Alexander Kacala is a reporter and editor for TODAY. In 2020, he interviewed Leslie Jordan. The following is a personal essay he wrote upon hearing the news of Jordan's death.
Leslie Jordan was effeminate and flamboyant — an unapologetic sissy, in the best way. His shocking death on Tuesday, Oct. 23 at the age of 67 left myself — a fellow sissy — and many others in the LGBTQ community heartbroken and stunned.
This one hurt — really, really hurt.
In March 2020, Jordan became the internet's sassy sweetheart, going viral for his sofa cushion confessionals amid the early days of an unknown pandemic. In the short videos, he nagged his family off-camera, twirled a baton for his “daddy,” or shared hilarious reminiscings from his storied career.
I had the opportunity to be one of the first reporters to interview him on his secret to going viral and there wasn’t much to it: Just be yourself. This was something Jordan himself struggled to figure out for most of his career in Hollywood, discovering later in life that what makes people love you most is when they see someone who loves themself first. Simple, yes, but still a surprise.
Jordan, who became sober in the late '90s, told me that his journey into sobriety was a cornerstone of his own acceptance of his sexuality. Alcohol and drugs had become a buffer to help him cope with his insecurities, causing him to get three DUIs over a short time.
“All my life I’ve always been so ashamed of being feminine,” he told me in 2020. “You know, you learned that very young in American culture that the feminine boys don’t do well. And yet, I had a dad who was a lieutenant colonel in the army. My dad was a man’s man, but he still adored me. And somehow in the midst of that, I still grew up hating the sissy in me.”
But after becoming sober at 42, he started finally loving himself. His lisp got louder. His walk got even hippy-er. These latest chapters may have been his loudest. He showed us all that you could be unapologetically gay and southern at the same time. That one doesn’t automatically cancel the other out and actually, southern decadence compliments homosexual fabulousness rather well.
He showed us all that you could be unapologetically gay and southern at the same time. That one doesn’t cancel the other out and actually, southern decadence compliments homosexual fabulousness rather well.
At times, these attributes were the butt of the joke, but Jordan was always the one laughing last. Nothing proved this better than when he went toe-to-toe with Megan Mullally’s Karen Walker on “Will & Grace.” His character, Beverley Leslie, was a pompous closet-case who always knew how to expertly deliver a shady read or cut someone down to their ankles (possibly so you could actually make eye contact with him). Where Beverley began and Leslie stopped was a blur, and that role become one of the greatest of his career, even snagging him an Emmy in 2006.
I often say stars like Jordan have a Wikipedia page that reads like a CVS receipt and does his ever. Just his television roles rattle on forever: "Hearts Afire," "Murphy Brown," "Ally McBeal," "Reba," "Boston Public," "Boston Legal," "Nash Bridges," "American Horror Story," "Ugly Betty," "Celebrity Big Brother," "The Cool Kids" and “Call Me Kat” — which is currently in its third season on Fox. For film, he had memorable roles in “Sordid Lives” and “The Help,” and he’s performed his original plays and one-man shows on stages all over the world.
“Many gay rites-of-passage stories are echoed here: hostile small-town environment (Chattanooga, Tenn.); rigidly masculine father; humor as armor against bullies; unrequited loves; drug and alcohol dependency; internal homophobia; weakness for rough trade,” theater critic David Rooney wrote for the New York Times back in 2010. “But Mr. Jordan’s candor gives them a fresh spin.”
His fresh sageness on stage and off made him the gay elder many of us didn't have at a time when queer representation was just taking off in pop culture. This could be because so many of Jordan's generation was lost to AIDS. We may have had more grandfather figures like him to inspire us, and provide a blueprint on how to age when you love to twirl. But everyone — sissy, not-a-sissy, gay, straight, old, young, white or Black — can learn something from him. That stepping into whatever makes you unique no matter what it is isn’t weakness, it’s your power.
Maybe because he already had lived through one, Jordan helped us all find the silver lining in those early, dark days of the pandemic when there was nowhere to find one. Now it’s our turn to pay back the favor and find the silver lining in his tragic passing.
He did it his way. Yes, a very gay way. OK, a very, very, very, very fabulous, flamboyant and feather-boa kind of way, but it was always honest and it was always true.
So thank you, Leslie, for teaching me and so many others the power of individuality. You were there for your fellow hunker-downers when we needed you most. You made us feel seen and because of this, we will never forget you.