In the '70s and early '80s, Cindy Bullens emerged as a spunky rocker belting vividly created songs and earning a Grammy nomination in the process. On the road to success, Cindy was one of the Sex-O-Lettes (singing with the glittery ensemble Disco-Tex and the Sex O-Lettes, fronted by the campy Monti Rock III). Confirming her cult status, she also sang backup on Elton John and Kiki Dee’s duet “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” and toured with Elton, in addition to singing on three tracks of the Grease soundtrack.
In the '80s, I was a fan of Cindy’s and told her I loved her song “Jimmie Gimme Your Love,” a percolating bit of rocking romance. She ended up producing my band in a cover version of the song—and was delightful and a real pro about it, too.
Cindy dropped out of music in the '80s (No, not because of my band) and came back in the '90s with all new success. And in 2012, he surprised a lot of people by coming out as trans performer Cidny Bullens. Cidny has been touring the country in Somewhere Between: Not an Ordinary Life, an autobiographical solo show he wrote, which has been called sincere, funny, honest and moving.
I caught up with my old friend in a lovely phoner.
Hi, Cidny. It’s so great to reconnect with you.
It’s only been about 30 years or something.
Nothing’s changed. [We laugh] Tell me about your one-man show.
I debuted it in Santa Fe at the end of February '16. It seems to be taking on a life of its own, which is great. There’s interest all over now. I have pending dates all over the country.
It deals with your transitioning.
Yes. I had no idea I was going to transition until a friend of mine sparked the thought one day and I thought, “Holy shit, I’ve never dealt with this my whole life,” and there was no turning back. Starting in September 2011, it took about a year with therapy and I did start low dose testosterone. I wasn’t sure I was gonna go the whole way, but once I did, I changed my name and pronoun and came out. (There was an article in the Daily Beast in 2012), I thought, “I really have to write about my life.”
The show goes from 1974, when I showed up in Los Angeles and met [producer] Bob Crewe and Elton and he asked me to go on the road with him the night I met him. All those synchronistic things happened—I became an almost rock star, married Dan Crewe [Bob’s brother] and had two kids and lived in Westport, Connecticut and we moved to Maine in 1990 and then my daughter Jessie was diagnosed with cancer in ‘95 and she died in March ‘96 at 11 years old.
My Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth album, those songs were inspired by the death of my daughter. It turned out to be my most commercial and biggest seller, even though my intention was never to do that commercially. That’s what sent me back to the music business was that album, which I did as my own expression of grief.
Did it plant the seeds for your rebirth as a man?
No, because I never considered Cidny until 2011. You knew me--the androgynous person I was. The way I acted, the way I walked. I never really changed, and as I got older, I settled into that. Once I reached 60, I just went, “Well, that’s never gonna happen.” And what did happen in July 2011 was I got a message from a younger friend who I’d kind of mentored and she moved away and I got a call from her saying she’d started transitioning a year earlier from female to male, “and I’m living as a man.” I fell to my knees, I sobbed…something hit me over the head. Something exploded in my mind. I completely disintegrated at that moment. My whole life flashed before me and I cried for myself, I grieved for that part of me that I’d never awakened, that my friend woke up. So I called my surviving daughter and said, “I have to pick you up. We have to talk.” She already knew about my feelings, but I really got hit over the head with this thing. She said, “Mom, you have to do something about it. You have to go to gender therapy.”
That’s a very cool daughter.
Yes, and she provides some of the best lines in the show. She’s very acerbic and great. She’s 34 now.
Before this, she thought she had a lesbian mother?
No. I told her when she was 18 that I’d always felt like a man in a woman’s body, so she knew that. After I divorced Dan in 2001, I did have a five-year relationship with a woman, but she wasn’t a lesbian, and I never considered myself a lesbian.
When I met you in the 1980s, you knew you were a man?
Sure. I knew since I was four years old. My show describes different stages of my life, in three acts. For example, at 12, when I never wore a shirt, I felt a little bump and knew my days as a boy were over. I thought, “I’m going to have to pretend to be a girl the rest of my life.”
