Kiki and Herb Will Be Back Where They Belong for Christmas
Kiki and Herb, the glamorous and harrowing cabaret duo created by Justin Vivian Bond and Kenny Mellman, never performed as reliably as the Radio City Rockettes. But for a while in the early 2000s, no Christmas felt complete without them — especially if you are the kind of person who prefers a belt of Canadian Club to eggnog.
In those days, Bond played Kiki as an elderly “boozy chanteusie,” with Mellman as Herb, her childhood friend and put-upon accompanist. In fright drag, with age makeup crisscrossing her face, Bond’s Kiki would stalk through the crowd like a bloodthirsty elf, savaging holiday carols and performing medleys that intermixed “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” with “Suicide Is Painless.”
“It seemed like a gift to an audience that wouldn’t necessarily be going home for Christmas, wouldn’t necessarily have the best relationship with their family,” Mellman said recently. Their shows wrapped that present in spilled drinks and smeared mascara.
Kiki and Herb played their last holiday show, “Kiki & Herb: The Second Coming,” in 2007. Bond and Mellman dissolved their artistic partnership not long after. Mellman continued in the cabaret scene and performed with the band the Julie Ruin. Bond wrote new music and evolved as a visual artist. They didn’t speak for years. After reuniting at a memorial for their friend José Esteban Muñoz, they performed together again, in a show called “Seeking Asylum!,” at the Public Theater in 2016. And now, they have resurrected their Christmas act for what Bond calls, “a big, old chosen family reunion.”
Beginning Tuesday, Mellman and Bond will debut “Kiki & Herb: SLEIGH at BAM,” for five performances. Studded with fan favorites — Tori Amos’s “Crucify,” Belle and Sebastian’s “Fox in the Snow” — the show will include new numbers, like Brandi Carlile’s “The Joke.” (During the duo’s last hiatus, Mellman built a file of 300 potential new songs.)
On a recent weekday afternoon, Mellman and Bond met at a coffee shop in Brooklyn to chat about reclaiming Christmas and how their characters might spend the holiday. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
It’s been 14 years since your last holiday show. Why restart the tradition now?
JUSTIN VIVIAN BOND Before the pandemic, Kenny found this footage of our 1999 show at Flamingo East. I had a meeting with David Binder [the artistic director of the Brooklyn Academy of Music] to propose recreating it. He goes, “You should do a Kiki and Herb Christmas show.” They never take the good idea, I thought at the time. But then history happened, and I was feeling pretty sad last Christmas. As I started looking at what we could do as things opened up again, David sent me another email. Maybe it’s not such a bad idea to get together with everybody for Christmas.
This set list is mostly familiar material, right?
KENNY MELLMAN It’s a question of when you go to see your favorite band and they play none of the songs you want to hear. We skirted that for years, but I felt it’d be nice to give people a Christmas present this year of being like, here. Have it.
BOND We’re unpacking all the broken ornaments.
How were Kiki and Herb birthed into the world?
BOND I created the character of Kiki during the AIDS crisis. I was a young person in my 20s, a street activist. I felt like saying all the things I wanted to say as myself would sound too strident, too earnest. To have this boozed up old person who had done it all, seen it all, I could say anything as this character.
MELLMAN All the glitz and craziness and insanity and surrealism lends it a gravitas that it would not have if you just said it in a very straight way.
BOND I brought elements of people I really knew into Kiki — very intimidating, very smart women who had just gotten a [expletive] hand dealt, who somehow became these amazing creatures. So that was always there. Herb was based on this guy who worked in a piano bar that we performed at sometimes, this single guy who would drink tequila and had a picture of his cat on the piano.
MELLMAN He would drink tequila and just start crying.
How has the act changed over the years?
MELLMAN We started this as a kind of street theater inside a bar [in San Francisco]. We were both super young, going to queer clubs, protesting every night. Coming to New York — a different atmosphere, a different queer scene — it became less like, Oh, we have to be screaming at the end of the world.
BOND We started performing Kiki and Herb here in January of ’95, and ’95 was the year that the cocktail [the antiretroviral therapy for H.I.V.] came and started making lives last longer. So, it became different.
MELLMAN We stopped doing mushrooms. So that changed it.
BOND It’s New York, we’d better raise our game, we’d better stop doing mushrooms.
What was it like to move through adulthood performing these characters?
BOND That’s part of why I had to stop. I just felt like I didn’t know fully who I was. I always feel like I’m a disappointment. Because I know that people love that character so much. And I’m not that character. I remember, I thought, maybe if I just did a reality show, and I just lived as that character, people would like me more and I wouldn’t be so lonely.
MELLMAN Back in the day, we were doing late-night shows, and then going out even later because we wanted to hang out with all these amazing people. There was no balance.
BOND Last year when I was doing streaming performances from my house, I discovered that after 30 years in the business, that I never did a show where I didn’t go out and greet the public afterward. That’s probably why I don’t have any intimacy in my life.
But as wild as the act could be, as grotesque as it could be, it was also about love.
MELLMAN Like no matter what Kiki does Herb will be there. I find that really lovely and something to aspire to in a weird way. As much as a real psychological expose of that relationship would probably be horrifying, at the base of it is this incredible love for each other that transcends everything.
It’s the idea that what if someone saw you at you’re just absolutely worst —
MELLMAN And would still be there.
So do the shows reach for a kind of emotional truth?
MELLMAN Oh, for sure. There was always an emotional center to the act, because it came from a place of survival. I was recently just picturing what San Francisco was like when we created this. I wrote a poem that had the line, “The freshly dead are walking the streets.” That’s what it felt like.
BOND Also it goes back to the people that I based the character on, who I had so much love for and who I felt were judged so harshly. My whole drive was to be this very unlovable character, whom people could not help but just love.
How do you think Kiki and Herb would be spending this holiday?
BOND Probably like us when we were young — meeting at some dive bar and playing pinball and drinking all day. Which sounds nice to me actually.
MELLMAN They’d be like, I heard there’s a free buffet.
BOND Right? Bottomless cocktails and free buffet at Christmas.