There’s probably no performer as exciting — or, frankly, terrifying — as Bridget Everett, a woman who could be described with a number of the familiar adjectives we toss at performers who display a certain fierce unpredictability once they hit the stage. On the night I saw her for the first time, Everett and her band, The Tender Moments, were celebrating the release of her first album, Pound It, at their regular monthly Joe’s Pub appearance. In the span of an hour and a half, Everett spit Chardonnay at a couple of gay men sitting at the tables in front of the stage, dripped milk on her chest (and, later, hot wax from a candle she grabbed off a table in the back of the room), and found at least three audience members to bring up on stage to fondle and caress as they blushed and laughed uncomfortably. What else could they have done? When Bridget Everett identifies you as one of her prey, you accept it. That’s why when she threw a decapitated doll’s head (that would be her daughter, “Precious”) with a maraca shoved inside it at me from the stage and instructed me to stand up and dance in the aisle, I complied. I was afraid not to.
The onstage Bridget Everett is drastically different from the one I met a week before for an afternoon glass of rosé at a quiet lunch spot in Soho. She was instantly recognizable — she’s quite a commanding presence, even in daylight — despite not wearing one of her signature stage outfits: flowy, revealing numbers crafted by House of Larréon (Everett’s friend, costumer and performer Larry Crone). Instead, she was wearing a familiarly low-cut tank top and, somewhat surprisingly, a bra. One of the things you can’t help but notice about Everett is her ample bosom; in fact, that seems like a deceptively tame way to describe two of her major assets, which Everett gleefully puts to work as she roams through the crowd, casually climbing over audience members and shoving her breasts in their faces.
Out of the spotlight, Everett is much more timid and soft-spoken — the exact opposite of her onstage persona. And that’s sort of the point. “The wilder I become on stage, the quieter I become in real life,” she tells me. “I used to be this crazy party girl — getting on top of the bar and all that shit — but now I’m much more reserved in my private life. I just go on stage and become this terrifying, fucking amped-up party girl with the voice of an angel.”
That voice is what stands out beyond the dirty jokes and the dismembered dolls and the nip-slips: it’s as buttery and smooth as the Chardonnay Everett swills while she’s commanding an audience. It’s the voice that, like her on- and offstage personalities, seems to be full of contradictions. Part rock and roll, part musical theatre, Everett channels a variety of vocal inspirations, most obviously Janis Joplin and Bette Midler. And the raw, fearless sexuality she unabashedly displays is directly descended from those two singers, as well.
But before she was pushing the limits of cabaret performance, Everett had a pretty standard life as a singing actress. Raised in Manhattan, Kansas, Everett got her voice and love of singing from her mother. “We grew up around the piano,” she reminisces. “My mom made a house full of music.” That’s also where she discovered a love for performing, but she didn’t want to follow in her mother’s footsteps necessarily. “She always wanted to be on Broadway, but instead she had six kids and lives in Kansas. I didn’t want that to happen to me.” Instead, Everett headed to Arizona State University and got a degree in vocal performance. After a few years of living in Phoenix, “singing the National Anthem at spring training grounds and going ape-shit at karaoke bars,” Everett packed up and came to New York. She landed a gig in a children’s theatre tour and earned her equity card, but soon realized that this wasn’t the type of performance she found fulfilling.
Living in New York, of course, brings more opportunities for creative pursuits, and it also provides the chance to see other performers express their own creativity. Everett found inspiration in Kiki and Herb, the cabaret drag duo made up of Justin Bond and Kenny Mellman, as well as Murray Hill and Neil Medlyn. Medlyn, with whom Everett and Mellman would go on to create the monthly variety show Our Hit Parade, provided the spark that allowed her to become the unstoppably wild performer her followers recognize. “He once came out on stage wearing just a sweater, singing this sweet little song,” she explains. “A little bit after that, I was doing a show at Ars Nova. My pants fell off, and I just stepped out of them and kept going. I thought, ‘Oh, this is so great!’ I’ve gotten wilder over the years, but it’s just because accidents have happened and I realized how far I could go. New York audiences let you do that, and they want you to do that.”
