A Viral Star Is Reborn
Thanks to Leslie Jordan’s quarantine videos, the world now knows him for exactly who he is
“Where should I be looking? There? Or there?”
His face smothering the camera as he wonders where his eyes should be, Leslie Jordan is settling into our video interview like it could be a comic routine about somebody trying to use Zoom for the first time. Puckered together in a kind of duck-face pout are his elastic lips. A delicate smile curls into formation.
Then Jordan scoots so low that only his forehead is visible. More duck face. A big eyes-squished grin. A peculiar sound that may or may not be a fart. And finally a tickled laugh when I tell him I recognize that he’s in the same room that made him a viral sensation.
“It’s the only room I’ve got!” he chuckles, noting that he’s on video from his bedroom in West Hollywood. “I’ve got everything set up. And there’s my bed!”
Sure enough, that is his bed. Throughout the pandemic as he’s documented his quarantine experiences, that same bed has been seen all over his Instagram feed. There, as a COVID respite, Jordan has delivered lighthearted frivolity and cheeky humor to those he calls his “fellow hunker-downers,” in, of course, his signature Southern drawl. In one clip, he listens to a Katy Perry song that is “so lit,” while another finds him curious about Lizzo’s definition of “her juice.” Internet virality might be new for Jordan, but, at least in the LGBTQ+ community, he’s always been a star.
Jordan’s three-decade career has, most iconically, seen the 65-year-old actor in the Emmy-winning role of Beverley Leslie, a rival of Megan Mullally’s Karen Walker, in “Will & Grace.” But his career in TV and film goes back to the ’80s, in guest appearances in a variety of major shows: “Murphy Brown,” “Star Trek: Voyager,” “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” “Reba” and “Caroline in the City.” More recently, Jordan starred in several seasons of Ryan Murphy’s “American Horror Story,” and this year he stars alongside Mayim Bialik and fellow out actor Cheyenne Jackson in the Fox sitcom “Call Me Kat.”
When a friend told him he had gone viral while Jordan was quarantining with his mom in Tennessee in mid-March of last year, Jordan told that friend that, no, he was fine. He didn’t have coronavirus. But the kind of “viral” his friend was referring to was related to Instagram, where he has gone from just thousands of followers to, currently, around 5.6 million. He’s been called the “Quarantine Comedian” and “Social Media Mister Rogers.” To all his new fans and even those who know him from “Will & Grace” and in other bit parts, though, he’s most thrilled to be known now as simply Leslie Jordan.
Congratulations, first of all, on surviving and thriving in a pandemic.
Give me a good pandemic — I just flourish! Ha! I don’t know why that is or how that happened, but I think people were looking for just some laughter. I started that Instagram — I was in Tennessee with my mom, and I didn’t have a lot to do. So I just started being funny. I had three rules that I realized I had and didn’t know I had: nothing about religion, nothing about politics, and no products. I’m kind of wanting to rethink that “no products” part. Ha!
You could really be making some bank right now.
Ha! I’d be set for life!
I mean, all the free swag!
Well, I get that. That comes in the mail. It’s weird. It scares me. ’Cause they have my home address. I don’t know how. But things come every day.
What’s the coolest thing you got recently?
I got these shoes that you tap. You tap and roller skates come out. I don’t know where I’ll wear them.
I see you’re back in your place after the meltdown you had the other day in your car, which you sat in until the cleaning lady was done. I’m glad to see you’re back in a comfortable place. Are you OK?
I am! I don’t know if I said cleaning lady; it’s not even a cleaning lady. I have a friend that started working for me a long, long time ago named Bart Stevens. He’s a great, big, beautiful muscle boy. He’s huge. We’re just friends. We’ve always just been friends. But he’s huge. Besides lifting weights and running and everything, he loves to clean. And also iron! He irons everything in the house. It’s so funny to see him — he’ll put that ironing board up and iron my sheets.
What is he wearing during all this? I mean, if anything.
He just wears his gym clothes. I make him put on a little French maid costume — no, ha!
I had a conversation with my housemate recently about being aging gays and how I look to you as inspiration because you are 65 and in your prime, I would say. And so people telling me that, for gay people who get older, there’s nothing left for us after a certain age, you have completely turned that upside down.
Oh, that’s so kind to say. Because I remember my 50s were tough. As you get older, you walk down the street and people don’t even look at you. It’s weird the way we treat people that are older, and especially in West Hollywood, where everybody wants to be young and beautiful.
