Leslie Jordan on the Pope: “That old queen needs to get with it”
The American Horror Story star tells us about his new gospel album featuring Dolly Parton, his Instagram fame and being an LGBTQ+ person of faith.
Photography Miller Mobley
Leslie Jordan has become a queer icon over the years, beloved for his unapologetically femme personality, thick Southern drawl, sweet nature and witty one-liners. The actor also amassed a strong social following during the pandemic due to his comedic insights into lockdown life. Now, the 65 year-old is releasing a gospel album that reworks the old hymns he grew up with, featuring country legends like Dolly Parton, Brandi Carlile and Katy Pruitt.
Leslie is currently in Hollywood, having just finished filming Call Me Kat, the US remake of the hit British sitcom Miranda. His story began in this part of town 39 years prior. “I got off the bus at Hollywood in 1982,” he says. “I had all these dreams but they didn’t include an album. I wanted to be in television and movies.” Over the course of his career, he’s had notable roles in The Help, Will and Grace, the new Billie Holiday biopic and, of course, the American Horror Story universe, in which he’s played a witch, a medium and a murderous PA.
But it was the Olivia Newton-John-starring Sordid Lives that he counts as his personal favourite. “I played a man in a mental hospital, sitting there in drag with a blonde wig on performing Tammy Wynette songs.” The character spoke to queer kids in the American South; the movie went on to become a sleeper cult classic. “Right after the movie came out I was in Piccadilly Circus [in London] and a taxi started following me. I thought, this is creepy. They rolled down the window and shouted ‘Can you see my pussy now?’” -- the iconic line his Sordid Lives character hollers as they get their revenge on a queerphobic warden. “I thought, oh my gosh they’re hollering my lines out of the taxi cabs in London!”
His following surged during the pandemic due to his daily Instagram posts, a viral fame that would plant the seeds from which this new album would spring. “A friend of mine called to say, ‘Honey, you’ve gone viral!’. I said, ‘No darling I don’t have COVID’. It was so unexpected.” While the public's tolerance for celebrity culture faltered during the pandemic, tipped by a deranged John Lennon cover and the showboating of country-hopping lifestyles, on the other side was Leslie Jordan’s heartwarming lockdown videos, sharing with his followers (whom he calls his fellow hunkerdowners) the names of his house plant besties, his frustrations over running out of Netflix shows and his Sunday Hymn series. His 80k following soon became 5.7 million.
The Sunday Hymn series was led with his dear friend Travis Howard, who also grew up with these religious songs. “Travis is straight and I’m gay but our experience growing up in the church is very similar. We both didn’t feel accepted. However through our friendship we both realised that we still loved those old hymns.” The series inspired them to sit down and record an album, giving the songs a rock stamp. “I don’t have a particularly good voice. Rolling Stone called it ‘capable’,” Leslie laughs. “But I’ve always loved music and I sang in the church choir and local boys’ choir growing up.”
Entitled Company’s Comin, Leslie’s record transports you to rural America from the first song (a reworking of “This Little Light Of Mine” featuring lesbian singer Katie Pruitt) simulating the tipsy aftermath of a family gathering, guitars playing as the religious anthems so deeply embedded within the culture are sung and enjoyed together. Using his new-found social media fame, Leslie contacted Katie and other country legends to duet with: “I sent them all a DM saying ‘Would you sing a hymn with me?’ Not one person said no.” The finished album sees Dolly Parton join him on a joyous cover of “Where The Soul Never Dies”; recent Grammy winner Brandi Carlile joins Leslie for the soulful “Angel Band”, alongside additional features from many other big names in the country music industry.
Interestingly, despite singing about it together, Leslie and his duet partners didn’t discuss any of the bigger questions the lyrics spoke of, even though many themselves, Dolly included, come from faith backgrounds. “Dolly’s very devout. She’s the best example I can think of how a person of faith should act. She doesn’t judge, she just loves everybody,” he says. “But with Dolly, it was all about the music. She was adorable. During recording she would sing and then she’d say ‘Oh, I just love this music! Don’t you? This is mountain music’. She was precious.”
Leslie seems surprised that, in the course of promoting the album, he’s been probed about his own faith. To him, there was no agenda to this album beyond enjoying making the music. “[The album] was never like ‘Oh, we’re returning to the faith’,” he says. “We’ve spoken our truth.” In previous interviews he’s shared his own history with the church, having been baptised fourteen times, renewing it each time he hooked up with someone in the woods or did other acts considered ‘shameful’ by the church. “When I was seventeen I walked away, I had to take my own path.” He’s not returned since. But after a DUI charge, following which he shared a cell with future co-star Robert Downey Jr., Leslie returned to a more spiritual path, shaped by sobriety. “They told us in recovery that religion is for people who are afraid of going to hell, but spirituality is for those of us who have already been there! I seek and I keep an open heart. I’ll go chant with the Buddhists sometimes, [even if] I don’t know what I’m chanting!”
Leslie hopes that the album could be a light in the dark for the many LGBTQ+ people within religious spaces, like those who hear the UK’s Evangelical Alliance say banning conversion therapy would “threaten the everyday practices of the church” (in the USA the practice is still legal in 28 states) or see the Pope flip-floping over his stance on homosexuality. “That old queen needs to get with it!” Leslie says of the head of the Catholic Church. “I hope [the album] brings comfort [to queer people] more than anything. I’ve had comfort in these times just to be able to listen to these songs. They’re just so heartwarming.”
That’s the power of Leslie Jordan. There’s just something in his unapologetically femme-queer hymn-loving being that is naturally comforting. He may not have intended for it, but there is an innate power found in him joining forces with LGBTQ+ icons and refusing to feel othered by songs from a culture that has often refused to accept him.
So what’s next for him, now that he can tick actor, singer and viral meme off his list? Will we see him again in American Horror Story? “I would love to! They’ve announced the latest season and are all filming in P-town. I’m not a part of that.” Right now his fingers are crossed that Call Me Kat gets picked up for another season, while anticipating an Instagram series with Brandi Carlile that explores life as an LGBTQ+ person of faith coming out. There’s also an upcoming Apple Music country radio show with Travis to look forward to, too.
Would he make any more albums? He's definitely considered it. “Travis said the next album should be old country standards like Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard and Tammy Wynette. I’d love that.” Leslie Jordan then proceeds to joyfully sing “Stand By Your Man” down the phone line. Just like all those years ago in Sordid Lives, he’s still making the gays happy performing songs by Tammy Wynette.
Company’s Comin will be available via Platoon on April 2. You can pre-save the album here.