Kristen Johnston Is the Queen of Freaks
Ever since Kristen Johnston, a six-foot-tall self-described “freak,” hit our TV screens on Third Rock From the Sun, queers have adored her. Sexy blond Johnson’s character of Sally, an alien military combat specialist hiding out in a new female body with her faux family in middle America, was one that resonated with lesbians especially because she was powerful but vulnerable, gangly but beautiful, tough but nerdy, and above all, a total freaking outsider.
But despite decades of us hoping she was lesbian herself, turns out Johnston likes the wang a little too much to give in to full sapphic surrender. However, she still says LGBT folks helped make her career, nay, her life. “I love you guys. I do. You know I love the gays. I can’t help it,” Johnston gushes.
These days Johnston is starring in TV Land’s The Exes (season 2 premieres in June) and touring with her new book, Guts, a surprisingly raw and funny memoir about growing up as a freak (she was six feet tall at age 11), being bullied in middle school (“it was horrible”), and coming out as a former pill-popping drug and alcohol addict (“screw my career, or my privacy ... I’ll tell whoever I damn well please). Like Augusten Burroughs, Johnston is able to be frank and compelling when talking about her life, including her personal foibles, the confusion of sudden fame, and the life-threatening medical emergency that landed her in a British hospital for months after her “intestines ripped open.”
The Advocate: I think your new book is going to resonate with a lot of people.
Kristen Johnston: You do?
I though it was fantastic.
Aww. Thank you so much. I appreciate it. I, I mean, I’m really proud of it.
The fact that you felt like a freak so much of your life is something that a lot of people actually can identify with.
Right. Well, as I say, I think everyone is an addict. I think everyone can relate to that. I mean, look, everyone is addicted to something. So when you think of drugs or alcohol you kind of tend to put yourself on a nice little throne and think, Oh, wow, poor, poor Lindsay. Or, you know, Oh, Courtney, do that again. But the bottom line is, you’re an addict too. You’re addicted to something else. You know what I mean? Your kids, work, TV, Twitter, I don’t know, whatever it is. So it’s like we’re all on the same leaky boat, as I say. I think that’s kind of the most important thing. I also just really wanted to reach people. I wanted to write the book that I wished I had read when I was struggling.
Did you read a lot of addiction books?
I read so many. And, uh, you know, none of them just had the ring of [authenticity] for me. I couldn’t relate to any of them.
Why do you think that is?
Some of them are beautifully written, like Mary Karr’s book Lit, which was exquisite. But ... you sort of you go into this different world, and obviously I can’t relate to growing up the way she grew up, and then of course there’s Carrie Fisher, and I can’t relate to how she grew up. I just sort of wanted to write something a little bit more universal about we all feel. Whether it’s our food addiction, sex addiction, love addiction. And so I tried to sort of make it that, you know, universal in that way. With, of course, a heavy, uh, nod toward the gays.
When I heard that there was a coming out in the book I have to admit I was really hoping that you were going to be coming out as a lesbian, not an addict.
[Laughs] I mean, that’s my next book.
Is there any chance you’re at least bisexual?
I’m not. I’m sorry.
You can’t throw me a bone here?
No, I can throw you this bone. I really wish I was. I can say that. But I’m not. Unfortunately, I like the cock. It’s tragic but true.
You’ve always had great gay friends.
You say in the book is that it was a gay man who was the first man who ever told you you were beautiful.
Absolutely. And it was gay men who first really got me as an actress too. My life is kind of, I am Auntie Mame, let’s just face it.
Why do you think you forge such close relationships with gay men? Why do they get you?
I don’t know. I think that there’s certainly a kinship in terms of feeling like a freak. When you’re, that, at that vulnerable age of, you know, 10, 9, 8, 11, in that age range and I was already six feet tall and a loser too, and I was loud. I think I’ve always been a freak. And I think gay people feel like freaks when they’re younger, maybe not as much anymore, but certainly they used to. I mean, certainly when you were ... when you were sort of at that age, it must have been so confusing and horrible and weird and hard. And you didn’t have anybody to look up to. There was no Will & Grace, you know what I mean?
Not that you want to look up to them, but you know what I’m saying. There was no Logo. Now it’s a different animal, thank God.
Yeah. But certainly we’re seeing a bullying epidemic right now and these young LGBT teen suicides. It’s obviously still such a huge deal.
Absolutely. It’s still a prevalent, horrible issue. Absolutely. It kills me. Honestly, I could really, I could seriously cry right now and I’m not kidding about it. I just can’t stand that kids are giving up.
Yeah. It’s disheartening.
