"Hello Juan, this is Sandra Bernhard," a clear, enunciated voice says in rapid staccato. "I'm supposed to call you in a couple of hours, but I overbooked myself with interviews. Can we talk now?"
My eyes roll. "That's just so typical of you," I tease her, realizing I haven't organized my questions for the comedienne and singer, a one-of-a-kind performer who has evolved into a cultish, legendary icon.
"Well," she says from her "sort of loftish" West Side Manhattan home, in a voice dripping in her signature irony. "Wing it."
"All right," I say. "Call me back in two minutes."
I set up my tape recorder, test it out. Even change the batteries before she calls back. "Cool," I think.
As microcassette wheels begin to roll, I flash on Bernhard's Mick Jagger lips, which she exploits in her one-woman shows to snarl and skewer in her bitchy, no-holds-barred, diva-of-the-streets persona.
"I love your lips," I say. "Tell me about your mouth."
Realizing this question has nothing to do with Bernhard's upcoming performance, in which she shares top billing with showman Buster Poindexter (David Johansen), I wait for a divalike outburst or perhaps the click of the phone hanging up. At least I didn't start off asking about her star-spangled G-string from her film Without You I'm Nothing.
But Bernhard's cool. She is balanced and unfazed, no doubt from her pursuit of Kabbala, and her place as another fiercely hip fortysomething celebrity mom.
"You pay the price for having lips like these," she says. "When I was growing up they weren't so much in demand. I freaked a lot of people out."
"Did you ever think you were black?" I say. "I mean, you're such a good soul singer."
(It was at this point the tape recorder freaked out. It only recorded static. Go figure.)
"Well yeah, I'm very influenced by soul singers," she says. "I have a lot of sympatico."
"Who did you want to be," I ask, "when you performed in the bedroom in front of the mirror?"
"I loved Burt Bacharach songs and Joni Mitchell. But mostly it was Hello Dolly with Carol Channing."
"Is it true Channing bummed a joint from you when she met you after a performance?" I ask.
"She did come backstage, but no, she didn't," she replies. "I love her. She is really, really cool."
"There's nobody like you," I say. "How do you maintain your style in the mass-marketing hype of the entertainment world?"
"I've been doing this for a long time and have developed a certain world view and place for myself in it," she says, as her daughter Cicely scampers around in the background. "I've been able to maintain a niche and I never tried to compete with other people. I always wanted to be 'Sandra, the voice of a generation.'"