Do It, Sandra, Shock Me

IN THE LOBBY of Sandra Bernhard's Mayfair hotel, there was a butch-looking woman cooing over the September issue of American Playboy. 'Look,' she said, gesturing at the magazine, 'It's Sandra.' I looked, and it was. Sandra snarling in a bunny girl costume; Sandra buried beneath an orgiastic heap of naked bodies; Sandra maitresse-style, in leather gear; and, perhaps most memorably, Sandra in nothing but gold body paint - supine, with legs splayed - stroking her neatly trimmed and gilded pudendum. 'I am in many ways, the perfect woman,' read Bernhard's accompanying text, in an elaborate parody of bunny gush, 'ready to serve you, service your every need and love you until you beg me to stop. I'm Sandi, the dream girl I grew up to be.'

Upstairs in her suite, Bernhard was loafing about in plaid shorts and a pair of round-rimmed, purple-tinted spectacles. 'I don't think it's pornography,' she said. 'If I'd wanted to make that sort of statement, I would have posed for Cheri magazine or something - you know, really gynaecological shots . . .' She laughed, and her slightly creepy PA, Ada, snickered too. 'People say, 'Sandra, all these men are going to be jerking off over you.' I say, good. Better they're jerking off over me than some bimbo they think they can abuse.'

Bernhard is five foot ten and seven stone something. Her body, as the Playboy photos attest, is a beautiful thing, with a wispy waist and elastic arms and legs like Olive Oyl's. But her face, by her own admission, is 'hard to believe': an enormous wodge of down-turned mouth; a set of gappy, Wife of Bath teeth; a fat nose. The overall effect is rather like one of those luminous-haired trolls that people win at fairgrounds.

'You understand what I'm saying?' she continued, 'I think it was really kind of an important statement for a woman like me - who looks like me - to finally be accepted and embraced by a publication like Playboy.'

These days people are queueing up to accept and embrace Sandra Bernhard. Jean Paul Gaultier flies her over to Paris to model his menswear collections. Amanda de Cadenet says that if she ever chose to have sex with a woman, she'd want to have it with Bernhard. Madonna has spent a lot of time hinting that she's already scored that goal.

As a performer, Bernhard has always used her weird face bravely - dressing it up, plonking wigs on top of it - acknowledging the pain of having missed the cute boat, but refusing to abnegate the pleasures of narcissism and glamour. Now she has learned to regard herself as beautiful. She won't accept the old jolie-laide tag any more. 'It irritates me. People only use it when they feel uncomfortable with the way I look.' At the age of 37 ('My nipples are at their prime]'), and after many long hard years of searching, she has found approval, appreciation, fame. 'Yeah,' she says, 'it's nice to be hot.'

Her principal claim to celebrity is as a comedian-cum-performance artist of some genius. Her one-woman shows (the latest of which, Giving Till It Hurts, can be seen at the Edinburgh Festival this week) are strange, ironic song and dance extravaganzas, interspersed with po-faced monologues. The themes are part confessional, part satirical, part fantastic. The style, which oscillates between aggression and hamminess, is nervous-making. Her last show, Without You I'm Nothing, which has now been made into a film, was designed, she says, 'to make people feel uncomfortable'. It began with Israeli folk songs ('Hava Nagila . . . come on everybody, join in]') and ended with Bernhard in star-spangled G-string and swishy nipple tassels, performing a bump and grind to Prince's 'Little Red Corvette'.

But Bernhard's stardom takes many forms. Thanks to her much-hyped relationship with Madonna, and the vaguely Sapphic poses the two struck in public, she has the dubious honour of being America's best-known, out-of-the-closet bisexual. She is also a sometime film actress (her most memorable performance being her screen debut as a fantastically menacing psychopath in Martin Scorsese's King Of Comedy). She is a star of American chat shows. (It was on David Letterman's show that she grabbed her host's crotch and asked was he 'getting enough blood to his dick?') And now she's a chat-show host herself: earlier this year she was seen on American cable TV in Sandra After Dark, getting Tom Jones to sing 'Unbelievable' while she administered a graphically mimed blow-job.

'Sandra always had a terrific imagination,' her best friend, Jhoni Marchinko, vouches on a crackly line from Minneapolis. 'As a performer, she's found a way to live out her fantasies.'

AND WHAT fantasies. As a little girl growing up in Flint, Michigan, and then Scottsdale, Arizona, Bernhard's recurring day-dream was about her female school teachers torturing her - 'kind of sexually'. They would tie her up, mutter incantations, do 'weird, dark things'. At a certain point in the proceedings, her mother would arrive to rescue her, whereupon, in a particularly brilliant twist of Gothic fancy, the teachers would try to blind Mrs Bernhard by shooting milk-rays from their withered breasts.

