Justin on Carol
By Maria Bustillos
On January 20 Carol Channing and Justin Vivian Bond will appear together in a special engagement, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: An Intimate Evening With Carol Channing and Justin Vivian Bond, in New York City. Those who first became aware of Justin Vivian Bond because of v’s alter ego, the fading chanteuse Kiki DuRane, may or may not be surprised to hear that the real Bond is someone utterly different. In contrast with the furious, blowsy, manic DuRane, Bond is gentle, disciplined, observant, and beautifully mannered; a student of the theater, a serious and subtle conversationalist and raconteur.
Since going solo, Bond has sung in concert in London and New York, released recordings, appeared in films and on television, and published a memoir, Tango: My Childhood, Backwards and in High Heels. I’m leaving out a great deal; v’s life is a tornado of art and activism.
Bond has a lifelong admiration for Channing, who, v explained, is a serious, trained artist who studied theater at Bennington—not just a clown.
Out: Were there any performances that really drew you to Channing?
Justin Vivian Bond: There was this video I found of Carol on YouTube in the early ’60s. The beginning of the sketch was that she was a big star and she had just finished her act and she was all sweaty, and she ran off and she put on this bathrobe, and she came back and was totally taking the piss out of Judy Garland and Betty Hutton, and scratching herself like she was hopped up on speed, talking about what a horrible life she’s had, and thanking the audience—this really scathing, hysterical satire.
Did you feel this frisson of She and I?
I always have, since I was a kid—like she and I are kindred spirits. The first play I ever saw was at the Fahrney-Keedy old folks’ home, when I was a little kid [in Maryland], and there were all these old people in the nursing home, and they were doing a production of Hello, Dolly. So that was my kind of formative show.
When I did Kiki and Herb, I was playing these old show business people: Carol Channing, Eartha Kitt, people from that generation I saw growing up and aging when I was young, people I loved. Kiki’s thing was, you know, ‘an aging performer’s trying to hold onto a career.’ I have so much respect for people who [succeed]. So when the idea of working with Carol came along, I was really excited. I asked Daniel to convey that I have just the utmost respect for her, I’m so interested in her, as an artist and as an intellectual. I am someone who has just been really respectful of her craft and her career for all these years.
She’s a comedian, and she’s really funny, and she does these things that people laugh at, and she’s easy to sort of caricature—but she takes it incredibly seriously, and I take it incredibly seriously.”
Are you scripting much of anything for January, or will it be mostly off-the-cuff?
I know a lot of her stories, and now, having spent more time with her, I know how to phrase things so that they’re not confusing to her. Because she’s from a different generation, she’s a little bit careful about things she says, because she doesn’t want to betray confidences, for example.
I’m of a generation where I’ve been out and queer my whole adult life. To me, obviously, Carol Channing is an icon for gay people and for queer people, and she is aware of that and she loves a gay audience. But also, one of the questions that I wanted to ask her the last time was about Jerry Herman—he’s out, he was the writer of her big hit show. Halston—all these sort of gay icons were the people with whom she collaborated to make her career. I wanted to ask: ‘You’ve worked with all these amazing gay men who sort of helped you become who you are, and I wonder what you feel is the connection between you and these gay men?’
Her publicist told me, "You can’t say that to Carol, because at the time when she was collaborating with them, people weren’t talking about other people being gay, because that would be like a betrayal, so she still is guarded about how to talk about gay people as gay."
Because they might not want to be exposed.
Exactly. She’s not going to be someone who wants to out people; she respects their privacy.
It was unheard of, unthinkable at that time to discuss publicly, and she still has vestiges of that feeling?
Right....And people might take that as being homophobic, or ashamed of her queer friends, but that’s not the case at all. She’s so cognizant of not wanting them to suffer…it was illegal, you know, when she was young. And she’s lived through all this.
Do you see yourself now as a political spokesperson?
I’m an artist and I write my own material, so I talk about what I am thinking about. As society changes and events occur that affect me, I enjoy the fact that I am able to integrate and critically express my opinion in such a way that others can either agree or not. But when they do agree, I find it really comforting and healing. The people in my audience who don’t hear these perspectives and look around and realize they’re in a room full of others who are thinking the same thing—I feel that’s really empowering.
Your career and Channing’s are so much about fun and glamour and fantasy, a sort of pleasurable extremism. This is not explicitly political, but there’s something very liberating about it.
Pleasurable extremism! That is great...there’s something about her energy and her self-expression that I found liberating. Freedom of personal expression. To step outside the mainstream idea of "normal."
And of “beautiful”?
When Carol was young, she was 6 feet tall. When she played in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes on Broadway, she was playing Lorelei Lee: ‘I’m just a little girl from Little Rock.’ I mean, this is postmodern. Consciously playing this little blonde character, aware of the fact that this is where the humor came from. So that she believed that she was this little, perfect—you know, it was like being a trans person. ‘I am a little Midwestern flower caught in the body of Big Bird,’ you know what I mean? That was her thing, and that’s why it didn’t translate so well to the movies, because movies [aren’t suited to] that kind of subtle satire.
I’ve been struck by the political implications of your career as it develops. It seems to me that increasingly you speak to your audience directly, as Vivian.
I created an invulnerable character in Kiki, and the character was what I was most known for, and in many instances, people came to treat me like this character. This is ultimately dehumanizing, to be treated as a character...I was depressed, not taking care of myself and I was really unhappy. And as soon as I got rid of the character, there were a lot of bad habits that sort of fell away. I realized that I have to allow myself to be more vulnerable, more honest, if I’m going to be a performer.
This fantastical, beautiful element of your career is echoed in your collaboration with Channing: the free search for enjoyment and beauty as a political act. You’re like an avatar of that, and in a way I hadn’t realized, so is she.
One of my favorite lines of all time is from Kenny Mellman: "Glamour is resistance." That’s what it’s about.