Reverend Billy, the “Fake Leader”

Especially when it comes to religion, the line between reality and performance can be very hard to draw. No one reveals this more than Reverend Billy, a New York-based performance artist who uses a televangelist act to preach against the evils of consumerism. In the city election next Tuesday, Billy—using his “real” name, William Talen—will be on the ballot for mayor under the Green Party ticket. This month I got the chance to spend some time with Billy, learn about what brought him to where he is, and explore the brackish between religion and political theater. The result is a video at Killing the Buddha (produced with Matthew Fishbane) and an article at Religion Dispatches, “Reverend Billy For Mayor: Is He For Real?

During the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attack, Reverend Billy began to cross the line from performer to actual pastor. This happened not in an official sense—”I think it would be a mistake for Reverend Billy to be ordained in organized religion,” says Talen—but through an organic process. While many turned to traditional religion in that period, those who felt outside of it gravitated to Billy. “People whose New York journey to spirituality had been irony, or the arts, or sex, or something, something after religion,” says Talen, “they gathered with us after 9/11.” Reverend Billy’s church set up shop in the city’s theaters, many of which had closed their doors in the wake of the disaster.

“There were a lot of people who were not religious, who didn’t have a community per se, and didn’t know how to heal,” remembers Savitri Durkee [Billy’s wife and producer]. Many of the people who came were Gen-Xers who instinctively questioned authority. “Billy was perfect in that moment because he’s a fake leader,” Durkee says. “Because he’s not a real leader, we can go for it. We can trust the situation somehow.”