Going to Church with Leslie Jordan

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Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Leslie Jordan asks me to call him back in five minutes because someone's come to install mama's new curtains. This is as much of a break for me as it is for him because, if you've ever spoken to Jordan, you know that anything more than a ten minute conversation is best done with an intermission. Gives you time to breathe. Consult the Lord. Take a shot while he gives his new visitors the measurement for mama's curtains because Jordan has stories. When we reconnect, I can hear birds chirping as he tells me, in his signature drawl, that he's looking out over his mother's property in Chattanooga, Tennessee, rocking on the front porch swing. I imagine that there is no better venue to take in a tall tale or two from a man not quite five foot.

As most interviews suggest, Jordan is promoting a project—Company's Comin' is his debut gospel album, featuring the likes of Dolly Parton and Eddie Vedder and Tanya Tucker. When I ask him if he's angling for a Grammy, he erupts into excitement like he has never considered this once in his life. "Oh, my God. Oh!" he screams. "A Grammy? I don't know," the "o" sound in know stretching out like a slip and slide.

But what our conversation ultimately melts into is a chat about God. God and the South and being gay. As two Tennesseans, we talk about how people have actually told us we're ignorant for dabbling in matters of faith and the divine. So why would a 66-year-old veteran actor, who's found a new audience through social media fame during a pandemic, want to record a gospel album and talk about God (all while mama's curtains are being put up)?

Photo credit: Missing Piece Group
Photo credit: Missing Piece Group

Well, why wouldn't he? After all, he's good friends with Eddie Vedder despite never really listening to Pearl Jam. And he toured with Tammy Faye Bakker in the later years of her life, so he knows God, or some version of him. And Dolly and him have talked about how Jesus felt about homosexuals, so his bases are pretty much covered!

A lot of people know Jordan from his viral Instagram-pandemic fame—he has nearly 6 million followers after all. Others know him from roles in Will & Grace or The Help or Sordid Lives, but this era of his career is for people to know Leslie Jordan: a 66-year-old, sober, gay Christian (or something like it) man who just wants you to be comfortable if you're going to come over for a visit.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

To jump into things, did you ever imagine a year ago that you would have been making your Opry debut this spring?

No, that was not on my list of things. In 1982, I stepped off a bus in California and I had a whole list. I wanted to be on television and I wanted to get my SAG card and I wanted to work as an actor. That was my main goal.

And singing? My friend Travis Howard and I did not envision anything like this. We just loved getting together on Sunday and singing hymns. We put them on the Instagram and called it hymn singing. Let's do some hymn singing. And all of a sudden we start getting [attention]. I even had to call my friend, Mike Lotus, who's the executive producer on this. I said, "How did this happen? I can't remember." I never think about how it happened, but a lot of things are like that in my life. Things seem to work in my favor. I don't know if it's a past life or if it's a, I don't know what it is, but it's been so much fun getting to make first of all.

The lineup of people that have joined this is crazy. I mean, that song with Eddie Vedder? C’mon.

Isn't that pretty? And that is one of only two that were not real hymns. Danny Myrick wrote that keeping in mind the feel of the album. But that is not an old hymn, but when we sent it to Eddie, he just made it his own. And as my mother used to say, "Well, you're just singing it for the Lord. Sing out, just sing loud." So that's the way I was taught. And thank goodness I have a musical ear because there's a lot of people that sing for the Lord that are just... We had one old girl, I remember in my class, in my church choir, that the choir teacher would tell "Why don't you just mouth it?" But anyway, I guess everybody does their best.

Did you have a connection to Eddie Vedder beforehand?

I had met Eddie through his wife. His wife came to see me. They live in Seattle and I used to have a comedy show that I traveled with, and we were doing a night in Seattle and she came and brought all her girlfriends. Eddie was supposed to come that night, but he was stuck in the studio. And so I had a connection through her over the years.

Then I was in Hawaii visiting my friend, Mike Lotus, that I mentioned. He said, "The Vedders want to have dinner with us." I said, "Oh Lord, I can't, no, I can't go." I didn't want to go. “I'll run out of things to say!” But it was just a lovely dinner. We had their eldest daughter who's about 15; she was with us and we just yammered away. You know, I was never even a Pearl Jam fan. I remember "daughter, daughter," remember that one? Something about daughter? Anyway, there was only a couple of songs that I knew of his. But I'm a huge Pearl Jam and Eddie Vedder fan now, at 66 years of age.