At 19, I went to the New York Public Library because I needed to find out if there was something there about the way I felt, and I found a book on gender and in those days, as you know, it was called “transsexuals”. I sent away and they were doing a study on gender and they had all this information on how to change your sex. I got all the information in the mail. I’m in this little hotel room in NYC working at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in the summer, and I got all this information on the clinics and all that and thought, “Oh, my God, I can do that”. And two seconds later, I thought, “I can’t do that. I have no support, no money, who am I gonna tell?” And I abandoned it and went on with my life. Then I went to L.A. in 1974, and that’s when I became Cindy Bullens, the artist, and never considered changing it again. And then I married a gay man!
Dan Crewe! Was he a closet gay?
No. He was totally out.
Why did he marry a woman? Wait, you weren’t a woman.
I think he realized I was the closest thing to a guy he could marry and still have kids. We were married for 22 years, and we were monogamous.
When you were pregnant and giving birth, was it bizarre, knowing you’re a man?
Yes. It was crazy. That’s why I had to write the show.
Why did you break up?
We were divorcing right before Jessie got sick. When she was diagnosed, Dan and I put everything on the table and of course both had to be there for both of our children. Dan and I really did save each other after Jessie died. But it was funny how we’d tried to fit in in Westport as parents.
Tell me about the amazing gigs you had in your early career.
Bob Crewe basically discovered me. It was another coincidence kind of thing. My first real thing was starting to sing backup with Bob Crewe. The Sex-O-Lettes was just on the record—a studio gig. I also sang on Frankie Valli’s “My Eyes Adored You”. I was Bob’s protégé, his gofer, his driver. I lived with him and did everything for him. I met Dan through Bob.
As a studio singer, did you ever meet Monti Rock?
Oh God, yes. The summer of ‘74 was one of craziest summers I ever had. In Bob’s penthouse, it was Bob, Dan, Monti, and me all summer. Monti was hysterical. He was exactly the way he was onstage in person. He talked incessantly in that voice and waved his arms around and strutted around.
Speaking of flamboyant people: How did you meet Sir Elton?
I crashed a party at Cherokee Studios, where I used to hang out because it was my home away from home, and somebody would be there and they’d need an extra voice. I knew there was gonna be a press party for Elton at Cherokee in September 1975. I’m sitting in the control room with [rock singers] the Robb brothers, looking at the fishbowl of this press party, and I turn to the brothers and say, “I’m going in.” They said, “You can’t go in.” “Yes, I can.” I open the door and go right to the food and start to mingle, though I don’t know anyone. Elton walked right up to me and said, “I don’t believe we’ve met. My name is Elton.” I don’t remember anything else we said. We talked and somebody pulled him away and then a woman came over to ask what I do, and I said “a singer.” She comes back and says, “What are you doing for the next two months?” I said, “I don’t know. Why?” She said, “Elton wants to know if you want to go on the road with him.” The next day, a limo showed up at my little fleabitten apartment off Honey Drive in Hollywood and they handed me a stack of Elton Joh LP’s. I was starting rehearsal the next day! The next Friday, I’m in a private jet with Elton, off to San Diego to start a tour with him. We’re still great friends. He’s totally behind the show.
What would he have done if it turned out you couldn’t carry a tune?
Well, apparently they did some research and through connections found out I could actually sing.
So he was comfortable being gay?
Yeah. And we had a really good connection. I was his quote girlfriend for a while even though we didn’t do anything. He took me places. I was naïve. I guess it was my androgyny.
Wait—did the press actually treat you as if you were dating?
They did in England at that time. “Elton’s new girlfriend.”
If you had not transitioned, can you imagine where you’d be now?
