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The Violet Files

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The legendary performer on social media, the power of a great makeup artist, and putting the girl next door out of business.

Written By:
Lena Raff

In celebration of diversity, individuality, love, gender expansiveness, self-expression, and Pride, VIOLET GREY spotlights the LGBTQIA+ creatives and activists who inspire us.

Sandra Bernhard is a true living legend. The incisive artist burst onto the scene in the 1970s and has since captivated stage, screen, and radio audiences with her acting, comedy, singing, and dancing—often alongside the likes of Madonna and Robin Williams. Long open about her bisexuality, Bernhard is also a vocal activist for her community and routinely amplifies the voices of marginalized communities on her SIRIUS XM radio show, ‘Sandyland’. Here, the icon reflects on beauty, the industry, and the importance of representation.

  • 01

    VIOLET GREY: How would you describe your relationship to beauty products and the idea of beauty growing up?

    SANDRA BERNHARD: I love products that include a naturally medicinal element—herbs, essential oils—and I think it’s very important to have some idea of what is in your products. Maybe I’m naive, but it seems like now more than ever that is the ethos of the beauty world. When I was growing up, the big name brands had all of the allure, but the market was limited. You might wash your face with Ponds cleansing cream and think that was the height of luxury. I used a lot of Noxema Cream especially after a sunburn, who knows what that did to my skin, but somehow I’ve managed to segue into the new era feeling pretty confident about my skin.

  • 02

    VG: Did you always feel like you could fully express yourself? Style, gender expression, verbally, and otherwise?

    SB: I was very imaginative as a child, I was attracted to beautiful people, men and women. I fantasized a lot about the future and romance, as well as what it would be like to be on stage and performing. Fashion always played a part in my expression, and growing up in the Motown era where the likes of Diana Ross and The Supremes were styled to the nines, I knew that was what entertainment should be. I’ve never shied away from telling it like it is even before it became commonplace on social media, I felt compelled to call out hypocrisy from my first years performing and I’ve never looked back. We have a responsibility to lift one another up in this world, and sometimes that comes with sacrifice, something I’ve never regretted.

  • 03

    VG: Do you like makeup? What is your relationship to it now?

    SB: I like what makeup can achieve, how it brightens and defines your face. But, because of the one dimensional nature of social media, there are times when I look so much better in the mirror than I do on the screen and that bums me out. I miss film and Polaroids. They had such depth and dimension that you could keep changing how you were perceived. A great makeup artist can transform you and a bad one can hide your best attributes. Day-to-day, less is more.

  • 04

    VG: How do you think representation and diversity have changed in the beauty industry since you were young?

    SB: Incredibly so, the diversity of beauty has blown the culture wide open, and that is a big deal. For women of color to be able to fully express themselves has opened up society in a powerful way. I’m so inspired to see this evolving and how it has put the “girl next door” out of business. It’s very cool.

  • 05

    VG: What do you think the beauty industry could do better?

    SB: I think they are doing it constantly, young women are speaking out so no one can afford to be complacent. That has been a game-changer.

  • 06

    VG: Is beauty/makeup (or the absence of it) important to you for gender euphoria or expression?

    SB: For me personally, I’ve been able to transcend most of this, but I know for people just coming into their own, it’s an important conversation.

  • 07

    VG: What is the biggest challenge facing the LGBTQIA+ community today?

    SB: Backlash, ignorance, fear, and cheap theatrics on the part of two-bit politicians playing to their base. It’s dangerous and, as always, the community has to band together to fight it. Nothing ever comes easy to unique communities that’s why we have an ongoing dialogue to stay engaged.