Justin Vivian Bond: Mxing it up over transgender – and things of THAT nature

Singer-songwriter, actor, writer, painter, drag queen . . . ‘V’ lets loose about her upcoming Fringe show, getting creative at the Guthrie Centre and finding true spirituality up a tree

Justin Vivian Bond: doesn’t let conventional boundaries restrict her, in her art or in her life

Justin Vivian Bond: doesn’t let conventional boundaries restrict her, in her art or in her life

 

The gender-neutral honorific “Mx” has been added to OoxfordDdictionaries.com in another indication of the amplified visibility of the transgender, the gender queer, the gender fluid and anyone challenging binary categorisations of gender and sexuality.

I first saw Mx in front of Justin Vivian Bond’s name. Most of us take pronouns, prefixes and honorifics for granted. But as V has put it: “Since I’m transgender, people tend to get confused regarding my pronouns, etc. So I prefer ‘they’ or ‘them’, or ‘V’ or even ‘she’ – anything but ‘he’ or ‘his’, really. Also, instead of Mr or Miss, I have taken on the honorific ‘Mx’, pronounced ‘mix’. I thought I’d let you know right up front, because people ask so often. Also, I prefer to be addressed as ‘V’ or Vivian, but I have no problem with Justin. So there’s my spiel.” Sorted.

V, who is coming to the Spiegeltent at Tiger Dublin Fringe next week with Mx Justin Vivian Bond . . . and Things of That Nature!, a show of original songs, is a multifaceted performer. She became famous as part of the New York drag cabaret duo Kiki and Herb. There have been a Tony nomination, a Glaad GLAAD award, several albums, cabaret shows, a memoir, paintings and gallery exhibitions.

In movies, V shone in John Cameron Mitchell’s post-9/11, pre-Obama Shortbus, a beautiful ode to an edgy New York that is both explicit and innocent. Playing something of the hostess with the mostest of the Shortbus club, V surveys the scene at one point, announcing, “It’s just like the ’60s. Only with less hope.”

When we speak, V is in upstate New York with her cat, taking a week off after curating a Spiegeltent programme that saw Alan Cumming and Martha Wainwright, among others, perform. But back to the Fringe.

“The person who I’ve heard use the phrase ‘and things of that nature’ is Mariah Carey – one of the most down-to-earth people I can think of!” V says, laughing.

The topic of nature appears prominently on V’s 2011 album, Dendrophile, “because I get an erotic charge out of nature, as they say”. The roots of this erotic charge lay in childhood, she says.

“When I was a kid I lived on a block in the suburbs. There was a row of houses, and behind them it was just farmland. There were trees and woods and creeks, and I would leave my parents’ house and go across the road and go out on my own. I was a huge tree-climber. Some of the boys in the neighbourhood built this amazing treehouse, and I lost my virginity in a treehouse. I have just always had a complete release, psychically and spiritually, when I’m up a tree.”

When V wants to write songs or has something to think about she might climb a tree “or sit on a log over a ravine” with her notebook “and just wait to see what happens”. 

Make good

There are ties to Irish nature as well: V once wrote a song in a field at

Electric Picnic and this year spent time at Make, a theatre forum for artists developing new work, at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, in Annaghmakerrig, Co Monaghan. “I had probably one of the best times creatively in my life, and I wasn’t even creating,” she says of being at the centre. “I was working with other artists as a mentor, and they were so interesting, interested, engaged, smart. It was just one of the best times for me.”

One of the artists who was under V’s mentorship, Maud Ní Riordáin, echoes that enthusiasm, saying that V is “someone who has a very authentic sense of self. Very truthful, open, honest, blunt – and funny as hell”.

In March V was in Dublin, at a lunchtime event at Project Arts Centre. She got into a conversation with the fringe festival’s director, Kris Nelson. The conversation began with V reading a speech, but she dispensed with it in favour of observations, philosophies, life lessons and quick wit in a way that was thrilling to take in. V has a unique way of speaking to a crowd, almost willing spontaneity and diversions into the room. It’s compelling stuff.

“I’m able to allow my subconscious thoughts to bubble to the surface. I feel like knowing who I am and my point of view in the world. I am not particularly worried that I’m going to say something that’s going to get me in trouble, because I try to maintain a certain level of integrity. So if I have a theme or an idea that I want to talk about, I just let it fly.”

That aversion to a script is the difference between V and an actor, she says. “Many of my friends who do their own cabaret shows that are really actors, the idea of getting up there and improvising completely freaks them out, because their skill is to take a text and make it come to life. And that’s their talent. For me it’s the opposite. My talent is to be in the moment and to improvise and to have it be as real and honest and authentic as possible, to do the opposite. Working with text feels completely false to me, and I don’t think I’m very good at it.”

Another Irish tie is Thomas Bartlett, better known here as the pianist with The Gloaming, with whom V works frequently. Bartlett and V are both performing at the National Concert Hall’s Blood and the Moon concert, which features new songs based on the poems of WB Yeats. Bartlett has produced two of V’s albums and is, she says, “a very subtle player”. This sensitivity has been useful in finding the nuances within the music. “It seems on paper a little bit bizarre,” V says, “but when you hear it, we bring out different elements of each other that we wouldn’t probably access with other people.”

 

Stage courage

Someone smart once said that often people go to gigs not to see bands but to see people believe in themselves. V offers that thrill of honesty: someone up there being themselves. Simple courage on a stage can be both compelling and a release.

Growing up, V’s goal was to be an actor, “because I was unable to be myself where I grew up”. But, realising that it was possible to just be one’s true self, “I kind of gave up acting. But I didn’t give up performing, because once I found out who I was I discovered my own voice, and I felt I had something to say.

“That was a process of 10 years. I think that when you’re a kid you have an idea of what you want to be, and that’s free to change if you’re honest with yourself, and can lead you into much more validating experiences, because as you grow and change you hopefully learn and develop in ways that you never expected.

“I think it’s just important for people to honour themselves and to be honest with themselves,” V says. “If they’re doing that, then they’re going to be fine.”

A pause. “I hope that doesn’t sound too simplistic, because, really, those are the two hardest things to do: to honour yourself and be honest with yourself. That takes time, because you have to prove yourself in one way or another. It’s not as easy as it sounds. But it is important.”

Mx Justin Vivian Bond. and Things of That Nature! is at the Spiegeltent, on Wolfe Tone Square, Dublin 1, on Tuesday, September 15th  at 9.15pm; fringefest.com

Blood and the Moon is at the National Concert Hall, Dublin 2, tomorrow and Monday, at 8pm; nch.ie