Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Lea DeLaria


The Dynamic 'Dykon' performs at the Regency

Lea DeLaria.
photo: Wire Image
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Only a few weeks before her music and comedy show at the Regency Ballroom on September 19, sounded excited to return to San Francisco. This is in addition to her working on filming the fourth season of the super-hit Netflix series, Orange Is the New Black, plus her jetsetting schedule of other shows, and her attendance at the 67th Emmy Awards in Los Angeles the day after her San Francisco show.

Nope, fame has not changed the veteran performer. Chatting by phone on New York City's Christopher Street last week, she stepped out of a favorite hangout, the historic lesbian bar The Cubbyhole, as if it's been mere days, and not years, since we last talked.

"San Francisco is my home and where I first performed," she recalled with nostalgia.

"I would do four shows a week for three weeks at Josie's Juice Joint," DeLaria said of the fabled and much missed Castro venue that hit its peak in the 1990s. One outstanding joke I recall, that left audiences howling with laughter, is her tale of being asked at a restaurant, "What'll ya have, sir? Her reply: "A vagina!"

Years before those days, DeLaria helped nurture the early 1980s queer comedy scene in San Francisco. At Sutter's Mill, she recalled, "I pitched an entertainment line-up to the manager. It would be simple, and we did monthly shows that got big crowds."

Another historic venue, The Valencia Rose, welcomed DeLaria and Tom Ammiano to its stage, where she hosted gay comedy nights. What inspired her was the dearth of comic talent (a folk singer and a mime among them) when she visited for a friend's gig at an Open Mic night. At first, DeLaria was billed simply as "The Fuckin' Dyke." Her first night, a series of Catholic school tales, was an instant hit. Among the other performers at the Valencia Rose were Reno, and a few years later, Marga Gomez.

Asked where she lived during her formative years by the Bay, DeLaria replied, "The Mission, honey! I'm a lesbian!"

Her charismatic and up-front style brought gay men and lesbians together in the days when separatism was common. Her big groundbreaking gig was as the first out lesbian comic on The Arsenio Hall Show in 1993.

Jump ahead a few decades, and DeLaria was recently strolling down memory lane with another of her comedy colleagues, Whoopi Goldberg, on the daytime TV show The View.

Lea DeLaria performing at
Joe's Pub in New York City.

"When Whoopi was around, I was doing a show called Raging Bull," DeLaria said. "It was my first full-hour show. And we shared that dressing room for a couple months."

While other guests have been daunted by the often contentious crosstalk on the chat show, hosted by five women (or four, depending on who quits or gets fired), the always confident DeLaria held her own on her first visit a few years ago. After a cell phone video of DeLaria confronting a New York subway preacher went viral, the performer got her first guest spot.

"I was doing another talk show when my fiancé said, 'Rosie is tweeting you. They want you on The View!' We saw the video and said, 'We gotta go!'"

Speaking her mind has been essential to the very out lesbian's career, especially onstage.

"When I started doing standup in the '80s," DeLaria said, "we did what we called 'comedy without a net.' Comics in L.A. or New York work on their material, and polish them. They know which jokes they're gonna say. What we were doing in San Francisco was take an idea, a topic, and then we'd just walk out and talk about it. I was a student of that style, the most famous being Robin Williams."

Lea DeLaria's fifth music album,
House of David.

DeLaria also credits her Catholic school upbringing, where a quick quip could, as she said, "get me out of getting smacked with a ruler."

Her paternal grandparents hail from Palermo, Italy (Sicily), which she has called "a penal colony for dwarves." Born in Belleville, Illinois, the 57-year-old's parents were a homemaker mom and a social worker father who also moonlighted as a jazz pianist.

That musical talent, while possibly hereditary, was also nurtured through her years of performing, and with years of music training as a teenager.

DeLaria said she'll be singing selections from her five acclaimed albums, which vary from a jazz version of the Sweeney Todd theme song and Blondie's "Call Me" to her haunting take on Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun." Included in her repertory is this year's House of David, a collection of David Bowie hits redone in her unique style.

DeLaria has performed her music concerts at venues ranging from the Newport Jazz Festival, to Manhattan's Joe's Pub, and even in Australia.

"We usually have weekends off from filming Orange [Is the New Black], so I fly all over for my shows," said DeLaria, who will be performing with musicians based in New York. "When I'm touring, there are a thousand different things I have to do for the show." So, her San Francisco visit will be brief. "Unfortunately, I can't spend as much time enjoying the city as I'd like to."

For the Regency concert, her longtime musician colleagues will accompany her. And DeLaria promised a new set list that will differ from her San Francisco concert in June 2014 at Feinstein's at the Nikko. That Pride weekend show was sold out.

"There'll be some swing stuff and also comedy," said DeLaria, who wisely varies her hilarious manic comedy style –which has been known to include the use of a double-headed dildo– with some amazing jazz music, where audience members are encouraged to accompany her improvised "scat-alongs."

"It's gonna be a real variety show," she said. "I'm flying my guys in from New York. We are a well-oiled machine of music."


Lea DeLaria with Natasha Lyonne on
the set of Orange Is the New Black.