I think we’re past that as a gay community. I hope. You know, I think that also had a lot to do with the bar scene, which has been curtailed. But even before that, back in my day — I got here (to California) in ’82 — all you had were the bars; you’d go to the bars. That’s just where you went to see other gay people and meet other gay people. Now I think, “My gosh, we have everything. We have choirs. And we have gay camping. We have gay this, we have gay that.” There’s a lot of ways, plus the internet, where you can meet people.
My generation, we went through so much. I remember I walked up to these young kids holding hands in Kitchen 24 (in West Hollywood) and I just said, “You have no idea what we went through so you guys could…” — and then all of a sudden it hit me: Oh my god, I don’t want to be that, like your granddad who would say, “You kids have no idea what we went through!” I thought, “Oh my god! It’s the same thing!” They were like, “Yeah, uh-huh, go on, Pop-Pop.”
Does it feel like right now is kind of a new beginning for you? Or just the beginning in a lot of ways?
As you said, I’m 65. I have achieved everything I came to Hollywood to achieve. I’ve done Broadway, I’ve done film, I’ve done a lot of television. And I have this series now on the air (“Call Me Kat”) and it looks like it’s pulling some numbers. It may stay around for a little while, which is a wonderful thing to know as an actor. I have a job!
People think that you’re rich, you’ve said.
And I’m not. Listen, she works hard for the money! I think what it feels like is that I have achieved everything. And also, I’m more comfortable with myself. I’m perfectly comfortable. I got sober 22 years ago. I had a little drinking problem, and I might’ve done a tiny bit of crystal meth. I got clean and sober and realized that I was just riddled with internal homophobia.
(I was) 42 years old and here I was the life of the party, this and that, but all of a sudden I’m faced with that. And my journey into my sobriety, which has been the last 22 years, has also been a real good journey into my queerdom. It was a lot of therapy. You go to your meetings, and then I had to go to a recovery program because I had too many meetings. I was going to so many meetings, I thought, “I’m addicted to meetings!” Ha! No, I’m teasing.
I sit here (now) so comfortable with myself, with who I am and what I am. And that’s a wonderful place to be. So everything from here on out is just gravy. It really is just living life one day at a time and having a really good time.
And you can say that now because you have finally met Dolly Parton.
That’s it. Now all I ask myself is, “What would Dolly do?” She’s a sterling human being. Oh my gosh.
What was the first thing that you said to Dolly when you met her last year?
I was in Nashville recording. I have a gospel album coming out that I’m not gonna talk a whole lot about because everybody’s not set. But anyway, we were recording and she was at a studio near us and she said, “Drop by.” I just felt like I’d known her forever.
What can you say about the song that you have in the works?
It’s an old, old, old hymn. It’s one that she said to me, “I sang that in church growing up, I sang that hymn over and over and over again.” When I hear her singing this song with me, I’ll wet my pants.
How did the gospel album come about?
My friend Travis Howard and his producing partner in Nashville, Danny Myrick, we would record Sunday hymns and just put them on the internet, just the two of us, and it was so popular on Instagram and people said, “You should do an album.” I thought, “Well, I’m not a singer, really. I’ve got the kind of voice that’s good for a hymn, but I’m not a singer.” The response was just unbelievable (from) people who said, “I’ll be on that album with you.”
What’s your earliest memory of singing?
Church, of course. We’d sing, “Who’s come to Sunday school? Leslie, Leslie! Who’s come to Sunday school? Le-e-e-slie!”
You also have a book called “How Y’all Doing?” coming out in April. What are we going to learn about you from the book that we don’t already know?
I don’t know that you’ll really learn anything because I want to make sure that it wasn’t — you know, in “My Trip Down the Pink Carpet,” I covered everything. (For this), what I decided to do was to take all my best dinner party stories. So I’ve got 12 stories that are just fun, just things that have happened to me, lessons that I have learned. A little bit but not much about me, just life in general.
My favorite of all of them is when I got to throw the first pitch out for the Washington Nationals, having never thrown a baseball in my life. And it’s the craziest story, and it involved Pulse nightclub. Because it was part of my one-man show, I got to tell it to Mrs. Obama. She was in the audience. Michelle Obama came to see me! I got to tell that story. It’s in the book. It ends the book.
Will any tea be spilled?
Well, I don’t think so. Certainly not about anybody else. I made sure. I don’t like that, when people talk ugly about other people. That’s my New Year’s resolution: to be really, really sweet and nice and not ever talk ugly. I’m gonna try to stop cussing. I don’t know how I’m gonna do that. Ha! I cuss — not a lot, but I just don’t want to cuss at all.
