How Leslie Jordan made it big: ‘If you want to get sober, try 27 days in county jail’ – The Guardian

For a man of such diminutive stature – 4ft 11in in shoes – Leslie Jordan loves a tall tale. A cursory question at the start of our interview about where he is calling from, for example, results in this glorious flight of fancy: “I got on a bus in 1982, from the hills of Tennessee. I had $1,200 sewn into my underpants by my mother and I arrived in LA and found West Hollywood, which is where I currently live.”

Such vivid storytelling – delivered in a honey-thick southern drawl, accentuated perfectly by a knowing campness – is part of the reason for Jordan’s unexpected career boost at 65. A jobbing actor best known for his role in American Horror Story and his Emmy-winning turn as Beverly Leslie, the acid-tongued rival of Megan Mullally’s Karen in Will & Grace, Jordan spent most of 2020 becoming an accidental internet sensation, racking up 5.6 million Instagram followers – including the likes of Rihanna and Lily Allen – thanks to his charmingly chaotic videos.

As attention-starved celebrities spiralled out of control at the start of lockdown, Jordan’s missives, posted on Instagram twice a day like clockwork and often filmed about an inch from his nose, felt instantly relatable. He could be seen slumped on his bed arguing with his family (he spent early lockdown in a holiday let in Tennessee to be near his mum and twin sisters), or attempting to exercise to Britney Spears bangers, or sharing gossipy titbits about celebrities. At one point, he filmed himself eating breakfast while watching pornography.

“That was a long time ago,” he shrieks when I mention it, before realising it was only last year. He even created a catchphrase – “Well shit, what ya’ll doin’?” – that seemed to encapsulate the early malaise of lockdown. “I set myself rules; I didn’t want to talk about religion, or politics, and I didn’t want to sell anything,” he says. “I just wanted it to be somewhere people could get a real quick laugh if they needed it.”

As his follower count shot up, the work started rolling in. He is filming a new sitcom, Call Me Kat, the US remake of the British hit Miranda. Last month, he appeared in Lee Daniels’ Golden Globe winner The United States vs Billie Holiday, while his second book, How Y’all Doing? Misadventures and Mischief from a Life Well Lived, is out in April. There is also his debut album, Company’s Comin’, a sweet, country-gospel collection featuring duets with Dolly Parton and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder. Before I can even ask how he came to work with the 90s grunge legend, he is off.

“I have a friend who works for the Secret Service and he travels with the Obamas, and they’re good friends with the Vedders, because they both have houses in Hawaii.” Right. “So I went to visit my friend, we went out on a boat with the Vedders, and it just came up.” Blimey. “Sometimes I think: ‘I wish [this success] had happened years ago,’ but I would have fucked it up,” he cackles, something he does a lot. “I had so much going on back then. Carrying on. Running around Hollywood. Now I’m settled – I don’t drink or smoke. Or do drugs. I’m ready for it.”

Leslie Jordan and Kyla Pratt in Call Me Kat, the US remake of Miranda.

Jordan’s journey to Hollywood reads like the script of a rags-to-riches Lifetime movie, one riddled with embellishments. “I like to glamorise it by saying it was Tennessee and it was the country, but I grew up in the middle-class suburbs of Chattanooga,” he begins. “It was a wonderful childhood. I’ve said in the past I was bullied, but then I’ve had cousins call me and say: ‘You were the most popular kid in school.'”

There were tricky moments. When he was six, his parents sent him to a boys-only summer camp after noticing most of his friends were girls, but were surprised to learn he had been awarded best all-round camper for making people laugh. Humour was a defence mechanism, as it can be so often for gay kids. “Even today, if I meet somebody and I’m not comfortable or not ready to open up, I’ll just make them laugh. Then I don’t have to let them in. So I was made fun of [at school], but I always had a retort.”

Harry Connick Jr. Debra Messing, Leslie Jordan and Megan Mullally in Will & Grace.

When Jordan was 11, his father, a lieutenant colonel in the US army, died in a plane crash. “He was so masculine, very into sports, so I just wondered: was he in any way ashamed of me?” Jordan says, sadly. “I mentioned that to my mother as an adult and you would have thought I’d slapped her.” He gasps. “She was like: ‘What are you talking about? He adored you!'”

Growing up in a devout Baptist family, Jordan faced a battle between his beliefs and his sexuality. At the age of 14, he came out to his school friends and tried his first drop of alcohol. Both offered freedom. “I remember my family were teetotal, but I knew some Episcopalians and they’re big drinkers,” he laughs, ever the gossip. “So I went to their house, got into their bar and within 10 minutes I just thought: ‘What’s been wrong with me? I’m the life of the party now.’ I so wanted to be a good Christian, I really did,” he says. “I wanted to follow the teachings of Christ to the best of my ability, and I tried, but then the whole gay thing starts happening. At the age of 17, I turned my back on religion.”

A competent horse rider, in his early 20s Jordan left Tennessee for Atlanta, where he started exercising race horses under the watchful eye of the notorious Argentinian trainer Horatio Luro. “He was a lady’s man – he said to me once: ‘When I die, I want to come back as a lady’s saddle so I’ll be between the two things I love the most.’ I went to work for him and he took me all over America, from Miami to New York. I did that until I was almost in my 30s.”

Robin Barlett, Frances Conroy and Leslie Jordan in American Horror Story.

