A note on that one time that I met Sandra Bernhard.
Last night, because I’m spoiled by my job at times, I got a chance to meet Sandra Bernhard. Now, to understand how monumental this is in my life, I met Sandy (yes, in my mind’s eye, we’ve been that close for years) when she cameoed in the brilliant Isaac Mizrahi’s 1995 documentary, Unzipped. We had met briefly in Madonna’s Truth or Dare, but nothing stand-out memorable and let’s be clear: after the absurd neediness of Madonna in that film, who could come out thinking of anyone but her? But, Unzipped was different. There, Sandra was fascinating, and it became clear that we shared a love for Irving, the joke writer, Eartha Kitt and New York. And who could forget her rendition of Sylvester’s Mighty Real as a cast of iconic 90’s super models floated angularly down the runway in Nanook inspired pink and orange faux furs.
Fast forward through the years and you would find the teenage me having a viewing party for the premire of Sandy’s HBO piece, I’m Still Here…Dammit! for all my friends, running to see her perform every chance I got and saving the maiden listening session of her album, I Love Being Me, Don’t You? for an entire month - knowing a bad break-up moment was coming and it would help cushion the blow.
So, when the big reproductive rights organization I work for announced that Sandra would be joining the absurdly sharp-witted Lizz Winstead for a fundraiser they were putting together I immediately went into glee-ful panic mode. What would I say? How would I pick what I wanted her to sign? How would I encapsulate the bizarre devotion to her work that I had cultivated over my lifetime? Being a planner, I took to the task of writing down several options of what I could say to her, to help find words to speak when I finally got the chance to, well…thank her.
When the big moment came and the show was over, which was a brilliantly executed 92nd Street Y format of two big chairs and a long meandering conversation, I ran up to the reception room and held my breath. I went for it. She was standing alone, and I dove right in.
Here’s where I have a piece of advice for anyone who has ever identified with what I’ve shared above, no matter who the artist or celebrity might be: don’t be so quick to lift the veil. Sandra was lovely, very courteous (she listened as I forget everything I had planned and asked an incredibly lame question about queer comics - knowing that’s not remotely how she thinks of her work) and took a picture with me as I profusely “thanked her” for something that was, as it turned out, incredibly hard to distill in the moment. How do you talk about how someone’s art has touched, shaped, and rebounded your perception of things in the world, in a room crowded with donors, bizarre cake-pop desserts and a woman who’s performance capitalizes on her overwhelming sense of surety and self-worth?
The short answer: you probably don’t. You probably just let the artist be the artist and avoid trying to mesh the artist you love with the “celebrity sighting” you hoped to capture.
Me with a dopey glow and Sandra Bernhard
See, that’s the thing: our culture has us so obsessed with Instagramming every moment and validating that something happened, that we forget what art is all about. It’s about the performance, the words, the person being vulnerable enough, smart enough, and working their ass off to give us something that makes us think in ten different directions. And in a lot of ways, it’s about being on the outside looking in - not breaking down the mystique so you can gush over them and “thank them” for it.
In the end, it’s great that I got to meet Sandra Bernhard and it’s sweet that she was so kind to me - taking a picture, thanking me, giving me a wink and a knowing squeeze on my arm as she politely excused herself. But next time, I might just let the art be enough, and not worry so much about the experience of meeting the person behind the veil. I dare say, it was a little greedy and in the end, I was a little disappointed when the “real” Sandra turned out to be no different from the very thing I had always admired her for - a woman who knows who she is, and why she does what she does. A woman who calls out the dopey celebrity fetish and demands more from her audience. Next time, I’m on it, Ms. Bernhard.