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Has Success Spoiled Kiki And Herb?

July 1, 2007

The homegrown avant-garde duo claims Broadway hasn't changed its subversive act one bit

The drag cabaret act Kiki and Herb has come a long way since creator-performers Justin Bond and Kenny Mellman burst out of San Francisco’s underground club scene in the early 1990s with their ballistic sense of humor and deconstructionist approach to song. Having conquered Broadway and Carnegie Hall, the asymmetrically-coiffed, Canadian Club-snorting Kiki and her only slightly more sober pianist Herb, return home this month for a limited engagement at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. We asked the men behind the legends about the journey from west to east and back again and what it means to be legit.

What was the underground scene like in San Francisco in the late 1980s?

KM: It was amazing. The likes of Bambi Lake, Bomb, the Sick and Twisted Players, and Miss Kitty were performing back then.

JB: Our lives revolved around places like Club Uranus and Chaos. There were lots of crazy drag queens running around.

KM: It was also an angry time. We joined ACT UP and did what we could to fight AIDS. So many wonderful artists died. Death loomed over everything.

JB: We were all mad, gender-fucked people fighting like hell to live our lives. It was a wild, messy and heartbreaking time.

What was your early cabaret act like?

KM: Herb was based on an old Hawaiian pianist who played at Athens By Night, a Greek restaurant on Valencia that no longer exists. Our set mostly consisted of 1950s lounge-style music, but we often ended with “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” which is still one of our standards today.

JB: The show was really all about the people who inspired me. These include Julie London, my cousin, my mom, and a special needs girl who lived across the street.

How will performing in a legit San Francisco venue feel having started out playing in this city’s underground clubs? Have you had to change your performance style for mainstream audiences?

KM: We came out of San Francisco screaming and yelling. But we’re 20 years older now. Having been part of the downtown scene for so long, it feels good to bring the freaks uptown.

JB: The content and style of our shows hasn’t changed. We didn’t have to tone down the political content of our show for Broadway. We’re better supported these days though; we don’t have to deal with one bare light-bulb and a shitty sound system. It’s true that there’s a different tone to the gigs we do in bars, like our regular 11.30pm slot at Joe’s Pub in New York, but that’s because the audience is drunk.

Who’s doing the drinking on stage – Justin or Kiki? And does it always have to be Canadian Club?

JB: Kiki does all the drinking. Justin doesn’t drink on stage. It’s strictly for professional purposes. Kiki only drinks Canadian Club. CC for Kiki. You have to have consistency with your addictions or you’re screwed.

Is there anything in particular you like to do when you’re in San Francisco?

KM: I like going to the Palace of the Legion of Honor where I had my first date at 17. I also enjoy visiting Gangway, a crazy gay bar in the Tenderloin. They have bingo on Monday nights. And I have to eat burritos.

JB: I consider Trannyshack to be a spiritual ground. I like to drink endless cups of coffee at Café Flore on Market Street. I also always visit El Toro Taqueria in The Mission.

Will you ever retire?

KM: Kiki and Herb wouldn’t know what to do with themselves in retirement. They’ll go on forever like Steve and Eydie.

JB: My original Kiki dress belonged to the San Francisco drag queen Ambi Sextrous. I suppose I’ll pass on my breasts, wig, dress, and shoes some day too. Those red heels can torture some other poor tranny for the rest of her life.


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