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Passing the ‘Jesus Smell Test’

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Actress/singer Kristin Chenoweth gets a little bit wicked.

By Blase DiStefano • Photo by Kate Turning/ABC

MayCoverMulti-talented Kristin Chenoweth is a Renaissance woman. As a singer, she has recorded three solo albums and collaborated on a host of others. As an actress, she has appeared many times on stage, screen, and television. Chenoweth originated the role of Galinda the Good Witch in the musical Wicked and won a Tony Award in 1999 for You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Her many television appearances include feature roles in The West Wing and the recently cancelled Pushing Daisies, for which she received an Emmy nomination. Her 11 film credits include a role as the sister of Reese Witherspoon’s character in Four Christmases. Her best friend is gay, and her manager is lesbian.

Born in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, in 1968, she grew up in a Southern Baptist family, and her Christian faith remains important in her life. In 2005, her invitation to a national Christian gathering was withdrawn after she publicly declared that God accepts all people, including homosexuals.

The day that I telephone, she is lying down in bed in her hotel room. She has Meniere’s disease, which brings on bouts of vertigo and ringing in the ears, as well as other unpleasant symptoms. Though it affects her mood, she is still her sweet, perky self…with less energy—but ready to discuss her just-published memoir, A Little Bit Wicked: Life, Love, and Faith in Stages. After exchanging niceties, she asks where I’m calling from.

Blase DiStefano: I’m calling from Houston.
Kristin Chenoweth: You’re kidding me! That’s where my parents live…in The Woodlands.

I interviewed Lee Pace [her costar in Pushing Daisies] a few years ago, and he said he had lived in The Woodlands.
Yes, I know. We about died when we figured that out. He was also born in Oklahoma. And we were just like, Wait a minute, this is too weird.

When you visited your parents, do you remember the theater that Denny [best friend Denny Downs] played?
It was TUTS. And I’ve been to shows there and I know the guy who runs it. Houston actually has a lot of great culture.

Most people don’t know that.
You’re right. I have a lot of respect for TUTS and a lot of respect for the Alley.

Lee [Pace] was at the Alley.
Yes, that’s right. Absolutely crazy, how things come full circle…

I’m with a gay magazine, so I’m sorry if the questions kind of lean the gay way, but since we don’t have a lot of time…
Go for it.

KristinFamily
Family matters: Kristin Chenoweth with her mom, her grandfather, and her grandmother, who taught Kristin to subject everything to the “Jesus smell test.”

 

So how did you find out Denny was gay?
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know it. We met at college. We were in chamber choir together, and he came up to me and said hi and that he knew some relatives of mine. He performed in this summer entertainment show in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and my great aunt and uncle would go all the time. They were one of the groupies. It was a little embarrassing.

[Laughs]
And then we both got cast in Carmen, and we were at tech rehearsal. This is how we completely bonded—we both thought the cello player in the pit was flirting with us. And that’s really where our relationship changed.

[Laughing] When I was reading about that in the book, I thought, Okay, I’m gonna have to ask her if they found out if the cello player was gay or not, because you stopped the story. But toward the end of the book, you both meet him again, and he’s not gay!
[Laughs] So Denny lost…waa waa. I always give him a hard time, and he goes, I still think he’s in denial. Denny and I have been friends since 1990, I guess. We call each other our non-sexual life partners. If I don’t ever end up finding the right man, and I decide that I really want to have a baby, he’ll be the daddy—why wouldn’t I want to have it with my best friend? In fact, he’s coming over in just a few minutes to take care of me. He lives in New York right now, and he flew into town to see his boyfriend, who lives here. Of course, he knows this thing that I have and that I battle and he’s the first one…

KristinDennyDowns
Chenoweth with Denny Downs, her best friend.

That’s so sweet.
Yes. He’s the best guy I know, really.

I sort of fell in love with him while reading the book.
Yes, well, I don’t blame you. [Laughs]

The thing is, I’m gay, and I think I fell in love with you, too!
That happens a lot with Denny and I. We accept it. We love you guys right back.

[Both laugh] Because of your grandmother, you said that you “subject everything to the Jesus smell test.” How does it smell that your best friend is a gay man and that your manager is a lesbian?
Well, I must just be the biggest dummy. Dannielle is what you call a lipstick lesbian, but now that I know her, it’s like how did I not know? I hired her and we got real close. Then one day, she was like, I have something that I want to tell you that I don’t think that you’re picking up on.

[Both laugh]
And she goes, “You know I love you so much, but I have…I’m a lesbian.” I was like, What?!

I just want to say that it’s not like I set out to be a controversial person, or a Christian that’s a controversy in her own world. All I ever wanted to do was sing. Like, that’s all I want to do.

[Both laugh]
And I’ve had to—and now happily so—really face what I believe, and I talk about this in the book. I just don’t care what people are.

Christians have a pretty bad name right now.
Yes, they do.

You give Christians a really good name.
[Giggles] Thank you so much. That makes me want to cry.

It’s so refreshing to have someone like you speak out.
That probably means more to me than anything you can say. I can only go on what Jesus taught. That’s just what I have to go on. It’s like I said in the book, What if being short were a sin? God made me that way, what can I do about it? So I believe that people are born the way they are born. God doesn’t make mistakes.

Assuming these weren’t mistakes, you’ve now made out with Idina Menzel [her costar in the play Wicked]
Yes.

… and Annette Bening [in Running with Scissors]. So who’s next? Janeane Garofalo [her costar in The West Wing]?

Well, I love her. I would make out with her. I totally would kiss her. Absolutely. And I could be wrong, but I think she would kiss me back.

[Both laugh]
But, yes, that’s a very good third one. I’ll stick with her.

She seems to be a real sweetie.
She’s a real sweetie. A real smarty pants, and that’s why I like her. I like strong women. I’ve always looked up to her.

Speaking of strong women…tell me all about your Dusty Springfield project.
It’s at a little bit of a standstill, because I won’t do it until the script is right. Luckily, because I look younger than my age, I have a few years here to work this out, and I think it would be good for me to age a little bit to play her.

I also think that it’s a story that not many people know. They couldn’t really pick Dusty Springfield out of a lineup. And they don’t know the kind of struggle she had. She was Catholic. She had very verbally and physically abusive parents, and also sibling rivalry, and also battled her sexuality.

That voice was far from perfect, yet it was perfect. I love her voice. In fact I probably need to start picking up smoking to sound like her.

[Both laugh]
But believe it or not, I can really sound like her. It’s a part of my voice that I don’t show very often. I’m not giving up. It’s still in development, and please think good thoughts, because we want to make that movie.

Will do. Thank you so much for your time.
And thank you for everything that you said [about me giving Christians a good name and speaking out]. You’re a very, very cool guy.

So are you. Well, you’re not a cool guy, but you’re a cool gal.
I’d be happy to be a cool guy.

KristinBook

Chenoweth recently completed a pilot for NBC titled Legally Mad, created by David E. Kelley ( Boston Legal, Ally McBeal ); she plays “a cheerful and brilliant attorney who nonetheless exhibits flashes of psychosis.” A Little Bit Wicked: Life, Love, and Faith in Stages is from Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

Blase DiStefano also interviews Garry Marshall in this May 2009 issue of OutSmart magazine.

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Blase DiStefano

Blase DiStefano is the Creative Director/Entertainment Editor for OutSmart Magazine.

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