But that night, I looked at my watch and we sat there three hours, so we certainly didn't run out of things to say. But he's as real, as real, as real gets. That's what I love, when you meet somebody that's that famous, but you just feel like... That's how Dolly was, like you're just sitting with your best friend.

Oh, I can't even imagine.

I tell you what was cute… I get a lot of people who see me on TV and they'll say, "Can I have your autograph?" And I said, "And you want his too." Because sitting right next to me was Eddie Vedder. I said, "That's the autograph you want." They didn't even notice him, but that's the power of television. I've done 30, 40 years on television, so I've got quite the recognizable face.

Seeing you throughout the years playing these very distinctive, flamboyant characters has been fun, but—to get personal—it’s been such a pleasure to see you being yourself over the past year. And this album, as a gay Tennessee kid who grew up Southern Baptist? It’s very special.

And you knew these songs.

I have the hardest time up here explaining to people how all those things can be in one package.

You are preaching to the choir. I know exactly what you're trying to say. I would rather be known… let's say you had a kid that you thought was going to be gay. I'd like a parent to be able to say [they're gay] as if the kid was going to be left-handed. Not with pride. Certainly not with shame—just, it is. It's not what we do and it's not how we act, it's just what we are. And I think we're moving in that direction. I still think we got a lot of work to do, but gosh, if you only knew.

When I was a kid, I thought that I was maybe the only one. What a horrible thing to lay on a kid. And I think that it makes us a better people. Hang on. Can you hang on with me one second.

Of course.

Getting new curtains at my mother's house. Hey sweetheart, I'm going to be finished here in a minute or two, can you call me back in five minutes?

Absolutely.

Five minutes later...

Photo credit: Missing Piece Group
Photo credit: Missing Piece Group


I feel like this is a big question to hop right back into, but what was it like growing up in the church for you?

When I'm trying to be dramatic, I'll say, "Well, I walked away from the church." I never walked away. Everything we did, everything, was surrounding the church. Sunday morning, Sunday evenings. And it was a good childhood. And then I think the problem started when I realized I was gay. I just had nothing to do with the church anymore. So what's interesting to me is to be 66 years old and have absolutely no ax to grind. I'm not quite sure how. I wish I had some wonderful stories of how I learned acceptance just over the years. I don't know.

I've learned more about who I am and what I am, and I'm perfectly comfortable with it. I lost my father when I was 11. He was killed in a plane crash. And so, if I had had a dad, it might've been different. I have an uncle, but I don't remember asking questions. I just knew queer was bad. I didn't want to be queer, but I didn't have a choice in it. Tell you when the real work began was when I got sober, when I was 42 years old. Because there was a lot of—22 years there—drinking and drugging and carrying on all over Hollywood. All of a sudden, you're queen of everything. All the bars and everything. And you realize there was a lot of internal homophobia that I dealt with. That was when sort of the work began on the internal homophobia.

I think there's some sort of divine reason that I got sober when I did, because I had to do the work. I don't know where I'd be, if I didn't. I know I'd still be drinking, probably, and carrying on and having fun, whatever. But I think at some point, I learned early in sobriety that if you put pen to paper, it slows your mind down to the speed of a pen and you get clarity, so I did a lot of writing and it's interesting. I've journaled since I was 17 years old. And I don't know why 17 or when exactly it started, but under my bed are books and books and books. And I read through those books and it's almost like I don't know who that is. I don't know who that is! Who is that poor little thing with all that angst and carrying on? Everybody says, "Oh, go back and what you want to tell your younger self?" I'd tell myself, "Lighten up, girl." You know?

I was 42 years old and I said to my sponsor, "Now, how do we deal with this whole gay thing in sobriety?" He goes, "Well," he said, "You seem to be dealing wonderfully with it." He said, "I think it's important that your home group knows. And I think that just to clear the air, you should tell them." I said, "From the podium?" And he said, "Well, it wouldn't hurt. It would come up in conversation. As you tell your story, you say my name is Leslie Jordan and I'm an alcoholic. I'm also guy and blah, blah, blah, just let it come out." And I said, "Oh."