I just can’t stand it, because if only they could just make it three years and then they’d be like the king of Chelsea, you know what I mean? Or the queen of wherever. Kids don’t understand that the losers in high school become the winners later on, because you don’t want to peak in high school anyway. That’s the point. You want to peak when you’re in your 30s, 20s, whatever. And that’s what I see gay people doing. Once they embrace who they are and they’re accepted — and I feel kind of similar in a weird way. Maybe that’s unfair to say and I’ll get lots of hate mail for saying it, but I just ... just understand being tormented for something that I just can’t help.
When you were a kid, you were wearing orthopedic shoes, you were classified learning-disabled, and you’re six feet tall at 11.
Yeah, no, it wasn’t pretty.
And you were bullied because of that.
Yeah, that’s what I’m trying to say, that I relate to that kind of age and growing up and getting out of wherever I was and sort of blossoming and understanding, oh, my God, being different is great. As stupid as that is, and as sort of Oprah as it sounds, but it’s true.
It is. Being different is embraced, well, at least just come to New York, you’ll be fine.
[Laughs] Well, one of the more compelling scenes of the book is when you’re, I think, 9 years old and there’s a group of like four or five boys who corner you.
Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.
And one of the boys punches you right in the crotch.
How did that moment impact you?
Well I didn’t really realize it until I wrote the book. I had forgotten about it. I pushed it away and as I started thinking about that time in my life and writing about… and about watching my little brother being just eviscerated. There’s so much I don’t talk about because I’m trying to protect other people’s stories. But the bottom line is that, and I used to say this in the book and I took it out so as not to offend people who have been raped, but it was kind of a rape in a weird way. It certainly was a moment where my innocence gone. I realized then the cruelty of people.
You have a very lovely line, when you’re talking about one of your bullies, where you say that your self-esteem was utterly decimated by both of us.
Talk a little bit about that.
I have for years — and I think this is the addict’s way — the way I spoke to myself was mean. Like if I forgot my keys, I’d be like, Oh, you dumb cunt. You know what I mean? Like the way I spoke to myself was so much meaner than anything anyone could say to me. Oh, look at your fat ass, or whatever. And I started to realize that when I started to get sober, that my whole life I had spoken to myself like that. So that’s kind of what I’m talking about; people can say the meanest things but no one’s meaner than yourself.
It sounds like you felt a lot of shame and isolation both as a kid and as addict as an adult. Your attitude now is more like I don’t care who knows. Is that hard in Hollywood?
Yes. Well, it’s not hard, it’s just shocking to people. When I went on Letterman and spoke about I just sort of said I’m an addict and ... this one person has tweeted, “Watch the most honest celebrity in history make Letterman’s audience extremely uncomfortable.” And you know, the whole point was of course they weren’t uncomfortable. I was there, I’m an actress, I can feel an audience when they’re being uncomfortable. They were listening, you know, I wasn’t being funny for five seconds.
I was talking about something kind of serious and David was really interested. So you get backlash that way, but I don’t care now. I think honesty is admired and respected. I mean, I think when you try to hide who you are, that’s when it’s terrifying. Because then if people find out — you know, I lived in fear of people finding out or press finding out that I was an addict. And then of course, you just go on Letterman and say it, and it’s fine. It’s like, Oh, OK, so like 20 years of hiding and this is all I had to do. I think there was also a huge sense of shame of becoming yet another actress on pills. I mean, it’s embarrassing.
Even in Hollywood.
Yeah, it really is, but you know, as far as I can tell from certain meetings I go to, actors aren’t the only ones. Let’s just put it that way. There’s a lot of others. There’s a lot of people suffering out there and trying to fight this. We’re the ones that are in the public eye. And the fact that I wasn’t sort of “caught” is a miracle. I was highly functioning. Those are the worst kinds, as I say.
That’s what they say in AA.
But yes, it is weird, it’s very, very weird to be all of a sudden really honest.
You were a bit of a liar.
Because addicts always are.
Yeah, absolutely. Wow, harsh. I’m kidding. I’m kidding. Totally, I agree. I agree.
I was totally stunned that you were admitted to the hospital your intestines were virtually busting at the seams. And still you lied to the intake nurses.
Yep, but that’s addiction. Off the record, what are you addicted to honestly? Work? Kids?
Food. OK. So you have this food addiction and, you know, if, if while you’re in the sickness, like before you could even admit you had a food addiction if somebody even mentioned like “Are you going to eat that” or whatever, you would be like, “What? Why would you even ask that?” You know what I mean?
So it’s very similar. I mean, it’s exactly like that. It’s just you have to protect it. And the shame of it compounds the protection. And it just becomes this kind of whirling mass of lies. It’s horrible. You lie to yourself, that’s the worst part. It’s like those crazy people who don’t know they’re crazy. You don’t know; you’re like, I’m fine. A cigarette made my stomach burst, what’s the big deal? And you really start believing it.
You ended up being hospitalized for a long time. How different do you think it would have been if you had hospitalized in the U.S. instead of London?
