L is for Leisha

As The L Word’s only out lesbian cast member, Leisha Hailey is surrounded by hot women (and men) in the sexiest new show since Queer As Folk. Welcome to Showtime’s steamy new hit.

BY Advocate.com Editors

February 03 2004 1:00 AM ET

As ambassadors to
Lesbianville go, it’s hard to imagine a better
choice than Leisha Hailey. We first fell in love with her
pixieish charm when she was one half of the pop-rock
duo the Murmurs, West Coast favorites with three
albums to their credit. In the late 1990s we saw her
on the arm of lesbian sex symbol k.d. lang. (The couple
ended their relationship three years ago after nearly
five years.) In 1997 Hailey made her own splash as an
actor, playing an out and proud rocker in the popular
indie All Over Me. And wait a minute, wasn’t
that Leisha Hailey looking so cute and so gay in that
long-running series of Yoplait yogurt commercials? Yep.
And all that was before Hailey became the one
out lesbian cast member on The L Word,
Showtime’s super new drama about the lives and
loves of a mostly queer gaggle of Los Angeles women that
premiered in January to the kind of national buzz TV
is just not supposed to get anymore.
Hailey is brimming over with excitement.
The L Word is one of the top five
things I’m most proud of in my life. I feel so
honored to be a part of this movement,” says the
32-year-old actress over tea and cookies in a Melrose
Avenue café in Los Angeles. “I feel like
I’m a part of something really big, something
that can help millions of people understand what it’s
like to be gay, curious, bisexual, transgendered.”
Her key role in the gay cultural zeitgeist was
affirmed recently when Hailey was asked to take part
in a skin-soaked 24-person photo shoot for Vanity
Fair
’s cover story on “TV’s Gay
Heat Wave.” To Hailey’s delight, one of
the other models was her childhood idol, Sharon Gless,
who now costars on Queer as Folk—the
Showtime series that arguably built the queer heat
wave into a tsunami.
When Hailey was a young gay girl growing up in
Fellview, Neb., Gless meant plenty. “When I was
in, like, ninth grade,” Hailey reminisces,
“I remember running home every day after school to
watch Cagney & Lacey just to get the gay fix.”
Given that Hailey is the only out lesbian in the
show’s principal cast, it’s ironic that
her character, Alice Pieszecki, a spunky journalist
who’s always ready with a well-timed quip about such
subjects as “nipple confidence” and the
debauchery of Dinah Shore weekend, is the
show’s one avowed bisexual. It’s a
calling Hailey takes seriously.
“I want to represent bisexuals as well as
I want the straight girls on the show to represent
lesbians,” says the actress, who read up on
bisexuality before shooting began. “I’ve
really come to learn that bisexuality is a true,
legitimate sexual orientation. It’s not about
crossing over from straight to gay, which is an idea
that Alice has to argue a lot with her friends. They all
want her to stay in their camp, but Alice is looking
for love, and she literally doesn’t care if it
ends up being with a man or a woman. I think
that’s beautiful.”
Because this is TV land, Alice’s
beautiful quest for Mr. or Ms. Right is going to have
plenty of complications. An ex-girlfriend, played by
Go Fish star Guinevere Turner—who’s
also a writer on The L Word—keeps
turning up with other women on her arm. Then
there’s My So-called Life’s Devon
Gummersal, who plays what Hailey cryptically calls
“a special kind of male” with whom Alice
gets involved.
Alice’s pals could help her sort through
it all, but they have problems of their own. Marina
(Karina Lombard), the exotic owner of the
gang’s favorite coffeehouse, the Planet, has her
hands full seducing a writer named Jenny (Mia
Kirshner)—who is new in town and straight, but
maybe not that straight—behind the back of
Jenny’s devoted swim-coach boyfriend, Tim (Eric
Mabius). Then there’s burgeoning tennis star
Dana (Erin Daniels), who is determined to stay
closeted professionally at any cost. Meanwhile, type A
career gal Bette (Jennifer Beals) and her stay-at-home
partner, Tina (Laurel Holloman), are struggling to
survive the seven-year itch long enough to start a
family, all the while dealing with the surprise return
of Bette’s more or less recovering alcoholic musician
sister Kit (Pam Grier). And finally, we have Shane
(Katherine Moennig), the show’s resident
lothario, who gets so much tail her pals need a giant
dry-erase board to keep track of her dalliances.
“We actually had a real-life chart of our
own in the writers’ office,” reveals out
executive producer and series creator Ilene Chaiken.
“Then we just decided that we had to use it in the show.”
For Chaiken—whose other credits include
the Showtime movies Damaged Care and Dirty
Pictures
(about the censorship furor over the
homo-graphic photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe) as well as
the Pamela Anderson vehicle Barb
Wire
—getting The L Word on the air
was a dream five years in the making. “Back then, I
knew nobody would ever go on this ride with
me,” says Chaiken, who lives in Los Angeles
with her architect partner of 20 years and their twin
8-year-old girls. “When I sensed that the time was
right, I told Showtime my stories, and they just said,
‘Yes, we’ve got to do this.’ ”
Chaiken allows that the breakout success of
Queer as Folk kicked open the door for her
show, but she hopes audiences won’t regard
The L Word as just a lesbian knockoff of