It’s so interesting, and I’m so grateful every single day. After Jessie died, I went through 10 years of horror. You wouldn’t have known it after two years, but people who lose children, you’re never the same. You either become bitter, fade away, or you do something. For some reason, my personality was, “You think I’m gonna be quiet about this? I’m not.” I didn’t know I was gonna have a life after Jessie’s death, but not only did I have a life, but I got back into the music business, got back to my own core as a musician, a songwriter, my own creativity, which I believe was all leading up to 15 years after Jessie’s death, when I got the phone call from my friend who’d transitioned that sparked my opening. I said, “Screw it. I’m 60 years old.” It was literally two months between that phone call and my first shot of testosterone. It is not easy to change your gender—it’s physically easy, you take a shot, I had my breasts removed--but sociologically, it’s a bitch. But I thought, “Who am I living for? The worst thing that could happen to a human being has happened--I lost a child. And my older daughter had children and had a life.” I was single. It continues to this day—I feel more, more and more myself. Right now, my life is so full, so rewarding. I’m grateful for every minute. I feel like my true self. Of course it’s difficult and there are still awkward moments, but I have a full and total life. Let me stress—I have been very fortunate. I know that not all people who are transgender are fortunate like me. [After some initial uneasiness, Cid’s relatives came around to being supportive.] I have a girlfriend [his show’s director, Tanya Taylor Rubinstein]. The minute I changed to a man, I had people interested in me.
Would you say Tanya is a straight woman?
I’d say she’s bisexual, I guess, but she was married twice and has a 19-year-old daughter, so I don’t want to speak for her, but she feels the most comfortable with me.
And you feel great?
I really feel I can say I’m a complete human being for the first time in my life. I really feel I am who I should be. I never take anything for granted, so I am grateful for everything.
BRIAN IS TISH IS BRIAN AGAIN
Another trans friend of mine is up to great things. I met Tish Gervais in the 1980s when she was a voluptuous singer on the club scene and a lively party girl. Before that, I learned, Tish had been an army wife and before that, she had been Brian Belovitch. Well, 30 years ago, Tish told me—as my jaw dropped—that the heels were getting shipped to storage and Brian was coming back! He’s a two-time transgender person—and very happy, thanks to sobriety, a new career (as a counselor), and a husband. And now, his amazing story will be told in a book (agented by Tom Miller) and a movie. Brian is writing his memoirs, Trans Figured, for Skyhorse Publishing, and Karen Bernstein is directing a documentary about Brian’s various incarnations, called I’m Going To Make You Love Me. I sang that song with Tish at a nightclub way back when, but these days, I’m singing it with Brian.
AS IF WE NEVER SAID GOODBYE
Another '90s diva is refashioned in the imminent revival of Sunset Boulevard, which, as of Thursday, will be Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s fourth show running concurrently on Broadway. Glenn Close is reprising her role as faded ex-silent screen star Norma Desmond, and this time the set won’t be so mammoth, but the 40-piece orchestra will definitely be heard. At a meet and greet at the Palace Theatre last week, director Lonny Price said the show is about Norma’s attachment to fantasy, and as a result of that attachment, “Norma will lose her mind, Joe will lose his life, Betty will lose the love of her life, and Max will lose his reason for being.” The audience, he noted, will serve as the jury this time around—and let me add that deposed ‘90s Normas Patti LuPone and Faye Dunaway will not be serving the final verdict.
In the throng of press was NY1’s Frank DiLella, so I asked him if the new format of their theater show, OnStage, will stick. (They had shot two episodes at Chez Josephine, where Broadway stars popped up and the hosts feigned surprise.) “No,” he said. “The show we did from London—throwing to news packages from an actual theater—is how it’s going to be. And the venue will change. We’re doing one at BroadwayCon. [That would have aired by press time.] We’re doing one at [the cabaret] Feinstein’s/54 Below. Sometimes it’ll be on the street. We’re doing an all-Andrew Lloyd Webber one.” Will the “Hey, look who we just ran into!” shtick remain? “No,” he said. But despite rumors, there will certainly be reviews. And longtime participant Donna Karger. Will DiLella still do segments where he dresses up and takes part in the Broadway shows? “We’ll see. It all depends on who pitches what,” he replied. Well, I hope he doesn’t want to play the monkey in Sunset Boulevard. I already got a callback.
ONE LAST TIDBIT...
While I monkeyed around at Pieces Bar in the Village, drag queen extraordinaire Bootsie LeFaris told the crowd, “I love lesbians. They know how to fix a flat, they can sand your floors and they’ll babysit your cat when you’re away because they love pussy. And if they like you, they’ll fight for you more than any gay man.” They will? I’ve gotta get me one of them.