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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, April 29, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 17
SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: The sharp wit and smooth jazz of Lea DeLaria
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SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: The sharp wit and smooth jazz of Lea DeLaria

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN A&E Writer

Lea DeLaria
May 7
The Triple Door


Lea DeLaria is known as a controversial, big, loud dyke, and she makes no apologies. She appeared on the Arsenio Hall Show in 1993, becoming the first out Gay comic to appear on any late-night talk show. DeLaria has broken the rules and pushed boundaries ever since. Aside from comedy and acting, DeLaria is also an acclaimed jazz singer. Bringing her potent blend of smooth singing and comedic insight to Seattle for one night only, this living Lesbian legend sat down for an interview with the Seattle Gay News.

Eric Andrews-Katz: At what age did you come out, and how did your family react?

Lea DeLaria: To my family? I haven't done that yet. I forgot to tell my mom. [Laughs.] I came out very young, at least for my generation. I was in my early 20s and my family was pretty supportive. My parents treated it the 'Catholic way' - they ignored it and we didn't talk about it. Occasionally, they would invite some young single man over for a BBQ, and that was always hilarious. I'd say, 'Dad, remember the conversation we had when you threw the dinette set out the window? I'm still a dyke!' By the time I reached my 30s, they were pretty comfortable, and I started bringing my myriad of girlfriends to visit. Then they started with, 'When are you going to settle down with one?' When I hit TV (my reccurring role on Matlock) they accepted it. I was performing with Andy Griffith, and for their generation he is king. When I was working with him, he had a wife younger than me. When I'm his age, I want a wife 30 years younger! That man is my idol!

Andrews-Katz: Who influenced you to become a comedian?

DeLaria: No one. I was always kind of funny. My family was really funny and my parents were funny. & Doing stand-up was the last thing on my mind; I wanted to be an actor and singer. It's ironic that [comedy] led me to become an actor and singer. If you told me 30 years ago that I was going to be doing stand-up, I would've said you were insane.

Andrews-Katz: In 1993, you were the first openly Gay comic on late-night comedy. Have you ever had confrontations with other comedians?

DeLaria: I've had some. Suzanne Westenhoefer decided to call herself the first Lesbian comic because she did Sally Jesse Raphael, but that's not the kind of thing I did. I first appeared on the Arsenio Hall Show in '93. He was not only the top-rated show in America; he was seen all over the world!

Andrews-Katz: You made a comment in 1993 at the March on the Capitol [for Gay rights] about Hillary Clinton: 'Finally, we have a first lady that's fuckable'. What kind of backlash came from that?

DeLaria: First of all, you need to quote me right. I said: 'Finally, we have a first lady you could fuck.' And backlash? None, none at all. [Sarcastically.] Aside from being censured - which I was - by the United States government, I got backlash from conservative Christians, there was a feminist backlash & everyone had a problem with what I said, and all I could do is laugh at it. If a Gay male comic made a comment about Al Gore (who was hot at the time), no one would have said a word. I always felt it was sexism. A woman is not supposed to be sexual and I'm not supposed to make openly opinionated statements in public. My favorite thing that happened was kind of hilarious. In Provincetown shortly afterwards, I was walking down the street and some feminist came up to me. She told me I was sexist and how dare I objectify women, especially a woman like that [Hillary Clinton]. A crowd was gathering and I listened quietly until she was done. Then I nicely said, 'You'd look a lot prettier if you wore a little makeup and some lipstick.' I'm a social commentator, and after Reagan and Bush, it was nice to have a young, hip first lady. We hadn't had one since Kennedy!

Andrews-Katz: How did you come to play the role of Hildy in the 1998 revival of On the Town?

DeLaria: That's a great story; I'll be elaborating on it in Seattle. They had done Shakespeare in the Park and completed the full cycle, but they had a slot open for another show. George C. Wolfe wanted to celebrate New York so they chose On the Town - what better show? He wanted to have a new and interesting cast but couldn't find anyone for Hildy. Hildy is 'the part' in that show [for women], having the best songs and lines. He tried the diva types from Broadway and L.A. and didn't like their takes. He started auditioning men, Charles Busch, Billy Porter & but didn't like their takes. After asking, 'What makes Hildy funny?' the answer was that she acts like a man. He jokingly yelled, 'We need a Lesbian!' and then it dawned on him. At that time - before Ellen or Rosie came out - I was the go-to Lesbian, and so got the call.

