By Emily Taylor
She has blazed everything from Broadway stages to smokey jazz clubs, and now your living room. Lea DeLaria, who plays Big Boo on Orange is the New Black, has become a household name. DeLaria was the first openly gay comic on television with her Arsenio Hall show in 1993. She was on for 9 and a half minutes, during which she said the words "dyke," "fag," or "queer" 47 times.
"I didn't just open that closet door," laughs DeLaria. "I blew it off with a blow torch. You know what I mean. I machine gunned down that door."
Later this month DeLaria will be performing at the Cabaret at the Columbia Club here in Indy, currently on a tour for her David Bowie tribute album — a jazz rendition of Bowie songs.
"When David Bowie showed up in about 1972 he was the person who kind of [said] to all of us little queer kids in the Midwest, it's okay to be who you are," says DeLaria. "It's okay to be weird in the eyes of society. In fact, it's pretty cool. That was sort of the last thing I needed to sort of be myself and do my thing."
She made time for a phone call with NUVO somewhere between winning a SAG Award and releasing House of David. We spoke about everything from politics to the subtleties of jazz tempos.
NUVO: You have been such a trailblazer through late night comedy. Tell me about the reactions you have gotten compared to now.
Lea DeLaria: Oh, please. When I first started doing standup compared to now somebody would call a comedy club and say why not book Lea DeLaria, and they would say "oh, we've already got a woman on the bill. We can't have two women." It was so hard to be a woman comic when, I first started ... When we got into the 90s even it was still okay to make fun of queer people in standup comedy, like really tell homophobic jokes. You couldn't have done it anywhere else, but you could still do it in the comedy club and not feel any burn about it. So yeah, have things changed? Immensely, immensely.
NUVO: At what age did you know you wanted to pursue all these different forms of performance art?
DeLaria: I wouldn't call it performance art, I would just say I am an entertainer like an old-school entertainer... Carol Burnett was probably one of my biggest influences as a younger performer. Then as I got older probably Gilda Radner. You know what I mean? These are people that did everything — they were standup, they did characters, they sang, they acted, they danced. These are people who influenced my career. Like when I just won the SAG Award last week, we were honoring Carol Burnett. That was awesome for me because Carol Burnett was the reason I went into show business... I was performing at the Hollywood Bowl with Allan Cumming and Ann Miller — and Carol Burnett was in the front row and she came back stage and said. "If I still had my television show you would be on it tomorrow." And I burst into tears because that was the reason I went into show business telling me that I was talented. That was immense. So my whole life, since I was a kid.
NUVO: What was it about David Bowie's music that really captured you?
DeLaria: Oh his music is fucking awesome. But when he did the glam rock thing that not a lot of us were doing. A lot of that stuff was not about his music, it was about his performance. It was about the way he commanded a stage. All of that was very exciting for me as a young queer performer. I mean that was a lesson to be learned in terms of showmanship. What makes him interesting musically is he is like Sondheim, in that he knows the rules of music but ignores them quite a bit and he works in a contemporary form ... I was doing "Let's Dance" with pickup musicians last week and one of the guys kept getting lost. I finally figured out what it was, I had to say to him, "that's a seven bar form, it's a seven bar phrase, it's not eight bars." Because music is usually written in an eight bar phrase. Sondheim did that. Contemporary musicians do that, people who are really, really in tune with what music is and the language of music and tend to not follow form, tend to follow their own creative energies. That would be David Bowie.
NUVO: Your father was a jazz musician and it obviously influenced you. How do you see that echoing in your performances now?
DeLaria: Well because my dad was a jazz musician, and a good one, he was very snotty about music. In other words, he didn't want me to be mediocre. If I was going to do something I had to be great at it. Again it's going to be a little bit of a heady answer, but he taught me to read music and he taught me alternative scales. You know what I mean? Instead of being your average singer — and by average I mean I look nice on stage and have a pleasant voice — I am more than that. I am a musician. I know what alternate scales are ... I am more like a saxophone player than I am a jazz singer. And that's because of his influence in my life.
NUVO: Any burn to get back on Broadway? Rocky Horror? On the Town?
DeLaria: Oh, absolutely. But that comes down to if anyone is going to let me be on Broadway. That's not ever up to me. I have always been very open about this job. If a producer wants me they'll tap me. At this point I've said no quite a lot because I am just not interested in doing what they want me to do. At some point we decided we're going to be simpatico and come together. It always makes me laugh when people ask me "why haven't you played Momma Rose?' Look no one is going give me that opportunity! I fully get this: It's show business, not show party or show play. If it was up to me I would have played Momma Rose 10 years ago. It's not up to me, it up to other people who might have a different agenda than you and I might have, if you know what I mean. And of course I am absolutely perfect to play that role ... It's like the bane of my existence right now. There is a fucking Broadway musical right now that's a huge hit, about a butch dyke and there isn't a part in it for me. It's unbelievable. (she laughs). It makes me laugh every second. It makes me laugh all the time. That's just my luck ... It was just my luck that when I became a Broadway star, Broadway stopped hiring Broadway stars, and only hired television and movie stars. Now I'm a television star, and Broadway's gone back to bringing back Broadway stars. And because I'm a television star, they forget sometimes that I was a Broadway star. This industry you have to look at it with a sardonic eye and accept where you are career-wise and live your life. I have been able to accomplish a lot of things, I am very happy. And every fucking thing I have done, I have done as an open butch dyke. No one has ever not known that I am who I am.
NUVO: How do you balance your activism with your entertainment?
DeLaria: I am who I am, to coin a phrase. It is what it is. I strike the balance by doing it. There is no balance. My career is that. It's not like I am doing one or the other. I am always doing both at the same time. It's not a balance it's more of a nice cocktail.
NUVO: Does fame put a lot of pressure on you to be an advocate for LGBT communities and actors?
DeLaria: Absolutely. But I don't think of myself in that way, I have been told I'm a role model and my answer to that is always "Honey, if I'm a role model for the queer community we are in a fucking lot of trouble." It's not that fame has made me an advocate, I have always been an advocate. I am an outspoken political person that is involved in queer rights, has always been involved in queer rights. It's a huge part of what I do. If I wasn't that person I would not be this open, butch, dyke, standup comic, who has been a professional lesbian since 1982. Changing the world was more important to me than my own career. The fact that I have been able to do both in such a public way and be thrust into the public eye in the way that I have been is fucking amazing ... You wouldn't have even had Orange is the New Black five years ago. I honestly believe our show is part of why the world has changed.
NUVO: We have spoken a lot about political positions. What is laying heavy on your mind right now?
DeLaria: What is incredibly heavy on my mind right now is Roe v. Wade and whether a woman's right to choose is going to be taken away from us. That is the major issue for me right now. I am doing a lot of stuff on that. The war on women that is being perpetrated by the Republican Party. That's what's weighing heavily on my mind.
[Editor's Note: She has been doing work with Lady Parts Justice by Lizz Winstead, an organization that uses humor to effect change.]
NUVO: If you could leave one thing in people's minds — whether it be from your singing, acting or comedy — what would you want it to be?
DeLaria: That I was the butch lesbian who finally seduced Meryl Streep. That's my mark for show business. God, I hope she reads that.
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