Sandra Bernhard Shares Her Life in Parties

Sandra Bernhard on a motorbike
Bernhard at the nightclub Area. Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

In 1992, Sandra Bernhard showed up as a guest on Late Show with David Letterman in a full Isaac Mizrahi runway ensemble and perfectly coiffed hair fresh from Oribe’s salon chair. Letterman playfully knocked her look as leftovers from The Addams Family, prompting Bernhard to launch into an extravagant explanatory monologue, working the audience into a frenzy and coaxing a bemused grin out of the host. “We’re giving Babe Paley, we’re giving ’60s, we’re giving high glamour…and the audience loves it, they need it, they reach out for it! Sexual tension!” she shouted, before the room erupted in applause.

With her flair for titillation, edginess, and playfulness, Bernhard was among the first to meld the worlds of fashion and comedy. Her career, which kicked off in the late 1970s with a role on The Richard Pryor Show, has taken her from seedy L.A. comedy clubs to the runways of Paris to, more recently, the sets of Pose and American Horror Story: NYC. While her act has matured, she claims she has not really changed. “You can always count on me to be there for the people on the margins.”

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“My mom [above] was not a superenergetic, enthusiastic person. She always kind of sat back and observed because she was an artist. I think she got a kick out of me because I was so different from her. I was so high-spirited and full of energy and emotional and a little bit scared of things. So I really clung to my mother, and I think that was a lot for her.”

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“I’ve always loved my birthday, and I’ve always loved making wishes,” Bernhard says. “You’d think I’d be not very into that, but I do like some magical things and some whimsical things in a way that I think would surprise people.” At 14, she was already dreaming about a career as a performer. “Almost all my wishes have come to pass. Now I’m working on a whole new grouping of them. That’s the thing about wishes: They’re kind of endless.”

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Bernhard was raised in Michigan and Arizona, the youngest of four siblings and the only girl. “My brother David could have been a world-class photographer. Of course, my parents wanted him to do something professional,” says Bernhard. “I just love this picture because, obviously, he’s posed all of us, but I’m the only one smiling. It captures the vibe of the time.” From left: Bernhard’s brother David; her father, Jerry; Bernhard, with the family dog, CoCo; brother Dan; mother, Jeanette; and brother Mark.

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In 1985, Bernhard was performing her solo show I’m Your Woman eight times a week and going out nearly every night. “We were dancing and hanging out and carousing, or as David Letterman would say, ‘Late Night Lulus,’ ” she says. “Just on-the-run crazy, but I didn’t drink, I didn’t do drugs, so it wasn’t like I was fucking myself up. I was just having fun and celebrating having my hit show.” Above: Bernhard at the nightclub Area.


Bernhard became friends with Madonna in the late 1980s, and they often went out dancing together. Here, they are pictured at the premiere for Truth or Dare, in 1991. Despite being a frequent party companion of one of the most famous women in the world, Bernhard says nights out still had a modicum of privacy. “Thirty seconds later, it wasn’t going to be up on Instagram. People didn’t have access to everything. You could go out and have fun, and it really was private.”

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In 1990, her show Without You I’m Nothing was adapted into a film, the premiere of which was celebrated at the downtown hot spot Time Cafe (right). “That dress is Isaac Mizrahi. It’s almost the same one as the one I’m wearing with Madonna, with different straps and paillettes. That was at the time I could wear something like that with no bra. My body was at the perfect place.”

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“When I was in high school, the only other thing I ever thought of doing was maybe going into fashion. I loved it so much; I was very inspired by it,” says Bernhard. The comedian poses at a Versace party in London in 1999, wearing a dress she now wishes she could track down.

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“When I first moved to Los Angeles, I was out dancing every night at Studio One with a fake ID, and I was basically the only woman there. It was all guys in leather doing poppers, and they just loved me.” Bernhard always maintained that connection to gay nightlife and is pictured below at Susanne Bartsch’s landmark HIV/AIDS fundraiser, Love Ball, in 1991. “Drag is such an important part of my history. When people have that kind of imagination and that sense of fun, it just opens everybody up to all sorts of interesting ideas.”

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At some point in the ’80s, Isaac Mizrahi was being interviewed on television, and he rattled off a list of women that he’d love to dress, including Bernhard. Her manager happened to be watching and soon got in touch, and the designer and the comedian have been friends ever since. Above: Bernhard poses with Mizrahi ahead of his fall 1991 show.

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“My shows evolve only in the sense that, as a performer and a person, you keep changing, and that infuses your work,” says Bernhard, onstage here in London in 1994. “But I think I’ve had my point of view, my style, and my take on the world from the beginning.”

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By the ’90s, Bernhard already counted A-listers and some American designers as friends, but it was Vogue editor André Leon Talley (below) who introduced her to the wider world of fashion. “André once took me to Karl Lagerfeld’s atelier. I didn’t understand a word Lagerfeld was saying, but it was fun hanging out with him,” she says. “I walked in a bunch of shows, and people just started dressing me. Then all the big photographers were taking pictures of me. It became a whole crazy fashion-meets-comedy phenomenon.”

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To this day, Bernhard regrets turning down a chance to walk in a Versace show due to tour rehearsals, but she still has fond memories of Gianni (left, with Bernhard at the CFDA Awards, circa 1993) and Donatella. “The Versaces were always supersweet. They came to a New Year’s Eve show I did in 1992 at the Palladium,” she says. “I brought them onstage with me, and I just said the most outrageous shit about them. They just loved it and laughed. They really had a good sense of humor about themselves.”

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She models a Thierry Mugler dress at the 6th Annual California Fashion Industry Friends of AIDS Project Los Angeles.

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Bernhard is known to make a splash on the red carpet. As host of the CFDA Awards in 2000, she wore a sheer Gaultier number to the ceremony. “It was audacious—an amazing, gorgeous dress.”

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For the 1994 CableAce Awards (below), which honored cable shows before the Emmys acknowledged them, she went for a tea-length piece. “Talk about a blip in the fucking radar of insanity of our culture.”

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Bernhard attended the Los Angeles premiere of Without You I’m Nothing in an orange Mizrahi gown. The film featured an appearance by Robin Byrd (left), the adult film actor and host of a self-titled cable show, of which Bernhard was a fan: “You would never see something like that on TV anymore. The whole sort of crazy sexuality and the authenticity of it, it doesn’t exist.”

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Bernhard had her daughter, Cicely, in 1998. “I felt like it was time to evolve and make a change,” she says of her decision to start a family. “We must have been at some sort of an art opening or a gallery here. So cute. She’s 24 now, but she’s still cute.”

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Bernhard has performed at Lower East Side theaters, on Broadway, and at star-studded events. The 2011 opening of I Love Being Me, Don’t You? featured guest spots from Rufus Wainwright, Justin Vivian Bond, and Liza Minnelli. “It was a really fun, fun, fun night. I love Liza.”

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“She’s more than my girlfriend,” says Bernhard of her partner, Sara Switzer (right, at a party for the Tribeca film festival in 2014). “We’ve been together 24 years. We’re not married, but we are married, essentially. She was an editor at Harper’s Bazaar, and she asked me to write a first-person essay about the millennium. We lived around the corner from each other and started hanging out, and then everything else is history.”