It’s 12 p.m. on a Friday on the 36th floor of the Rockefeller Center and Sandra Bernhard is on air hosting her Sirius XM Radio talk show, Sandyland. She’s interviewing actress Melanie Griffith, who is wearing a pair of fringed suede boots, a chunky knit and a 120-watt smile. Marriage, Trump, Hillary, Hollywood and the Flint, Mich., water crisis are the topics on the table. The pair go to town discussing the issues, and Bernhard’s questions and segues direct the conversation with ease. Moments move from intense (Bernhard: “I don’t like Bernie Sanders—we don’t need another selfish man in the White House!”) to sweet (Bernhard: “You know I’ve always had a crush on you, Mel”) to supremely sage (Griffith: “Don’t ever get married. Divorces are too expensive—I’ve gone through four”). At the end of the discussion, Sandyland producer Lisa Mantineo—who has the unfortunate task of interrupting the twosome—tells them they are out of time.
But the discussions don’t stop after the show is over. When Bernhard, Griffith and I pile into an SUV, the duo trade barbs over Tinder, Ashley Madison and the rising celebrity dating app Raya. Minutes before we drop Griffith off so that Bernhard and I can continue to our scheduled lunch interview, the car stops at a poster of Marc Jacobs’ Spring 2016 campaign, which stars Bernhard. The image is a tribute to Bernhard’s nearly 40 years as a stage performer (creating groundbreaking works, such as 1988’s Without You I’m Nothing), actress (in pioneering roles on shows such as Roseanne and Difficult People), singer (Bernhard has released numerous albums), author (she’s written three books) and designer/pop star muse (witness her scene-stealing in documentaries such as Madonna’s Truth or Dare and Isaac Mizrahi’s Unzipped).
Jacobs selected her to be featured in his new ads for her hard-won role as a cultural activist, not because of her Instagram following. Even before the #BlackLivesMatter movement and transgender acceptance became a focus in mainstream media, Bernhard was using her platforms to rally for the fringes. It is because of Bernhard’s chutzpah that Jacobs calls himself a fan. “Sandra’s comedic consciousness, integrity and genuineness is harsh, hard and authentic,” he says.
In a world where comediennes such as Amy Schumer are constantly making fun of their bodies, Bernhard defiantly turns her back on self-deprecation. “I was a product of a feminist movement,” she says, proudly calling Gloria Steinem an admirer. “I don’t think I’ve ever compromised that and I respect myself too much to tear myself down for the sake of a joke,” she says, before biting into a tempura fish sandwich. “I’m better than that. So are the people who admire my work.”
Bernhard’s performances, which mix cabaret with stand-up, are like drinking a double shot of espresso. The civil rights activists she mentions—including folks such as Patti Smith and Nina Simone—are people she’s seen onstage. “I relate to all historical women who have love behind their legacy,” she says, naming Grace Jones, Eartha Kitt and Josephine Baker as people she deeply admires. “Each of these women is a layer of the bedrock that makes the world rich in texture.”
In terms of next steps, 60-year-old Bernhard is writing yet another book, as well as developing a series based on her early days in Los Angeles—a time when she worked as a manicurist, doing nails for famous names such as former Charlie’s Angels actor Jaclyn Smith.
Beauty and glamour have always been part of Bernhard’s oeuvre, especially when she’s mocking our own conflicted interpretation of both concepts. “As cool as it was to wear Chanel’s Vamp nail polish,” she wrote in her last book, May I Kiss You on the Lips, Miss Sandra?, “it is now so much cooler to just trash it and declare how over it is.” She’s just as frank when she’s asked, mid-lunch, about the topic of getting older. “I’m not worried about aging,” she says, noting that she has asked model/actor Brooke Shields, fashion legend Norma Kamali and even her rabbi about such things while they were on Sandyland with her. “Why hide it? Why are we pretending? There’s access to youth and beauty and freshness. I want to look the best I can.”
Bernhard also has a no-holds-barred approach to her work on- and offstage. “Don’t feel like people are there to serve you,” she says. “You’re there to serve the project. But when it’s my own work, I’ve gotta be a diva sometimes to engage and entertain people. They need it, and so do I.”
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