Sexy cult comedian on Paglia, the Menendez Bros. and other ’90s-era excuses for bad behavior
By BRAD WILLIAMS for SPREAD magazine
BERNHARD: Hey, it’s Sandra Bernhard. How are you?
A nervous wreck: I’m interviewing Sandra Bernhard.
Relax. I’m just like everybody else.
Am I part of a multitude of telephone interviews today?
Yes, for the past two months until the very end of the “Excuses for Bad Behavior” tour. I’m working my own last nerve.
Are inside your lovely San Fernando Valley house?
The kitchen: having a sip of water. Then I’ll go back to the living room.
Are you in your bra and panties having a Rémy Martin?
[Laughs] I wish. No, honey, I’m actually in a pair of sweat pants and a big shirt.
You’re returning to Texas. Does that excite or worry you?
Oh, God. I love Texas.
It’s been three years since your last Austin performance.
I know. I miss it, damn it.
Don’t you have friends here?
Yes. The Butthole Surfers’ ex-drummer, Teresa Taylor. She’s great. Say in the interview, “Hi. And I’ll see you in Texas.”
Will you stay with her, or in a hotel?
I’ll be in a hotel, honey. [Laughs.]
Austin’s gay film fest is going on right now.
Featuring “Dallas Doll.”
And the documentary “Confessions of a Pretty Lady.”
Two of my least favorite pieces of work.
Will “Dallas Doll” be a wide-release movie?
No way. Nobody would release that dog — that barking dog. The experience was terrible. It was filmed in Australia.
How long were you there?
Way too fucking long. [Laughs] Like two-and-a-half months.
I know people who enjoyed it.
You’re kidding. [Sighs.] There’s no telling from people’s bad taste. I mean, I’m not bad in it. I’m not ashamed of my performance. It’s just that the film is so poorly edited and looks like shit. I hated it.
Did you realize that while filming?
Oh, yes. But I’d already gotten myself into it. It was one of those situations where I met the director here in the States, and she represented herself to be somebody quite sane quite interesting. [Laughs bitterly.] Then she exploded — or rather imploded — on me.
What about the Steve Antin’s “Inside Monkey Zetterman.”
I liked that movie. It was cute, wasn’t it?
Did anybody see that, besides me?
Oh, fuck yeah. That move did quite well. Quite well.
What about “Confessions of a Pretty Lady?” That was a documentary for the BBC. It was fabulous.
You liked that?
It could’ve been much more interesting. It's contrived. You know, all that Chicks on... I mean Dykes on Bikes. Chicks with dicks. [Laughs]
You didn’t like the Dykes on Bikes parts?
It was absolutely pointless.
What about the interview with your mom?
I liked that shit. They should’ve showed more of that kind of stuff.
Your Aunt Zelda was fabulous.
They were brilliant, weren’t they? See, that stuff was good. But when they went off on these tangents, it was like, “Well, that has nothing to do with my work or my life. What are they doing?”
Camille Paglia talked about you in the film? Are you a fan of hers?
She’s interesting. And I respect her. But I mean I don’t like... [Sandra gets another call.] Hold on a sec...
Sorry. I’m back.
Was it somebody fabulous?
It was my percussionist, Denise.
I hoped it was Madonna.
Honey... Shut up.
I’m not asking any Madonna questions.
Although I’m dying to. Let me just ask …
No! Behave yourself.
Okay, back to Camille Paglia. When it comes to social commentary, it seems that Paglia’s messages and your performances are in sync.
I agree. I do like her. Even though she’s a little kooky.
Was that the first time you met her: When she saw your show in New York?
Did y’all spend quality time together?
We didn’t. She’s hard to... She’s not somebody you can carry on an intelligent conversation. She’s over the place.
You have a lot in common. Like, the way she’s refused to sexually pigeonhole herself.
A lot of people wonder, if you are bisexual — as if you’re intentionally cultivating an ambiguous persona.
No. I’m a sexual person. And I like sex. I like sexual interaction with different people. But I’m also a very a committed, loyal person in my relationships. But people… spark me. Sometimes it’s men. Sometimes it’s women. But I don’t consider myself bisexual because I don’t quite understand what that means.
Right. So there’s just really not a definite word?
No. There isn’t. But it’s not necessary to have a word. I think my work, my humanity and my support of people’s freedom speaks for itself. And that’s just gonna have to be enough.
Do whiny PC lesbians harass you?
No. But over the years I’ve been harassed by really dry, sober, uptight dykes who can’t like even look at themselves and have a laugh. I have no patience for that shit. Everybody should be able to look at themselves and have a little sense of humor and go, “Yeah, I’m a geek and a bad dresser. I don’t really understand myself very well, and...” It’s, like, get it together. Have a laugh.