QAF. “That comparison is
inevitable,” she says, “and to the extent that
it gets people there, I welcome it. But I really believe
that when people see the show, they’ll see that
it couldn’t be more different.”
For starters, The L Word has more
familiar faces in its cast than Queer as Folk
did: principals like Beals (Flashdance),
Kirshner (Exotica), and Grier (Jackie Brown),
and a guest star roster that includes Kelly Lynch,
Anne Archer, Tammy Lynn Michaels, Julian Sands, Lolita
Davidovich, Rosanna Arquette, Ossie Davis, and Snoop
Dogg. Yes, that Snoop Dog.
“Showtime said to me in the beginning,
based on their experience with Queer as Folk,
‘Nobody with a name is going to want to do
this. It’s too scary,’ ” recalls
Chaiken. “Well, Jennifer Beals was the first
person we went to, and when she said yes, it really
set the tone. For some reason, it seems women are less
judged and stigmatized for playing gay than men are. I think
it has to do with the idea that it’s not a
turnoff for men.”
“Nobody batted an eye,” says Beals
when asked what the people in her life thought of the
idea of her playing gay. “Not an agent, not a
manager, not my parents, nobody. People were excited that I
was going to be playing a character that I liked. I
thought the writing was so strong and I loved the
dichotomy of my character, Bette. She appears to be
this type A personality, but she’s really struggling
in a lot of ways.”
Beals and the rest of the cast had to be willing
to bare more than their souls, for The L Word,
like Queer as Folk, doesn’t pussyfoot
around when it comes to depicting its characters as fully
sexual creatures. “As far as having lesbian sex,
everyone’s completely 100% gung ho about
it,” Hailey says proudly.
“We did so much to make it real,”
adds executive producer Larry Kennar, the
show’s highest-ranking gay male, “including
having speakers come in and help some of the straight
actresses to really understand what goes on during
lesbian sex.”
“For an Army movie, you would have boot
camp,” reasons Beals. “Well, we had our
sex seminar.” So did she learn anything she
didn’t know before? “Oh, yeah,” she
replies. “I remember something about a
dam.” A dental dam, perhaps?
“Yes,” she exclaims. “I had no idea.
It’s fascinating.”
The homework paid off. “I’m very
into men,” allows Kennar, “and I watched
some sex scenes from our final episode, and it was
just like ‘Whew!’ ”
Of course, arriving at the “whew”
place takes considerable trust and patience on both
sides of the camera. “You really have to open
up a dialogue with the actors,” says director Rose
Troche (The Safety of Objects), who helmed the
two-hour pilot and three of the subsequent 12
episodes. “You can’t do it like I did
Go Fish, where people get drunk and make out and
you just shoot it all.”
One of Troche’s favorite memories of
shooting involves an on-set powwow with a certain
straight actress who was about to simulate oral sex on
her scene partner. “She said, ‘Rose, I
don’t mean to act like I know nothing about
this, but could you just tell me, like, how you want
my head to move?’ I said, ‘Just don’t
give me guys-in-a-porn-video-licking-from-side-to-side
kind of movement,’ and then I looked up and all
the male crew members had this look on their faces
like, Oh, my God. I’m not supposed to do it like
that?
It’s going to be very educational,
this show.”
Given that Showtime prides itself on its
cutting-edge “no limits” reputation, one
might assume The L Word’s creators were
under strict orders to keep things as spicy as possible.
Not so, says Chaiken. “When we began, I think
Showtime felt sex was going to be one of their selling
points and that we would—probably to a lesser
extent than Queer as Folk—always have to
deliver on that,” she says. “But the
minute they saw the pilot, they realized that that was
not what the show was about, and they never pressured
me.” Troche puts it more bluntly: “We do sex
when the story needs sex, not because it’s time
for some tits.”
Speaking of time for tits, are the creators
expecting much of a straight male crowd? If Howard
Stern and his ilk have taught us anything, it’s
that horny heteros love lesbians. “I think that
straight men who are consumers of that particular
brand of entertainment might want it in a different
package,” says Chaiken with a laugh.
“But, hey, it is a sexy show, and the women are beautiful.”
Some might argue that they’re too
beautiful. “When we made Go Fish, people
were like, ‘Why are all the lesbians so ugly?
Some of us wear makeup and dresses,’ ” recalls
Troche. “Now, after The L Word, people
will probably say, ‘Why is everyone beautiful,
and why do they all have amazing jobs?’ These
characters are not every woman. They are not every lesbian.
They’re a very real depiction of a group of L.A.
lesbians based on Ilene’s own experiences.”
“I think we show a spectrum of lesbian
life while still making it believable that all of
these people could be friends,” adds Turner,
“but people still may say, ‘That’s not
me. Where’s the truck-driving butch?
Where’s the New York artist?’ ”
And where’s the appeal for the gay male
audience? This question’s a no-brainer, as far
as Hailey’s concerned. “There’s
great hair, high drama, great sex, and amazing
stories,” she says, ticking off points on her
fingers. “I really think it shows more about
what being gay feels like and less about what it looks like.”
Besides, Hailey’s gay boyfriends are
loving it. “Actually, I just watched the pilot