Such lurid psycho-sexual fare has always formed an important part of Bernhard's schtick, but it took a while before she found the market for it. When she was 19, she left Arizona for Los Angeles, planning to become 'an entertainer - someone like Bette Midler'. By day she worked in a Beverly Hills beauty salon, pedicuring the feet of luminaries like Dyan Cannon. By night she performed at comedy clubs where, more often than not, she bombed. 'I was doing pretty much the same kind of thing I do now, except I was a lot cuter and more nave,' she says. 'A lot of people didn't really get it and the club owners didn't like me because I sang too much, which irritated them. I think some of the other performers respected what I was doing . . . '

Paul Mooney, the fellow stand-up who Bernhard credits with discovering her, remembers getting into fights with the club-owners over her act. 'They'd say she wasn't funny and she was ugly. They'd say she had nigger lips or she looked too Jewish. I just told them, one day them nigger lips was going to be in vogue and one day she was going to be a star. And that's how it turned out.'

'She never really had gags as such,' says Taylor Nagron, another comedy club veteran from those days. (It's strange but true: all Bernhard's friends seem to have names borrowed from Martin Amis novels.) 'People really didn't get it. I marvelled at her. She'd keep coming back, night after night, with people just staring at her in awe and confusion.'

'It was like, if they'd had fruit, they would have been throwing it,' Jhoni Marchinko remembers, 'But in a weird kind of way she got a satisfaction out of that. I think she figured, if people didn't understand, she knew she was doing something truly different and original. It wasn't like she was ever going for a mass audience.'

An appreciative audience of any size continued to evade her for many years. After what was supposed to be her big break in King of Comedy, she had her astrological chart done and it said she was entering an 'obscure phase': sure enough, the next movie she did was a spin-off from the children's TV show Sesame Street called Follow That Bird.

Even now that she is a cult star, she is still apt to be misunderstood. The brand of humour she has made her own - singing Four Women, Nina Simone's anthem of black womanhood, dressed in a ludicrously inflated African robe and turban; or remarking of an old lover, 'his breath smelled like tuna salad and it was that, more than the actual act, that made me come' - will always be highly susceptible to misprision.

Bernhard likes working in Britain, she says, where audiences 'get references that Americans are just freaked out by'. Irony, she is aware, is not a very appreciated comic genre in her homeland. But the trouble is, if you miss the irony in Bernhard's act, you can end up receiving some very weird messages indeed. She, for example, explains her dancing about in a G-string at the end of Without You I'm Nothing as a gesture of empowerment. 'It's like, taking control of your own sexuality - and a kind of 'fuck you' to everybody who tells women to do stuff like that. It's saying, 'This is a statement, controlled by me'.' But when I saw the show in New York a couple of years ago, the man in front of me seemed to be under the impression that it was a straight strip-tease. He kept muttering 'C'mon baby]' in a seething, sweaty sort of way.

Bernhard refuses to worry. 'I think more and more people get what I do. Such a variety of unexpected people have responded to my work - from seemingly straight, young guys, to mothers wearing you know, studded sweatshirts. This woman came up to me in New York asking for my autograph, and she said, 'You're really what women's lib is all about.' This woman had no reason to understand, but somehow she did, and it was really impressive.' She does acknowledge however, that she works with tricky material. Most female performers, she thinks, are not equipped to handle it.

'They're not intelligent enough. I mean, someone like Madonna takes images of seduction and is supposed to be subverting them or whatever, but in fact she still really wants to be seductive, to be accepted on that level. She can try to pass it off as some sort of statement, but I highly doubt it is that. If you're going to do that kind of thing, you have to approach it like that from day one - and establish what you're trying to say in a very methodical way. You have to be super-intelligent and super-aware of history and all the different, complicated cultural references.'

MENTIONS of Madonna are rare in Bernhard's conversation these days. Rare and uniformly dismissive. A couple of years ago the two women were best friends and caused a media furore by affecting to be lovers. Now they're not speaking. Bernhard, who once announced on David Letterman's show that she had slept with both Madonna and Sean Penn (Madonna, she vouched, was by far the better lay), now insists that she never really got carnal with the Boy Toy.

Their relationship was an intense affair none the less. 'They didn't actually fuck,' Jhoni Marchinko says, 'but what they had was actually stronger, more emotional than a lot of relationships where they're fucking 10 times a day. Madonna was genuinely in awe of Sandra - she saw her as very sophisticated, very European and classy. And Sandra really cared for Madonna. She was really hurt when Madonna did what she did.'

Exactly what Madonna did that ended the friendship so abruptly remains shrouded in mystery. 'Our relationship came to an end under very strange circumstances,' Bernhard says, 'It was something personal. A private thing . . . I'd rather not talk about it.' Now, she is anxious to put the whole episode behind her. 'I didn't like that my sexuality became a kind of gimmick during the Madonna thing. Which is why I'm trying to undo the damage by weaning myself off that relationship. It left a bad taste in my mouth.'

