What would we have done without Leslie Jordan helping us get through the pandemic? If you look back at that time of lockdowns, restrictions, mandates, sickness, fear and death, there wasn’t much to be happy about.
We had some moments of escape and levity. Who among us kicked ourselves each time we clicked on “next episode” for Tiger King? There was also some warm and feel-good TV like Ted Lasso, and on TikTok you had Kylie Jenner or Charlie Puth, whose videos ruled during the dark year of 2020.
However, all the hit-or-miss — or nothing else to watch — series, TV shows, and social media channels paled in comparison to the homespun, forthright, and naughty memory-laden conversations courtesy of Leslie Jordan’s Instagram account. He became the star of the pandemic.
His tales and yarns were honest, some warm and humorous, some a bit risqué — well, maybe not a bit — and others just downright funny. It was amazing to watch his popularity soar.
At his death on Monday, October 25, Leslie Jordan had nearly 6 million followers on Instagram. Let me put that in some context for you. His fellow Will & Grace stars Sean Hayes, Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, and Megan Mullally, combined, have just over 5 million. He outshines them all on social media.
If we had to vote for the top person who steered us through those worrisome days, Leslie Jordan, quite possibly would come in second only to Dr. Anthony Fauci. But he was so much more than a COVID elixir.
Had we ever come across someone who was just so happy with who he was? And who spread that happiness like the giant smile that covered three-fourths of his curvy, lined face? He was short and pudgy, with a stinging, syrupy, sissy Southern voice — those are all things he talked about as if they were attributes that instigated his happiness. And he wasn’t about to comb his hair, put on makeup, get out of his robe, or strive to make himself anything other than who he was.
You couldn’t call him just Leslie, or more impersonally, Jordan. It had to be Leslie Jordan because saying only half his name only told half of his story.
We talk a lot about being authentic these days, but Leslie Jordan lived authenticity, especially in the last years of his life. He just plopped down, turned the camera on, and started talking, honestly, frankly, nice and not so nice. He was just telling his truth.
One person he talked a lot about was his mama, Peggy Ann, who died in May, and we can only imagine how crushed Leslie was when she passed. “Leslie, who are you talking to,” she once asked him while he was on Instagram. “Mama, I’m talking to my friends,” he replied. When he did talk to us, we felt as if we were the only friend he was speaking to.
There are some people who when they die and leave us seem to turn off all the lights in the room when they exit this world. When Leslie Jordan died this week, he flicked the light switch off. All of us felt a sense of darkness upon the news of his unexpected passing.
Leslie Jordan was often likened to Truman Capote because they had some similarities. They were both from the South, gay storytellers with distinctive voices and vocabulary.
However, Leslie Jordan was a much simpler, humbler, and warmer person. He was once called “the people’s Truman Capote” since Capote tended to talk over people’s heads while Jordan looked you directly in the eyes. That was of course easy to do on camera, because Leslie Jordan at 4 foot 11 was always looking up. He did that so we didn’t have to look down our noses at him.
He was a scene stealer in his role as Beverley Leslie in Will & Grace. That’s how most people first became aware of him, despite being in the business for over 40 years. And his character certainly wasn’t a stretch for the actor Leslie Jordan.
It was Beverley’s running feud with his frenemy Megan Mullally’s Karen Walker and his ever-present eye candy and “business associate” Benji that tickled audiences. Everyone knew who Benji really was, but the over-the-top Beverley thought he was keeping a secret. The whole relationship was an ironic oxymoron.
A true Southerner, Jordan was out and proud, and that’s a tough thing to do in the South, particularly if you’re a bit flamboyant as he was. The fact that Beverley was tongue-in-cheek in the closet, even though he exuded gay, was a sight and sound gag. And being a gay white man on the arm of a gay Black man in the South was also something that was downright scandalous to the actor Leslie Jordan, who was born in the 1950s and raised in the segregated south in the 1960s. The actor and the character were proudly defiant.
Leslie Jordan was so much more than his character on Will & Grace, though. He was a stand-up comic, stage, film, and TV actor, and gospel singer. But he hit the stratosphere with his simple and singular Instagram posts. It really says something that a silly gay man approaching 70 cobbled up so many young fans for just being himself.
I remember seeing him being interviewed on Good Morning America by Michael Strahan last year. During their talk, Jordan said, “You know, I’ve reached a point in my life where I’m perfectly comfortable in who I am, what I am. So it’s all kind of gravy. It’s a wonderful time.”
How do you become comfortable with who you are, particularly later in life? And how did Leslie Jordan become comfortable with who he was? I went back and looked at his daily Instagram posts after that interview with Strahan, and I looked for hints as to why he was so happy.
I noticed a man who was evolving before our eyes. I sensed that Leslie Jordan began his Instagram barrage out of boredom, and perhaps to release some of his creative spirit while he was locked at home like the rest of us. But as his daily missives progressed, so did Leslie Jordan.
Whether he realized it or not, Leslie Jordan’s confessionals became a cathartic way of talking about things he had done in his life that had an impact on him. Eventually, 6 million of us became his therapist, and we listened, we commented, we laughed, and we shared what he was prognosticating. Unbeknownst to him, perhaps, the whole experience solidified the fact that he could be comfortable in his own skin. How could 6 million people be wrong?
Many of us spend most of our lives creating performance characters of ourselves that we deign to be acceptable to the society and environments around us. As a man approaching 60 and becoming a sexagenarian like Leslie Jordan, and one who drank often to embolden my performance, I’ve been thinking a lot about the man I was who starred in his own long-running show for the past four decades. During that era, I bit my tongue many times, contorted myself into a masculine, sports-loving “anti-gay-acting” man, drank myself into amnesia, and worried so much about what people thought of me.
I’m not the only man of a certain age who has been creating and crafting a script and persona of their lives that was based more on audience reaction and less on authenticity. And it takes some measure of a man to be able to realize that his long-running show may have jumped the shark. That you can look in the mirror and your heart and see that the days of striving for some semblance of youth and perfection are coming to an end and face up to who and how you will be for the autumn and winter of your life.
I think I can point to Leslie Jordan’s influence in my own journey. I read and heard him talk about being sober, about facing up to the fact that he was “the gayest man” he knew, and about his relationship with God. So personally, I’ve gone 11 months now without a drink, I write openly and freely about being gay and queer, and for the first time in my life wear that as a badge of honor. And I have realized a meaningful relationship with God can happen outside of the Catholic Church. Gradually, I'm feeling more content than I ever have in my life.
I think that’s what Leslie Jordan ended up doing — helping us all see life with a little more clarity, a little more openness and acceptance, be happy about all the changes, and be satisfied. Those are the real lessons he leaves us. He talked and joked his way into our hearts, all the while he was looking into his own. And in doing so, Leslie Jordan came into his own, and I’m trying to take a page from all that ownership.
“During my 22 years in recovery, we’re required to write a lot about things and do a lot of work,” Jordan said in April 2021. “Happiness is a habit. It’s a choice. It’s something that you have to work for. ... I was baptized 14 times. Every time I’d go up there, the preacher, Brother Baker, would say, ‘I believe I baptized you in the revival this summer.’ I said, ‘I don’t think it took.’ I had so many secrets and so much shame, and all that’s gone now.”
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.
Views expressed in The Advocate’s opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, Equal Pride.