Interview by Michael Bullock
Photography by Nacho Alegre
Published in apartamento 5, 2010
Let’s start at the beginning. What’s your first interior design memory?
When I was a kid my parents re-did my room. I came home from school one day and they painted it a weird, peachy orange. My mother for some reason thought it would be a great idea to redecorate with a cowboys and Indians theme. They put up brown curtains with Indians on them, posters with horses, and they added a rope rug. I just burst into tears. I was so upset. I was like "Who is this room for?" It just was awful. It was as if she decorated it for her dream son who clearly wasn’t me.
Did you fix it?
I had to sleep in that room until I was 13. At that point I got a new room and I decorated it myself. I found these old movie star magazines from the 1940s and covered my walls with Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Marilyn Monroe.
Did they freak out?
No. At that point they were starting to get the hint.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Western Maryland in a small town, sort of on the borderline between the country and the city. My grandparents hadafarmsoIspentalot of time there. There was a creek and us kids made an enormous tri-level tree house. We lived close to this place that made rubber mats so we lined the entire place with rubber, we even put a mattress in there. It was kind of hot.
So that was more your space than your room?
Yeah, I had a lot of fun times with the neighbor boys in the rubber tree house. I even lost my virginity up there. So my ideal living situation to this day would be to live in a tree house. A fancy tree house that you can...
Yeah, that you can hose down and that would have electricity. Someday.
How did you find this place? It’s an unusual amount of space for the East Village.
Last April I came back from working a six-week tour and I had just moved in that night to Harlem to live with my friend and collaborator Our Lady J. The first night I went out it took me an hour and fifteen minutes to get home from the East Village and I thought, 'This is never going to work.' The next day I had a meeting here in this apartment with my friend Matt Nasser to talk about curating an exhibit at the LaMama Gallery, which I did earlier this year, and he said, ‘Oh why don’t you just move in here.’
How did Matt get the place?
The women who owns this building worked with him at LaMama and she moved to Florida because her daughter was having a baby. So Matt took it over. She had lived here since 1979. This building is supposedly going to be torn down by developers in a year. We’re probably the last tenants. It’s really old school-y East Village. It’s kind of one of the last places that’s really like this. So we’re very lucky to be here, it’s great.
How is this compared to other places you lived?
Well I’ve lived in some amazing places. I lived in The Haight when I lived in San Francisco in this huge apartment with five lesbians. We had so many great parties in that apartment and that was fun because I enjoy living with a lot of people. Having two roommates here and living right in the East Village, people drop by and are coming and going all the time. Because when I was growing up, my grandmother’s house would always have people around. I liked that sense of having a large extended family and knowing that you’re not so alone in this world. So that’s the great thing about living in this apartment; people can stay here, and people can hang out here and come by and sit around and have drinks and I can easily sit 10 people for dinner. It just feels like, you know...
It feels like a safe space for artist and musicians in the middle of a city that’s forgotten them.
It does. It’s great, most people that live in the city have to leave their apartment in order to socialize, and you have to shout in order to have a conversation with anyone. Here people can just sit around and talk and get to know one another, which is rare. I feel a sort of responsibility in a way. That’s why I like having huge parties, it’s a pleasure to be able share it.
I know you’re a member of the Radical Faeries. Does that experience translate into your city life?
Well, there are a lot of urban faeries, which is very cool. We go to faerie gatherings - actually I’m going to the mountain this Thursday. It’s very grounding, being there and spending time in that communal space where there are a lots of people and everyone shares meals, you leave feeling healthy and connected. The goal is to bring that feeling of empowerment and freedom back to wherever you go. It’s about being able to express yourself in a way that isn’t so homogenized. To bring those feelings back into the city is one of my goals. Does that make any sense?
Yes, it was said nicely. Is it hard to maintain a home when you are on tour?
