Orange’s Lea DeLaria: You Can’t Judge A Butch By Its Cover
DeLaria photo via Getty Images | Photo of Carmen Carrera & Amanda Lepore by Patrick McMullan
Blue may be the warmest color and oranges are definitely not the only fruit, but—if I can continue my rainbow of lesbian-related titles here—Orange is the New Black. And one of the stars of that much-buzzed-about Netflix series is comic/actress/singer Lea DeLaria, who plays prison inmate Carrie “Big Boo” Black (yes, Black, not Orange) with her customary brio.
Lea became legendary back in 1993, when she went on Arsenio Hall’s talk show and declared, “I’m a biiigg dyke!” Well, I just rang her for a biiig catch-up session and was thrilled to find that, while she’s the new TV star, she’s basically my same old butch sparkplug.
Musto: Hi, Lea! Congrats on the show. How did you get the part?
It takes place in a women’s prison, so of course I got a call. [laughs]
You would have been great in the 1950s, when all those women’s prison pictures were being made.
I think the 1920s were my thing. Vaudeville would have been all about me!
Did you audition for the role?
Three times. The story that’s gotten out, and it’s true, is that there was originally not really a part for me. They brought me in for several roles. Then they said, “We love you and want to put you in the show.” I’ve heard that about five million times. So I quit and went to my house in London and said to my manager, “That’s it. I‘m gonna make my living singing, and fuck show business.” Then came the messages: “You’ve got to come back to America.” I had a part. The part was created as the show was being created.
And she’s a really popular character.
She’s turned into somebody that people really relate to. I hear that so much on the street. “You must be a big old bulldyke.” They’ve written her so warmly and smartly—she’s always got a zinger. She’s friendly, even in the midst of all of it. People relate to that. If a movie or show ever portrays a butch, she’s definitely very stupid. But not only do I play a three-dimensional, warm butch, she’s also very smart!
Why are butches usually portrayed as being such rusty tools?
I think that’s something they think about butches. They drink beer and get into pool fights. The kind with the stick, not in a bathing suit. [laughs]
Have you ever played a lipstick lesbian?
On One Life To Live for almost 10 years! Right near the end of the series, you found out she was a lesbian. “What? I’m the bottom?”
Why did they wait so long for the revelation?
You know how things like that are. They’re writing and writing. It was a hot button issue—gay marriage—and they wanted to weigh in positively on it. Since I was on the show, it seemed natural to them. And there was the surprise of her being a lesbian. Soaps are all about surprises.
Well, you played straight so well in the On the Town revival in Central Park and on Broadway in 1998.
A straight girl that needed to get laid yesterday!
Isn’t it great to be able to show that kind of range?
Hell, yes. That’s one of the reasons I live in New York. In Hollywood, you get put in a little box. Before I came to New York, my whole career was playing p.e. teachers and police lieutenants or the lesbian who hits on inappropriate people at every function. But I’ve played everything in New York. I played men in New York!
Well, a man named Arsenio has a new talk show. Will you reprise your classic performance on it?
I’m hoping so. He’s been very kind to me in interviews. I’m one of the people he always mentions. But it’s in L.A., and we’ve got to work around Orange’s new schedule. It’s definitely something on the to-do list. Meanwhile, I am cohosting Savage Love with Dan Savage very soon. That to me is the hippest of hip.
When you said “I’m a biiig dyke” on Arsenio, was it pre-rehearsed?
None of it, except for the standup. He asked a question, I answered it.
And did you immediately think, “I just ruined my career” or “I just made my career”?
I thought, “I just made my career.” Arsenio was laughing. I certainly didn’t expect the backlash from the lesbian feminists and the conservative gays—the middle-class, mainstream gays.
That’s sort of a badge of honor.
I feel the right people like me!
They do, they do. Is it weird to be hot again, careerwise?
