by Ryan Leeds
Lea DeLaria won’t be upset if you stop her on the street and snap a photo with her. The Broadway star, who appeared in the 1998 revival of On the Town, and later in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, has grown accustomed to the attention she’s received lately. As a series regular on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, DeLaria is well aware of the immense popularity of both her role (Big Boo) and the show.
Currently, the multi-talent is focusing on her vocal side by touring cities to sing and promote her latest album, House of David. The album showcases the late David Bowie through DeLaria’s unique, classy musical interpretations. On Saturday, April 9, she’ll take to the stage at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center for two performances.
In a recent phone conversation she chatted with The Broadway Blog about fame, activism, and even the taboo subject of politics.
You have recently acquired the nickname of “Bull Dyke Santa Claus”. What is that all about?
That is my fiancé’s affectionate term for me. She calls me that because, due to the popularity of Orange Is the New Black, whenever we go anywhere, people stop me and want to take a picture with me, shake my hand, and talk. My fiancé said, “Ya know, just the sight of you makes people happy. You’re like Bull Dyke Santa Claus. We laughed and laughed and it just sort of stuck.”
How has the show changed your life in terms of your recognition?
Before, I was moderately famous and was leading what I would call a very charmed life. I toured, I did stand up, I worked on and off Broadway, I did television and movies and it was all good. I was a working actor. Then, Orange Is the New Black put me in a whole different category. Because of the digital medium, people all over the world are watching the show in a single weekend and the numbers are staggering. So now, everyone carries their cameras, takes pictures and then post to social media, so I get even more famous. Welcome to fame in the digital age!
Does that annoy you or are you more appreciative?
I love it! I love my fans!
First of all, David Bowie is a genius. You never hear anyone say, “Oh! That hack David Bowie!” I’ve never heard anyone trash him. I’ve heard people argue over the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Kurt Cobain, and whether or not hip hop is real music—but never in my whole life have I heard anyone say anything bad about David Bowie and that’s because he’s a fuckin’ genius.
His music speaks to me in volumes in regards to being an outsider from the Midwest. He made being weird, cool. He gave kids who didn’t grow up in New York or San Francisco or Los Angeles hope. As a performer, he taught me that you should be true to yourself as an artist and if you’re gonna fail, fail big!
Will we hear other songs at your concert or will you focus exclusively on songs from the album?
Mostly, it will be House of David, but there are other standards that I’ll sing. And of course, anyone who knows me knows that I’m a stand-up comic, so the audience will get that, too. Plus, it is an election year, so they’re going to get that as well.
What are your current thoughts on the political race?
Well, I’m gonna talk about that in the show, so I’d rather not talk about it now. But, I think that people know my political beliefs… Run like a girl! Although I can’t claim that slogan. That is from Emily’s List, an organization that is dedicated to getting females elected to high office, especially non-white females. I’m on their creative coalition.
Who were your musical influences?
Ella Fitzgerald, Betty Carter, Carmen McRae, Anita O’ Day (most definitely). I also like Mel Torme a whole fuckin’ lot. More than the singers and because my father was a jazz pianist, I believe that I’m more influenced by horn players. When I sing, I sing from my gut and I work on having my own style. My dad told me, “If you’re gonna be a singer, don’t be a chic singer. There’s a whole lot more than just having a pretty voice and looking pretty. You’ve gotta know your scales, you’ve gotta be present, and sing the music as well as the lyrics” Those things were hugely influential to me as a singer.
And with the comedy aspect, who or what makes you laugh?
I was really upset by Garry Shandling’s recent death. George Carlin was a heavy influence, as was Lenny Bruce. The more political comedians who were really trying to say something were the kind I’ve always appreciated. Plus, the entertainers…those people that did many things and did them all well, like Carol Burnett, Gilda Radner, Jackie Gleason, The Rat Pack. To me, it’s always been about being well rounded.
Do you consider yourself an activist and do you think that artists in general have a responsibility to activism or would you rather they just entertain and separate the politics?
My response is that people can only be who they are. Some people are incapable of activism within their frame. That doesn’t mean that I don’t like them. There are plenty of goofballs who just make me scream with laughter. For me, I started as an openly gay comic and everyone knows what a big ass dyke I am. I’m really clear about that. But it was my choice to be that open. I couldn’t entertain being anyone else. I never begrudge celebrities who are in the closet who later come out. That’s their path. Changing the world is really the reason I did what I did. I didn’t start out in 1982 talking about being queer because I thought I’d get famous and I didn’t think I’d be on television much less on a worldwide hit. So first and foremost, I am activist.
Kudos to you for that. It’s a mature way of looking at things. I think that the coming out process is tough no matter who you are. It’s a journey for every individual, right?
Absolutely! Depending on who you are and where you grew up, it totally is an individual journey. I’ll even go one step further and say that I get very upset with people within my community who get upset by people who are not out. Frankly, that is like blaming the rape victim because she is provocatively dressed. No matter how much the world has changed, it’s still very difficult to be out in the world. It’s not easy. There are dangers. People do get killed and families do ostracize and we do not have the rights and equalities under the system we currently live in. If you know those things, why would you blame someone for choosing not to be out?
True. And Being in a metropolis like New York, it’s easier for us to forget that people in smaller towns aren’t quite as progressive as they are in this city.
Oh… no shit! (Laughs)
Lea DeLaria at New Jersey Performing Arts Center
1 Center Street, Newark, NJ
Saturday, April 9
6 p.m.; 8:30 p.m.
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook