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Big Butch: An Interview With Lea DeLaria

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By Lawrence Ferber

Lea DeLaria has certainly sung for her supper—literally. Since the ’90s, the self-identified Illinois-born butch has established herself as a stand-up comedienne, actress, and jazz singer. June 2015 saw her reprise fan-favorite character Big Boo on the third season of Netflix’s hit dramedy series Orange Is the New Black, while July’s House of David (Ghostlight Records), her fifth jazz vocal album, entails a dozen David Bowie covers, including “Space Oddity,” “Starman,” “Fame,” and “Modern Love” (the cover photo is a recreation of Bowie’s Changes One).

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Lea DeLaria. Photo: Sophy Holland

In January, DeLaria and the entire Orange cast went home with Screen Actors Guild awards for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy, while her acting credits also include feature films, animated series (The Oblongs), and Broadway (On the Town). Yet one of DeLaria’s biggest upcoming projects, of a sort, will be her marriage to her fiancée, Chelsea Fairless, a fashion editor. Sandra Bernhard will officiate the New York-set wedding, although DeLaria is keeping mum about the specific date for now.

While taking a break from shooting OITNB season four, DeLaria talked by phone about her album, new transgender icons Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, and losing her bachelor status.

Lawrence Ferber: First things first—you received some press recently for being diagnosed as a type-2 diabetic and losing 50 pounds. How’s that going?

Lea DeLaria: Great. I’m a gold-star pupil. My A1Cs were done last week, and I have a 5.8. The medication I’m taking is working incredibly well. But nobody told me I needed to lose weight. It just happened because I don’t eat starch and sugar, and combined with medication, it did that. Weight isn’t the issue with diabetes like some think it is. It has more to do with heredity than anything else. I feel very strongly that I need to talk about that because, unfortunately, we live in a society that thinks women have to be a certain size, and I want you to know I f–ked just as many fat chicks as I have skinny ones, and I got just as much pussy when I was 50 pounds heavier as I get right now!

You’re shooting season four of OITNB. Can you share a tease of what to expect?

This is what I can tell you: I’m in it and it comes out sometime next year. I can’t tell you anything! What the f–k! Jesus!

I understand that when you first auditioned, it was for another character and they never called you back for it.

I auditioned for Anita, the role Lin Tucci got. The casting director goes, “Oh my God, we love you, Lea, you’re exactly what we’re looking for.” Then when I got to my manager’s office, he was on the phone with the casting director, and they said basically none of the parts were right for me, but they would find something. I’ve been told that so many f–king times in my career! I’m still waiting for that part they were going to create for me on Law & Order, and it’s been off the air since 2009!

So I went ballistic and had a hissy-fit. They’re making a show that takes place in a women’s prison and there isn’t a part for me? F–k show business, f–k Broadway, f–k all of it. I flew over to London, where I have a stand-up and singing career, and got off the plane and there were a thousand calls from my manager—like, “This time it came through, and they did create a part for you, and now you have to come back.” [Orange creator] Jenji Kohan took a part that was really tiny for a couple of episodes and expanded it and gave it to me. This was that magical showbiz thing that only happens now and then.

You had your first sex scene in season three. Is “Orange the Warmest Color,” as it were?

Instead of Blue? Blue isn’t the warmest color. You don’t even want me to go off on that movie. What a piece of shit. When are we gonna stop letting men have anything to do with lesbian movies, with all due respect? There are plenty of lesbian writers, actors, and directors out there. So is Orange the warmest color? F–k yeah. Because Orange has actual lesbians involved in their lesbian stories.

What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned about life in prison for women while making the show?

I’ve learned that it’s really bad for transgender women in prison. I guess I always assumed that, but now I know it for a fact. I have also learned that butches are treated especially badly in American prisons. There is literally a prison where they separate the butch dykes from the rest of the population. I intend to do something about that. Once I get the facts and specifics, I’m going to start talking more heavily about this prison.

A New ’do: DeLaria with Laverne Cox in Orange Is the New Black. Photo: JoJo Whilden/Netflix.
A New ’do: DeLaria with Laverne Cox in Orange Is the New Black. Photo: JoJo Whilden/Netflix.

Laverne Cox is one of the show’s breakout stars. Any memorable experiences working with her?

Especially when they take us on press junkets, Laverne and I adore each other. We will end up at the bar together, and we tend to have better stamina than the rest. We will sit around and talk. On our first red carpet, I kind of photo-bombed her when she was being interviewed, and you can see the clip on YouTube. She says something rude to me, and I say, “Don’t make me tell the subway story,” and she breaks out laughing. Laverne’s a doll—I love her. What else can I say?

Did you watch Caitlyn Jenner’s speech when she won the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs?

I absolutely cried. I burst into tears. How emotionally draining it must have been to be the picture of masculinity in America, when in actuality it all felt false to you. In the 17 years [that I blocked] out who I was as a lesbian, it sucked my soul. So imagine what Caitlyn had to go through for all these years.

I think Jenner should take advantage of her newfound pedestal to remind people she was in Can’t Stop the Music and get a new audience for that film. She’s squandering the opportunity!

[Laughs] Yeah. I think because she hasn’t been a member of our community, actively involved like Laverne has been her entire career and life, it’s gonna take time for her to get to that sarcastic, funny, queer community way of dealing with things—although I have to say she started out with that fabulous joke about the nerve-wracking experience of trying to pick out a gown. Brilliant.

Channeling David Bowie?: DeLaria’s album cover (above) and Bowie’s album cover (below).
Channeling David Bowie?: DeLaria’s album cover (above) and Bowie’s album cover (r).

Now let’s focus on the album. Was it difficult to whittle down the song selections for House of David?

Oh, so f–king hard! There are so many Bowie songs that are awesome. The guy’s oeuvre spans over four decades. We thought we had it all figured out, and the producer came at me with a couple more! Jesus. That was the hardest part, only doing 12 songs. I might have to do 4 LeaDavidBowieChanges Two!

So where does one go after Bowie? A Madonna-covers album?

No. I’ve already done pop covers. My second album, Double Standards, was alternative and college rock tunes that I swung. My versions of Blondie’s “Call Me” and Neil Young’s “Philadelphia” were really huge hits on jazz radio, and are still played all the time. Now maybe I would do Mingus or Monk. Something really wholly and totally jazz.

You’re getting married. Let’s imagine you could have anyone you want attend your wedding—not just people you have a direct connection with. Who would you like there?

Are you asking who I would like to have come to my wedding in fantasyland? Meryl Streep. Eleanor Roosevelt. I want Ella Fitzgerald to sing. Anita Bryant, so I can pelt her to death with oranges.

You’ve been reluctant to talk about the specifics of your real-life wedding so far, and won’t divulge the date.

The reality is I have a lot of friends—[many] who are in the industry and well known. So that’s why I am being terrible about the wedding and how we approach it. And let me say this—it’s really difficult for me to talk about, because I’ve been such a bachelor for so long—I’m used to getting that pussy wherever I go! You know, I love Dan Savage—the man’s a genius—and he says he has been invited to many poly weddings but never a three-year poly wedding anniversary. [Laughs] We are queer people and do have a different way of running our lives, so I don’t think there’s anything wrong with an open marriage or what happens with two individuals and how they view their marriage. So I guess what I’m saying is, don’t be surprised if I have an open marriage!

The other day, when preparing for this interview, I re-watched a clip of you performing stand-up at the 1993 March on Washington, which is on YouTube. Now here you are, the star of an internationally known award-winning series. Do you have any moments where you say, “Look at where I am now”?

I’m having one right now! I’m looking at a f–king SAG award! It’s sitting on my mantle next to my TV! It’s a SAG award! Are you kidding? That’s what the last two years have been to me. I went to some NYC deli recently, and these tourists walk over—a father and two teen daughters from Colombia. They want a picture taken with me! Here’s this man pushing his two teenage daughters next to me to get a picture! At that moment I asked myself, “Is this actually f–king happening?” The next thing, I get a grandmother pushing her granddaughters next to me to get a picture taken. Five years ago, if I had gone anywhere near those girls, grandma would have slapped me! “Get away from my granddaughters, you big butch dyke”—because I’m going to recruit or take advantage of them. Did I think any of this would happen in my lifetime? F–k no! I thought the next generation would get to see what we worked so hard for, like the Supreme Court decision, yet here it is now. In my lifetime. And take away all the queer stuff, and make me a 57-year-old woman, and this isn’t supposed to happen to you, either! To suddenly become a TV star at 57! A monster butch dyke! So all I do is go, “What the f–k!”

Freelance contributor Lawrence Ferber is co-writer of the award-winning 2010 gay rom-com Bear City and author of its 2013 novelization.

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Lawrence Ferber

Lawrence Ferber is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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