Andrews-Katz: Two years later you were on Broadway's The Rocky Horror Show playing the dual roles of Eddie/Dr. Scott. Any specific challenges with playing a man on stage?

DeLaria: That was the issue. I'm not a man - much to the disbelief of many - so in effect, having to do two real male tenor voices was a challenge. Most people are familiar with the movie, but in the stage production, the roles of Eddie and Dr. Scott are double cast. I had to go through a lot to come up with two separate-sounding tenors. Dr. Scott has that Roy Orbison sound to his voice, and Eddie has that hardcore heavy metal wailing sound to him. Another big problem was the time it took for the makeup. You'd think it would be easier for me to look like a man than a woman, but it was rough. I had to get to the theater earlier than the rest to be in Eddie's makeup, and then later on I had to look like a man 20 years older.

Andrews-Katz: You've made many comments about Gay marriage. Are you for it, and do you think it's something that will happen within the next presidential term?

DeLaria: It will not happen in the next presidential term. I'd be happily surprised if it does, but I'm just looking at it logically. With the entire backlash against Obama, it makes me nervous about his re-election. ... I think we should be able to do anything that anyone else is able to do, so of course I'm for Gay marriage. My questioning comes from what is the motivation for needing this now, and where it is coming from in most people. How much of it is internalized homophobia due to constantly wondering if our relationships are as good as [those of our] heterosexual counterparts? I wonder if a lot of the stuff that comes from middle class mainstream America isn't fueled by inner homophobia. It bothers me that butch and drag queen [personas] are being pushed to the side with comments like, 'Why can't you fit in?' When was the last time you even saw someone Gay on the cover of OUT magazine? We've lost our culture. Some of it is our fault, some of it the Gay media, but it's about time we say, 'What the fuck? I am what I am.' It's been 30 years, and we're still singing that same song in the same situation. I'm tired of the middle class running the Gay/Lesbian/Transgendered [people] and saying, 'Don't rock the boat! Do you have to be so butch or so nellie? Can't you be more like straight people?' I say, 'Fuck the boat! Build a NEW boat!' Take our cues from the civil rights movements of the blacks and the Jews and make no apologies. Don't try to fit in with them; it's time they need to fit in with us!

Andrews-Katz: How does a 'big dyke' go from stand-up comedy to singing jazz?

DeLaria: I'm third-generation musician. My father was a jazz pianist, as was his mother before him. When I was 8, 9, 10 years old, my father would take me along on his gigs to St. Louis. He'd play for the audiences and then say, 'Now here's my daughter.' I'd come out and sing 'Summertime' and the audience loved it. Back when my show was getting loud and vulgar - it's still loud and vulgar, just not as loud and vulgar - I started incorporating music by singing jazz, or scatting along. Now I'd say it's more 50/50 with music and comedy. Depending on where I am and what I'm doing, the music or the comedy becomes more the filler.

Andrews-Katz: Musically, who influences you?

DeLaria: I'd have to say the be-boppers. The music of John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, or the voices of Anita O'Day, Ella Fitzgerald, and Mel Tormé. I love Mel Tormé; I'm just not a Sinatra kind of person.

Andrews-Katz: What does the future hold for you?

DeLaria: Seattle is one of the three cities to see my new production. I'm putting together an act called Last Butch Standing, and it kind of chronicles me. I'm a butch in a post-modern, Ellen world, where every Lesbian is expected to wear lipstick. I'm hoping to take it Off-Broadway.

Lea DeLaria has been performing for over 30 years. She has made her mark on the comic scene, on film (Edge of Seventeen, The First Wives Club), on Broadway (The Rocky Horror Show), on television (Friends, Will & Grace), and even a recurring role on the soap opera One Life to Live. With the 2008 release of her CD The Live Smoke Sessions, DeLaria can be heard on four jazz CDs, a Broadway cast album, two comedy CDs, and several DVDs.

To contact Eric Andrews-Katz, email eric@sgn.org.

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