In retrospect it seems that much of Madonna's interest in the liaison was about pepping up her wild image with a frisson of lesbian chic. Bernhard is not unused to this syndrome - the women who want to paddle but don't want to swim, the women who see her as a passport to the wild side, but aren't quite sure if they really want to, you know, do it. 'It tends to be pretty obvious from the start,' she says. 'And then I'm just like, 'Oh pul-ease, go away and get it together - then get back to me.' '

Bernhard has a large lesbian following. A couple of nights after I interviewed her, I went to an all-night, women-only showing of her films at the Scala Cinema in King's Cross. The auditorium was packed to capacity: women with short peroxide crew cuts and leather jackets; women in floaty dresses with crystal jewellery and long hair; women in red lipstick and fatigues, sporting enormous tattoos on their biceps - all willing to sit through films like Hudson Hawk for a few glimpses of their spaghetti-limbed diva. Just after midnight, Bernhard put in a personal appearance. She stepped into an orange spotlight at the front of the auditorium, wearing jeans, her little purple spectacles and a pair of high, high Manolo Blahnik heels. The crowd went quite wild. 'Sandra, you're beautiful]' the woman standing next to me screamed.

Bernhard is not averse to this sort of adulation and knows how to play up to it. 'Hey,' she said, in a sulky, sexy way, peering out through the orange light, 'You're a bunch of really wild and uncontrollable dykes.' The auditorium resounded with whoops of delight.

But in truth, she is not anxious to become an exclusively lesbian cult. 'There are two different lesbian worlds,' she told me, in a cool, somewhat detached way. 'There's this really soft, 'I'm your sister' kind of thing.' (She and Ada laughed scornfully.) 'And then there's this much more aggressive, male-oriented thing which is leather and just really being into fucking.' She aligns herself with neither. And she has no great sentimental attachment to the gay club scene. When the women at the Scala begged her to stay and 'tell them a story', she curled her magnificent lip and flatly refused. 'If I don't get paid, I don't work,' she said. 'Sorry ladies - I'm not even on a minimum wage tonight.'

BERNHARD has learned to be fastidious about maintaining the division between paid work and free time. People she meets often expect a high-energy wackiness of her which, off-stage, she can't and doesn't want to produce. 'I'll be being really low- key, and it'll be like, 'Come on, shock me, Sandra'.'

On the one occasion that I met her before this interview, a year or so ago when a mutual acquaintance introduced us, I remember being surprised - and vaguely disappointed - by how rational and pleasant she was. She cut a fantastic figure - stalking into a bar in a micro-mini, with her great maw painted carmine, but when she sat down, she talked softly and kept making rather pious reference to her work as a serious 'artist': the wildest thing she did all night was call some unidentified man a 'creep' within his earshot. 'It's a matter of educating people to new aspects of what I'm capable of,' she says. 'People already know I can be shocking, but they don't know I can be easy, vulnerable, cool. I went on Letterman the other night and you wouldn't believe how conversational and calm I was. '

She is, she says, a homebody, at heart. She doesn't party much. Her home in LA is not in the fashionable hills, but out in the valley, where the girls sport frosty blonde hair-dos and distressed denim. 'Suburbia is where I grew up. It's definitely a part of who I am.' She remains deeply attached to her Jewish traditions and enjoys nothing more than hanging out with her family. 'Both my mother and father have seen all my shows,' she says, 'I think they get a kick out of it. They're basically accepting. I don't think I'm that different to when I was eight. I've always been theatrical and crazy and out there on the edge saying insane things. So it's nothing new.'

Her parents are not such sticklers for convention, in any case. Her mother is an abstract artist who used to involve the whole family in her various, creative jags. (When she went through a Japanese phase, Bernhard says that she and her three brothers got to eat 'more sukiyaki in one week than the average family in Tokyo'.) Her father is a proctologist and amateur hypnotist, immortalised in her short book, Confessions of a Pretty Lady, as the man who managed to hypnotise her out of a severe outbreak of hives and who once gave the family's Boston terrier an experimental dose of speed. (Animal liberation hadn't really caught on in Arizona at that point, one assumes.) 'Yeah, well, the dog only ran round in circles for like a couple of minutes,' Bernhard says, laughing like a drain.

Ah, those sun-dappled memories of filial fun. Bernhard would like, she says, to recreate them some day, and start a family. 'Yeah, I'd like to have a kid and I'd like to have a some sort of group around me. But obviously it's not going to be a great American family values deal, as described by Pat Buchanan and Dan Quayle.' She stretches and yawns. 'I guess I'm on those guys' public enemy list,' she adds contemplatively. 'They just haven't gotten round to announcing it yet.'-

(Photographs omitted)

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