Photo credit: Missing Piece Group
Photo credit: Missing Piece Group

So the night I was supposed to speak, I was the guest speaker, and he said, "Tonight would be good night." I called him. I said, "Do you think I should just tell them I'm gay?" He said "Well, hon, you've got to walk to the podium." "You asshole. Walk to the podium." So I probably walked up there like John Wayne. But the good news is I never think about that.

Now with this album… what about the Grammys? You thinking of maybe angling for a Grammy?

Oh, my God. Oh! A Grammy? I don't know. I'll say a funny thing. The song that I did with Dolly Parton went back and forth quite a bit. She is an artist and she is a musician and she takes it so serious. There was this one note that I couldn't hit. She said, "I had a lot of my family come in and do some of the background vocals." And I thought, "I didn't know that. Oh, my God."

She said some of her family come in and she said there was one note that she felt like nobody could quite get, so she said, "I sang over myself, which I don't normally do. I did the high note and the low note." She said, "Now, listen, honey, when we do this live," and I thought, "I'm going to shit and fall back in it… when we do it live?" It had never crossed my mind that I would maybe... I mean, it could happen.

I mean, just beyond your wildest dreams, right?

Oh, it was beyond anything I would ever have dreamed. And to have met her too? People say, "What's she like?" Well, you know what she's like. What you see is what you get. She's tinier than I thought she was. She's tiny, tiny, tiny. Little, tiny waist. Little round butt, but just those little boobs. She's just a doll baby.

I wish I had been able to listen to an album like this as a kid, because to have these hymns performed by yourself and Brandi Carlile and TJ Osborne. I mean, even Dolly. Dolly's not gay, but Dolly belongs to us.

She is. She's one of us. And she says... what'd she say in one of her interviews. She said, "Jesus talked about everything under the sun," but she said, "Jesus never ever talked about homosexuality. Ever, ever, ever in any of his sermons or anything." She's with us. I loved that I was able to call [this album] Company's Comin', because that's what I wanted the feel of it [to be].

I was explaining that intersection of identities to colleagues earlier—how there’s a campy familiarity to religion and gayness. I was talking about Tammy Faye Bakker too…

Wouldn't it have been fun if Tammy was alive, if I'd have gotten her? I got to meet her two or three times over the years.

Photo credit: Missing Piece Group
Photo credit: Missing Piece Group

Oh, really?

Yeah. I kind of did a little tour with her. She wanted to open for me. She said, "I'll be the opening act." And I said, "Well, what are you going to do, Tammy, because this is a very secular crowd." Not that we don't want any kind of preaching, but of course, my manager jumped in with her and said, "You know, it's a secular crowd." And she said, "Well, I'm just going to sit around and talk to everybody." She had no plans, so we didn't know what to expect.

She wanted it to look like her bedroom, so we built her bedroom as a traveling set. And she just sat there. She just talked about Jesus, which is fine, but oh, it was just, almost like a nightmare. She wanted to sing with me. And we got up and danced around. I mean, it was in Palm Springs at one of those big, the Annenberg Hotel or whatever. Anyway, it was crazy. It was a a while ago, because she got real sick right after that.

I saw her right after. She said, “Do you know Dottie Rambo?” I said, "Oh my God, of course I do." Dottie Rambo is another gospel singer, [with] the Rambo family. It's one of those that goes way, way back. Anyway, Ms. Rambo decided she's going to cure Tammy because she's a faith healer. This was in Hollywood at a big service that she put together. She said, "Now lay down here, honey." Tammy laid down on the ground. And they had what was called the modesty skirt. You know, a man came out with like a shawl thing they'd put over her legs, so nobody would see her legs. It was insane.

And then it got real weird because Dottie said, "Now where exactly is it?" And Tammy said, "Well, the cancer... the tumor is right about here, about the size of a quarter." And she said, "Oh, size of a quarter, is that right?" And started praying over her and then went into tongues—a foreign tongue. You know how they do?

Yeah.

Oh my God. It was just the craziest thing I've ever been through.

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