Kiki & Herb

Cabaret duo

Justin Bond

Kiki, of cabaret outsiders Kiki & Herb; smorgasbord

Who are your favorite New Yorkers?
Justin Bond: My favorite New Yorkers are my friends who are struggling artists, who are working their asses off to make the city an interesting place to live, and who still believe in the dream that New York represents in spite of all the naysayers.

Can that dream still come true?
Justin Bond: I think I’m living proof that it can. [Laughs] You know, dreams change, but my friends are somehow surviving. In spite of the financial difficulties and the conservative culture and the sort of oppressive, moralistic tactics of the higher-ups, we are having a good time, triumphing over all. Or under all. We’re triumphing under all.

When you came to the city 13 years ago, did you ever imagine you would wind up at Carnegie Hall and on Broadway?
Justin Bond: I imagined myself at Carnegie Hall and on Broadway when I was a kid. When I got older, Broadway didn’t have as much luster or appeal for me—although now and then there’s something amazing like Passing Strange, or the once-in-a-lifetime experience of seeing someone like Patti LuPone play Mama Rose. So, obviously Broadway has a lot to offer, but I didn’t necessarily think that I would have a lot to offer Broadway.

What’s the biggest thing that’s happened to the city in the last 13 years?
Justin Bond: I think the biggest thing to happen to the city in the last 13 years was that horrible time when Mayor Giuliani just destroyed nightlife, and to me it hasn’t really recovered. I mean, 9/11—which sort of restored his currency—notwithstanding, I think Giuliani and his gestapo tactics against freedom of expression and sexuality were the worst thing that’s happened to New York. It used to be a swinging city, and now it’s just a kind of a putt-putt city.

What’s your favorite place or thing in New York?
Justin Bond: Hmmm. My favorite place is the Christopher Street Pier. It’s still a great kind of melting pot of people. Last week I was walking down Christopher Street, and I saw this trannie on a bicycle with a hat and a veil and a purse and baseball shorts, and it was 11 in the morning. She looked beautiful. And then there was this gorgeous young boy walking ahead of me, and an older gentleman painting a church with his oil paints and his easel. It was a summer morning, ahead of me I could see the Hudson River, and I burst into tears because I just realized how lucky I was. I live in the West Village now and it’s a sort of fantasyland. I live right around the corner from where Edna St. Vincent Millay’s house is, and I live on the street where Maya Deren lived, so it’s like I’ve cast myself as some historical heroine living in that neighborhood. I love it.

What’s your personal favorite moment in New York? Where were you, and what was happening?
Justin Bond: I guess it would be my encore at Carnegie Hall, when, just as I was walking off the stage after the last bow, I caught my mother’s eye in the audience and we just had a little private wave to each other. That was probably my most precious moment. And I do emphasize the word precious.

What’s the future of New York? What are your hopes for its future?
Justin Bond: I just hope that New York will be kind to the struggling artists that are living here and making such vital and exciting art. I hope that New York will continue to honor the young and aspiring people who come here and make it possible for them to live here and survive here and thrive here and keep the city the dynamic, interesting place that it’s been for the last 100 years.

What up-and-coming artists have you seen that you think we should be on the lookout for?
Justin Bond: I’m absolutely in the thrall of Our Lady J. She’s just a genius. I was at her show last night at the Zipper Factory and I was in tears in the first number. And the people who were in my show—Lustre—I love them all.

If you could have a drink with anybody else on this list, whom would it be, and why?
Justin Bond: Well, I’ve had drinks with a lot of them already! I’ve never met Christopher Wheeldon and he’s a total hottie, so I wouldn’t mind having drinks with him. But I’ve had drinks with Patti LuPone and she’s a barrel of fun—so let’s go with Patti.

What does Time Out mean to you?
Justin Bond: I’ve lived in London and New York, and Time Out is basically the first thing I buy whenever I get to either city, because it’s like the thread that holds a person’s social life together, really. I’m never quite sure what I’m going to be doing on any given night, and it’s like the Yellow Pages for culture. I open it up, look at the day, and make my choice.

You’re gonna be in ads for us for the next 20 years. Complete the following sentence: New York is…
Justin Bond: …my greatest dream and my greatest nightmare, and it exhausts me daily and energizes me nightly.

