Jaws drop open when Lea DaLaria sings. The self-identified butch dyke has the voice of an angel. Her eclectic career includes stand-up comedy, cabaret headliner, recording artist, Broadway star, film, and television, where she currently appears as Boo on the acclaimed lesbian-centric prison drama "Orange is the New Black” on Netflix.
DaLaria has no coming out story — she was never in the closet to begin with. She began her career by calling herself "that f***ing dyke" appearing on "The Arsenio Hall Show" in 1993 as an out gay performer. Ellen's historic coming out was still four years away.
In 1998 she starred to great acclaim as Hildy in the Broadway revival of the 1940s musical "On The Town.” Her co-star was Jesse Tyler Ferguson, the now openly gay star of "Modern Family.”
Her albums, "Play It Cool,” "Double Standards" and "The Live Smoke Sessions" harken back to the times of great jazz vocalists such as Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughn. Her playlist includes many numbers from the songbooks of such legends, but she's also been known to perform bluesy renditions of songs like Blondie's "Call Me.”
Speaking to SFGN by phone, DaLaria bemoaned the fact that this style of music rarely sells to a mass audience, as it once did.
"It's a big shame," she said. "My favorite song in high school was Edgar Winter's "Frankenstein" — it's a ten minute instrumental. It's such a great piece of music. I've tried to get a jazz troupe to do it. We'll never see music like that again."
DaLaria has often invited controversy, speaking her mind about a variety of topics. She recently raised eyebrows when she cancelled her scheduled appearance at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, an annual lesbian leaning concert event. The fur flied when Festival promoters reportedly announced that transgender women would not be welcome at the event.
"The biggest problem we have is that we're a bunch of factions who don't trust each other," she observed. "I cannot be involved with infighting, or with groups fighting each other. Both sides are wrong. I would mediate, but how can you mediate when no one is listening? This has been my stand for years. What the f**k is wrong with us? If we'd stopped fighting with each other we could have had our rights 25 years ago."
DeLaria has equally strong opinions about marriage equality, which she's not in favor of personally, yet fights for it.
"It's assimilation," she said. "But I'm not against it. If you tell me I can't do something, then I'll be in your face fighting for it. I don't think it's for me, but if you want to do it, then I'll fight for you right to do it."
We need to remember those who came before us, DeLaria feels. "I don't have a problem with the mainstreaming of the queer community as long as we don't deny the reality of who we are," she said. "A lot of people ignore our history and try to emulate straights."
DeLaria is proud of "Orange is the New Black.” The show is based on Piper Kerman's well received memoir about the one year she spent in a women's prison.
DeLaria plays Boo, who, like herself, is a tough dyke with a heart of gold. "Boo is me," DeLaria said. "They knew they were writing it for me and it's one hundred percent me. What I like most about Boo is that she's a three dimensional butch character. She has feelings and emotions, and she's the smartest character."
Like most of the characters in "Orange is the New Black" Boo is based on a real person. "I know enough about her to build my character," DeLaria said. "But I don't know who Boo actually is. "I believe she's out of prison."
For the immediate future, DeLaria will be filming "Orange" which has just been renewed for a third season, and working on her music. She'll be making cabaret appearances in support of her new album "DeLaria + Bowie = Jazz.” It will no doubt be a class act.