No one could have predicted that one of the saviours of the global pandemic would be Leslie Jordan, whose daily Instagram updates kept his millions of followers entertained while much of the world was on lockdown.
Now 67, the Will & Grace star is as in demand as he’s ever been, currently starring in Call Me Kat (the US remake of Miranda), fronting a gameshow overseas and even releasing his first gospel album, which saw him collaborating with everyone from Brandi Carlile to Leslie’s ultimate queer icon herself, Dolly Parton.
“I got off a bus in, like, the 80s from Tennessee with these dreams of being in the movies and this and that,” he recalls. “So much has happened, and I’ve kind of accomplished what I set out to accomplish – but things come out of left-field! And it seems like, especially lately with the internet, it’s taken me to even bigger places. Who knew?
“I didn’t even know what Instagram was really and then all of a sudden, here I am with almost six million followers. And it feels wonderful, it really does.”
He continues: “I just wanted to do something kind of funny every day that would just give people the chance to take two or three minutes away from whatever they were going through. And bam! My friend called me from California when I was in Tennessee and said, ‘girl you’ve gone viral’. I thought he meant I had Covid! I said, ‘no I don’t have the virus!’. He said ‘no, no, no, internet viral’.”
Our candid conversation with Leslie falls around the time of Pride celebrations all over the world, and having been out since the early days of his career, he’s seen plenty of changes to the movement over the decades.
“You know, there was so much drinking and drugging going on – I’m sober now, 25 years,” he recalls with a laugh of his early years attending Pride.
“I remember one of the first Prides that I was really involved with. LA had a big, big Pride, but they called because they wanted to start a Pride parade in Nashville, Tennessee which, back then, that was kind of scary! They could get chased and who knows?
“But I remember the guy telling me, I thought it was the best quote ever, ‘honey, we’re not going to have a big Pride like Los Angeles. It’s basically going to be two lesbians, a banner and a baton-twirling queen’. And it was!”
His Pride plans for 2023 are a little more low-key, Leslie admits.
“I’m working – honey, I’m a career girl, I got to keep this old ship afloat,” he jokes. “I don’t get out a lot, so my plans for Pride? I’m just here in my apartment cheering everyone on. ‘Go, go, go! You go girl! Get out in that heat, put on that bikini and walk up and down!’.”
Here’s what Leslie had to tell us about his deep love for Dolly Parton, how Ellen DeGeneres blazed a new trail for US television and how success came when he began embracing his true self…
Who was the first queer person you can remember looking up to?
I probably had other ones first, but someone I really, really looked up to and admired was Ellen DeGeneres. I had been out forever, but being out and being on a TV show, I always worried. And then all of a sudden, Ellen kind of paved the way. That could have really backfired. And it didn’t.
I remember thinking, “wow, that’s so brave”. With kids today it probably seems silly, they’re like, “what?!”. But honey, you have no idea what the climate was like. Even in the entertainment industry! You’d go out to bars and you’d see all the producers and actors dancing, but during the day, it was very wink wink, hush hush.
I even had agents that would tell me before an audition, “honey, hands at your side, not up here. Put your voice in your lower register. Don’t swish”. They would tell you things like that! And I’m thinking, “oh my gosh, how am I going to pull this off?”.
But then, I’ve had casting directors tell me, “you know what honey, if you just be yourself, you’re going to have a lot of success”, and that was a wonderful realisation. They’d kind of know that I was trying to butch it up or whatever – honey, forget it.
What was the first LGBTQ TV show or film that you remember resonating with you?
I snuck into see Making Love, which was one of the first queer movies ever. It’s a wonderful little film. It starred Harry Hamlin and Kate Jackson, and it was heartwrenching. It was about these two guys that fall in love, they’re both kind of in the straight world, and one of them is engaged to be married.
I just sat there and sobbed because it’s so sad that these guys were in love and they couldn’t be together… It’s such a little time capsule of that era.
What’s a song you associate with your own coming out?
There are two songs that I remember from that time – Rock The Boat and Young Hearts Run Free. Oh honey, I was young, I was so cute, everybody wanted to fuck me and I let ’em – because there was no AIDS, the worse you’d get would be a little dose of the clap or something, so you’d get a little shot and you’d be out again the next night. We were just wild.
