Leslie Jordan has been a lot of things over his 67 years – professional horse rider, Emmy Award-winning actor, singer, recovered alcoholic, self-described “Southern Baptist sissy,” Instagram sensation and bestselling author.
The last is what brings him to this year’s National Book Festival, as his “How Y’all Doing? Misadventures and Mischief from a Life Well-Lived” has found an audience for his voice on audiobooks and the printed page. (He’ll be interviewed for former “Will & Grace” co-star Megan Mullally.) You can hear his Tennessee twang even if you’re just reading him. The word may be “spectacular,” but he pronounces it (when describing his friends and acting colleagues) “spack-TACK-u-lar” and it just wouldn’t be him if he pronounced it any other way.
He’s joining us today for a video interview from his apartment in West Hollywood on a gorgeous midsummer afternoon. He’s lived in the L.A. area for four decades, longer than he lived in his native Chattanooga, Tennessee, but the accent never left him. It’s a good thing, too, as it’s helped him chart a unique career path, overcoming an agent’s early concern that it would be too limiting. He’s also famously not tall — he stands just shy of 5 feet — and parlayed that, too, into his style. He’s racked up more than 130 television and film credits, often as a supporting actor with the memorable zinger. He starred on “Will & Grace,” for which he won an Emmy, and had several memorable turns on “American Horror Story.” He’s currently starring in “Call Me Kat,” opposite Mayim Bialik.
“How Y’all Doing?” — part memoir, part essay collection — stems from his unlikely late-career success as an Instagram sensation. He started posting at the behest of young television staffers on the show who urged him to “Post that!” when he had a funny line.
Then, during the pandemic, isolated at his apartment, he started taping short bits on his phone, staring straight at the camera. They were as simple as they were hilarious. One after another went viral, until he amassed some 5.8 million followers, most of whom, he says, had no idea he was an actor.
“It’s very young and it’s all female,” he says of his audience. “I don’t have a single man following me … It’s young girls and they just adore me.”
One of his most popular bits was his August 2020 pearl-clutching reaction to a famously profane song by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, the title of which we’ll skip here. It’s 43 seconds of comic perfection. He bops to the music — then realizes the lyrics with a jolt of horror. He puts his hand to his mouth, eyes flying wide open: “Oh lord, oh no no no no!” He laughs, embarrassed, and stammers, “That’s just shocking,” with all the earnestness of your favorite Southern grandmother.
“Well,” he finally says, primly pursing his lips. “I don’t judge. I guess every garbage can has its lid.”
It has millions of views across several platforms.
“If he’s not the cutest thing on the planet, I don’t even know,” one viewer posted, a comment that itself drew more than 3,000 likes.
Book editors approached him with the book’s concept and title, taking some of his Instagram postings as chapter starters. He did not realize until he sat down to write, he says, that his posts all had a beginning, middle and end, mini-stories just waiting to be fleshed out.
“I wrote every word of it myself and turned it in,” he says. “They couldn’t believe it. No ghostwriter, no anything. I would write in longhand some ideas that I had because I learned that when you put pen to paper, it slows your mind down to the speed of a pen and you get some clarity … it just flowed. It was easy.”
He’s at his best, perhaps, when talking about growing up in the South, coming of age as a gay kid when that just wasn’t done. He admired two flamboyant gay Southern icons who showed a way to be who he was: “Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams saved my life.”
When asked about the difficulties of telling his very Baptist mother that he was gay, he tells the story in vintage Leslie Jordan style, his voice rising and falling, stopping and starting, drawing out the vowels as full syllables.
It goes like this:
“So she said to me, she said, ‘You know, Leslie, if you choose this lifestyle, you’re going to be subject to ridicule. And I do not think that I could bear that. And so what my my advice is’ — and then she didn’t pull her Bible out. I thought for sure she’d pull her Bible out — and she said, ‘No, I want you to live quietly.’ ”
He pauses with a straight face. Then he bursts into an impish smile, waving his hands way above his head, then he’s laughing at how he’s turned out all these years later, as one of the most visibly gay actors in Hollywood: “Here I am! Whoo-hoo!“
Leslie Jordan will be in conversation with Megan Mullally at the National Book Festival on Sept. 3. They will be on the Main Stage from 5:30-6:30 p.m. Jordan will be signing copies of “How Y’all Doing?” in line 12 from 7:00-8:00 p.m.
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