PRINT October 1993

Glamour Wounds

Sandra Bernhard

WHAT DO YOU HAVE to do in a former life to come back as the sibling of a megastar? A recent talk show featured the siblings of Cher, Barbra, Dolly, and the inexorable Madonna. The host tried to frame them as objects of pity; permanently shaded by the greater light of their sisters, doomed to dwell, more obviously than the rest of us, with thwarted dreams, invidious comparisons, and resentment. They refused to swallow the bait, buoyantly professing their pride and admiration of the dominant sibling’s achievement. A nice Jewish chanteuse accomplished enough to get on The Ed Sullivan Show by herself, Barbra’s sister was poised and apparently at peace with the freakish hand dealt her by fate; Dolly’s sister Stella was a sassy blues singer; Cher’s looked cute in her old nose. As the least professionally validated among them, Madonna’s rapper-wanna-be brother was the only one still obviously struggling with the spiritual challenge of his lot: “I don’t tell people I’m Madonna’s brother,” he wanly jested, “I say she’s my sister.” The audience applauded.

While I want to know as many intimate things about the stars as possible, I am delighted to maintain a comfortable distance and contemplate a direct encounter with my favorite idols with a sense of danger and horror. Fanhood thinly masks the antisocial urge to incorporate the star, to be them, to digest their traits Into our own bodily fibers, and misuse them for our own purposes. These urges shift with no transition between love and hate. When we see others acting this out in public, we are terrified and humbled.

I’m fascinated with the plight of the active fan—and how horrible it is! A recent Jenny Jones displayed—to our schadenfreude—a selection of active fans who shamelessly externalized identificatory behavior the rest of us conduct only in the privacy of our own mental cavities. This show made a deep impression on me: there was a man covered in Cher tattoos, a big Cher face monopolized his whole back; there was the human Barbie lady (and Mensa member) who plastic-surgerized herself to look like her miniature orificeless role model. The most inspired was perhaps Queerdonna, a like 300-pound homosexual disporting himself in a faux Gaultier-cone-bra look, with obvious gusto, defiantly loving his bod, truly sharing the “provocative” Madonna credo of exposing oneself with attitude, and expert styling. By inhabiting Madonna’s traits with such uncanny aplomb, the portly Queerdonna permanently altered our reception of the “original.”

Our relation with the stars is constitutionally nonreciprocated; in King of Comedy—the ur text of the abject fan—we watch in horror as Rupert Pupkin and Sandra Bernhard insist that the Jerry Lewis character return their intimate feelings toward him, having insanely exchanged their mutilated egos for identification with him as their image of wholeness, their ego ideal. We shudder as they act upon the imaginary intimacy projected by the professional goodwill of the star. Out-of-control fans on a spree, they have their way with him: they take him hostage, and strap him to a chair. Rupert literally becomes him, blackmails his way onto his show; Sandra first fits him with a sweater she knitted herself—“I’d like to see him more casual for a change”—then she alarms him further with a candlelit tête-à-tête: “I feel impulsive tonite . . . I wanna be black. I wanna be Tina Turner—dancing through the room!” At the climax of her narcissistic field day, she still wants to be someone else.

No wonder a celebrity sighting fills me with conflicted feelings of awe and obscenity, rustling up primal love/hate feelings of identificatory ambivalence that I’d rather not deal with.

I am a petty, bilious girl.
—Sandra Bernhard

What’s not to love about this outspoken Jewess who loves to expose herself? Permanently marked as Madonna’s ex-gal-pal, every time you turn around she’s doing something fabulous: performing her “smash hit one woman show;” being on the Arsenio Hall show, Playboy, Larry King Live; hanging out with Roseanne, friend and model for the strongest voices shaping the couture of today. I identify with her as a pretty lady, always clean and meticulously groomed, who likes to wear nice things. Imagine how irked I was to see posters announcing her imminent personal appearance at a local book-store, just two blocks from my home. This threw me into an ethical dilemma of extremely petty proportion.

Before I even continue, I want to do something special for Sandra. I tried on a few things, was sick of them, so I decided to wear lots of makeup instead. Because a woman’s lips speak volumes, I broke open a new tube of Chanel longer-lasting lip color for fall in Matte Tawny. With a little dab of gloss in the center of the lower lip, I created a surprisingly sexy look. Feeling considerably more fetching with my artfully extended lip line, I reflected on Sandra and very much appreciated the beauty she has shared with us, so persistently. Her recent literary lucubration Love, Love, and Love, treats us to a peak at the inner feelings of a grand lady, taking the MGM grand, having rather generic romantic longings for fellow glamour-pusses, pondering her new custom window-treatment. In “Without You, I’m Nothing,” her smash-hit one-woman show, she chides fellow diva Barbra for getting a little too grand for her own good, going Hollywood, crimping her hair, losing the uncanny edge of the nice Jewish wannabe who in fact is also a brilliant artist. “Come back to the Five and Dime, Sandra Bernhard, Sandra Bernhard!”

