It doesn’t matter that it’s Zoom: Leslie Jordan needs to find his light. Like the chorus in Katy Perry’s “Firework,” the actor-turned-Instagram star bursts out of his desk chair to set the mood. But he swiftly has a change of heart. “I don’t like that — I like to remain mysterious,” he quips in his sugary Southern drawl. He’s no diva but fame — the viral kind — is new to Jordan. And trying to find the right light? It’s just a part of the process.
The longtime actor and writer never thought he’d see the height of stardom in his 60s. “Who had thought at 65 I was going to become an Instagram maven?” he asks. But he has been happily surprised.
It all started about two years ago when he starred in Fox’s retirement community comedy “The Cool Kids.” His friend Tess Sanchez, head of Fox casting at the time, kept telling him to post the funny things he’d say. Jordan had no clue what that meant. “I thought she meant maybe those little yellow Post-its,” he says and laughs. Though he remained confused, Sanchez signed him up for Instagram on the spot. Not long after he began posting a series of funny images and videos, he had 20,000 followers. “I thought that was massive,” he recalls.
When the pandemic hit in early spring, Jordan hunkered down in Tennessee, where his mother and identical twin sisters live. Opting not to stay at his family home (“there’s too many old women there”), he found himself an apartment in Chattanooga, where he was born and raised. Out of boredom, he began sharing “silly” pieces of content like his “Pillow Talk” series, where he snuggles up with a pillow and tells comfort food tales of Hollywood; videos of him dancing to Lisa Rinna’s aerobics class or with his cats; and Sunday sessions of him singing hymns with songwriter and producer Travis Howard. And well, s—!, as Jordan likes to say. It didn’t take long for his sweet Southern charm to sweep the nation.
For 80 days, he made two posts a day. “A friend of mine called from California and said, ‘You have gone viral.’ And I said, ‘No, honey, I'm fine. I don't have COVID,’” he jokes. It was the right kind of viral: Jordan’s following has since passed 5.5 million, and his definition of massive has completely changed. “I don't know how I did it because now I scramble for content,” he says. “Every day, I'm thinking, ‘Oh my God! I need to post. What should I come up with?’”
Jordan has been intentional about keeping his platform “fun.” No products, politics or religion. (He was tempted by a puffer scarf recently.) But he couldn’t stay silent on everything. With continued acts of police brutality and nationwide protests against police killings of Black people making headlines, he wanted to address the subject somehow. But Jordan wanted to listen rather than talk. So he asked Deesha Dyer, a Black woman and former White House social secretary to President Obama, to take over his platform and address the significance of the movement. “What do I know about politics?” he asks. “I can't talk about what I don't know.”
Jordan’s Instagram has become a feel-good hub of inspiration and levity for those in need of a laugh during the COVID-19 pandemic. His proof? The letters he’s received. Some tell stories of not being accepted for being gay, while others are grateful for the sense of connection. “I just had this lady stop me not too long ago in the grocery store, and she said, ‘Your videos got me through COVID. I was stuck at home, and I have kids. I thought I was going to go crazy, and I would go and watch your videos.’" That’s when Jordan realized keeping it light was the right choice.
Though Jordan’s Instagram career is new, he’s been acting for nearly 40 years. His first claim to fame was as a Taco Bell spokesman: “I was the elevator operator that went to Hamburger Hell, where you went if you didn't eat Taco Bell,” he says. “People knew me.” But it wasn’t until 1989 that he landed his big break during the first season of “Murphy Brown.” After it aired, he found out through his agent that “everybody from Burt Reynolds to Steven Spielberg wants to meet you.” What followed were defining roles as Lonnie Garr in the ’90s sitcom “Hearts Afire” and Beverly Leslie in NBC’s “Will & Grace,'' as well as stints on Ryan Murphy’s “American Horror Story” franchise and “The Cool Kids,” in which he played queer, confident senior citizen Sid Delacroix.
Now, he’s headed back to Fox to star in “Call Me Kat,” a comedy based on the British sitcom “Miranda.” Spearheaded by “The Big Bang Theory’s” Mayim Bialik, the series, premiering Sunday, follows a klutzy 39-year-old woman’s journey as she trades in the wedding fund her parents set aside for a cat cafe in Kentucky. “It took two things. They said, ‘Mayim Bialik’ and ‘a room full of cats in a cat cafe,’ [and] I said, ‘I'm aboard,’" Jordan recalls. He was blown away by the cast, which includes Kyla Pratt, Swoosie Kurtz, Cheyenne Jackson and Julian Gant, but he really couldn’t wait to work with Bialik. “I loved her from the moment I saw her in ‘Beaches’ playing a baby Bette Midler,” he says.
Jordan plays Phil, a hapless baker who is going through a breakup. “His longtime partner has left him for a young buck from Big Lots,” Jordan says and laughs. While the role was so easy because it felt like an extension of him, it wasn’t exactly new: “I've always just played an exaggerated version of me.”
Early on in his career, Jordan settled into his role as a character actor. “I was never going to be Meryl Streep or Robert De Niro, who can disappear into a character — I'm just not that kind of actor,” he says. “There's a lot of me to disappear into. I'm more like a Dolly Parton, you know what I mean? There's a lot of me.”
While Jordan has become something of a gay icon over the years — “I fell out of the womb and landed in my mother's high heels,” he remarks — it wasn’t always easy. When Jordan was growing up, his dad was a lieutenant colonel in the army, “a man’s man.” “There was a feeling that I was a little bit of a disappointment,” Jordan recalls. The actor reveals he struggled more with being “effeminate” than being gay. “I open my mouth and 50 yards of purple chiffon come out,” he says.
Tragedy struck Jordan at 11 when his father died in a plane crash. By the time he entered high school, he decided to come out: “I would tell my friends, ‘I have a secret: I'm gay.’ And they're like, ‘Duh! We know that. What's the secret?’”
Jordan struggled with drug and alcohol abuse, which masked the shame that came from being gay in a religious environment: “It was a lot easier to be gay when I was loaded,” he recalls. In 1997, Jordan got more than a handful of DUIs in one year and was sentenced to 120 days in jail (he served 14). It was a reality check, and at 42 years old, he got sober. Substances removed, he found his true path. “My journey into sobriety, but more importantly, my journey into queerdom, was from the time I was 42 ‘til now,” he says. At 65, he can say he is “100% comfortable” in his own skin.
Jordan reminisced about his journey to self-acceptance and sobriety in his 2008 memoir “My Trip Down the Pink Carpet,” but he’s preparing to release a collection of essays detailing what he’s learned over the years in May, titled “How Y'all Doing?: Misadventures and Mischief From a Life Well Lived.” In it, Jordan relives the time that Debbie Reynolds called his mother to discuss him and her daughter, Carrie Fisher — but that’s far from his wildest Hollywood story. He once found himself lying on the ground in the middle of the Malibu woods with Lady Gaga straddling him and howling at the moon. It was right before they shot a scene for “American Horror Story.” “She was supposed to straddle me and cut my throat,” he recalls. “You're just thinking, 'How did I get in this situation?'” Jordan calls the book a tribute to his mother, who endured his arrests and hospitalizations. “She supported me when I didn't even have enough sense to love myself,” he says.
In addition to his new book, TV show and blossoming influencer status, Jordan also has a hush-hush collaboration with Dolly Parton up his sleeve. But otherwise, he wants for nothing. “When you're young, especially as an actor, [it’s like] ‘I want a house in the Hollywood Hills, and I want to live a movie star life,' and, honey, my life is nothing like that,” says Jordan. “At my age, it's all gravy.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.