No, not really. The hardest part of touring is getting back and finding yourself out of sync with what’s going on. Getting back into the swing of things with your friends is hard because everyone has their little patterns and they change. It’s hard if you’re on the road and you’re in a relationship because you go away and the person that’s left behind is responsible for taking care of the house, paying bills, and doing all that boring stuff. While you're performing and getting accolades and constant standing ovations. On the road people are always looking after you because you’re a guest. So I realize it’s not always fair to my housemates.
Are you working on a new show now?
I’m recording a CD and it’s produced by Thomas Bartlett who’s known as Doveman. We did three tracks last week. I’m really happy with them. I’m also re-working my Christmas Spells show for this year, and I’m starting on a new piece for the Kitchen that will premier in October 2010.
What will that be?
The working title is Twenty Femme. It’s all going to be about femme energy and the new decade because I’m all for, you know, getting rid of the patriarchy... but a lot of people think in order to get rid of the patriarchy you have to reinstate the matriarchy, but I don’t really think either of those things sound too appealing. So I’m trying to figure out a way to promote a third idea.
You have a trans solution?
Well, as my dear friend Jane Fonda said to me, transgender people are the true revolutionaries because they are the greatest threat to the patriarchy because they are willing to give up penis privilege, sometimes without even giving up their penis. When she said that I was like, oh my god!
That’s amazing, did she come to your show?
No, I was backstage at Carrie Fisher’s opening at her Broadway show and I introduced myself and she asked, ‘Are you transgender?’ and I said, ‘Why, yes I am.’ And she said, ‘I love transgender people, do you know Calpernia Addams?’ I said, ‘I don’t know Calpernia Addams but I admire her.' She said, ‘Well, Calpernia Addams taught me so much about transgender issues and I believe transgender people are the true spiritual revolutionaries.' I was dying. I could not believe my life, sitting here talking about transgender issues and spirituality with Jane FUCKING Fonda!
Truly. Oh, and I’m also developing a scent.
What is the idea for the fragrance?
Oh, I don’t really want to talk about it until it’s ready.
Ha! You will be joining Jessica Simpson, Paris Hilton, and David Beckham...
I get bored if I’m stuck doing one thing.
Clearly... I’m sure doing Kiki for so many years you’re always asked what the divide is between your personality and the character. And I know that Kiki and Herb has ended, but I was wondering if that character had any impact on how you pull your living space together.
Kiki and Herb was a sketch gone wild. It was an idea I came up with in ’92 and it was something that I enjoyed doing. But as far as my living situation, I think because I was publicly known as this character that was so different from me, I have always made my home very personal in order to remind me of who I am and what I like and what inspires me.
That’s interesting because I think a lot of New York apartments strive to do the opposite. They are created on the premise of escape, like, ‘The city is so hectic, I need to go home to a Moroccan themed country house apartment.’
I live an East Village bohemian life and I have an East Village bohemian apartment. I don’t think I’m in Woodstock or in France. I live in New York City and the East Village because I love New York City and the East Village. I go and sit out on my fire escape and have my cigarette and cup of coffee every morning and my view is a gas station and I don’t mind it. When I go to sleep at night I hear people punching, screaming and pissing on the street outside the Mars Bar and I find that comforting. It lets me know where I am. It’s all part of the rich brocade of where I am. It all makes sense. I like it.
How often do you throw parties?
Well, I’ve had three big parties here since I moved in last year. I had one on my birthday, one on gay pride, and one on New Years. My birthday is May 9th so it’s around the time that lilacs bloom. So for my birthday party I just asked instead of gifts to bring lilacs. It was great, the whole house was filled with lilacs. For my pride party, my friend had won a free keg, so we put the keg out on the fire escape. For New Years, my roommate Matt made shrimp scampi and brined turkey. We invited 30 people for dinner and then at 11pm I invited the whole town.
Do you have any tips for entertaining?
My thing is that when I have a party I get two bottles of red wine, one bottle of white wine, two bottles of whiskey, two bottles of vodka, four mixers, a bag of corn chips, a bag of pretzels, a container of guacamole, and I invite 300 people. Usually the way it ends up is that we have more booze than when we started. So, it’s a $150 investment and it basically provides a party for 300 people. It’s very economical.
