How LGBTQA+ Activist and OITNB’s Lea Delaria Stopped Giving a F*ck and Started Changing the World

Lea Delaria, most recently known for her role as Big Boo on Netflix’s hit show Orange is the New Black, is a comedian, actor, musician, activist and self-described “butch dyke.” But after talking with her, it’s clear that those descriptions only graze the surface.

Lea is, simply put, unstoppable. She wants to make change and uses raw honesty and boundary-pushing opinions to approach life, but her laughter comes easily and her enthusiasm is infectious.

Her unique and unfiltered outlook began in her hometown of Belleville, Illinois as the daughter of a jazz musician dad and a stay-at-home mom. Her mother was a feminist and ingrained in Lea to always, always, always question the norm and think about why certain things are asked of or expected of women.

(photo credit: Tina Turnbow)

(photo credit: Tina Turnbow)

So at 24, Lea took that knowledge with her and moved to San Francisco by herself. That was the place where she stepped out on stage and performed a comedy routine for the first time—and she never looked back. She wasn’t (and still isn’t!) just your run-of-the-mill comic either: she is notably credited as the first openly gay comic to appear on any late-night talk show with her 1993 appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show.

Lea's career in comedy, television and music has always been an extension of who she is, which is why you’ll often hear her thoughts on the LGBTQA+ movement in her work. In fact, she’s even opening an entertainment complex called The Club in an important gay community: Provincetown, Massachussetts (on the lineup for July 4th weekend?! Rosie O’Donnell!).

Ultimately, she wants to change the status quo and push the conversation further - and we were all ears to hear what she had to say!

You’re gonna want to get to know the real, raw, and one-of-a kind Lea Delaria below.

(photo credit: Tina Turnbow)

(photo credit: Tina Turnbow)

the void: who is lea delaria? how would you describe yourself?

LD: I would describe myself as tenacious. I also always want to always conduct myself in a integrous manner. That is why I have always been out. I wanted to brush my teeth in the morning and like the person I saw in the mirror. I didn’t know I could do that by lying.

The void: Speaking of being out, you have done so much for the LGBTQA+ community. Where did you initially find the strength to express yourself so publicly?

My first gay pride event was in 1978 in St. Louis. It wasn’t a sanctioned pride, there wasn’t really a pride organization; it was really just a protest. There were maybe 100 people there. The police wouldn’t let us walk in the street. Me and a couple of other people decided to take the street, so we did, but we were only walking around maybe four blocks.

People were so “in the closet” at the time. One person I went with literally wore a mask while we were marching—she was afraid that someone would recognize her. That’s where I came from.

I think I have my parents to thank for a lot. My father was a jazz pianist. my mother was very smart and she was a dancer. She was also incredibly feminist, especially for her generation. They both taught me to speak my mind. My entire family, we speak our minds. They taught me to do that.

When they found out I was gay, when I told them I was gay, that was a rough go because they were Italian Catholics. I said to them that they always told me that I should be who I am. The other thing was when I moved to San Francisco, which was where I got started, it was 1982. I was 24 years old and all of my friends were dying. I stopped counting at the number 86. When I started protesting, they were calling it “gay cancer,” they weren’t even calling it AIDs.

That and the fact that if you look at me—I am a butch dyke, I am a woman, I am fat, the fact that I am white is the fourth or fifth thing you notice about me—I had rage from that. I had rage from watching my friends die.

Rage is a great motivator. I am not talking anger here. Anger is a bumpy, little emotion on the side of the road. I am talking real, significant rage. Unfortunately, we live in a society that does not encourage women to be in touch with their rage—I do. Get it touch with your fucking rage and we can change the world!

The void: You were the first openly queer comic to perform on broadcast tv (The Aresenio Hall Show, 1993). What did that mean to you?

LD: It was amazing, right? It changed my life.

There was a tiny moment right before I went out, when you’re standing behind that curtain and you hear the host introducing you. Then the curtain opens and the audience is applauding. There was that moment I heard Arsenio say: “My next guest is a very funny stand-up comic, blah blah blah… and she’s gay.” In my head, I just stood there because I didn’t know what the audience would do. Was the audience going to be anti-queer? What’s going to happen? I didn’t hear a gasp or anything negative. Then he said “Do you want to meet her?” and they all cheered. That gave me such strength.

And when I went out there, I didn’t just open the closet door, I fucking blew that door down with a blow torch. I was on the couch for four minutes, I did a five minute stand-up routine, so in the nine-and-a-half minutes I was on TV, I used the words “dyke,” “fag,” and “queer” 47 times. You know what Arsensio said after? “If she wants to call herself a dyke, who are we to tell her that she can’t.”

The void: Today, you’re known for playing Big Boo on Orange is the New Black, a character that audiences love. The role suits you really well and it feels insanely authentic, too!

LD: The approach of Big Boo was really kind of simple in that, it was written for me.

When OITNB was originally going on, there was not really a Big Boo character. They brought me in to audition for that show again and again for several different characters, but when it came down to it, I didn’t get a part.