After returning home to study journalism and theatre at college, he moved to Los Angeles in 1982 with the aim of becoming the gay Hugh Hefner. He vaguely remembers early Pride parades in LA (“We would strip down to our jockstraps”), but it is a later one that sticks in his memory. “I was invited to go to Nashville, Tennessee, to do a Pride march and I thought: ‘That’s the middle of nowhere; they’ll beat us up.’ So this guy called me and said: ‘Now, honey, don’t expect too much, it’s basically going to be two lesbians, a banner and a baton twirling queer.'” He lets out an almighty shriek. “But it was a lovely Pride, very wholesome. There were gay couples with their kids and they had it in a park and I thought: ‘This is what we’re heading towards.'”

Work in LA came quickly, with Jordan’s effervescent personality landing him a handful of large commercials. He dived head-first into West Hollywood’s gay club scene, where he started using drugs. “It started on the dancefloors and then it just escalated to where I’d get high at home and forget to leave the house.” He became a functioning addict.

Leslie Jordan

In the early 90s, he was involved with Project Angel Food in LA, a nonprofit organisation delivering food to people with HIV/Aids. “We figured out really fast that no one was going to help us,” he says. “There was this thing called legionnaires’ disease and I think 12 straight people died and the whole country was galvanised and we’re over here going: ‘Excuse me, we’re dropping like flies.’ Anyway, I was delivering meals, but I wasn’t very good at it; I was too talkative. I remember once I showed up and it was just this guy sat in a diaper and it just broke my heart. So I sat with him all afternoon.”

He ended up being moved to the buddy programme Project Nightlight, through which volunteers provide emotional support for those dying with Aids. “I still had a little bit of a drug problem back then,” he says. “Me and my friends would do little bumps of crystal meth, then go dancing, so I’d be up all the next day and go sit with people. Smoke cigarettes and talk. At least they had company. I was wonderful company.”

He got sober at the age of 42. “I ended up in the pokey,” he says. “That’s what I tell people: if you want to get sober, try 27 days in the LA men’s county jail. That will sober your ass up.”

It was while serving time for three counts of driving under the influence in a year, in 1997, that he says he crossed paths with the then down-on-his-luck Robert Downey Jr. “They came to me and said: ‘We don’t have any room for him, he’s downstairs waiting, but we can’t let you out until 2am.’ It’s a rule in California, that you can’t let a drunk out until after the bars close.” So the pair became cellmates for a short period until Jordan could be released. In 2001, they met again while filming Ally McBeal, but Downey Jr couldn’t place him. “He said: ‘Didn’t we? Are you?’ and I said: ‘Yep, 152, pod A, cell 13, you was top [bunk], I was bottom.'”

He remembers a more pleasant run in with George Clooney, while filming the 1992 police procedural Bodies of Evidence. “He’s the prankster. I was on a diet and he got tired of hearing about it, so he went to the wardrobe people and told them to take my pants out by about two inches everyday. So my pants would be hanging off and I’d come in and tell everybody: ‘The inches are just falling off with this new diet.’ By the third day, I was like: ‘It’s just a miracle.'”

Jordan hasn’t always been choosy when it comes to roles. I bring up 2009’s Eating Out: All You Can Eat, a sex comedy directed by Glenn Gaylord. “I didn’t know what it was,” he laughs. “Sometimes I get offered things and I don’t pay attention. My agent called me and said there’d been some other ones and they’d been popular in the gay community, so I said I’d do it. Then I saw it and it’s basically porn.”

It wasn’t his only “interesting” career decision. He agreed to be in 2018’s The Last Sharknado: It’s About Time, the sixth instalment of the sci-fi comedy franchise, because he wanted a free holiday to Romania: “But, oh my gosh, that was dismal.” As was 2014’s stint in the Celebrity Big Brother house. “The worst experience of my life,” he harrumphs. “They said we’d be in a house outside London, so I was imagining Downton Abbey, but it was a dump. I couldn’t get along with people.”

He says his hypoglycaemia turned him into a monster – at one point, he spat on the actor Gary Busey – and he wasn’t surprised when he was voted out in week two. Before I can finish asking about his financial remuneration, he jumps in: “I’ll tell you exactly how much – it was $150,000. I said to my agent: ‘I can’t be trotting over to London, I’ve been offered American Horror Story with Ryan Murphy,’ and he said: ‘Listen, the initial offer is $150,000,’ and I said: ‘Fuck Ryan Murphy, I’m in.'” Two years later, he made his American Horror Story debut anyway.

Jordan with Vicki Lawrence in The Cool Kids in 2018.

It has been a hectic career. While Jordan is relishing his newfound fame, he is also thinking about a return to country life. “I’ve got my eye on a little pony farm outside of Nashville where I’ll spend half the year,” he says. “In the past, I had to worry about keeping a series afloat, or chasing movie roles, or, I don’t know, trying to be Madonna. Now, I’m satiated. I’ve done it all.”

Does he feel as if he broke barriers for gay actors? “When you’re in the midst of it, you don’t see it that way – but in retrospect, I think: I was so brave to be so gay so early on.” He says he would sometimes be told to “take it down a notch, butch it up a little”, but he always stayed true to himself. “I think that’s the way the barriers were broken.

“You know, it’s funny; what I wanted was fame,” he says, wistfully. “I remember when I got off the bus all those years ago, I thought to myself: I want to be able to walk in and all the heads turn and people are going: ‘Look, there he is.'” Finally, at the age of 65, Leslie Jordan has arrived.