You have more of a gay-male following.
I always did.
Do you think it’s because they understand your sensibility?
It’s because they have a sense of style. They like to laugh. They like to like get dramatic. They like to go along on this kind of cool and healthy journey that I take them on.
Camille Paglia is always bitching that she can’t find any glamorous lesbians with a sense of beauty or whatever.
I bitch about that too.
Why do you think that is?
I don’t know, honey. I don’t understand it.
Is it a cultural thing?
It’s self-loathing. If you’re gonna be so political that it takes away all your femininity and ability to allow yourself to express personality’s eccentric side. I mean, why can gay men be really outrageous and beautiful, but gay women can’t? I don’t get it.
Maybe it’s because sexuality has become so political with mainstream America telling women they have to conform to a certain kind of beauty.
I think you’re right about that.
Camille Paglia compared you to Lenny Bruce.
He could be seriously angry. But when angry, it’s maybe because of the costume or the way that people feel about you. There’s a fine line there of whether or not you’re mocking the seriousness and self-righteousness. It’s dangerous to totally commit to something in a self-congratulatory way. So I’m careful about where I stand.
Have you heard from Mick Jagger: What he thought of your version of “Sympathy for the Devil”?
No, I’m waiting.
Are you buddies with Jagger?
Never met him. Can you believe that?
You don’t like to talk about particular relationships.
Amanda Bearse kind of outed your relationship in her interview in The Advocate.
She’s tripped out. I don’t know what her fucking trip is. She’s fucked up.
Is this off the record?
It’s on the record. Say it!
Did you read the Kevin Sessums interview in Out?
My interview with him?
Did it bother you that he talked about your current relationship [with model Patricia Velasquez]?
I thought he took some liberties. I didn’t talk about it with him. He came up with that shit. I thought it was kind of intrusive. I didn’t really dig it. But I’m proud of my relationship. But I don’t want people bugging her. She’s a sweet, vulnerable person, and it’s nobody’s business.
Does it weird you out that your idol Mary Tyler Moore can go on Letterman and talk about her husband 'til the cow comes home. But there’s this cloud over the prospect of you talking about the person in your life?
I don’t need to talk about the person in my life. What the hell does that have to do with my work? That should always be separate: If I’m married. If I’m straight, gay, whatever. I don’t think it’s ever germane. I don’t define myself by my relationships. I define myself by how hard I’ve worked for the past 20 years and the kind of artistry and creativity I have.
What about your spirituality?
You lampoon the New Age movement. But to what extent do you think New Age helps people?
People get very dependent on these kinds of groups. Once again, it’s like, “extreme anything” bugs me. Just figure it out for yourself. Or go to these things and keep it private. Is it necessary to discuss them in a big public way?
Have you ever dabbled in metaphysics?
But you consider yourself a spiritual person?
Very much. I’m very into my religion — being Jewish — and getting the metaphysical, spiritual aspects of that.
Would you say that your experience working on the Kibbutz is something that’s affected you?
Totally. It was great. Like an old-fashioned work experience. Getting up and going out in the fields and working.
Discipline seems to be rare in this day and age.
Well, it’s number one in my life.
The theme “Excuses for Bad Behavior” is that you’re scared to turn on the news.
That’s a lot of what that piece of work is about — my fear of turning on the news, which I haven’t done for a while.
What about O.J.?
That subject is off limits. It’s just the most disgusting... Bunch of bullshit.
You were fairly vocal about the Menendez brothers.
That was like the beginning of this whole...
Ultimate excuses for bad behavior?
You didn’t like Leslie Abramson?
No! She was a nightmare.
In your wildest dreams, did you ever think you’d become such a big deal?
Have your dreams gone further than what’s already happened?
Sometimes. We all have fantasies that surpass what you have. But I’m happy with where I am and the success that I’ve had.
You’ll at least be remembered as a cult diva. But do you envision yourself as another Tina Turner, Bette Midler or Cher? Visualizing yourself, like, 10 years from now and winning an Oscar or doing something really mainstream and huge?
That scares me. I think of myself more like somebody like Patti Smith. She continued to do her work, had great respect and never needed to like throw herself into some ultra-commercial success to feel good. If that stuff comes my way, I’m not gonna resist it — if it’s good work. But I don’t think that ultimately I need to define myself by that kind of huge overblown media success.
Copyright, 1995. SPREAD MAGAZINE | AUSTIN, TEXAS. Publisher, Daniel Kusner.