Rewind to 2012: Lea DeLaria is a moderately well-known standup comic with some TV credits, a little Broadway and a grand voice made for the jazz albums she has released.
Today: “I never had a day job. I enjoyed my climb to the middle. I enjoyed my life then,” said the 57-year-old who grew up in Belleville, lived in London for a couple years and now resides in Brooklyn. “Nowhere in my wildest dreams did I think I would become a TV star. A household name. At this stage in my life.”
That life-alteration began the day in 2013 Lea said yes to a role on a new Netflix dark comedy called “Orange is the New Black.” Set among the female inmates of fictional Litchfield Penitentiary, the award-winning show is now in its third season. Lea is Carrie “Big Boo” Black, an unrepentant womanizer with a high-top buzz cut and a “Butch” tattoo on her right forearm. It’s real, as are the other tattoos.
The satire, streamed to millions of Netflix subscribers, has raised her public profile so high that stepping out in her signature black-frame glasses and tailored Saint Harridan suits causes a stir. Now it’s in a good way.
“The biggest difference in my life now is if I walk out of my apartment I get asked by a thousand people to get their picture taken with me,” she said. “Young girls, guys. Straight. Gay. Whatever. Before, people would spit in my face and call me a dyke.”
Home recently to see her family, she found herself in a bar in Columbia. Customers and workers grabbed their phones, snapping photos, texting and calling friends and employees who were off work to come in and meet Lea.
“It’s completely changed my life; ‘Orange’ has made an impact on every gay person’s life, I think,” she said. “It’s changed hearts and minds. It’s amazing.”
On Thursday, Lea will speak at Lindenwood University in Belleville as part of its Speaker Series, intended to expose the community to a broad range of contemporary topics. The 6:30 p.m. event is free and open to the public.
Always vocal and open about herself, she became the first openly gay comic to appear in national television in 1993 on “The Arsenio Hall Show.” “It’s the 1990s, it’s hip to be queer, and I’m a bi-i-i-i-ig dyke!” was her opening line that broke a barrier for late-night TV.
But it was nothing new for Lea. She had been doing stand-up comedy and challenging widely accepted beliefs about gender since the early 1980s.
Growing up butch
It was her third season on “Orange” that took her back to her own childhood, when her character got a coveted back story episode that told of her estrangement from her family when she told them she was gay.
“It was about growing up butch,” she said. In the episode, her character flashes back to a conversation with her father asking her to dress more like a girl.
“I’ve had to fight for this all my life, Dad,” Big Boo says. “All my life — strangers, girlfriends ... even my own parents — all asking me to be something I am not. Do you have any idea what that feels like? Like your whole ... existence is being denied. ‘It’d be better off if you were invisible.’ I refuse to be invisible, Daddy. Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody. So ... I’m sorry.”
Filming the story took five days out of the typical nine for an episode. The series is shot in New York.
“It was completely, emotionally draining,” Lea said. But, as an actor who got her training on the job, “I did some great stuff.”
In other interviews, Lea has remarked on how the writer of that episode seemed to peer into her own past and see the difficulty she encountered explaining herself to her parents, Jerry and Robert DeLaria. Lea is the second youngest of their five children.
“Yes, I wanted that chocolate bunny at Easter, but my mother would make me wear that damn dress,” Lea said, laughing. “The difference is that my parents never disowned me or threw me out of the house. They came around. They listened. I learned a lot about them. They came to understand that it was more important that I be comfortable in my own skin than it was for me to be who they needed me to be.”
School was never a problem, though she had not come out when she attended Belleville West in the 1970s.
“I was lucky in high school. I was funny. I was the class clown,” she said. “I fit in with all the groups. It was not a miserable experience.”
This year has been a good one on a musical front as well. Lea released “The House of David,” a jazz reworking of David Bowie’s catalog.
And in January, she asked longtime girlfriend Chelsea Fairless, a fashion editor, to marry her. The wedding will be Jan. 8, 2017, the anniversary of Lea’s late parents. An “Orange” cast member introduced them 2 1/2 years ago. Chelsea and Lea share an apartment together in Brooklyn.
“I never thought I’d get married, but I love her and I adore her,” Lea said.
But Lea isn’t getting all soft and squishy on us just because she has accepted a convention like marriage.
“Chelsea doesn’t have insurance. So, she’ll have that. I have the best ever with SAG (Screen Actors Guild).”
And Lea will continue to annoy, amaze and infuse the world with her foul but funny language wrapped around meaningful statements on accepting people for who they are.
“I take my role as a butch superhero very seriously.”
Lindenwood University Speaker Series
Who: Lea DeLaria
When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: Auditorium, Lindenwood Belleville campus, 2600 W. Main St.
Information: 618-239-6000 or belleville.lindenwood.edu/academics/speakerseries
What you should know about Lea DeLaria
Lea enjoys cooking and is known for making her late father’s Italian red sauce or “gravy”
Her favorite TV shows are “Difficult People” (Hulu), “Modern Family” and “South Park”
She likes to catch up on old movies. Her last was “The Hours.”
Last current movie she watched at home (It’s a perk of being a SAG member.) was “Ricki and the Flash.”
The currently running “Fun House” is one of her favorite Broadway shows.
She found out last year she has Type II diabetes and has lost 60 pounds.
In August, she stripped down to her skivvies in front of a camera as part of a campaign by Style Like U to promote positive body image and body confidence among women.
Lea has been best friends with actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson of “Modern Family” for decades.