Orange you Happy

While longtime LGBT fans may hold a personal affection for DeLaria as "our" comic, her deserved fame was catapulted even further with the premiere of Orange Is the New Black. Based on the bestselling memoir by Piper Kerman, the series captivated audiences, particularly fans eager to see various aspects of lesbian and transgender lives represented with pathos, understanding, and some outright hilarity.

The Netflix series, now filming its fourth season, is part of a revolution of online TV-viewing that's upended traditional networks, and helped to create the trend of binge-watching. Netflix garnered 34 Emmy nominations this year, the third highest of any network. Orange Is the New Black has four nominations this year (Outstanding Drama Series, Casting For a Drama Series, Uzo Adbua for Supporting Actress, and Pablo Schreiber for Guest Actor).

Originally written as a small part, DeLaria's portrayal of Big Boo led to the expansion of her role as a regular character.

"How can there be a show about women's prison and not include me!?" DeLaria has frequently said. Boo has had her ups and downs, moving from seducing younger inmates to enduring abuses by prison guards, and even betrayals by close friends.

A recently popular Orange Is the New Black - Kim Davis parody meme.

"We have Netflix to thank for making this happen," said DeLaria. "I can't remember the last time I watched regular TV."

DeLaria said that she waited until the first season was online before viewing the first five episodes, which she and other cast members had not seen. "Then I started tweeting how amazing the show was."

Asked if she had any hint that the production would become such a hit back when she started filming, DeLaria said, "We had no idea. We knew we had something special. And that often happens, but nobody would talk about it at first. There are so many amazing lines. Now the show is like a household name. You never know."

Despite her innate talent, DeLaria credits OITNB's script writers and producers. While (understandably) she could not reveal any story lines, she did explain that the cast only gets one script at a time.

"It's very exciting for me when the scripts come up," she said. "I look at my character, and I'm always very excited to see what I'm doing, and where I have scenes. I have great faith in our writers."

This hasn't always been the case. "Often, I get cast in a TV show, and I know how to make something that isn't funny, funny," she said. "With Orange, when we do it well, right when your heart's about to break, that's when we make you laugh."

Along with her music and comedy shows, DeLaria has continued to make the rounds of talk shows to promote OITNB, including an offbeat chat show in Brazil, where she drank beer, presented the host with a pair of handcuffs, and talked about lesbian sex, all the while making the audience laugh while working with an earplug and a simultaneous translator (The entire segment's on YouTube).

Lea DeLaria as Eddie in the 2000 Broadway revival of The Rocky Horror Show. photo: Carol Rosegg

What new Orange fans may not know is that DeLaria's other TV credits are quite varied, including appearances on Friends, The Drew Carey Show, Will & Grace, Matlock, and even in a recurring dual role on the soap opera One Life to Live as both ‘Madame Delphina’ and ‘Professor Delbert Fina.’

Theatre fans in New York got to enjoy DeLaria's role as Hildy in the 1998 Broadway revival of On the Town (paired with gay actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson), as Eddie in 2000 revival of The Rocky Horror Show, and in Paul Rudnick's The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told. Her film roles include her sweet portrayal as a mentor elder lesbian bar owner the sweet coming out/of age film Edge of Seventeen.

But Big Boo is doubtlessly yet another landmark. Facebook and Tumblr are filled with memes and animated gifs of her character's quips. The day that antigay Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis was sent to jail, pictures of her with Big Boo included the line, 'Her Fifth Husband.'

DeLaria has also gotten more attention from female fans. "I'm a fucking Jonas brother!" she exclaimed on a cast segment on The Conan O'Brien Show.

But stand back, ladies. DeLaria is engaged to longtime girlfriend, fashion editor Chelsea Fairless. The couple are not rushing to their nuptials, however. Scheduled for January 2017, DeLaria mentioned several of her longtime pals like Sandra Bernhard, who will attend and perform at the wedding. Imagine Lori Petty as a flower girl.

Chelsea Fairless and Lea DeLaria at a Hollywood red carpet event. photo: Wire Image

"We're taking a year and a half to do it ourselves," she said. "To have a beautiful woman to marry me makes me want to do it up right. I've turned into Janice Dickenson! I don't know how that happened."

In the meantime, the self-described "Dykon" and her "celesbian" fiancée enjoy their time together when DeLaria isn't filming or touring. DeLaria also likes to hang out with her Orange castmates, who film the show in various upstate New York locations.

"We hang out everywhere when we can," said DeLaria. "People see us everywhere. We all love each other. I often talk the cast into coming to the Cubbyhole after work. There's nothing to describe what happens. People flippin' freak out to see us all."

And don't be shy if you see her, New York fans and visitors. Despite her success, DeLaria remains down to earth.

"I've never had a day job," she said. "I've spent 33 years in the public eye. The new sort of fame I have now is crazy, but I've had so much experience with fame, so I'm cool."


Le DeLaria performs 'Hot Jazz & Cool Comedy' at the Regency Ballroom Saturday, September 19, 8pm. $49.50-$62.50. 1300 Van Ness Ave. (888) 929-7849.

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