Lea DeLaria is exactly who you think she is: completely and utterly herself. There is not a bone of inauthenticity in her body—a rare quality for someone who pretends for a living. Lea loves the spotlight and is not afraid to admit it. Over her 34-year career, Lea has excelled in pretty much all performance pursuits under the sun. To call her a triple threat would be an understatement. She’s a singing, acting, stand-up full of soul and jazz. She’s an activist who paved the way for lesbian comedians to succeed in America. Lea is everything good about entertainment. Lea’s a comedienne. She’s most commonly known for her role as Carrie “Big Boo’ Black on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, which returns June 17th. But like I said, she’s done—and is doing—so much more. Last summer, Lea released a jazz cover album of David Bowie’s hits: House of David. She does him such justice. Days after his death, this album makes you feel an even deeper appreciation for the revolutionary that Bowie was. Lea’s stage acclaim and infectious personality have also landed her the hosting gig of this year’s Obie Awards. She has humor. She has heart. She’s a woman who deserves her fame.
MC: When did you realize you wanted to be a comedian?
LD: I think I probably figured it out in grade school. I was the class clown, I was funny…I think I really honed my comedy chops because I went to Catholic school—we had the Sisters of Notre Dame, who were really old-school nuns. The difference between them and any other order of nuns is that the Sisters of Notre Dame were completely into corporal punishment. They were ready to beat you in a second. [Lea laughs] So I learned pretty quickly that if I could make them laugh, I’d be saved from being belted by the ruler. I think it was probably around then.
I mean when I really thought I could pursue it as a career was when I was about 18 or 19 years old.
Was there anyone or anything that inspired you to pursue a career in comedy?
I would say Lily Tomlin first. But it’s kind of hard with me because I do a lot of things. In terms of straight stand-up comedy, probably Lily Tomlin, definitely Lenny Bruce, George Carlin—those people. But I was really more influenced by the “comediennes,” you know what I mean? The people who could do a lot of different things: Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball, Gilda Radner—huge influences on me. I think more than stand-ups I was always influenced by well-rounded, entertainer comediennes. That’s what I always wanted to do.
You really are a multifaceted performer. What is it about the act of performing that you love?
Oh I love it when complete strangers analyze me. I mean idolize me! Sorry! [Lea laughs] I love to be idolized by complete strangers, what can I say? I think I have to give it up to my crazy parents for that. [Lea laughs] I need the affection of total strangers to make it through life.
Well we all have to get through it some how! What was your experience like trying to get work when you were first starting out as such a well-rounded talent?
Yeah I’m pretty sure my path was different from anybody else’s! [Lea laughs] Sorry for laughing.
No don’t be!
When I first started performing, it was in San Francisco. The first thing I ever did was I was writing plays and I produced a small lesbian theater troupe in San Francisco called Thespian Terrorists. There was a button at the time that was very, very popular called Lesbian Terrorists. So I took that and turned that into Thespian Terrorists. It was a big joke in the early part of the 80s in San Francisco. The plays I wrote were funny and the direction I went with them was funny. I was very young. You’ve got to remember I’m wicked young at this point—I’m not even 25, I’m like 22-years-old.
They started doing this gay open mic comedy night at this local club in San Francisco. And I thought, oh stand-up comedy I always wanted to try that. Let me do that. So I went and I did it. I found that I was a complete natural. I talked to other comics about this. The first time I went out onstage, I was literally onstage for 15 minutes. The audience wouldn’t let me off the stage. I was supposed to do 5 minutes and get off, but they were screaming with laughter, there was all this applause. It was like craziness. I tell this to other comics and they’re like, “THAT’S NOT TRUE!” I promise you, it’s true!
That was April, right? Of 1982. And by September of that year I quit my day job and started supporting myself solely as a stand-up comic—but an openly gay one. I was playing all the gay clubs in San Francisco and the small cabarets. From there I sort of exponentially expanded. I started doing the whole country. Performing in dyke bars, in small theaters—like that—all as an openly gay stand-up. There was an underground entertainment world, at the time, that pretty much no longer exists. But there was a path that you could go on that wasn’t a mainstream path. That was the path that I was on. That led me to Provincetown in like 1984. There was no lesbian act in Provincetown at the time. It was like all the drag queens you never heard of and Sharon McNight —that was it. I saw that there were a lot of lesbians in town and started performing there. I was the first dyke act in Provincetown.
By the later part of the 80s, beginning of the 90s Provincetown was like the top place every gay person went. So pretty much everyone started to get to know who I was. I started working in Canada and other places. Basically what happened was, an article came out in the Los Angeles Times because I was touring a show at the time called Musk Diva [Lea laughs]…It ended up being on the cover of the entertainment section of the LA Times and was a huge story…It lit this crazy explosion…The next thing I know I was getting all of these calls from talk shows; Arsenio Hall was the number one show at the time. Arsenio Hall was the first one to call me, so Arsenio Hall was the first show that I went on. I was the first openly gay comic on television in America. And that led to everything else.
From there I got to act on television, I got to do plays. Once people found out I could sing I starred in several Broadway musicals, I got signed to the Warner [Bros. Records] jazz label and put out a couple records. Everything leads me right to Orange is the New Black. But I’ve been out there for 33 years. Almost 34 now.
As you said it all has led to Orange is the New Black. We got Boo’s back-story last season. Did you know what it was before the episode or did you learn about that part of her life along with everyone else?
I learned about it when I was given the script. I don’t think our show is different from anyone else’s. Only if you’re going to have to have a full frontal sex scene or something like that do they generally tend to tell you what’s going on, you know what I mean? I knew who Boo was, I knew why she was in prison, I knew a lot of things about her. I knew that she was butch, obviously. I mean I’ve got it tattooed on my arm. As butches we have sort of a shared life experience. So in some respects I knew what it should have been. When the script was given to me it was all of that and it was very exciting for me.
When I read it I called Lauren [Morelli, the episode’s writer] immediately and I have to admit we were both pretty teary-eyed about it. If you’re me, think about it. Who expects that’s going to happen? Who expects that as a butch dyke, who’s going to see a positive portrayal coming of a butch lesbian anywhere in the world’s media? It just doesn’t happen. So to see it and to have those experiences that all of us—hundreds of thousands of millions of us butches out there—we all went through it our whole lives. So to see it portrayed with empathy on one of the number one television shows in the world: amazing. Just amazing.
What does a typical OITNB day look like if you’re shooting?
It’s always different, darling. It depends on the episode. I remember once while shooting what might have been season three, Natasha Lyonne and I were the first ones called to the set. [Lea laughs] Our call was 3:30 in the morning!
[Lea laughs] By the way, I am the luckiest human being on the planet because Natasha Lyonne texts me. If anybody else could read her texts—I mean you just pee yourself with laughter. Honestly, the funniest human being on the planet…We finally get our call, it’s like 6:00 at night, and all of a sudden I get this text, “Are they punking us with this call?” [Lea laughs] Tash and I were done pretty much before the sun came up, let’s put it that way! Sometimes it’s like that.
Sometimes, like on my favorite days, [we have] a cafeteria scene. I love to point this out: if you look at the first season there are many cafeteria scenes…[Lea laugh] Starting the second season that doesn’t happen so much! When it’s a cafeteria scene the entire cast is called and like 100 extras. [Lea laughs] It’s a really long day! So it’s like they learned early on, stop writing the cafeteria scenes! But when it’s a cafeteria scene it’s so great. We all have early calls, we’re there all day, we’re hanging out together. There’s usually a bunch of us camped out together in a hallway screaming with laughter and dancing and partying. You get lots of social media pictures of us when that’s going on…It’s just a great set, so it’s always fun.
But it’s like any other set. You get called to the set, you go into hair, you go into make-up, you shoot. It’s very professionally run. The only difference is we’re all laughing and having such a great time on this set—I think more than any other set I’ve ever been on. And I’ve been on a lot of sets.
You put out your David Bowie jazz cover album last summer, House of David. His death is so sad and such a huge loss. What was it about his work and songs you connected with so much?
It’s so weird because I literally tear up when I talk about him and he was a complete stranger to me. He meant so much to me as a performer. The last time that happened to me was when Ella Fitzgerald died. It was the same thing. She meant so much to me as a performer. I was driving in my car and they announced she passed away. I had to pull over to the side of the road because I started crying. And when I talk about David I get weepy. He was a complete stranger. But his body of work touched me so much as an artist. The idea that he just put out Blackstar Friday [January, 8]—I mean, just a few days before [his death]— there was so much more music to come. He was so young. He was only 69 years old.
My fiancé, Chelsea Fairless, said, “As if we need another reason to hate cancer.” But, you know, here it is. I’m devastated by the loss I have to say. It really bums me out that he’s gone.
He touched me as a performer because—you’ve got to remember we’re talking about 1960, 1970, 1980—the world was a different place than it is now. And David Bowie was the first one out there challenging gender and sexual stereotypes, also ahead of the curve always, an arbiter of style. He always made interesting career choices [with] all of the different movies—the classics like The Hunger, Labyrinth, The Man Who Fell to Earth…It was all just amazing stuff, right?
And then his music…He was the first one to say, “It’s okay to be weird. In fact, it’s cool.” And there was nobody else out there saying that back then. So if you were that weird little kid—that gender weird curious little kid, or the sexually didn’t know what was going on little kid—David Bowie was the first guy that you saw who said, “Hey, that’s alright. Do whatever you want. Fuck ‘em. Bring it.” He really means a lot to me in that respect.
You did such justice to his work on your album. It’s absolutely great.
Thank you, thank you.
Lea’s cover David Bowie’s “Modern Love” on her album House of David
What’s your advice for aspiring actors, comediennes, general performers who what to crush it like you have?
Okay, well first of all, learn how to bartend or wait tables. [Lea laughs] That’s the first thing. And the second thing, on a very serious note, the most important thing in this industry, the most important thing, is stick-to-itiveness. If you give up, you’ll never make it. You have to believe in yourself, you have to love yourself, and don’t give up. That’s my advice.
What’s something you learned early on in your career that you still live by today?
Something that I learned very early on in my career that I still apply today? God. I’m gonna go with cunnilingus. [Lea laughs] It’s the most important skill in my career. I’m saying cunnilingus. ♦