Last Saturday at Joe’s Pub, at the 9 p.m. performance of Mx America, Justin Vivian Bond stood onstage silently “modeling” for two minutes. In a glittery pink dress, Mx Bond shifted between poses — coquettish, demure, self-conscious — amid the gleeful laughter of the audience. Playing the part of Mx America, a girlish but knowing former beauty queen with a slight Southern drawl, Vivian told the crowd, “I’m an aspirational white woman of elegance.”
The joke, of course, is Mx America’s delusion: An older woman is asking the audience to assess and reassess her; the room laughs — an aging trans woman is convinced she is beautiful. The many personas of v (Vivian’s long-preferred gender pronoun, though lately v also uses “they” and “she”) — including Mx America and Kiki DuRane, an alcoholic, aging burlesque singer — are equal parts self-aggrandizing and self-loathing, glamorous and heartbreaking. As Mx America told the crowd later that night, bathed in pink light, “My friend Billy’s father once said you could measure the depth of a person’s tragedy by the amount of distance between how they see themselves and how they’re seen by others.” She paused to take a sip of her white wine on the rocks. “As an American and as a trans person, I find this hypothesis to be really interesting.”
When Vivian and I meet at a bar to discuss v’s simultaneous retrospectives, at Joe’s Pub and the Participant Inc. gallery, v quickly turns the meeting from an interview with this writer into a conversation with an acquaintance (we had met briefly once before). And anyway, three decades into v’s career, Vivian doesn’t seem comfortable with authority.
“For the first time in my life,” v says, “only since I started being more vocal about my trans identity, I feel like I can be vulnerable.”
Vivian’s rare gift is the ability to perform parody and honesty through the same character. Skewering contemporary, privileged white womanhood is not mutually exclusive with letting the audience glimpse v’s uncertain identity.
Midway through Mx America, v recounted the story of v’s first visit to the Hamptons since beginning to take estrogen. “What would a middle-aged white woman do in Sag Harbor?” v asked the audience sheepishly. “I know. I know what I’ll do. I’ll go to a stationery store.”
“I call myself an aspirational white woman of elegance,” v clarifies as we wait for our second round of martinis, “because I know I’ll never succeed at being a white woman of elegance.”
Vivian was born in 1963 in the drab, predominantly white middle-class suburb of Hagerstown, Maryland. “My mother and father are the safest people you’ve ever met,” v says.
V was assigned male at birth, but v’s interest in and tendency toward femininity was the subject of confusion and harassment from early on. A young Justin first “communed” with the name Vivian when v was assigned a report on a famous American for a ninth-grade history class. Instead of writing about a man, as v’s teacher recommended, v went with movie star Vivien Leigh, the British actress famous for playing Scarlett O’Hara. Though she appeared to be a picture-perfect starlet, refined and feminine, Leigh was in fact unrepentantly bisexual, mowing through ingenues and rough trade she picked up on the streets of London and Los Angeles. (The history paper was mostly about Leigh’s schoolyard lesbianism.)
V eventually took Vivian as a middle name in 2011; by then v was already a patron saint of transgressive femininity, having spent the past two decades playing Kiki DuRane to gay audiences around the world. Kiki was an homage to another white woman of elegance from Viv’s past: a college roommate’s mother, a former burlesque performer who carried her early glamour with her into addiction and motherhood. “She was just this radical woman,” Vivian explains. “She went back to get her degree in social work and then got cancer. Even when she was missing her teeth and bald, she was still doing the soft-shoe in the bedroom.”
In the early Nineties, in the wake of the AIDS crisis, Mx Bond, then simply known as Justin Bond, brought Kiki DuRane to life in San Francisco, accompanied by a maximalist gay pianist named Herb, played by Kenny Mellman. Their campy humor — Kiki’s inebriated monologues weaving together pop culture and immeasurable grief — gave gay audiences something to laugh about during tragedy.
Kiki & Herb gradually shed its cult status over the course of the decade, eventually landing billings at Carnegie Hall, in 2004, and the Sydney Opera House, in 2007; that same year, Kiki & Herb: Alive on Broadway was nominated for a Tony.
The success of Kiki & Herb was a lifelong dream, but eventually the acclaim became oppressive. The show’s fans were loyal and obsessive — as they continue to be; the upcoming reprise of Kiki & Herb at Joe’s Pub sold out in just over two hours — but more mainstream visibility didn’t allow Vivian certain freedoms v needed in order to feel as though v was continually experimenting with v’s art and identity. (For v, it seems, these are one and the same.)
“Those were goals I had,” v told me. “I achieved those goals, and then I realized that they weren’t fully satisfying. They didn’t make me happy. I was doing a lot of things I didn’t like doing. I was doing a lot of coke. I was buying a lot of shoes.”
So, in 2008, Vivian retired the act. Around the same time, v fell in love with a radical queer named Nath Ann, twenty years v’s junior, and followed him to a queer land project in rural British Columbia, where v, Nath Ann, and their radical faerie friends ran naked through the woods unrestricted.
The relationship liberated v creatively. “If I’d been with a middle-aged gay lover, they would have been like, ‘What do you mean you’re quitting [Kiki & Herb]? You can’t quit,’ ” Vivian said. “But for Nath Ann it was like, ‘Well, yeah, that’s bullshit.’ Most people who are my age want to be comfortable. They want to relax, to have security and their path worked out. As an artist, I like to be surrounded by energetic people who want to experience the world and constantly be reinterpreting it.”
V went from dating Nath Ann to another relationship with a younger man: Jeremy, a cute, polite, young man in glasses (v calls him a “nerd”) whom v had harbored a crush on for eight years prior to their relationship.
In the past decade, over the course of these two defining relationships, v also made the decision to begin taking hormones and publicly come out, or rather, clarify v’s trans identity.
One of the wisdoms that Mx Justin Vivian Bond imparts, as a performer and a friend, is that authenticity is not some singular, stable place. Though Vivian is 52 years old, not just cult famous but famous famous, v is obviously more interested in experimentation than calcification.
The author and performer Kate Bornstein, close friends with Vivian for almost thirty years, describes v as “the most beautiful boy, the most beautiful girl, the most beautiful woman, the most beautiful man.”
Though Bornstein is older than Vivian — she acted as a big sister and mentor to Vivian when v started performing — she says she often feels like v’s younger brother. “V allows me the space to play,” Bornstein explains over the phone. “V and I share an identity that I don’t always get to be, which is boy. Not man, not masculine: Peter Pan.”
Midway through our second martini, Jeremy joins us. Our first topic of conversation is pornography: inflatables (Vivian likes that); “dad on boy” (Jeremy and myself); the pleasure of the cameraperson speaking directly to the performer (this, we all agree on). Vivian expresses ethical uncertainty about v’s interest in “she-male” porn. “It’s not politically correct,” v says, “but I like to see people having sex that, at the very least, have my body parts.”
Outside with Jeremy and Vivian after drinks, smoking in the alley behind Joe’s Pub, v teasingly refers to Jeremy as a “fag.” Looking to understand their dynamic, I ask, “Do you want Jeremy to be a fag?”
“Of course not,” Vivian says. “I don’t want Jeremy to be anything.” Why be anything when you can be everything?