To me, Sandra’s fabulousness was based on the fact that she was this totally ethnic-looking Jewish girl who shamelessly exploited and acted out her identification with black divas. In her smash-hit one-woman show, I was awed by her chutzpah as she “entered the fantasy,” talking black, acting straight, totally possessed by the recombinant fabulosity of Diana Ross, Nina Simone, and others in front of a black backup band. Whipped up into an insane frenzy of multicultural glitz, she seized the moment, and decided to really let loose and share some middle-class Jewish angst, fishing for sympathy: “My father was a proctologist and my mom was an abstract artist: that’s how view the world;” cutaways to audience members of color showing they weren’t havin’ any of it.

Come Back to the Five and Dime, Sandra Bernhard, Sandra Bernhard!

Her recent book was as gripping a read as someone else’s love letters, someone you don’t know too well. My attention was revivified, however, by the frequent references to Chanel accessories, reminding me of a striking passage in her previous book, Confessions of a Pretty Lady, when she gets mad at her girlfriend and runs over the contents of her purse with her car, crushing all these expensive Chanel beauty products on her driveway!

I considered her impending appearance in my neighborhood, and whether to go: will she recognize me as one of her ilk or presume that I am a dork for even showing up at such a constitutionally degraded event? (Cutaway shot to my future: L.A.: Sandra and I are doing lunch. She’s begging me to relieve her in the Chanel show this fall. “C’monn, Rhonn—I’m sick of shlepping to Paris! And Karl is really into the petite Jewesse thing for his brilliantly irreverent New Jersey collection for Q.V.C.! You know, the mall rat thing?” Me: “Enough already! I’ll do it! But only if you promise to take that whine out of your voice! You’re driving me meshugge!”)

Back in my apartment sheepishly, and without speaking, my girlfriend and I tried to read our respective looks from Sandra’s fabulous point of view: we began to get irritable. She worried she’d be disappointed that Sandra wouldn’t be well-styled; I worried about the opposite. I was disturbed by the prospect of the other people undoubtedly magnetized to the bookstore for such an event: the self-appointed local fabulati, club wrecks, and poseurs. . . . When I reflected upon my outfit: baggy cuffed Levi’s, black agnès b. T, platform clogs, wire-rimmed vintage-looking sunglasses and henna’d bob, I was appalled to note that I looked just like them! If I were Sandra, I would feel like a total prostitute having to hawk my book at such events. One remembers the pathetic sight of Meryl Streep at the end of She-Devils, when the black-turtlenecked, newly ascetic authoress makes a personal appearance at a mall, and no one cares or comes. Or alternately, if people did show up, I would shudder at having to witness the borderline personalities no doubt attracted to such events, despising and repressing these reminders of my former pre-validated self. My fear of going embarrassed me in front of myself. It was particularly humiliating to be afraid to go see Sandra, who made a career out of being a fan: the bourgeois Jewesse as MoTown wannabe.

I decided to go toward the Fear. I had no doubt that she’d be mean. (Working myself into an obsessional froth, I drifted off: Sandra and I in a Westwood beauty salon, under adjacent dryers. She’s screaming over the din, cajoling me into letting them develop my cameo appearance on Roseanne—as Morgan Fairchild’s sister, a struggling personal shopper. The other customers egg me on. . . . ) I found myself strolling toward the bookstore, which was filled, as I suspected, with fashion victims. When I finally got there she was already gone, having stayed only one of the three hours advertised. Needless to say, I was relieved. A bookstore employee said she was mean!

We love to see and identify with people as they are clawing their way up to the top; when they make it, they can get totally boring unless they maintain their edge. Woody Allen did it by remaining unable to have a relationship, despite his achievement of total cinematic potency; Joan Rivers retained our sympathy by continuing to make body-image jokes at her own expense, despite her fabulous Barney’s wardrobe and burgeoning faux jewelry empire, designed by Joan herself! Unless these people continue to have a problem, they risk loosening the identificatory glue of the fan—which sticks half to the star’s triumph and half to their challenges. Roseanne has brilliantly refused the risk, and persists in being FAT. As Sandra’s index of real fabulosity increases, and she gets truly glamorous, overcoming her spindliness with personal trainers and always looking flawless, she treads thin ice: the very braggadocio that was endearing when she represented all self-absorbed suburbanities and their unseemly urges to play dress-up now threatens to make us hate her! Abandoned by the audience that thrilled to her insatiable need to puff herself up, she’ll be ready for the next stage in the cycle of fabulosity—the fabulous comeback.

Rhonda Lieberman teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.