Home » Lea DeLaria Can’t Escape Her Past as a Convict

Lea DeLaria Can’t Escape Her Past as a Convict

by Lawrence Ferber

Lea DeLaria has many more identities than some of her fans may realize, including stand-up comic, jazz singer, and nightclub owner/restaurateur. She also authored a 2000 tome, now in its third printing, Lea’s Book of Rules For The World.

Written by Lawrence Ferber • Photo by Tina Turnbow

No matter where she goes, Lea DeLaria can’t escape her past as a convict. Thanks to Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black, which wrapped up its seventh and final season in 2019, DeLaria is best known for playing Carrie Black, a.k.a. “Big Boo,” a self-described “thieving dyke.” Yet DeLaria, who immediately went on to play Queenie, a gearhead gang leader with a talent for burlesque in Hulu’s new neo-noir revenge drama Reprisal, has many more identities than some of her fans may realize. That includes stand-up comic (her mainstream breakout was a 1993 appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show), Broadway star (The Rocky Horror Show, On The Town), jazz singer (her catalog boasts a 2015 David Bowie cover album, House of David), and as of 2019, nightclub owner/restaurateur, when she opened performance and dining venue The Club in the East Coast LGBTQ mecca of Provincetown, Massachusetts. She also authored a 2000 tome, now in its third printing, Lea’s Book of Rules For The World. As raucous and “blue” as ever, the self-proclaimed butch dyke spoke with Passport at length about her career, her Provincetown club, her favorite destinations, and the women she most admires and would even love to play.


Orange Is The New Black, Season 5 (Photo by JoJo Whilden/Netflix)


The first time I ever saw you was in an episode of the 1990s TV show In The Life, which they shot at the April 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation. What is the one accomplishment you’ve made since then that, if someone told you on that day in Washington, you never would have believed?

I might have said The Arsenio Hall Show, when I was the first openly gay comic to perform on TV in America. But I think it would have to be Orange Is The New Black. That I was able to present a living, breathing, real butch character that was written by lesbians, directed by lesbians, and performed by a lesbian. It was real and honest, and really thumbed its nose in the face of what society thinks a butch is. The stereotype is fat, drunk, stupid, beating up their girlfriends and starting fights in dyke bars. My character put a face on what we’re actually like, and she’s not only smart, she’s the smartest person in that prison. I’m incredibly proud of the fact I was a part of that and how society perceives my people, the butch dykes.


When it comes to your career, do you see yourself as a comedian first? Actress? Singer? How does the hierarchy go when asked to describe who you are or what you do?

I’m Sammy Davis Jr., man. I can do it all, man. I think of myself as an old school entertainer like Sammy Davis Jr., Carol Burnett, Frank Sinatra. The list goes on. In the old days, you really had to do everything, and I do it! I love doing it! I love doing standup, or belting a B-sharp. When people come to see me in concert and they never did before, I can see them look at me like, ‘what’s that dyke going to do?’ and I would sing a huge opening number and bring the house down. That’s what I do. Also changing perceptions about who and what butches are, it’s fantastic.


Orange Is The New Black (Photo by JoJo Whilden/Netflix)


There’s a new Showtime comedy series, Work in Progress, starring Chicago comedian Abby McEnany, who’s a butch dyke and it’s based partly on her own life and experiences. Are you happy to see more butches in pop culture?

Absolutely. Absolutely. There’s another butch on Starz’s Vida! She looks like a Latina mini-Lea! I think it’s great! I love seeing more butch dykes out there.


We need a butch dyke Rat Pack. You all could do a project like Ocean’s 11.

That would be fun! It would need to be a romcom!


Let’s talk for a moment about Queenie. How would you describe her to someone who hasn’t watched Reprisal yet?

Queenie is a head member of a gearhead gang called the Banished Brawlers. The Brawlers make most of their money through a thing called the Bangerang, which is a huge entertainment complex and everyone comes to see the shows there, mostly the burlesque. Queenie runs the burlesque, she stars, choreographs, and directs, and when she’s offstage she looks like me. She’s a badass, she’s a butch dyke, she drives a rad ride, she kills people. When she’s on stage she’s a drag queen! You’re gonna love it.


Lea DeLaria as Queenie in Reprisal (Photo by Brownie Harris/Hulu)


Was this a dream, tackling a genre (noir) that you hadn’t really cracked yet?

Yes. It’s really heavy noir. It’s first and foremost a revenge tale, but I like to say if Quentin Tarantino and David Lynch had a baby it would be this show. When its campy it’s very campy, but when not it’s dark and violent. I’m being asked to act within an inch of my life and honestly, to say it’s a dream come true, yes. It’s really great I can strut on stage and get to ride and kill people.


Do you murder some despicable characters?

They’re despicable to Queenie. Let’s put it this way. It’s a fabulous show, the most fun show I’ve ever done. Everyone should watch it.


Have you ever had to defend yourself or attack someone in real life?

I’ve been attacked and had to defend myself. I was queer bashed in San Francisco in 1983.


Have you ever drawn directly on that experience in your work?

Oh absolutely. My whole life has been a response to what happened to me in that respect. It made me be more out.


Lea DeLaria in Reprisal (Photo by Brownie Harris/Hulu)


Whose life story would you love to play?

