One of the most buzzed-about scenes in Season 3 of Orange Is the New Black is a flashback showing Lea DeLaria’s character, Big Boo — presently in prison for felony theft/fraud — as a young butch-about-town in a lesbian bar in the mid-Nineties Midwest. Boo hits on a cute femme but then rattles the girl when, on the sidewalk outside, she erupts at a creep who calls the two “fucking dykes.” The episode, written by Lauren Morelli — who made headlines in 2014 for divorcing her husband and partnering up with OITNB star Samira Wiley — later shows Boo quietly telling her father why she won’t put on a dress even to visit her dying mother at her bedside: “I won’t be invisible.”
It’s amply clear that, for Boo, invisibility isn’t an option. Nor has it ever been for DeLaria, who calls herself the first openly gay comic to appear on national TV (in 1993, on The Arsenio Hall Show). Boo’s gutsy declarations echo the brassy self-confidence, political intransigence, and infectious good nature of the actor who portrays her, who was born in the Midwest in the late 1950s and has charted a career arc that includes not only TV, stand-up, theater (The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, On the Town, The Rocky Horror Show, etc.), and movies (The First Wives Club) but also jazz piano. The daughter of a jazz musician and a homemaker, DeLaria has five albums under her belt, including 2015’s House of David (Ghostlight Records). She is also, as theater lovers well know, host of the annual Obie awards. (For this year’s winners, turn to page 8.)
“It’s exciting, what’s happening in the theater today, and it’s Off-Broadway that’s pushing it all,” DeLaria says one sunny weekday afternoon before the recent Obies ceremony. “New York theater had become so corpora-fied. It was killing the creativity. I celebrate now at the Obies how that has changed. In the last few years, really what’s winning the Tonys and getting the nominations — Fun Home, Hamilton, and they’re just the two that pop into my head right now — are shows that started Off-Broadway and then went to Broadway.”
DeLaria leans in to roar that last phrase then laughs mightily. We’re sitting in a Bushwick bar not far from where she lives with her fiancée, former fashion editor and now fashion designer Chelsea Fairless. There’s no one else in the room, yet DeLaria commands a delivery that has made her incandescently visible in venues ranging from raucous comedy clubs to the Sydney Opera House. Her look, her voice, and her political convictions are all meant to get attention, in the nicest possible way. A tireless champion of LGBT rights and self-determined individuality for over thirty years, DeLaria says she’s delighted with the added visibility that OITNB has given her.
“People came up to me in the street all over the world in ’93 because they watched The Arsenio Hall Show, but that was 20 million people. And I did Broadway shows, so New Yorkers and all gay men knew me. Shortly after On the Town I would go into bars and drag queens would be doing me singing ‘I Can Cook, Too’ — I loved it! But the digital age is so different. Orange is so popular and well received. There are over 80 million people who watch this show worldwide, waiting breathlessly for the next season, and when they drop it [Season 4 launches June 17], 80 million people will be watching it at the same time and telling their friends about it.”
That’s real power, I say.
“That’s the thing,” exclaims DeLaria. “Everybody on the show is using this power for good. Are you fucking kidding me? I’ve spent my entire career trying to change people’s perceptions about what it is to be a butch dyke — and I’ve had the most trouble within my own queer community. Enter [OITNB creator] Jenji Kohan, our writers, the creative team, all of us actors, and Netflix, all coming together and doing more for the butch image in the last three years than I’ve done for thirty years out there, plugging away.”
DeLaria takes a sip of her coffee, which is spiked with añejo tequila.
“I’ve always said it takes all of us to effect change,” she says. “Conservative gay people tend to look at me and someone like Larry Kramer, or Sandra Bernhard and some other people I can think of who are edgier queers, and say, ‘You do more harm than good.’ I like to call us the gay pariahs. And to [these critics] I say, I reach people that Ellen DeGeneres couldn’t reach, ever, in a million years, and Ellen reaches people that I could never reach in a million years; and the two of us, on our own little paths, in our own little ways, are able to change more minds. When we combine our powers, we reach more people. We’re all on the same team.”
Sitting with DeLaria, it’s impossible to ignore her star power — which seems grounded in plain-ole respect for self and others. Bar staff seem quietly thrilled by her presence, and she is unflaggingly warm with them. With the physical presence of a prizefighter and the megawatt smile of a politician, she flashes electric blue eyes over a pair of classic Ray-Bans. Her tattoos are as outspoken as she is (“BUTCH” trails vertically down the outside of her right forearm) and her buzzcut is flawless. Turns out the barbershop is nearby.
“It’s a place called Graceland,” says DeLaria. “It’s sorta Williamsburg, sorta Greenpoint, sorta Bushwick. B, who owns the joint — she’s my big butch barber. They do men and women. It’s the fucking shit. Her name is Bethany but I call her B, because if you see her, you understand why you could never call her Bethany.”
Although DeLaria talks about the next tattoo she’d like to acquire, that probably won’t happen soon. She’s been made a regular for Season 4 of Orange Is the New Black, and the show has just been renewed for an unprecedented three more seasons. “I can’t add any tattoos, because I’m in prison,” she laughs. “But obviously I love a tattoo. As soon as Orange is done, I’m going to have tattooed on my leg, or it might be on my arm, ‘Excuse my fingers but I really want that bacon.’ My fiancée says, ‘You’re not.’ And I say, ‘Oh, I am.’ ”
Fairless and DeLaria met through a mutual friend, OITNB star Emma Myles. Their first date was what DeLaria describes as “progressive,” starting downtown, at the legendary Cubbyhole lesbian bar; then proceeding uptown to the West 56th Street outpost of Joe’s Shanghai, for pork dumplings; then ending up at the Smoke Jazz & Supper Club at Broadway and 105th Street, for an evening of Mike LeDonne’s B3 organ and Champagne. “In the middle of it, she leaned over and said, ‘This is the most fun I’ve ever had in New York,’ ” says DeLaria. “I knew it was trouble right away — that she loved to go to a jazz club and listen to organ music. Now, I wrote the joke, ‘What does a lesbian bring on a second date? A U-Haul.’ I mean, I’m not that person. I make fun of those people and wrote an iconic joke about it, right? But there we were, pushing each other away. We started dating in October, and by Christmas we said, ‘C’mon, we gotta…’ ” The wedding date has been set for January 2017, a few months after Fairless’s new fashion line debuts at New York Fashion Week.
“The concept of gay marriage, while I think it’s right for many folks, I’ve never been sure it was right for me,” DeLaria muses. “I’ve always questioned what exactly it was that we were fighting for and often wondered whether or not we should be modeling our relationships after what heterosexist society views as a positive relationship. So Chelsea and I weren’t going to get married. But after three years of being together, finally I asked her to marry me — [partly because our country has] the worst situation for medical treatment that I’ve ever seen in my life and I have the best insurance, because of my union. So the romantic concept of this marriage is there, but honestly, in many ways, it’s also a political statement.”
Star power, yes; politicalismo, yes; but DeLaria’s no diva. At the end of a generously chatty hour, she checks in with her people — but before continuing with the call, the Ray-Bans back in place, she asks thoughtfully, “You’re sure you know how to get home from here?”
[This is part of the Voice‘s 2016 Obie Awards coverage. Check out the rest of our Obies features here.]