What I really miss about that time was you’d have the one gay bar, and in that bar would have everyone from older men to young college kids, lawyers, Black, white, lesbians, everybody. We had nothing in common except that we were gay. And we were all under that roof.
There was such a sense of “all of us together” and you kind of get that at Pride when you’re out marching, but it’s not like it used to be. I think about kids that come out now, and they have to find their tribe within the tribe! You’ve got to find your own group. But I think that’s wonderful.
What was the most recent LGBTQ show or film that made an impact on you?
I went to see the movie about the two cowboys, Brokeback Mountain. And I went to see it the next day, and I went to see it the next day. I saw it five times.
I remember the ending scene where one of them has died, and he opens his closet and you see the other one has kept his shirt… and also the scene where Michelle Williams, she opens the door and sees them kissing, and the look on her face, I just thought it was so wonderfully done.
I was in Dallas, Texas and I took an older friend of mine, probably in his 80s, to see it. And when Michelle Williams looked down and saw they were kissing, he said out loud in the theatre, “been there!”. And everybody turned around!
And do you know, I haven’t seen a movie since then. I don’t go to the movies! I think the thing is, because I work in the industry, I sit in movies and I think, “my god, that worked, what a great scene”, or I’ll think, “oh my god that didn’t work” or, “I could have played that part”. And I don’t watch TV, I haven’t turned on my TV in years.
And as for watching myself, no no no no no no. I cannot stand the way I sound! I open my mouth and 50 yards of purple chiffon comes out. I’ll even be surfing the TV and it’s like, “oh lord, there she is”. I just don’t like to listen to myself or watch myself. It takes me to a place I don’t want to go. I’m 67 years old, I’m perfectly happy with who I am and what I am. And so, I don’t worry about that.
Who is your ultimate queer icon?
Dolly Parton. She’s always been on our side – and you cannot find anybody who’s got a bad word to say about Dolly Parton. I got to meet her, and now people ask me, “what’s she like?”. Well, you know exactly what she’s like! What you see is what you get.
I get up in the morning and I think, “what would Dolly do?”. Forget Jesus, what would Dolly do?
Who is a queer person in the public eye right now that makes you excited about the future?
Pete Buttigeig. He ran [as a candidate for president in 2020] and now he’s in Biden’s cabinet, he’s secretary of transportation. And what a boring thing, secretary of transportation, but he’s on the news all the time, because he comes up with all these wonderful ideas. He’s got to be the first secretary of transportation to get any airtime because, you know, he’s handsome, he’s articulate. When he was running for president, I was so excited about that. I’d love to meet him one day.
Why do you think Pride is still so important today?
I live in Hollywood, very near where the parades go and everything, and you know, you reach a point where you think, “honey, my parade days are over, I’ll leave that up to the kids”, but I’ve done my share over the years.
Pride is important for our community. It’s the one day out of the year that we can really celebrate who we are and what we are, and god just how far we’ve come. I want to reach a point where a parent can look at their kid and say, “you know, I think he’s gonna be gay”, where it’s not necessarily a big Pride [moment], but also with no shame, just it is what it is. And the younger generation are like that, they don’t see the big deal, it just doesn’t seem to matter at all, who’s gay and who’s not.
What’s your message for the next generation of LGBTQ people?
I think there’s still work to be done, we’re not where we should be. It’s especially just so frightening [in the US] with the Republicans. I was raised in the church, I’ve been baptised 14 times, because in my religion, the preacher would say, “would the lost sinner please come forward to escape eternal hell blah blah blah?”, and I’d think, “oooh, I was behind the bar with that boy”, so I’d go running up and get baptised, and the preacher would say, “I believe I baptised you already”. My mother would put her hand on my knee and say, “remain seated, you are already saved”. So, I know how tricky those [people can be], when you add God into the formula, and they believe that God is on their side.
I loved when someone came up with [the slogan] “the Christian right is neither, they’re not Christian and they’re not right”. But they’re frightening, and they are after us.
So, I would say to the new generation we have to remain diligent, we cannot rest on our laurels. Go out to the bars and have your fun, but still vote. That’s what I want to say. I’m from the generation that marched in the streets, and that brings attention to your cause, but the only thing that changes is from within and you have to vote. Your vote counts. So register to vote, and vote. That’s my message.
Follow Leslie Jordan on Instagram here.