What’s gonna be the hardest cuss word for you to give up?
Probably the “f” word. I say that a lot. Ha! Also, shit. I use that so much: “Well shiiiit, how y’all doin’?” That’s not really a bad word. I guess it is. I’ll say, “Well, shoot!”
Or: “Well, crap!”
I read the other day … you’re not going to believe this: You know where “crap” came from? The toilet was invented by Mr. Crapper. It’s a true story! Thomas Crapper. And that’s how it started. The crapper to sit, to take a crap. It was his name! He invented the first flushing toilet or somethin’.
With “Call Me Kat,” there’s an episode where the cake shop is misperceived as homophobic. Because of that, you gay it up, of course, with flags and rainbow balloons, and there’s even a cat named Neil “Catrick” Harris. That seems like a pretty gay day on set.
Ha! The show is so gay friendly. It’s a job in which I really look forward to coming to work. I love the people, I love the writing. Darlene Hunt, our writer, is just hilarious. She’s from Louisville, Kentucky, so I’m kind of the real Southern voice. I’m the one who really puts out, “Hey, hey, hey, we’re in Louisville.”
And so she loves writing for me. She loves to write me monologues, and they came to me the other day and she said, “Are you having trouble memorizing these?” I said, “Yes! I’m having big trouble!” “Would you like cue cards?” I said, “Well, no, it hadn’t reached that yet.”
Do you have any tricks for memorizing your lines?
Someone told me a long time ago that if you do it right before you fall asleep — if you read those lines right when you’re just about to fall asleep — you’ll remember them. And I said, “Bull hockey! That ain’t workin’ at all!”
For this new generation of fans you have who’ve discovered you on Instagram, what is something about your career you would like them to know?
My first job ever was (the ’80s TV series) “The Fall Guy” with Lee Majors and I played a killer. I did six episodes. “Murphy Brown” came around about that time. What interests me (about) my Instagram, which has just jumped to about 5.6 million, is how many people discovered me there that didn’t know me. I think: “I’ve been around forever! Foreveeeer I’ve been doing this!”
But I like the fact that I mistakenly thought that people would know me from my roles. So they would think, “Oh, Beverley Leslie on ‘Will & Grace’ and, you know, (my line) ‘Well, well, well. Karen Walker.’” But my new fans know me as me. I think that’s kind of nice that people are responding to me, not some character that I play.
Some actors end up regretting a role they played that became the only thing they were known for.
Like Tanya Roberts who just died. I thought, “My god, bless her heart. To go to your grave with Sheena: Queen of the (Jungle).” Ha! And she did other things, but you’re exactly right: You’re remembered for whatever that was. I can’t think of anything I’m ashamed of, or something I wish I hadn’t done.
What do you want to be remembered for?
I want to be remembered like a Dolly Parton — that nobody had a bad word (about). “He was a nice guy.” And the fact that I’m fairly talented in this and that, that’s OK. But I just want people to know he was good. He was a nice guy. He was a good guy. I think that’s most important. And that I was raised right. I want to say to these kids now: “Who raised you? Who raised you!”
Was your Southern accent and what you’ve called your “gay voice” always embraced like it is now?
I got to Hollywood and there was a casting director that told me, “You’re such a character actor already, and if you could lose your Southern accent… .” And I tried, and I couldn’t. The day that I decided, “Well, this is just a marketable package here” was the day that I started working. But I worried more, I think, because of my internal homophobia about my gay accent. I would listen to myself and think, “Oh, girl, you’ve gotta calm down a little bit.”
I don’t think that I ever lost a job (because of it). I was on “Star Trek” and they hired a linguist to teach me how to say the words and she got so exasperated she said, “Mr. Jordan, ‘feather’ doesn’t have four syllables!” I don’t think I’ll ever be like Robert De Niro or Meryl Streep. I’ll never just disappear into a role. I just do what I do and various forms of it and it’s worked thus far, and kept me afloat.
I think next for you is a pony farm.
That’s it. I’m not looking yet. I want a four-stall barn. Probably somewhere near Nashville. That to me would just be heaven. I’m riding already. I go out to the L.A. Equestrian Center. I’m doing pretty good! I fell off the other day. Everybody freaked out. It was not the horse’s fault. The watering truck went by and Jeb was just as steady as could be — just freaked — and he ducked sideways. I landed on my feet but everybody said, “You be careful!”
We gotta protect you at all costs.
Wrap me in bubble wrap!
As editor of Q Syndicate, the LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.