Finding her niche in the downtown cabaret scene, particularly among the regular roster of performers at Joe’s Pub, gave Everett the chance to evolve and become comfortable connecting with an audience. She was frustrated with the limitations of acting, and particularly with going to auditions and not getting cast in roles. Performing on her own gave her an outlet to harness her creativity. “I never really had weird body issues — I probably should, but I don’t,” she admits. “You know, I’m the big girl. I had to figure something out, so I sort of kept screaming until someone heard me. Not to be corny, but music and singing is the way I communicate. It’s given me a better understanding of myself.”
Within that same scene, Everett began collaborating with her talented friends. Following the death of her sister and in the midst of a depressive period in her life, Murray Hill invited Everett to play softball in McCarren Park with Medlyn and his other friends. The group of ball players, dubbed Team Pressure, included Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz and his wife, Kathleen Hanna, who were already big fans of Everett’s work. Eventually, Team Pressure and the Our Hit Parade family began to overlap: Kenny Mellman joined Hanna’s band, The Julie Ruin; Horovitz collaborated with Medlyn on his rap album, recorded under the moniker Champagne Jerry; and Julie Ruin drummer Carmine Covelli joined Horovitz in Everett’s band, The Tender Moments. These collaborations seemed to happen as a natural progression, and Horovitz’s legendary status was never daunting. “I don’t think of Adam as a Beastie Boy,” Everett says. “I mean, it crosses my mind every once and again. But mostly he’s just a great friend who’s really supportive and excited to do stuff.”
It was Horovitz who encouraged Pound It, Everett’s first album. “I called him up because I was applying for a grant and wanted to record an album of covers,” she explains. “They have a studio, and I wanted to know what the studio process was like. I had no idea where to start.” Instead of just answering her inquiries, Horovitz offered to produce the album himself — and suggested the songs be original compositions. Everett began writing songs with The Tender Moments, first performing them at their regular gig at Joe’s Pub.
Twelve of those songs ended up on Pound It, released last month, which represents a mixture of hard-hitting rock and roll and Everett’s absurdly sexual comedic sense. “There’s some rock, there’s a doo-wop song, a ‘70s power ballad, a tip of the hat to Bette Midler,” Everett says. “I pushed myself and written about a lot of things. There’s a song called ‘Titties,’ one called ‘Fuck Shit Up.’ But there’s also a song about my sister who died of cancer. It’s a special thing and I’m glad I have it. It’s a documentation of this part of my life, which is probably the best days of my life, honestly.”
In addition to Pound It, there’s Rock Bottom, a new show commissioned by Joe’s Pub New York Voices series. It allowed Everett to continue writing with Horovitz, but also with Tony-winning songwriting team Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. (The three-night run will see a special encore performance as part of Joe’s Pub’s 15th Anniversary this Saturday.) Rock Bottom brings together a new collection of songs and stories and the grit and the brass that have become Everett’s trademarks. Her star has risen immensely in recent years, and you’re likely to see several familiar, famous faces in the audience for it — all of them equally shocked and astounded as the rest of the room as Everett moves through the crowded tables with wild abandon. (One recent fan is Broadway legend Patti Lupone, who asked Everett to sing with her at Carnegie Hall tomorrow night, an invitation that blows even her mind: “I’m doing cabaret in my panties and Patti Lupone is trying to sing with me? It doesn’t fucking register in my brain.”)
The most astounding aspect of Bridget Everett’s presence, though, is how grounded she is despite her successes. She still has a day job to pay the bills, and she admits, despite what you see under those lights, she still suffers from stage fright. “Right before I go up there, I’m like, ‘Why am I doing this to myself?’” But the high of performing and connecting with a crowd always wins her over. “I feel incredible,” she says. “I get this euphoria and it makes me so happy, and then I wake up the next day and get ready for the next show.” But what is most inspiring is the genuine excitement she’s experiencing these days, which is evident not just in the grin on her face when you see her live, but also in person; she’s sincerely happy about where she is. “I don’t wanna say how old I am,” she laughs, “but I’m just hitting my stride at this age. As corny as it sounds, I just feel so lucky to be doing what I love.”
All photos by Kevin Yatarola