This is my third feeding frenzy—that’s what I call it. What I’ve learned from the other two is to enjoy it when it’s happening and remember it’s show business, not show party or show play, and let people who are better at career things run my career. Jeremy Katz is the greatest. My friend Jesse Tyler Ferguson (whom I met doing On The Town) and I both have been famous throughout our careers, but never at the same time. I think it was Oscar Wilde who said, “Every time a friend succeeds, a little piece of me dies.” [It was Gore Vidal. Same difference.] As much as we all want to think we’re not like that, we all are. I was happy for Jesse and he couldn’t be happier for me, but there’s a little thing where, “Oh, my career’s in the toilet.” Well, I just went to L.A. for a premiere of a Hallmark film I did, Dear Dumb Diary, and Jesse and I were both famous at the same time!
Finally, some gay synchronicity. You’re also an accomplished jazz singer. Do people get confused about what you are?
People don’t anymore. At the beginning of my career, I was told, “You have to choose.” The reality is if I can do it, I’m going to do it. You’re not gonna see me dancing in the ballet or playing Emily in Our Town. I know what I can do, and nothing makes me happier than surprising people. My entire career can be summed up with, “You can’t judge a butch by its cover.”
I was in a 10-year relationship. For me, that’s a wicked long time. Anything more than 10 minutes is a long time for me. That relationship, we broke up not quite two years ago.
She said, “I’m leaving”?
She said, “You’re leaving.” It came out of left field. I curled up in a fetal position for months.
How did you meet your current girlfriend?
Through Orange. Her best friend since high school is on the show—Emma Myles, who plays Taryn Manning’s sidekick. Our show is unique in that when most of the girls go into makeup, they come out looking way more hideous. Emma is one of those country girl beauties. Long, blond hair, gorgeous white teeth…and they turn her into the most hideous crystal meth junkie with brown teeth. I sat in the makeup chair and made fun of her the whole time. We laughed and we became friends and she introduced me to her friend, Chelsea Fairless.
She’s a biiig catch. And I’m glad to be part of your latest feeding frenzy!
Looking lovelier after makeup, today’s transsexual fashion icons could even make orange seem chic. And they apparently come in twos these days. At a glittery dinner at Cherry for Mao PR’s 15th anniversary, transsexual star Amanda Lepore found herself adjacent to Carmen Carrera, the ex-RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant that lensman Steven Meisel has handpicked to be his latest muse. Did Amanda want to rip Carmen’s eyes out? “No,” she told me, giggling. “She’s not a blonde.” Besides, added Amanda, she’s really nice.
Still, they were definitely willing to mock some famous glandular rivalry, so Patrick McMullan put them together for this photo, which loosely homages the immortal 1958 shot of Sophia Loren wryly ogling Jayne Mansfield’s dangling dumplings. Afterwards, Amanda confided to me, “Carmen didn’t know who Jayne Mansfield was, so I told her, ‘She was the blonde who crashed the brunette’s birthday party, and the brunette wasn’t having it’.” Some of the details of that were a little off, but I wasn’t going to play the redhead and complain!
Two nights later, at the Blonds’ head-spinning space-age fashion show, everyone descended on Carrera, who posed for the crews and cooed to me, “I feel like a freshman. I don’t know who anyone is.” Just then, Aussie recording artist Iggy Azalea arrived and everyone knew who she was and descended on her. “Were the VMA’s crazy?” I asked Iggy between photo ops. “The scariest thing was trying not to fall,” she replied—and she hadn’t even been twerking!
I almost plotzed with joy when I spotted drag king Murray Hill in the crowd, though “the hardest working man in show biz” seemed a little dispirited. “Everyone thinks I’m in Orange is the New Black,” griped Murray. “They think we all look alike! And I have a moustache!” Don’t judge a butch by her cover stick.
And finally: All genders mix and percolate in the wonderful FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) exhibit spanning the history of queer fashion. But at the opening, a familiar face sashayed up to me and confessed, “I have no idea whatsoever what queer style is!” He was one of the style/culture gurus from Queer Eye! Irony is the new orange.