings are paired with a black vest with a lace skirt sewn to the front of it that hangs down to the knees like a grandiose, diaphanous dickie. It was acquired at the Radical Faerie sanctuary in the Tennessee mountains when Viv needed something to dance around the fire in. Throughout the years Viv has sent their old clothes there for reuse. “The cycle of glamour!” Viv says.
Viv is a pillar of New York’s bohemia and underground performance scene, known for their exquisitely curated and themed cabaret residencies at the Public Theater’s Joe’s Pub, combining belted- out covers with a hypnotic stream-of-conscious between-song banter that ranges from the hysterical to the profound. Viv is equally at home performing guest spots at venues as disparate as Lincoln Center, feminist bookstores and the lively gay bar The Cock. Recent mainstream dalliances have included a cameo in the film Can You Ever Forgive Me? and as a revved- up infomercial hostess hawking purses for the JW Anderson fashion films.
Walking into the house, Viv passes through the solarium where they compose their shows and points to a cabinet next to the kitchen fireplace that is christened the “kill cupboard.” Her two cats, gorgeous tortoiseshell sisters named Pinkie and Leather, use it to hide their toys and stuff them underneath the door. “One day I opened it up and buried under the toys was a dead bat, a dead snake and a dead mouse,” Viv says.
Viv just got back from doing some shows in Provincetown, the summertime seaside gay mecca in Massachusetts. These were different as they were performed in character as Auntie Glam, a kind of queer Earth Mother in a psychedelic housedress and white wig like a dollop of meringue. “I don’t know 100 per cent where she’s going,” Viv explains of the new persona, “but I do feel like I’m negotiating being a queer elder, which I’m not particularly comfortable with because a) I haven’t had a lot of queer elders as role models, because there weren’t that many, and b) I don’t have the markers like most people do about when you’re actually old. I don’t feel older because I don’t have children telling me, ‘Oh, god, you’re so embarrassing,’ like my sister does. Unless I look in the mirror on a bad day, I don’t feel any different than I did when I was 28. So, it’s weird for me to think of myself as a queer elder, but when I put on that white wig, and I’m Auntie Glam, then I’m able to comfortably explore what that’s like.
“She’s super-interested in everybody,” Viv continues. “I feel self-conscious asking people personal questions. I feel like it’s crossing a line to ask anybody else anything personal, which isn’t good because people think I’m not interested in them, but I am. So I invented this character to communicate with other people and I was getting a little bored because, as Auntie Glam said, ‘How many stories can she tell about herself?’ I can get up and tell an entire audience every intimate detail of my life without any problem.”
The artist just summed up the true power of their performances – the complete exposure of oneself. At the New Museum’s 2017 group show Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon, Bond installed themself behind a vitrine. Their ever-amusing Instagram is filled with the usual postings about their life, projects, and cats. But every once in a while, they’ll deliver an emotive gut punch that is an important window into the realities of a trans person. The captions are long beautiful essays confiding the wearying experience of having to patiently and kindly explain their existence to an older woman at the beauty parlour who asked if they were a man, and of an invasive and humiliating TSA search at the airport.
Viv was raised in Hagerstown, Maryland, and studied voice as a teenager and majored in theatre at college. They moved to San Francisco in 1988 and swiftly immersed themself in the burgeoning underground queer and homocore scene. “I was doing stuff like I do now. I was doing covers and I was telling my own stories,” Viv says. “I got great reviews and I had a good following, but I felt too vulnerable. Everybody wanted me to be this drag queen. I was gender-nonconforming, non-binary… trans without having surgery. Everybody was treating me like I was this drag queen, and I was supposed to be bitchy and I just felt really trapped. People were treating me like something that I didn’t feel like I was. So, I thought: They want a scary, fucked-up queen? I’ll give them a scary, fucked-up queen. So, I made Kiki to be this reaction. That was my shell to protect myself from all of that, and also with Aids. There were so many things that I felt were happening in the world that I didn’t feel comfortable talking about. I’m in my twenties and I’m so angry, so if I had this sixtysomething alcoholic woman who could just say all the things that I was thinking in a way that was funny and with authority – ‘I’ve been there, I’ve seen it’ – that gave me the distance to make it more powerful.”
Kiki is Bond’s character nonpareil, a loveable, abrasive, slurring and haggard “boozy chanteussy”. Accompanied by Herb (Kenny Mellman) on piano, as well as a soundtrack of a dozen clattering arm bangles and ice cubes in her ever-present drink). Viv walks upstairs and opens a door on the landing. “This is my Kiki closet, where all of her costumes are,” Viv says, and points. “There are her birdseed titties.” Viv and Mellman moved to New York in 1994, and Kiki and Herb debuted at the Tex-Mex restaurant Cowgirl Hall of Fame. They did a free weekly residency in the backroom for “a hundred dollars and a piece of fish.” After years of hoofing it as underground warhorses, their profiles and venues increased incrementally until they played Carnegie Hall and had three weeks on Broadway in 2006.
But at their peak, Kiki had to die in order for Viv to live. “I wasn’t as angry,” they say of Kiki’s forced retirement. “I wanted her to kick the bucket five years before she did really. I had to manufacture rage to stay within the parameters of that character. It was exhausting and also, it just wasn’t inspiring for me any more to have to be that.” Viv decamped to London and got their masters in live art installation at Saint Martins.
Viv met the designer Jonathan Anderson there when he was a fashion student. He made some clothes for some of Viv’s London performances there. And Viv sang at his degree show. They’re still friends and Viv is often outfitted in JW Anderson and Loewe, as well as items from other designer friends such as Rachel Comey and Maria Cornejo. Some stage clothes are still sourced from 1980s hauls at purchase-by-weight thrift stores in San Francisco. Viv’s well-appointed home is almost entirely furnished in vintage finds. A cherished possession is Edie Sedgwick’s leopardskin pillbox hat which is said to have inspired the Bob Dylan song. It was a gift from Sedgwick’s former roommate, Danny Fields. “He said, ‘That was Edie’s hat – you keep it so some hustler doesn’t steal it from my apartment,’” Viv explains.
Another prized possession is the brown minivan inherited from their father, who used it to chauffeur the elderly for church. “She drove around old people and played nothing but Glen Miller,” Viv says, “so I liberated her and now she’s Vantasia. She drives me and all my friends around. She gets to play good music like Stevie Nicks and the Cure on cassette.”
Hair: Shin Arima. Make-up: Chiho Omae. Styling assistant: Cathleen Peters
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