When that happened, I actually went ballistic in my manager's office. The manager told me, “They love you, but they don’t have anything for you.”

I thought, if there is a national show that is taking place in a women’s prison and there isn’t a part for ME, I fucking quit. And I did…

(photo credit: Tina Turnbow)

(photo credit: Tina Turnbow)

I said I was just going to do stand-up and sing in Europe. I packed up all my shit in New York and moved to London.

As soon as I got off the plane, there were 20 messages on my phone to find out that I needed to come back to New York because they wrote a part for me. And that’s why the Big Boo character fits so well. They knew who they were writing it for, they wrote to my strengths, I think.

The void: There are so many more openly gay characters on mainstream television these days. Understanding there’s still more work to be done in society, how do you think having that LGTBQA+ representation helps the cultural shift?

LD: I think it has helped us vastly in terms of winning the hearts and minds of people, definitely. I also think that we have an issue here that very few people are talking about...

I need to ask my community, my family—the queer community, and the feminist community that are up in arms about so many things I support (wholeheartedly because I want to change the world and get laid, not necessarily in that order). But why is it that whenever any lesbian role is written—and this is happening now vastly, every movie that we had last year that had a lesbian theme—the lesbians were portrayed by straight women?

They were directed by straight men, and they were written by straight men and women. We are being written out of our own fucking narrative. Even Orange Is The New Black had no lesbians in the writers’ room the last couple of seasons.

This is a problem.

It’s a big issue in entertainment right now and it’s happening all the time. It’s everywhere. This is a big, big issue for us and a lot of people aren’t talking about it. A lot of actors won’t talk about it because they are afraid they won’t get cast anymore. I just don’t give a fuck. I ran out of fucks to give on that a long time ago.

If they aren’t going to let me act anymore, fine. I’ll go and do stand-up… I’ll sing… I’ll do a Broadway show. I’m fine with that.

The void: That’s a risky move, but it paid off in the end. But what was the one biggest risk you took on yourself when you decided to pursue a career in entertainment?

LD: The biggest risk I took was playing Hildy [from her show-stopping performance in the Broadway revival of On the Town] and making that left turn out of comedy into acting. It turned me into a Broadway star. When you do Shakespeare in the Park, it’s a big deal in New York and nowhere else. I was supposed to perform in Provincetown that summer and I used to make a lot of money when I did. But I got that part of Hildy—I had to join equity, which cost money, and I think I made like $390 a week. I had to pay my bills and live on that amount in NYC. I would have made a ton more in Provincetown. It was a big risk for me to do that.

Oh, and I was playing a girl too. I was wearing a wig, heels and a dress. So this is like nothing anyone has ever seen me do before. I knew in my heart of hearts that I could do it.

It was a huge hit. I won a lot of acting awards for that role. That changed my fucking life.

(photo credit: Tina Turnbow)

(photo credit: Tina Turnbow)

The void: We are in awe of you and your story and your achievements. Who inspired you to be who you are today?

LD: I have had a couple of great mentors in my life.

The first one would be my father who taught me music. He was a fantastic mentor.  

Then my mother, who truly taught me feminism. I love this story, because people are always in shock. When I was 12, all the girls were wearing high heels. At the time, I was in my that pre-teen “I want to fit in” phase. Of course, we all went through that. I was always a tomboy, nobody ever really picked on me and I had a lot of friends, but there was a lot of shit around me being a tomboy. So I said to my mom, “All the girls are wearing them, maybe I could wear high heels.” My mom turned around and said “you are too young and don’t you think it’s interesting that the things that are considered to make women pretty make them vulnerable to a man’s attack?”

My mom said that to me in 1970. She mentored me about feminism in a way that was very progressive.

Another person? Andy Griffith of all people, because I was on Matlock for two years. Andy didn’t give a fuck who I slept with, he just thought I was funny and wanted me on the show. He taught me everything about television acting. It’s not just your talk, there is shit you need to know. I was in a situation where I knew nothing and he taught me everything. He didn’t just let me sit on the set and be a pretty face. He helped me understand how it works.

Mentoring is very important. But you as an individual, you have to be present in your own life. I have a tattoo on my arm that says “Now is the time”, which is one of my mottos. That and “Protect the joy.” You have to be present and you have to be in touch with what you want. Then just stick to it. You’re never going to make it if you quit.

The void: And since you’re a musician too, what music is currently fueling you?

LD: Currently, I have been listening to Harry Nilsson… a lot. And singing along. I know it’s a weird answer, but he was a genius, musically! I can’t stop listening. I can name a million songs!

The void: Lastly, what is it that you want to be known for?

LD: Cunnilingus. I want to be known for cunnilingus. That’s what I want to be known for.

That is my true answer. I never want anyone to ever walk away and say: “Wow, what shitty sex that was.”

Make sure to stop by lea delaria “The Club” in proviencetown opening summer of 2019. Also, make sure to follow lea here

All photos courtesy of Tina Turnbow.