PRINT March 1998


She likes to wear high heels by Manolo Blahnik or Robert Clergerie. She once wrote admiringly of the beautiful bulge of her own calf. She once said of her face that it is sensual and sexual and also “just damned frightening.” She used to perform a cover of Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” She says that she has had to leave many people behind. She once remarked of herself that she rarely feels vulnerable because there is “not time for weakness in life.” She says she believes there is not time enough for vengeance either. She claims that she learned this from studying the mystical cabala. From Dorothy Parker she learned that life will come up with fancier revenges for one’s enemies than one ever could: “Make a bowl of popcorn,” she says, “sit back, and enjoy the show.”

Sandra Bernhard inhabits an array of often contradictory voices and stances. If she seldom settles for long in one, she is nevertheless always intensely sincere. She loves enthusiastically and hates lavishly and shuttles between the two emotions with a public ferocity that gives us reason to be glad that, undiminished by fifteen years at the perimeter of the spotlight, she has managed to stick around.

In I’m Still Here . . . Damn It!, the comedian/actress/singer once described by a critic as “a pathetic neutered Barbie doll with a frightening Medusa head” (and by another as a “terrorist lap dancer”) struts the stage of a dingy West Village theater wearing a transparent Isaac Mizrahi dress over a black lace G-string; her hair is a wild, vaguely Medusan tangle, and she is fully sexually charged—not the least bit pathetic—as she riffs, with her customary scattershot brilliance, on our garbage culture. She mocks, by turns, the sham pathos of Gianni Versace’s funeral, the edgy animus behind Caller ID, the grief orgy ensuing from Princess Diana’s J.G. Ballard–esque demise. She rhapsodizes, as she always has, about that order of beautiful nobodies known as supermodels, a cult of which she is herself an ordained priestess. She transforms herself into a strutting Naomi Campbell and sings a self-infatuated Versace “tribute” called “On the Runway.” She becomes a lurching Liza Minnelli performing a trouper’s medley of “alternative music” tunes that lapse reflexively into the druggy Weimar shtick of Cabaret. She slags, in no particular order, Madonna, Courtney Love, Tina Brown, Elton John, Tom Cruise, New York Times columnist Alex Witchel, and David Letterman. She purifies the theater with an Indian sage stick. She impersonates a jive-talking spider skittering down a silken thread to bite a sleeping Sandy on the arm. “I love a good bayberry candle,” she remarks, as she puts a match to that definitive symbol of shopping-mall gentility. She sings the Rolling Stones’ “Angie.” She sings “Midnight Train to Georgia.” She reads a couple of awful poems.

The ambient rage that binds Bernhard’s performance is not easily captured on the page. It does not seem to be an act, but it is also not something Bernhard readily admits to feeling. “Anger is so negative,” she remarked not long ago over lunch at a tiny West Village restaurant. The two of us awkwardly shared a minuscule table. Between spoonfuls of leek-and-potato soup she spoke of an ambition to take her career to “another level,” a plateau that would appear to involve a Sonny & Cher–style television variety show, on which Bernhard would appear in confections whipped up by her many designer friends, ruminate in her singular comedic way, and entertain a series of “surprise” guests. As if on cue, a series of surprise “guests” arrived at the restaurant: first the ornamental actor Rupert Everett with his black Labrador, Rosie; then the dully beautiful blond Scottish model, Kirsty Hume; and then Hume’s pretty husband, Nancy Boy singer and sometime model Donovan Leitch. Bernhard greeted these demicelebrities expansively, lavishing them with show business bonhomie, air kisses, backstage invitations, etc. She returned to slurping her soup. “You don’t want to hold onto anger,” she said flatly, and belched.

It seems obvious, though, that justified anger is at the core of Bernhard’s persona—the ire of all women, all ugly people, all those with uncompliant dispositions or societally inconvenient desires. Beyond the fact of its being unexpected, the beauty of Bernhard’s success is its basis in her ardent refusal to be displaced from the center of American culture, or to have her sexuality categorized in facile dimensions. (“Anne Heche and Ellen?” she told me. “Look out, sweetie, when that shit goes down.”) It is Bernhard, after all, who once wore a padded belly on the David Letterman show and announced that she was carrying Letterman’s love child, who once staged a mock lover’s quarrel with Letterman on the air, who once announced in front of twenty million people that she had slept with Madonna’s husband and found him a horrible lover, and who once told Madonna, on the same television show, that “you were much better” in bed. Bernhard has claimed: “I would in many ways prefer reaching a heterosexual twenty-five-year-old man than a thirty-year-old dyke,” and, according to the gossip columnist Michael Musto, has drummed up a fake boyfriend and told the press she hated being called a lesbian, and has also announced on Larry King Live that she was “sort of a hot gay chick.”

If you spend any time among Sandra Bernhard’s clippings, as I have, you will learn that she is the daughter of a proctologist and an “abstract artist,” and that she has a healthy awareness of genealogy as metaphor; that her first public performance was singing “Hello, Dolly” at a bar mitzvah in Detroit; that her family moved from Flint, Michigan, to suburban Phoenix; that she once spent eight months in Israel on a kibbutz; that she left Arizona for Los Angeles at age eighteen; that, while employed as a Beverly Hills manicurist, she once dug sand from beneath the toenails of Tina Louise.

A talk-show host once slavishly noted that Bernhard had conquered so many different media that she could legitimately categorize herself “simply as performer.” Simply as a performer, she has cut an album called Excuses for Bad Behavior, Part I, and another called I’m Your Woman; she has appeared in Martin Scorcese’s King of Comedy, a film called Sesame Street Presents Follow That Bird, an Australian movie called Dallas Dolls, a Cinemax film entitled Your New American Actress Friend, and a movie based on her first stage show, entitled Without You I’m Nothing. For a time, she played the lesbian Nancy on Roseanne. Bernhard considers “irony and jadedness” an excuse for laziness. She has written several books, including Confessions of a Pretty Lady, and a slender volume whose title was taken from a quote by Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita. The book was called Love Love and Love. She has furthered this particular point by posing naked for Playboy.

She has observed that “life is full of those moments when you ask yourself: Is this a funny situation or should I be devastated?” Life is poignantly oversupplied with such moments, and one way to distract yourself is through immersion in the trash of celebrity. Bernhard has done so with gusto, “dating” stars, “worshiping” models, transforming media dross into the substance of her dizzying performance. She once said that there is something wonderful and weird about “the media crawling up your ass.” Has anyone ever made a more visceral commentary on the nature of fame? By the force of her personality and will, she has managed to transform herself from an unappetizing nobody into one of the shrewdest and least assimilable of cultural exegetes. She is herself most famous as that character who sticks in America’s craw.

Even Bernhard’s recent and much publicized course of cabalistic study is of a piece with a trajectory that began with her riffing on the semimystical byways of our collective arcana. “Lately, I just scan the zohar and meditate on those funky Hebrew letters,” Bernhard intones in her new show, using much the same tone of voice she once applied to singing the praises of Love’s Fresh Lemon scent. Her great gift has always resided in the nearly rabbinical scrutiny she devotes to pop culture, and in her ability to balance thralldom and contempt. Passing her hand across the tabloids, she interprets the text of celebrity culture for us as if it were composed of esoteric ciphers, whose deep meaning emanates truth for the cult of adepts. “Every day is a holy day, a day of atonement,” says the performer who also once told an interviewer: “If I can cover the gamut from Courtney Love to Jackie Bouvier Onassis, I think that says it all.”