Leslie Jordan is a four-feet-eleven, sixty-four-year-old character actor from Chattanooga, Tennessee. Until recently, he was best known, if he was known at all, for his role as Beverley Leslie, the razor-tongued rival of Megan Mullally’s character, Karen, on “Will & Grace.” He had a respectable hundred thousand followers on Instagram, many of them accumulated when Mullally shouted him out after he first joined, in 2018. But, when the coronavirus outbreak sent large swaths of the U.S. into self-quarantine last month, Jordan began recording slapdash, screwball videos from a spartan Airbnb in his home town, and noticed his following balloon. Last Monday, he woke up to find that he had two hundred and fifty thousand Instagram followers. “Whew, it’s exhausting being vah-rull!” he marvelled in one video, in his butter-thick Southern drawl. On Wednesday, he hit a new milestone. “You may wonder why I’ve got sunglasses and a little suit on,” he told the camera that evening, sitting down in a chair and crossing his hands in his lap like a preening pageant contestant. “Because that’s the way that people dress who have one million Instagram followers.”
Jordan had not planned to spend the lockdown in Chattanooga, he said on Thursday. He has lived in Los Angeles since the early nineties, in an apartment he thinks was once occupied by Tupac Shakur. (“I had a friend in the post office look it up. It was probably illegal to do.”) In early March, he had flown home to Tennessee for a visit, staying at an Airbnb down the street from the town house where his eighty-four-year-old mother and twin sisters live. A video on March 17th showed him on a nearly empty airplane, neck pillow in place, en route home to Los Angeles. But, four days later, he was back in Chattanooga, at the same Airbnb, to wait out the pandemic close to family—though not too close. “I love my family dearly,” he said. “If I hunkered down with them, we might kill each other.”
Jordan posts his videos around twice a day, at all hours, including the middle of the night, if he finds that he can’t sleep. He has an instinctive grasp of the vlogger aesthetic—face pressed right up to a jangly camera, like he is confessing a secret—and the droll affect of Truman Capote after a few Martinis. His content is free-form and marvellously batty, a mix of show-biz stories, personal reminiscences, and off-the-cuff quarantine diary. He does exercise routines, sips sweet tea, watches “murder programs” on TV. He enjoys porn along with his morning eggs. “Oh, don’t you dare judge me,” he tells viewers. “Y’all are out there doing it. I can at least watch it. It’s better than CNN.”
Before the pandemic brought the theatre world to a standstill, Jordan was set to travel the country performing his one-man cabaret show, “Exposed.” On Instagram, he brings the same chummy, after-dark sensibility. “Pillow talk!” he declares, to kick off stories about celebrity encounters past. (The time George Clooney pranked him on the set of “Bodies of Evidence,” or Betty White “walloped the bejesus” out of him with a skillet in a scene of “Boston Legal.”) On March 29th, while using a metal back scratcher as a twirling baton, he recalled childhood trips to see football games with his “daddy,” a career Army man. “He said, ‘This is the offense, and this is the defense,’ and I said, ‘But when do the majorettes come out?’ . . . He loved me, he just didn’t know what to make of me.”
The coronavirus crisis has dampened the public’s appetite for a certain kind of celebrity—the polished and composed type, looking to preach or inspire. It’s the unvarnished eccentrics who shine, the ones who are cooped up, losing their marbles, but still hellbent on entertaining. (See: January Jones, dancing in an infrared mask while drinking Coors Light with a straw, or Patti LuPone, swanning around her tchotchke-filled basement in old “Sunset Boulevard” costumes.) “I’m bored shitless,” Jordan whines in one of his videos, lying horizontally with his head burrowed into a throw pillow. “Well, shee-yut, what are y’all doing? This is awful!” he starts off another. “It’s still March. How many days in March?! When is April gonna fucking get here?” Like Norman Bates, he sometimes pretends his mother is in the same house, just down the hall.
“I’m not gonna tell you to wash your hands or wear a mask,” Jordan told me. “My gift is to be funny.” Occasionally, though, he strikes a different note. In one video, he stands on his apartment’s balcony, playing caretaker to an injured wasp. “I gave him a little flower to eat and some water to drink,” he says, his frown filling up the frame. “Poor li’l wasp. We’ve got to be kind. That’s just the way it’s gonna end, is that we’re gonna figure out we’ve got to all help one another.”
Jordan’s next project, which was supposed to go into production in June, is a Fox sitcom called “Call Me Kat,” in which Mayim Bialik plays the owner of a cat café and Jordan her feline-wrangling employee. “Growing up, the main thing I was ashamed of was my voice. It is very effeminate,” he told me as he strolled along the river. “But I am learning more and more, at sixty-five, to be proud of who I am.” As we talked, some strangers walking nearby called out to Jordan to say that they love his videos. “I’m like the Beatles!” Jordan said. “They’re hollerin’ my name.” But, he added, he can’t get his mother to watch the videos. “The only thing my sister will say about it is, ‘Congratulations, Leslie, you’ve finally been discovered after a million years.’ ”
Credit to newyorker.com for first publishing this article.