The DeLaria effect
“If I offend you, you probably needed it and I am just the badass butch dyke to do it.”
When Lea DeLaria read the script for Big Boo’s backstory episode, she called writer Lauren Morelli immediately. “I teared up, which is un-butch-like I know, but I’m also Italian. I said to her, ‘I feel like you’ve read my diary’.”
We’re speaking long-distance, Lea squeezing me into her packed LA schedule in between wrapping a movie and strutting her stuff for the DIVA photoshoot, me in a slightly less showbiz village in northern England, chin-wagging with Lea before I take out the bins.
If you want to know what the actress, singer and bonafide dykon is like in real life, just imagine Boo (the part was created for her) but at her most charming and rocking a slick suit.
I tell her that Finger In The Dyke is my all-time favourite episode of everyone’s favourite prison dramedy and she seems pleased. I’m not the only one to have relished that rare TV gem – an authentic onscreen portrayal of the queer female experience – which boasts some of the series’ best lines including, “I refuse to be invisible” and my personal favourite, “You were so hot before you were a cunt”.
Since its release, Lea has become the go-to celeb for youngsters suffocating in the closet. Talking to her you quickly realise that, much like her character on Orange, she has a compassionate side belying her tough exterior. She’s sincere when she tells me, “I take it very seriously. Because of social media, they reach right out and touch me now”.
The messages that fill her inbox range from the heartwarming (“Thank you so much for Big Boo, because of her I came out”) to the horrifying (“I’m a lesbian and I can’t tell my family or they’ll stone me to death”). And then there’s the other kind... “To all the 16-year-old girls out there, stop direct mailing me on Instagram talking about wanting to be with me. I am 58 years old!”
While Boo’s backstory started in Cleveland, Lea’s groundbreaking career began in San Francisco’s legendary queer cabaret club, the Valencia Rose, in 1982. “I performed under the name ‘That Fucking Dyke’. I’d be introduced, ‘Please welcome to the stage, That Fucking Dyke!’ I was a queer in-your- face radical comic when Aids was called ‘gay cancer’.”
Her big break came in 1993 when she was the first openly gay comic to appear on American TV, with a spot on The Arsenio Hall Show. “The first sentence out of my mouth was, ‘Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. It’s the 1990s, it’s hip to be queer and I’m a big dyke’.”
I ask if she was nervous about making such a bold statement on national television and she laughs wildly. “In 1993?! Yeah! Remember it wasn’t until 1997 that Ellen DeGeneres was on the cover of a magazine saying, ‘Yep, I’m gay’. I said, ‘I’m a big dyke’, not ‘Yep, I’m gay’, and it was four years earlier. Of course it was nerve-wracking.”
Luckily her big gay gamble paid off and she’s been at the heart of Hollywood’s queer revolution ever since. In fact, if I was writing the syllabus for LGBTV History 101, Lea would get her own module. She even had a cameo in Friends, The One With The Lesbian Wedding (YouTube the clip and you’ll see a young Lea, Brylcreem on point, chatting up an unsuspecting Phoebe).
During her 35-year career, she’s seen and been a key part of Tinsel- town’s transformation into a modern day melting pot of diversity, or as Lea puts it, “Throw a rock, hit a lesbian”.
Read the rest of our exclusive interview in the June issue of DIVA, available now at divadigital.co.uk.