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The CultureMap Interview

Raunchy comedian with a shocking signature line dishes on straight boys, offended cougars & battling bullies

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3 Leslie Jordan interview May 2014
Leslie Jordan performs a comedy set with Varla Jean Merman on Saturday at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. Photo courtesy of The Hobby Center
2 Leslie Jordan interview May 2014
Funny guy Leslie Jordan is experiencing a rise in popularity. Photo courtesy of The Hobby Center
Leslie Jordan
Leslie Jordan is adored for his roles in Will and Grace, Sordid Lives and Boston Legal. Courtesy of Reaction Productions
Varla Jean Merman head shot
Varla Jean Merman is a drag character personified by actor Jeffery Roberson. Photo courtesy of The Hobby Center
3 Leslie Jordan interview May 2014
2 Leslie Jordan interview May 2014
Leslie Jordan
Varla Jean Merman head shot
Joel Luks, head shot, column mug, April 2013

You can't help but fall in love with the, shall we say, flamboyantly unrestrained disposition of this petit Tennessee southern gent with a spirit as sultry as a summer's eve in Knoxville. Funny guy Leslie Jordan, adored for his roles in Will and Grace, Sordid Lives and Boston Legal, is experiencing a rise in popularity as his personal story is current with social trends that champion individuals who have the strength to be authentically themselves.

Jordan is on his way to Houston to perform a comedy set with Varla Jean Merman, a drag character personified by actor Jeffery Roberson. He describes the show, scheduled for Saturday at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, as a dog-and-pony act in which anything goes.

CultureMap chatted with Jordan over the phone ahead of his big Houston night.

CultureMap: What makes you laugh?

Leslie Jordan: I have the exact same sense of humor as my friend Del Shores, who wrote Southern Baptist Sissies and Sordid Lives. Have you ever heard of Greater Tuna? That's the hardest I've ever laughed — ever. Del took me to see it and we laughed so hard that we got shushed. We would scream at everything and people would tell us to be quiet.

For me, it has to be some kind of Southern humor. And I find the oddest things funny.

I was watching August: Osage County starring Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep on a plane. It's kind of a sad story, but I laughed all the way through it. People kept looking over at me while I screamed out in laughter. I thought Margo Martindale was the funniest of all of them.

I think it's really interesting the things on the Internet that make me laugh. I posted a picture of a naked woman lying on a tree with a caption that read, National Geographic photo of a cougar resting on a tree. I put it on my website and women came after me, telling me that I was awful, telling me to take it down. I took it down — I am always being asked to take things down.

So my sense of humor is somewhat subversive.

CM: Does your family have a similar sense of humor?

LJ: I come from a long line of laughers. My mother can make me laugh out loud even when she's not trying.

My dad was killed in a plane crash when I was 11, which is a horrible time for a boy to lose his daddy. We laughed all the way to the funeral home. My uncle was cracking jokes. That's just the way we deal with things.

When you are bullied as a kid, when you can make the bullies laugh, they'll leave you alone.

CM: So laughter is a coping mechanism for you.

LJ: Being funny was also my defense mechanism. When you are bullied as a kid, when you can make the bullies laugh, they'll leave you alone. I was always the class clown and I was always making people laugh to keep the bullies at bay. It was a coping mechanism and a defense mechanism.

I've noticed that as an adult, if I'm in a situation where I'm not real comfortable, I'll jump right into it and try to be funny, to be the center of attention. If I can make you laugh, you don't get too close. I learned that in recovery 17 years ago, when I quit drinking and doing drugs.

CM: Happy birthday is in order. How did you celebrate your 59th?

LJ: I didn't do much, as if 59 is a big celebration. My friends took me to my birthday dinner to a place in Venice (California) called Chaya. Then I had a bunch of boys take me out for Chinese food. It's so rare that I'm in Los Angeles for my birthday. I am on the road so much, about 44 venues a year all over the place, so it was nice to be here to spend a quiet evening.

I don't go out at night at all. At 6 p.m., the curtain goes down. When my friends want to meet up, I always suggest lunch. That's probably because I perform a lot at night. It's one of the most wonderful parts about getting older. I am so done with the bar scene. Del Shores still goes to the bars; he's two years younger than me. I say to him, "Girl, I don't know how you do it." Then again, she didn't come out till 36.

