Power house Lea DeLaria, the first openly gay comedian to be on a late night comedy show, jazz singer, writer and actress is extremely well known for her role as Carrie (Big Boo) in Orange is The New Black - which was the show that made us all take our Netflix subscriptions past the free trial stage. Essentially, she’s partly responsible for a television revolution, and for my increased overdraft limit. Anyway, alongside my permanent occupation of laughing all the way to the bank, I’ve been intruiged by Lea ever since I heard a recording of her musical comedy show Bulldyke in a China Shop, from 1994, and I wanted to talk to her about her early career, the politics of today’s queer scene, and find out what she is working on at the moment.
‘Ma’am you have a first amendment right to your opinion, and to express it - which also gives me the right to wear this hat every day, and in any fucking place I want!’
EP: When and where did you do your first comedy gig, and what was the reception like?
LD : Ok, so it was 1982 on 4 20, you know what 4 20 is right?
EP: Yes I do -
LD: It was in a place called the Valencia Rose in San Fransisco, which was a centre for the queer radical arts scene, and it became more radical as aids devestated our community. They were doing a thing there called Gay Open Mic comedy. It was on Monday nights. I’d never tried standup before, at the time I was writing plays and directing them within a group called the Thespian terrorists, and they said, oh we’re doing this thing! Gay Open Mic comedy. It was like, hardly anyone doing stand up, there was a mime on the bill! A mime! People playing the acoustic guitar and I was saying - did someone say this was a comedy gig? So I got up, in San Francisco, on 4 20, and I killed. I fucking killed it, I was on for almost 20 minutes. So I came back again the next week, then I became a co-host with Tom Ammiano, who is now a councilman, then we did weekly nights, then I started touring out, and I was able to quit my day job as a construction worker, and I never had a day job again.
EP: Ok - given that the pride flags are plastered all over the bank at the moment, do you have a powerful memory from Pride, at a point when you perceived it to be a real protest, that you could share?
LD: The first pride I went to was in St Louis Missouri where I grew up, in 1978, there were maybe 100 people walking on the sidewalk in the gay district - it was also the first ever Pride in St Louis Missouri in the central West End, and me being who I am, was like, why are we on the FUCKING SIDEWALK? I’ve always been that asshole. So, we walked into the middle of the street, we stopped traffic, we chanted
‘ever since Donald Trump has been here [USA], it [Pride] has been a protest again.’
‘Take The Streets!’ and the police let us, which was - interesting. They didn’t arrest us or throw us in jail, even though at that time it was illegal to be gay in that state. It was a different time. Trust me when I tell you that the person I went with, wore a mask! She wanted to stand up for what was right, but she also didn’t want to lose her job. I’ve been around a minute. If you think I wasn’t a person who saw the ugly face of aids, you are a person who doesn’t understand history. I saw it, and I lost more friends than I care to mention... every single Pride was a protest. It was the same in New York. It wasn’t until the mid 90’s that Pride, which before that I saw as a protest and a celebration, and I like that combination, really seemed to change and it started selling to the masses. I will say, ever since Donald Trump has been here, it has been a protest again. You know, they had straight pride in Boston! I couldn’t go and throw eggs at them because I was working. So I had a t-shirt made up that says Straight Pride, and on the back it says, Just Kidding!
EP: Hahaha - speaking of work, I know you’ve just opened a Club. Why did you start the Club in Ptown?
LD: Ok, so you’ve heard my beginnings of stand up comedy. By 1984, I was performing in Provincetown. I was the first lesbian act performing in Provincetown, which has always been a quote on quote ‘artist colony’, and you know when anybody says that, it’s a place for queer people. There were gay bars and dance clubs and a dyke bar, and I worked there every summer of my life until ‘93, which is when I did the Arsenio Hall show, and so, when I found myself with money - after Orange is The New Black - now, I say I’ve never had a day job, but I was for a long time, living hand to mouth -
EP: Yes, I know the hand to mouth life -
LD: Yes and with my history, ‘no I’m not going to wear lipstick’, ‘no I’m not going to get a boob job’, ‘no I’m not going to not talk about the fact that I’m a big old dyke’, I mean traditionally in show business those things do not go hand in hand with a lot of money! But all those things that were ‘negative’, Jenji Kohan saw as positive, and put me in Orange is the New Black, so I found myself with money and I thought: I love this town, I want to put money into this town. The beautiful building I bought was a dyke bar that basically had been run into the ground, which is a very long story.
EP: So, does The Club have a lesbian focus? A jazz focus? An everything focus?
LD: Everything! Of course, I’m performing, so there is a lesbian focus. But I believe that lesbians deserve greatness, and if the people of Provincetown and lesbians don’t deserve to have top quality entertainment, well, that’s not fucking right! If Ian Henderickson-Smith, who is in the Roots, wants to work at my club, with his background, and his pedigree, and he wants to support lesbians, then I want to let him do that. I’m very excited about it!
