By The Guardian
During nearly five decades in showbiz, Sandra Bernhard has racked up title after title – comedian, actor, singer, author, radio host – and a reputation for controversy. She has worked with a long list of superstars, from Richard Pryor and Robin Williams to Robert De Niro and Cyndi Lauper. But she has never been overshadowed; her force of personality has guaranteed that. Even 30 years ago, the Los Angeles Times was paying homage to her “acid-tongued, antagonistic persona”.
But there are no cutting remarks today. On this sunny morning in LA, she appears relaxed, in a pink-striped shirt and trousers, reminiscent of the early 80s outfits she wore for her many appearances on Late Night With David Letterman.
It is almost a year since she finished filming the final series of Pose, the much-praised TV drama exploring the ball scene in 80s New York and the gay and transgender artists who built it. Bernhard plays Judy Kubrak, a nurse caring for people dying with Aids. Judy has an activist streak, bringing other characters into the fight against neglectful politicians and cruel pharmaceutical companies.
It feels like the perfect role for Bernhard, who has always laced her shows with political commentary, has been open about her own bisexuality and was embedded in New York’s cultural underground during the ball era. She remembers that time fondly: “There were events and art openings, fashion shows and parties. For sure, there was a gay scene, but everything sort of melded together.”
It was there she met her longtime musical director, Mitch Kaplan, and the conceptual artist John Boskovich. Together, they developed her breakthrough one-woman show, Without You I’m Nothing, With You, I’m Not Much Better, which she performed off-Broadway in 1988. “Almost every night, we went out afterwards, dancing, or hung out on Second Avenue. There were a lot more people on the street. It was just a more accessible, affordable situation back then.”
Yet the era was tinged with tragedy as Aids took hold. “I lost many, many good friends. We were all terrified and sad,” Bernhard says. It was particularly tough for trans people. “Back then, if you were trans, chances are you lived on the street, you hustled and you probably contracted Aids,” she says. “Nobody took trans people seriously. The underlying theme of Pose was to really honour that community’s work and artistry.
“When I got the role on Pose, it was kind of full circle. I had been part of it, seen my friends in hospital and known what people went through: the degradation, loneliness and alienation. There was a lot to inform my performance.”
One relationship from this time still trails Bernhard from interview to interview: her friendship with Madonna. “We’d met many times, but she didn’t seem that interested in being friends until she came to see my show in New York,” she says. “We kind of clicked then.”
The pair began hanging out, going to parties and plays. In July 1988, Bernhard was on Letterman again and brought a surprise: Madonna. The pair, dressed in matching denim shorts, white T-shirts and ankle socks, wrested control from the helpless host.
Rumours of an affair followed them. “Two women hanging out? Of course it’s going to be sexual,” Bernhard says with perfect sarcasm. “I mean, we kind of flirted with that purposefully. We left it ambiguous and crazy; it was almost like an ongoing performance piece.”
Bernhard, 66, has never made a secret of her bisexuality. She has been with her partner, Sara Switzer, formerly an editor at Harper’s Bazaar, for more than two decades. They met in the late 90s, not long after Bernhard gave birth to her daughter Cicely, whom they raised in New York. She has never named Cicely’s father.
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