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Orange is the New Black star: if I offend you, you probably fucking need it

Orange is the New Black star: if I offend you, you probably fucking need it
Photograph: Jessica Miglio/Netflix

According to actor, comedian and singer Lea DeLaria, her character on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black is almost certainly the first positive portrayal of a butch lesbian in mainstream media. That might seem like a big claim, but ask yourself: how many gay women have you seen on TV who fall under the “butch” label, expressing their identity through traditionally masculine mannerisms and style?

DeLaria’s Carrie ‘Big Boo’ Black is an inmate in the prison-set dramedy, who is initially feared by the show’s protagonist who thinks the fat, heavily tattooed woman with shaved hair must be aggressive and dangerous. But while Big Boo doesn’t shy away from confrontation and fiercely defends herself and her friends, she’s also smarter, more compassionate and more sensitive than audiences might expect of her.

“My whole career has been ‘don’t judge a butch by its cover’,” DeLaria says. “And Orange has been very helpful with that.”

Fans of the Netflix series, which premiered in 2013, mightn’t know that DeLaria is also a prodigiously talented jazz singer with five albums to her name and significant credits in Broadway musicals. She’ll be returning to Sydney in June for a night of stand-up comedy and jazz. We sit down with DeLaria to talk the stereotypes that hang over her career, being a proud, outspoken dyke and partying it up with her famous friends at Mardi Gras.

On breaking stereotypes 

“People have always been surprised by what I can do,” DeLaria says. “I walk out on stage, looking the way I look, then I do what I do and I think people are always shocked by it.”

DeLaria’s music and stand-up has had a significant cult following since long before Orange is the New Black brought her widespread recognition. She’s been working on stage and screen since the late 1980s, and in 1993 she broke through on The Arsenio Hall Show as the first openly gay stand-up act on an American late-night talk show. The TV landscape was rather different back then, and for most of her career there really weren’t any other women like DeLaria making a living in mainstream entertainment.

“There was nothing for me,” she says. “I played a lot of PE teachers and police lieutenants, and of course the lesbian who inappropriately hits on straight women at every function. I did that on everything until I just said ‘no, I’m not doing that anymore, I’m so sick of this. This is the only representation of queers that you can give? No thank you.’”

“And then of course there was lesbian chic. I actually have T-shirts that say ‘I survived lesbian chic’. At the time the lesbians on screen were really chic but it was never lesbians portraying lesbians, none of the parts were written by lesbians, it was all directed by men and was this whole male concept of what lesbians were. Then they’d cast me in some minor role to legitimise their fucking film or television show? Been there, done that, over it."

On being outspoken 

The word ‘outspoken’ gets applied to plenty of people who are part of a certain minority, but with DeLaria it’s a label that’s felt appropriate for all of her career. In late 2016 she drew the ire of conservative commentators for comments that were perceived to support violence against supporters of Donald Trump (although she quickly retracted), and in 2014 a video of her out-preaching a bible-basher on a New York subway went viral.

 

That fearless and forthright attitude has been there right from the start, when in 1993 DeLaria ignored unwanted advice that she shouldn’t apply the label “dyke” to herself on her first late-night appearance.

“If I offend you, you probably fucking need it,” she says. “I upset people on the left as much as I upset people on the right. Because let’s face it, the left is fucking annoying sometimes. I cannot have the language nazis in my face. When I’m on stage, I call my audience bitches all the time – ‘hey bitches, blah blah’ – I get these ultra left lesbians saying ‘don’t use the word bitch’. I’m sorry, but have you missed that I’m saying everyone’s a bitch? It’s not just women? Or then I get those conservative ones saying ‘don’t say the word dyke’. Fuck you: I’m a dyke.”

On jazz music and Bowie

Unsurprisingly, DeLaria’s stand-up often takes a strong political bent and is “not for the faint of heart”. She says the music in her show offers a touch of respite from her fiery rants.

“I’m incredibly drawn to jazz: it’s America’s one true artform,” says DeLaria, whose passion for music came from growing up with her jazz pianist father. But unlike many other jazz singers, DeLaria mostly steers clear of the great American songbook and uses the language of jazz to reinvent other music.

“Jazz is dying out, and I think one of the reasons it is dying out is because how many times can you listen to the same 50 fucking songs over and over again,” she says.

Her latest album is House of David and features 12 songs by pop-rock legend David Bowie, reinterpreted with a jazz ensemble. It was released in 2015, just a few months before Bowie’s death, and the project had his blessing. Bowie revealed and promoted the album cover on his website and encouraged his fans to donate to the crowd-funding campaign behind the album.

“We were working to bring him in to see a run of the show in New York and setting up the tickets when he died. Like all of us, I was devastated when he died.” 

On musical theatre and her Broadway return

When DeLaria isn’t being fearlessly herself on stage, she’s stepping into the skins of different characters. In 1998, she won the Theater World Award for playing taxi driver Hildy in the Leonard Bernstein musical On the Town (and was controversially snubbed from the Tony Award nominations) and in 2000 stepped into Meat Loaf’s shoes on Broadway as Eddie in The Rocky Horror Show.

She says she’d love to one day play Rose in Gypsy (a role commonly referred to as the “King Lear of musical theatre”), but doubts the commercial and frequently conservative powers-that-be would let her do so. But she says her Broadway musical return could be just around the corner, with a new show being written specifically for her talents.

“I keep saying I want somebody to write something for me. Well somebody’s doing it and it’s somebody very good. Somebody with many, many, many credits, and I’m very excited about it. It’s just the beginning stages, so we’re not going to see this for at least a year.”

On Mardi Gras and her Magda Szubanski connection

DeLaria is a frequent visitor to Australian shores and had the opportunity to catch up and celebrate with Magda Szubanski, an old friend who she first met a decade ago in London.

“I was a huge fan of Kath and Kim when I met her, so it was really fun to meet her, and she’s crazy funny. I always have such a great time with her.”

But DeLaria’s main reason for being in Australia was to appear on Netflix’s float in the 40th anniversary of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras alongside Australian actor and her Orange is the New Black co-star Yael Stone.

“I was worried because everybody was saying ‘you’re going to have so much fun’, and then I got nervous: ‘everybody stop talking, because what if it’s horrifyingly bad? What if I’m so New York about it that it’s awful?’ But it lived up to the hype. I love how the whole fucking city turns out for it too. There was rainbow everywhere.

“It was a bucket-list one for me: I’ve done all the other really big [pride events], so to be able to come here and do this; you guys really do it right.”

Lea DeLaria is performing at City Recital Hall on June 9.

Looking for more theatre in Sydney? See our latest reviews of the biggest shows in the city.

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