Well, Billy Tipton was a well-known saxophone player who toured the world, settled in Seattle, married twice, and had kids. When Billy died in 1989 it was discovered that Billy Tipton was a woman. I would very much like to play that part. It combines everything I like. Jazz, the end of swing into the bebop era—all of that. Tipton’s kids have done interviews. But both the ex-wives, neither one will talk about it. Fascinating isn’t it?


Who are some women, past and present, that you most admire?

Wow. There have been a lot of women throughout history. Queen Elizabeth I, amazing. Marie Curie. Not only the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, but she won two. I don’t think a lot of people are aware of that. I love all the suffragettes, Susan B. Anthony, Carrie Nation, Harriet Tubman. Of course Eleanor Roosevelt. And I admire and respect and adore Ella Fitzgerald, Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, Bernadette Peters, Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, and Sandra Bernhard!


You and Sandra are good friends, so I’d love an anecdote! Any recent fun times out together?

Listen, I don’t like to talk about hanging out with Sandy because she’s honestly an incredibly private person, but we try to have regular lunch dates and we post photos on social media because we have to. If it wasn’t part of a career, Sandy wouldn’t do any of that shit! She ran out of fucks to give back when Sonny was still with Cher, honey!


She came by your Club in Provincetown in August, which previously had been a lesbian bar called Pied. So how did The Club’s first season treat you? I see Rosie O’Donnell and Mx Justin Vivian Bond also were there!


It was very good! The problem was I filming Reprisal in Wilmington, NC at the same time, so I didn’t get to spend enough time there. It was gonna be me performing almost the entire summer and then I got this show and couldn’t do it. Thank god I had friends who could fill in for me. But it went really well, we learned from our mistakes and will open again in 2020. We’re also trying to winterize so we can remain open until New Year’s Eve.


What was it about Provincetown that made you say, ‘this is where I need to do this?’

Well, I was the first lesbian act to perform in P’town, back in 1984, and I spent every summer of my life there until I did the Arsenio Hall show in 1993. In fact, I was there for the very first women’s weekend, it wasn’t even a full week then. I’ve been a fixture in that town for a very long time, they call me the mayor, and they say ‘welcome home’ whenever I come back. It’s part of my DNA. The building I bought was one of the only dyke bars in town and had fallen into terrible disrepair. We didn’t need another dance club, there’s plenty, but what we needed is a really nice nightclub. And that’s what I did. I bought it, painted it, broke some walls down and made it bigger, we have a fantastic deck overlooking the water, it’s gorgeous, the best view and deck in town, and great food and entertainment. P’town needed something like that.


Did you take any inspiration from Alan Cumming and Daniel Nardicio’s Club Cumming in NYC?

You are gonna shit. I haven’t been to Club Cumming. And Alan yells at me. I live in Brooklyn and I’m constantly busy, and when I get to New York I just stay in my fucking apartment. I see Broadway shows and that’s basically it. It’s horrifying! Alan came to my P’town club and he loved it. He loved it. We both performed over Labor Day and he came several nights after his show. We had a great time, as did Sandy! There’s a picture of me and Sandy together at the club on Instagram. She ate, we had a couple of drinks, we had a great time.

Lea at OITNB Season 5 Premiere (Photo by Marion Curtis / StarPix for Netflix)

Was it hard saying farewell to Big Boo when Orange Is The New Black wrapped?

Oh gosh yes, and I haven’t yet. Everywhere I go, I can’t take two steps without someone asking, ‘may I have a picture with you, Big Boo?’ So it’s very hard to say goodbye to her because I’m constantly reminded of her wherever I go.


Would you like a surprise sequel spinoff to see what happens to her afterwards, like they did with Jesse from Breaking Bad?

I would love that and I’m sure all the fans would too.


Besides Provincetown, where else is a utopia for you?

I grew up in St. Louis, and I wouldn’t say that’s a place I vacation, but it has a special place in my heart because I grew up there and whenever I go and hang out with my family, we tear it up. A special place? Palm Springs. I really love Palm Springs. There are two places there, especially. The Parker Hotel, I absolutely love it. The whole thing is decorated by Jonathan Adler and I love his stuff, don’t get me wrong, but every now and then there’s that one thing where you go, ‘Jonathan what were you thinking?’ (laughs) The Parker is exactly like that. It’s just fabulous. If you trolled through my Instagram account you’ll find pictures of me posing in various parts of the Parker dressed in a kaftan and a turban. The other place I really love is Ruby Montana’s Coral Sands Inn. Ruby used to own a vintage shop. I’m a slave to vintage, I love vintage. If there’s a vintage store you’re going to find me in it anywhere I’m at. She bought this place, midcentury, returned it to its glory, and each of the rooms are decorated in themes. The Elvis room, the Roy Rogers room, and my favorite the Liberace room. The pool is fantastic, it’s wicked fun, and she’s a great host.


What’s your dream music project?

I have something coming down the pike I’m not allowed to talk about. For those asking when I’m coming back to Broadway, it will be sooner rather than later. It’s a dream project, a new thing, it’s basically been written for me.


Finally, who should play you in the Lea DeLaria biopic?

Danny DeVito. He’s perfect! Danny, if you want to take a break from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, why don’t we make a 10-minute video where you’re playing me in a biopic?

You may also be interested in this:  Margaret Cho:   Comedy in the Age of Coranavirus

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