CM: When did you come out?

LJ: Honey, it's hard to come out when you've never been in. I started telling people when I was in high school. I thought people would be real shocked, but they were, like, duh?!

It was really different back then. Every town had one gay bar, usually. You would go in and see such a cross section of humanity. Now you have all kinds of bars for different groups — the twinks, the leather people, the cowboys . . . Back in my day everyone was under one roof, the lesbians, the gays, college students, blacks, whites, lawyers — everyone. No matter your socio-economic bracket, everybody was out there.

One night, I was walking out of the gay bar, which was notorious in my town, when some girls from my high school saw me from down the street. I tried to duck back into the bar and I thought, I am fucked. The news spread like wildfire all over my school.

I tried relationships a couple of times, but they all walked out the door saying the same thing: "Leslie, honey, I love you but it's not always about you."

CM: Was your mother supportive?

LJ: I have identical twin sisters two years behind me. When my mother got wind of this, she said, "Listen, I don't care if you want to sneak out to those bars and drink, that's your business. But you are not going to ruin your sisters' chances. They want to be cheerleaders and homecoming queens and they want to be popular. I don't know where you want to go but we will fund it."

In other words, they shipped me off. I was run out of town by my own family.

CM: Where did you go?

LJ: I went to Knoxville for a little while, tried to go to school, but I was smoking too much pot. I ended up in Atlanta, where I really came out of the closet.

Atlanta was a Mecca. We didn't have AIDS. I don't remember syphilis, I don't remember anything. I remember the worst thing you could get was a little dose of gonorrhea. If you got the clap, you'd have to run to the free clinic. Doctor Bobby was real handsome. All the gay boys would go to him and say, "Doc, I've had a little indiscretion." He'd give you a shot and got you up and running again.

CM: Are you dating anyone?

LJ: I've lived with a straight boy for eight years. He's the most beautiful boy, the closest I've ever had to a real relationship. My only relationship is with my career. I don't know how people do it. You have to be so selfish to be an actor and a performer. It's all about me, it has to be to keep a career afloat.

I tried relationships a couple of times, but they all walked out the door saying the same thing: "Leslie, honey, I love you but it's not always about you."

I am happier than I've ever been. I am closer to my authentic self. I am not looking. I just live with this beautiful straight boy who takes care of me.

 My big grime with theater schools is that they teach you how to act but never once do I remember them trying to teach me how to earn a living as an actor.

CM: Has anybody every broken your heart?

LJ: Oh my god, yes! It's usually a straight boy. I don't know what it is about me. What do I think, like they are going to wake up one morning and say, I don't like pussy anymore and I like dick today? Hello! Over the years that has been my thing. I don't know what that's about, falling in love with people who are completely unavailable. But I have that under the control.

CM: Are you in love with the straight man with whom you live?

LJ: I was for many, many years and it was a rough go. He's left me over the years for women, but he always ended up back with me. He's 34 years old now and so fucking gorgeous I can't bare to look at him sometimes.

He was asleep on the couch the other night. I saw him, even after eight years, I couldn't breathe. He's so pretty. He stops traffic. I introduce him as my straight husband.

CM: What are you most proud of in your life?

LJ: I got off a bus in 1982 on the hills of Tennessee. I had a degree in theater. I had $1,200 sewn into my underpants (back then you didn't have ATM machines) and I had a tiny suitcase and a dream. My dream was, and I was pragmatic about things, to be able to earn a living as an actor. My big grime with theater schools is that they teach you how to act but never once do I remember them trying to teach me how to earn a living as an actor.

On my own, without knowing anyone in business — no cousins, no uncles — I was able to carve out a successful career. After 30 some years, I feel I am relevant, that I am on the up and up.

I didn't know I was popular across the pond. There's a line in Sordid Lives that goes, "Can you see my pussy now?" Well, I was walking down the street in London near Piccadilly Circus when a cab slowed down. I thought, I don't need a cab? And this guy, in a very distinctive British accent, yelled, "Can you see my pussy now!" and gave me the thumbs up.

I started crying. I was standing there with tears down my face because I thought, "I made it. They're yelling my lines."

___

The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts presents Leslie Jordan and Varla Jean Merman on Saturday, 8 p.m. Tickets start at $42.75 and can be purchased online or by calling 713-315-2525.

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