The type of gender-bending that you do is not an old-school female-illusionist thing. Is more-traditional drag becoming a thing of the past?
Justin Bond: I don’t think the old-school drag is done with at all. I think that it’s amazing and thriving and it’s exciting. I’m just not that. I’m someone who never bought into gender binary; it never made any sense to me. I was forced by my family and my community when I was young to conform to their ideals, but as I got older and I matured, I started to develop my own ideals and my own style. To me, it’s just an expression of who I am, which is exactly what it is for people who perform old-school drag. That’s their bag, and I love it and I enjoy it. I don’t think I’m any better or worse than anyone because of my tit bags or lack thereof.

Can we talk for a moment about Kenny Mellman’s contribution to Kiki & Herb? As the pianist, Herb had a somewhat less visible front-and-center presence onstage than Kiki did.
Justin Bond: Well, I wouldn’t say he was less visible, and he certainly was not less audible. Kenny is an amazing artist, as far as his piano-playing—he’s a terrific collaborator, and he really is a musical genius. So I think we complemented each other very well. He didn’t speak very much, but he definitely made his emotions and his opinions felt through his music. His piano was his voice. Kiki & Herb had competing voices, and it added a tension that made it really electric.

Why do you think Kiki & Herb became so popular?
Justin Bond: I’ve had a little time to think about that. I think that the reason people liked Kiki so much is because she had just about everything wrong with her. She was an alcoholic, a bad mother, a failure in business, not particularly talented: She had everything that our society looks down upon in her corner. And I think it gave the audience a chance to not only relate to her vulnerabilities or her weaknesses but to forgive them, and in turn, I think that the audience was able to forgive themselves for a lot of their weaknesses and to laugh and to be entertained. I think that’s why people liked Kiki & Herb and their relationship with each other. They were survivors; they didn’t quit.

Speaking of relationships and quitting…
Justin Bond: Well, I quit. Kiki is still out there somewhere. And, you know, Kiki is really one piece of the pie that is Justin Bond. That particular slice has really been chewed on a lot by me, and I’m ready to try tasting some other things and sharing them. I’m a whole smorgasbord, not just one piece of pie. Hopefully people are hungry, because I’ve got a lot more to offer.

Kenny Mellman

Kenny Mellman

Herb, of cabaret outsiders Kiki & Herb; hangover sufferer

Who are your favorite New Yorkers?
Kenny Mellman: I would say Larry Kramer and Tony Kushner.

What’s the biggest thing that’s happened to the city in the last 13 years?
Kenny Mellman: Well, of course, 9/11. Other than 9/11: The assault on nightlife in New York City, and the closing down of way too many bars and clubs for nefarious reasons.

Justin Bond said the same thing.
Kenny Mellman: Well, there’s a reason we were together for a hundred years. [Laughs]

What’s your favorite place or thing in New York?
Kenny Mellman: The Red Hook Ball Field and the Latin American food that is being sold there: huaraches and ceviche and Mexican corn. Mmm.

What’s your personal favorite moment that you’ve had in New York? Where were you, and what was happening?
Kenny Mellman: Stage of Carnegie Hall, 2001, performing Kiki & Herb. Actually, getting the dressing room with Leonard Bernstein’s piano in it. Pretty amazing.

What’s the future of New York? What are your hopes for the future of the city?
Kenny Mellman: I would hope that people would realize that New York once was a vibrant, artistic place, and that becoming a giant condo is not exactly the future of a vibrant city.

If you could have a drink with anybody else on this list, whom would it be and why?
Kenny Mellman: Probably Tony Kushner. I think he’s just one of the most amazingly brilliant men that we have in America, so who wouldn’t want to sit and have a drink with him? And throw in Patti LuPone for good measure! I think that would be a good little cocktail party. She’s delightful, and also has a lot to bring.

What does Time Out mean to you?
Kenny Mellman: Well, they’ve been very supportive of my career in New York City. I also find that the critics across the board always have something to offer, and that it’s much in line with my sensibility. And useful when I want to find a good rock show to go to.

Complete the follow sentence. New York is….
Kenny Mellman: …in dire need of some hope. Wait, that’s a reflection of my own spirit and damaged psychology! New York is the most amazing city in America.

So what are you working on next?
Kenny Mellman: I’m working on a new musical that I just workshopped, about gay murder. You know, charming things. And I’m working on some new projects and going out of town for a while.

There’s been a renaissance of musical theater, but mostly as comedy. Do you think things are moving in a direction more hospitable to serious musical theater?
Kenny Mellman: It’s possible, but I think it’s gonna be Off Broadway. The Broadway world is way too commercial. I don’t think if Sondheim was writing what he was writing 20 or 30 years ago it would necessarily ever end up on Broadway. But the Off Broadway community is becoming more vibrant than it has been in the ten years I’ve been here, and I think that’s where serious musicals will end up.

What’s special about musical theater? What does it make possible that you can’t do elsewhere?
Kenny Mellman: Singing and dancing! It’s that elevation, much the same as opera. I don’t know! I’m not intelligent this afternoon. It was my boyfriend’s birthday last night. I have a hangover—a Marie’s Crisis hangover. [Editorial note: Marie’s Crisis is a piano bar in the West Village.] The pianist was using a Kindle to read scores. He had all the scores on a digital screen. It was very nouveau.

Marie’s Crisis is a special place.
Kenny Mellman: I brought three people who had never been there before, and they were, like, amazed. It was like they were watching fireworks for the very first time. It truly is one of the unique New York establishments. It’s just so anachronistic and wonderful.

Do you join in the singing, or are you one of those “I like to watch” types?
Kenny Mellman: No, I do join in singing, but when it becomes too serious.… We almost got kicked out. People there take their musical theater very seriously.

Were you mocking them?
Kenny Mellman: No, I was not mocking them! I had a smile on my face. And maybe was dancing. The two things I know now are that there’s no dancing or flavored vodkas at Marie’s Crisis. As the bartender made sure to point out seven times. He was so adamant about it: No flavored vodka!

What precipitated the end of Kiki & Herb?
Kenny Mellman: We decided to move on. I don’t know what else to say.

Do you feel like there might be a revival?
Kenny Mellman: I would never call it a revival, nor will I call it a resurrection, because it’s all just so dumb. Who knows? There might come a time when Kiki & Herb are the perfect vehicle for both of us to take the stage. I’m not foreseeing that in any immediate future. We may be the age of Kiki & Herb before that actually happens. It would be fascinating, I’m sure, for the people who saw us just pretend to be that old for so long.

What do you think it was about the act that captured people’s attention for so many years?
Kenny Mellman: I think one of the key components of Kiki & Herb was that we were sucking everything in from the ether that was around us. It hit a chord with people because it was of them. The songs we picked and the stories and the events—it really was the zeitgeist of our audience. I think that’s why it was such a difficult show to do.

As the act progressed, it seemed to get wilder and more political and wider-ranging. Was that something you consciously chose to do?
Kenny Mellman: Well, I think as we got older we got less silly, That’s something that’s generally going to happen. We started the act high on mushrooms for two years, so it was an inherently silly thing for us to be doing, but it was also started in response to the AIDS crisis, and everything we were doing in San Francisco with Kiki & Herb was involved with that—anger and yelling and screaming and throwing things. By the time we moved to New York, the AIDS crisis was slowing down, and we were able to be silly for a while. And then the world took some turns and we went back to being a more political, angry diatribe against the world—still with songs, and still with funny stories, but, you know…I don’t think either of us would have stuck with it as long as we did if it was just a silly downtown act singing stupid cover versions.

In the performance scene today, whom would you keep an eye on? Who’s worth watching in the next few years?
Kenny Mellman: I don’t know. It’s hard. Glenn Marla, who was in Justin’s show, is an amazing young performer, and I can’t wait to see what he will do given some time. But the downtown performance scene is in an interesting place right now. There has been an intense loss of venues, so there aren’t that many places where people can try out acts. Dixon Place, where I just did a show, is great, and they’ve nurtured so many artists over the years, but 90 percent of the people I know had no idea where it was. They’re getting a new venue, which is exciting…[Long pause. Laughs] Have you seen anyone?

Next: Anderson Cooper >

The New York 40:

Adam Rapp
Amy Sedaris
Anderson Cooper
Basil Twist
Christine Quinn
Christopher Wheeldon
Danny Meyer
David Cross
David Remnick
Derek Jeter
Dick Zigun
Elizabeth LeCompte
Elizabeth Marvel
Eliot Spitzer
Gavin Brown
James Murphy
Joe Torre
John Zorn
Jonathan Lethem
Junot Díaz
Kelly Reichardt
Kiki & Herb
Liev Schreiber
Lisa Phillips
Michael Bloomberg
Nellie McKay
Pat Kiernan
Patti LuPone
Peter Gelb
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Richard Serra
Sarah Michelson
Stephen Colbert
Tim Gunn
Tina Fey
Tony Kushner
Upright Citizens Brigade