Well, it would have been a lot different. I’d probably be doing porno in the San Fernando Valley for gentlemen who like their ladies tall and long in the tooth. Honestly, I don’t know what I would have done. I wasn’t exactly rolling in it at the time. We were panicked about it. It was two months in the hospital and infections and surgery. It was horrible.
After you got out, the tabloids kept saying you had become anorexic in order to jump-start your dead career.
Yeah. I know.
Because, as you say in the book, people in Hollywood confuse doing theater with being dead.
Did, did you respond to the media in any way then? Did you just ignore them?
No. Well, it’s hard to ignore, but I didn’t respond. Well, I did respond to one tabloid that called and said they were going to do a cover article about my anorexia. So I wrote a very long statement saying exactly what happened. Not saying I’m an addict, but saying, due to an unhealthy lifestyle, you know, my stomach blew up. I’ve since gotten sober. I changed my life. And, yes I’m still thin. I agree I looked terrifying, but they refused to refused to print it. They just printed their story. So, you know, I did try to comment on it. I just thought it was kind of horrible because what if I had anorexia? The way everybody was attacking me, I was like what if I had it? My God, it would have been just awful to do that to somebody, I think.
That seems a common thing too, in the media.
If somebody obviously is sick or has a problem, sure it’s your job to comment on it. I get it. But to eviscerate someone for something just feels wrong to me. But I didn’t have anorexia. And I, I’m actually the only actress I know who does not have an eating disorder. Well, that’s not true, I know a couple, but very few. And so to be accused of the one thing I don’t have was just so frustrating.
Do you feel like at this point you are the real you? You know who you are now?
Yes. I’m the real me, flaws and all. Again, look, hey, I do not try in the book to say, “Now my life is rainbows and skittles and kittens.” OK? I still have a lot of trouble like figuring out how to calibrate stress and anger — I never figured those things out or how to self-soothe other than pills or drinking. When every moment, every sad, happy, angry, celebratory, funny, every moment is an occasion for [alcohol], it becomes very difficult to live without it. So I do want to make it clear that I could be in rehab tomorrow. I’m not some poster child for recovery and I don’t want to be. But if somebody gets inspiration from my story, as somebody who changed their life in their, their late 30s and figured out how to sort of live a happier life then, I’m your girl.
Yes, I think too often we hear people who are like “I was an alcoholic” or “I was an addict” and the reality is, no, that’s a lifetime issue, you’re an addict in recovery forever.
Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely. And its the worst thing in the world to do that to yourself. It’s just so important to me to say that because it is a very tricky disease and it’s very, very baffling and cunning, as they say, and it can creep back up on you if you get a paper cut or stub your toe or your mom dies, you know? You just don’t know, and so I would never try to say that I am some poster child but I have been painkiller- and alcohol-free for five years. And that’s all I know. And who knows what’ll happen tomorrow.
One last question. You end the book with a quote created by AIDS activists in the ’80s. Tell me why it resonated.
Well, I just, I think it’s the whole point of the book. Simon and Schuster wanted me to talk about my addiction now, have it be a big story now, as opposed to a couple months ago. But I was promoting The Exes and I refused to be coy, because the whole point of the book is if you want to say it, say it. If you don’t, don’t. There should be no shame. It’s just like having leukemia. And you go and get your treatment — whatever that is for you. Whether it’s a meeting, whether it’s a shrink, whether it’s friends. Whatever that is, your support system. That is what you have to do. That’s your chemo. If you don’t do that, then you’re an asshole. So basically the whole thing is, I just want people to stop being so ashamed of it. And that was the reason I wrote it, the book, because I didn’t have to. I haven’t been arrested and no one knew about it. I just wanted to sort of stop being embarrassed about it. I was sick of it.
But some people wonder why you came out now, when you hadn’t been outed, hadn’t had a public embarrassment like some others.
Yes. Exactly. Or I don’t have to say, “Look, here’s what really happened when I said the n word,” or you know, whatever. So people think I’m crazy. Maybe I am. I had an agent coming up to me and saying, “Stop telling people you’re sober. It makes everybody uncomfortable.” And I sort of think that’s the important thing to take away. It’s like really? I was so flustered and then I thought, I can’t wait for the day when that’s no longer a big deal. And hopefully my book just takes a little of the edge off for people. That they can maybe go into work and tell their boss that they’re struggling, because so many people are. As I said to Simon and Schuster, my publisher, I said, “Look, if every addict in the United States at some point buys this book, it’ll be on the New York Times best-seller list for the next 40 years.”
It’s not super self-referential. We get the sense you’re not promoting your career.
Wow, that’s nice. Thank you very much for saying that. Honestly. Now you’re going to write some cunty thing about me.
[Laughs] What else do you want readers to know?
Oh, and I designed the cover and wrote every fucked-up word myself.