I like that you have an exact equation. Maybe it’s magic.
I don’t know how it works, but it’s worked so far.
Are you a flower person, or are the flowers out just for my sake?
I love flowers. As I said, lilacs are special to me because of my birthday. Peonies are also great, and in lieu of a Christmas tree I often opt for poinsettias. I love them for their deep red although my cat likes to eat them and they’re poisonous. Fortunately she hasn’t died but I’ve lost about six cats to poinsettias.
No, I’m joking. I’ve never lost a cat to a poinsettia.
Do you do arrangements?
No, I just stick them in water. I’m not a good floral arranger. I’m not a formal person. You’ve seen the way that I have my art hung. I just have it in an arrangement that pleases me. Everything I do is pretty instinctual.
Do you have any tips for furniture layout?
I only think about where everyone is going to be sitting. You can have people looking at each other or you can have everyone looking at the television. I prefer having everyone looking at each other, so the apartment is set up for maximum interaction. That is the only thing that I take into consideration.
May I have a tour of your prized possessions and your bedroom?
[At the bookshelf] Sure, this hat right here used to belong Edie Sedgwick, my friend Danny Fields gave it to me. It inspired Bob Dylan to write the song ‘Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat’. She knew how much I was an admirer of Edie and so she gave me that hat which was very, very lovely. Several years ago, I did a performance on a fire escape for a Jack Smith show curated by Jonathan Berger. As a thank you, Jonathan gave me this gin bottle, which belonged to my hero the poet and playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay. She liked her gin. That’s one of my favorites. [Pointing to a bone with a microscope attached] It’s the jaw bone of a dog signed by William Burroughs for my friend Fenton O’Sullivan, Fenton gave it to me. See the signature? Amazing! And Debbie Harry gave me that vase as a house-warming present. So that’s some of the stuff I have here in my display cases. And now for the bedroom, don’t mind the cum stained sheet.
How could I mind? What are these two portraits above your bed?
These I call my dream catchers. Machine Dazzle made them for my show last year at PS122. It’s an older Joan Didion in one and a 15 year old Jean Genet in the other. Jean was just going into prison.
Are they your two most important influences?
They’re my favorite writers, their work helped make me who I am so I keep them above my bed to catch ideas and hopefully influence my dreams.
The bedroom is much more glamorous than the rest of the house?
Well it’s my room, the rest is common space! This big gilded mirror and table were given to me by Ian Falconer who is the artist and writer of the Oliva the Pig children books. He said that if I didn’t take it he was going to put it out on the street. So I rescued it from certain disillusionment. Most of the things that make my life so fabulous are gifts from friends. Some even buy me shoes, which is nice. Size 41 if anyone is curious.
What’s this? [Outside the bedroom]
The moon over the litter box? Well that’s from the Christmas show. I thought it was nice over that filthy cat box. My grandparents actually had an outhouse and there was a moon carved on the door so I gave the kitty a modern take on an old classic. [Moving back into the hall pointing to a record on the wall] Barry Manilow came back after one of our Kiki and Herb shows when we were at the Cherry Lane Theater. I knew he was coming so I ran out and got ‘This One’s For You’ for him to sign. That’s all of my little trinkets.
Do you have any closing words of wisdom?
Well, I’m sad today because Kate McGarrigle died. She was a dear friend and I’m so sad for Rufus and Martha [Wainwright] and the whole family. She’s had such an amazing life and was so talented. The month before she died she was playing at the Royal Albert Hall in London and did a beautiful performance there so it’s sad, but I mean, if you look at the quality of life and the way that she lived it is something to hope for. So as my grandfather said, ‘Don’t take no wooden nickels.’ And as my Uncle Jerry said, ‘Don’t let your meat loaf.’ Okay, Uncle Jerry, thanks.