Twenty-five years ago, a then-unknown cabaret performer Justin Vivian Bond took the stage at Athens by Night, a Greek restaurant in San Francisco. It was an unlikely performance space — long, narrow, and lined with fake stones and plastic geraniums. In the back, the elderly owner sat chain-smoking cigarettes and descanting on the misery of existence.
The show was called Dixie McCall’s Patterns for Living, and it heralded the arrival of a multi-hyphenate alt-cabaret superstar who would become cult-legendary first in San Francisco and then in New York. Dixie McCall’s laid down the groundwork for Bond’s career, first in the persona of aging, boozy lounge singer Kiki DuRane and then simply as Justin Vivian Bond.
Now, v — Bond’s preferred pronoun — is celebrating that quarter-century of performance with a yearlong retrospective at Joe’s Pub, v’s stage of choice for fifteen years and counting. The season kicks off with Dixie McCall’s, its first performance since 1990, and will be followed throughout the year by more shows from Bond’s entire career. It’s a legacy that would do Kiki herself proud.
“I’ll take any chance I can to date myself and make myself look older,” Bond says jovially over Manhattans at the Library at the Public, the cocktail lounge above Joe’s. This place is a downtown institution — and so is Bond. (Bond played a heightened version of this beloved downtown impresario in 2006’s Shortbus, written and directed by Hedwig and the Angry Inch’s John Cameron Mitchell.)
V first touched down in New York in 1994, joined by pianist and longtime collaborator Kenny Mellman. Their soon-to-be-legendary act, Kiki and Herb, saw the pair embodying the personas of an impossibly aged showgirl and her put-upon accompanist. Over the years, they performed reinterpretations of such wildly divergent acts as Prince, Kate Bush, and Eminem, punctuated by Kiki’s withering commentary on the world at large — not unlike that of the Greek restaurant owner back in San Francisco.
“I’ve fetishized older women since I was in my twenties. But now I’m in my fifties and I still fetishize older women,” Bond says, laughing. V based the geriatric, raging Kiki on a friend’s mother. “When I met her, she was standing at the top of the stairs in this turban and a sweatshirt. And she starts dancing: ‘That’s a soft shoe. I started out as a dancer in Baltimore in the Fifties, and I still got it.’ She was one of those people who can tell every bit of bullshit about you, every fake thing.”
Kiki did double duty, both as a character and as a kind of shield for Bond. V had been identifying as transgender for most of v’s life, but until recently, that was difficult to communicate to the world at large. Bond recalls a review of Dixie McCall’s in the San Francisco Chronicle that described v as “a six-foot man in a dress.”
“It made me feel really vulnerable, and that eventually led me to create the character of Kiki. I then had a persona and a character to hide behind, and I sort of hid behind that character for about fifteen years. I didn’t care what people said about Kiki. She’s supposed to be horrible.”
By the time Kiki and Herb retired from the spotlight in 2008, Bond discovered that the world had become more open and accepting toward trans people. “What had made me feel so isolated back then had changed, so now I can comfortably, for the most part, be myself in my performances, which was very difficult for me back then,” v explains.
Bond’s use of the gender-nonconforming pronouns v and the honorific Mx. (pronounced “Mix”) have made v a prominent part of a global conversation surrounding transgender language. Recently, Mx. was added to the Oxford English Dictionary. A grassroots movement in Britain led to its inclusion as an option on many government forms in the U.K. “They did invent the language, after all,” Bond quips. “Hopefully, it’ll spread over here.”
Bond believes that increasing visibility — from Caitlyn Jenner to Transparent — is helping the trans population gain larger acceptance, but v acknowledges that we still have a long way to go.
“Most of the conversations are talking about people who are the old trope of ‘I have the soul of a woman in the body of a man.’ I don’t think souls are gendered. Some of us really aren’t trapped in the wrong body; we’re just not men or women,” Bond says.
This “tranniversary” season at Joe’s spans shows from throughout v’s career. Dixie McCall’s, the one that started it all, pays tribute to midcentury glamour icon Julie London, who starred as the titular Dixie on Seventies medical drama Emergency! Thomas Bartlett will back v up on the piano, filling a seat originally occupied by Mellman in the original production at Athens by Night. “It was kind of the blueprint for all the shows that came after it,” Bond says.
Justin Vivian Bond and the Freudian Slippers: The Lost Show, a re-creation of a cabaret night Bond was slated for September 11, 2001, that, for obvious and awful reasons, was never performed, will follow it in November. December sees v busting out Christmas tunes in Angels We Have Heard When High, followed in 2016 by the Valentine’s-themed Love Is Crazy and a revival of the more recent Mx America.
Though Bond is a huge supporter of up-and-comers, v doesn’t recommend New York as a launch pad for those breaking into the biz. “You’ve got to [find your voice] somewhere else and then come here. I was 31 when I moved to New York. I lived in San Francisco for six years, in a subversive counterculture where I could take my chances and fuck up. I was a late bloomer. But that’s good, because I still look fucking awesome,” v says with a laugh.
Bond leans back in the booth, sipping the last of v’s Manhattan with easy grace. “Some people put a lot of pressure on themselves: ‘I have to do such and such by the time I’m 30!’ I’m not like that. Everything happened to me about ten years after I hoped it would. But it’s all happened.”