with two gay men. It was really fun to watch their
reaction, because they were screaming at the TV, ‘She
did not just say that!’ They especially
loved to scream at me.”
“Gay men have been great lovers of good
serialized drama,” adds Chaiken. “Plus
we’re telling stories about issues that are
really the substance of all of our lives. One of the
show’s major themes is that cultural divide
that we all are living on the brink of right now, the
divide between biblical America and the rest of us. And
I feel that we very much take that on, and we try to
humanize those stories and make the case.”
And let’s not forget the considerable
charms of star-in-the-making Leisha Hailey.
“She’s an absolute natural,” raves
Chaiken, who reconceived the part of Alice to better suit
Hailey. “One of the network executives said,
‘Leisha is the arbiter of hip.’ And this
was a very unhip guy who said it.”
“Leisha has so much beautiful positive
energy,” gushes Beals. “Not to sound so
Californian, but it’s true. She can’t
help but be creative in every aspect of her life.”
“Leisha’s timing is
impeccable,” adds Kennar. “I’ve
heard people call her the gay Lucy.”
The gay Lucy? The arbiter of hip? That’s
mighty high praise for a woman whose acting
résumé consists primarily of a handful of
indies and those yogurt commercials. And while we’re
on the subject, are those Yoplait spots supergay or
what? “I think so too,” Hailey says,
chortling. “What about the one where
there’s me and three other girls at a beach house,
and one of them says, “This [yogurt] is like
a-weekend-with-no-boys good,” and we all laugh?
I mean, what straight woman would be excited about a
weekend with no boys?”
Hailey’s offscreen lesbian tendencies
kicked in right around the same time as her thespian
ones, when she left Nebraska at 17 to study acting at
the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.
“Soon to follow was my whole evolution,” she
explains. “I had fantastic boyfriends in high
school whom I loved very much, but I started tapping
into my true sexuality in my later years in high
school—basically falling in love with my best
friend—but I wasn’t sure what it all
meant.” Hailey eventually graduated from the
academy, but by then she’d already hooked up with
fellow acting student Heather Grody to form the
alternative band the Murmurs. Her music career took
precedence as the pair recorded and performed together
for the next 12 years.
Hailey was open about her sexuality from the
get-go. “I feel like being out of the closet
has done nothing but reward me in my life,” she
maintains, adding that she never felt pressure from the
music industry to be anything other than who she was.
“I feel like if you’re comfortable with
it yourself, then the way you’re perceived in
the world is very open.” Though the Murmurs recently
decided to break up, the musician-actress claims it’s
all good. “We’re still best
friends,” stresses Hailey, who has been
dabbling in songwriting during her downtime from The L
Word
, “but we felt like it was time to let
ourselves grow in our own directions musically.”
Hailey is less comfortable discussing the
breakup of her nearly five-year romantic relationship
with singer k.d. lang. “It’s a very
private matter for me,” she says when asked if the
pair are still friendly. “I learned a
tremendous amount from that relationship, and
I’m very sentimental about it and look back on it
with beautiful memories.”
Was it ever difficult for Hailey to be involved
with a sex symbol, to be Jennifer Aniston to the
lesbian Brad Pitt?
“That’s funny, the lesbian Brad
Pitt,” she says with a laugh, “but no, I
never felt threatened. We were very close and
connected, and I suppose that aspect of it didn’t
really affect the two of us. A relationship with any
two people comes down to trust and security, and if
you have that, nothing else really matters.”
Though lang and Hailey broke ground by being one
of the first gay couples to be covered in the
mainstream media, Hailey shrugs off the idea that that
visibility took guts on her part. “All of a sudden
being hurled into being with a celebrity was very
weird and hard to get used to,” allows Hailey,
who is currently involved with a woman who works in
the fashion business, “but as far as being out
publicly, it felt the same as my everyday life.”
So did she learn anything about fame from her
years with lang? “Not really,” she says
thoughtfully, “because k.d.’s a very
down-to-earth person and didn’t really live her life
by the book of fame. Our lifestyle really was about
being at home and being with our dog. I’m very
private, so [the attention] is nothing I sought, but I
was very proud of k.d. and all her accomplishments, and I
never felt squashed by her fame in any way.”
It’s good that Hailey is cool with the
idea of fame, as she may soon be getting a big dose of
her own. “I want everyone in the world to watch
it,” she says when asked what her hopes are for
The L Word. “But at the same time,
I’m scared of what comes along with all that.
It’s got to be a life-changer.” She
realizes it may also be a life-changer for those who tune
in: “I love the thought of someone in Nebraska
or wherever watching and realizing that they’re
not that different from anyone else,” says
Hailey. “I wanted the weight on my shoulders to
represent the gay community. I’d be kicking
myself right now if I wasn’t a part of
this.”

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