‘I believe that lesbians deserve greatness’
EP: I know you are filming Reprisal right now,
which must be very exciting, let’s talk about that.
LD: I am so in love with this show, I feel very strongly about this particular piece. The show is very compelling, it is hyper noir, and that is the best way I can describe it.
EP: Can you tell me about the role? Or is it all a secret still?
LD: I can tell you. Her name is Queenie, let me just say there’s a place in the world the show is set called The Bangarang, and for the sake of this, we will call it a burlesque. So, Queenie runs the burlesque, and when she’s onstage, think Divine, leopard skin onesies with feathers (which I had to wear for three days in a row and the feathers dyed my underarms black), mermaid tails, over the top drag queen stuff, you know, with sexy women that do burlesque around her. There is some singing involved too, and when she is offstage she is a bad ass butch dyke in a gang!
‘think Divine, leopard skin onesies with feathers’
EP: I listened to your interview with Krishnan Guru-Murthy on Ways to Change the World and you said if people, and by people I mean straight people, aren’t going to cast lesbians to play lesbians, then they should at least have a lesbian consultant on set. Which show would you most like to be the lesbian consultant for and why?
‘Stop erasing me from my own fucking narrative!’
LD: Hahaha... The L Word. No, I’m kidding. Any show! I say to anyone casting straight people as lesbians - stop trying to talk about my life like you know anything about it! Stop erasing me from my own fucking narrative!
EP: Yes, agreed.
LD: Maybe … Can You Ever Forgive Me? Melissa McCarthy was in that playing a lesbian. There were so many movies out last year with lesbian characters, lesbian content, and not a single fucking one of them was played by a lesbian!
EP: You have affected positive social change during your career, through what you do, and through representation, so I’m interested in your take on this - do you have any thoughts on why quite a worrying number of ‘feminists’ are becoming openly transphobic, and what can we do to challenge this?
LD: I have no fucking idea! I mean, it’s bullshit! We should all just be who we are, I support the trans community like nobody's business, and I do NOT understand why an increasing number of ‘feminists’ are feeling this way. I have heard people say things that are just not right. I had a woman say to me; ‘every time I see a trans man I feel a woman has been murdered.’ I looked at her and I said - ‘I could not disagree with you more. I am going to walk away from you.’ It was a complete stranger in a dyke bar, like she thought I would agree with her! You know, I’ve spent my whole life fighting to be my authentic self, and if I am not gender non-conforming then I don’t know who is! I say to these people - why can’t you let other people be their authentic selves? Let them be themselves! But - I’m going to bring us to this point -
the biggest problem we have in our community today - the most urgent - is the issue of infighting. We have to stop - and this is part of it. These bizarre fucking pecking orders. We all have a shared oppression, and if we unite in our voices against the oppressor, we will WIN.
EP: It is a trap, it is a trap of the right wing, and it works every time.
LD: Absolutely! I am so glad you said that, it is a tool of the patriarchy, of the rich white guys, of capitalism, and they have been using it to divide oppressed people forever, since the beginning of time.
EP: I’ve noticed you are very good at catchphrases - for example… Lord of the Lesbians, Fuck Trump Friday, can you think of a good one for Boris Johnson?
LD: How about hashtag, DICKHEAD. What a pompous ASS. I hated Boris Johnson when he was the mayor of London and I lived there, and I hate him now. How did you guys let this HAPPEN? How did people let Trump happen? I mean - I know what happened with Trump. But Brexit? Do I need to move back to London and start kicking some heads?
‘I hated Boris Johnson when he was the mayor of London and I lived there, and I hate him now. … Do I need to move back to London and start kicking some heads?’
EP: Maybe you do. I think the mechanics are very similar to what happened with Trump - I think the right wing have effectively utilised a hatred of the neoliberal elite to push their agenda.
LD: All over America, people are just openly racist now. They used to have at least the common courtesy to keep it to themselves, but now they just say whatever they fucking want. I have a baseball hat that was given to me, I’ll send you a picture of it. The reason I bring this up is because I wore it in the airport and some woman came up to me and called me disgusting for disrespecting the president, and said how dare I as an American citizen….
EP: Did you do anything? Or were you just like, not today Satan…
LD: Did I fucking do something? I said ‘Ma’am you have a first amendment right to your opinion, and to express it - which also gives me the right to wear this hat every day, and in any fucking place I want!’ And I walked away.
EP: Excellent. So glad we can include a picture of the hat! Now, to wrap up with a fun question. You don’t have to answer this, but, do you think Dolly Parton is gay?
LD: Yes! I’m answering it - yes.
EP: Yes! So do I!
LD: Yes I think Dolly Parton is gay! If Dolly comes back at me for that, I’m blaming you!
EP: I don’t think Dolly will read it, it’s alright. Maybe she will, maybe she secretly consumes every piece of lesbian content she can find. I hope so…