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Friday, September 25, 2009

Deeper Dish with Alexandra Billings

Alexandra Billings is a very funny lady. If you don't believe me, just check out her YouTube channel and watch her Katie's Corner videos, in which she does a hilarious Katharine Hepburn impression (you can also view a few of my favorites below). But I've known that she is an amazing actress with a fabulous sense of humor ever since 1990 when she starred in Charles Busch's play, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, at Chicago's Royal George Theatre (where I worked in the box office). Since then Alex has pretty much done it all: television (Grey's Anatomy, Eli Stone, Romy and Michele: In The Beginning, in which she made television history as the first transgendered female to play a transgendered female character on TV), movies (Socket, Stealth), CDs (Being Alive, The Story Goes On), a one-woman autobiographical show (Before I Disappear), a cabaret act (she received the New York MAC Hanson Award for Cabaret Artist of the Year in 2004), and marriage (she married her best friend from high school, director Chrisanne Blankenship, in a commitment ceremony on December 4, 1995). She was also inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 2005, and this year she was the Grand Marshal for the 40th Annual Chicago Pride Parade.

Having admired this lovely and talented lady for so long, I am honored--and thrilled--to have her as a Deeper Dish interviewee (i.e. a fabulous person who will answer pop culture questions along with giving us some insight into their life). Now let's get deeper with Alexandra Billings:

Let's start with the recent documentary about your life, Schoolboy to Showgirl: The Alexandra Billings Story. How did this film project get started and eventually produced?

The documentary was actually a big, fat surprise. I was asked to do a short interview by Alexandra Silets (from PBS) on the history of the LGBT community. As we talked, I started telling stories of my life, and Alex and I began a dialog that veered off into Bizarre-o Land...which is basically my life without the punctuation.

She then said:

"Your life would be a really cool documentary."

To which I replied:

"But who would care? Who do I think I am anyway? Bea Arthur?"

And then six months later, she put it together, produced it, and sold it to PBS.


So how does it feel to have your own personal story featured on PBS?

To be honest, I have a real problem watching myself do anything. It took me a couple of weeks before I mustered up enough courage to actually see it without throwing up into a bucket. And it was odd. The show itself was beautiful, but that was due to PBS and Alex. But watching myself talk about myself in a show about myself was a little too much of myself. I'm an actor, so I understand Me, Me, Me...but honestly, you can go too far occasionally, don't you think?

Back in the '80s you worked as a female impersonator under the stage name "Shante" at Chicago's Baton Show Lounge and other drag clubs. What is your fondest memory of those days?

In the mid-1980s, I was downstairs in my dressing room at The Baton getting ready to go home, and Chili Pepper came up to me and plopped an envelope on my dressing table.

"Here," she said in her best Zsa Zsa Gabor. "Read this. You need to do it."

I opened it up and inside was the script for an off-Broadway play called Vampire Lesbians of Sodom.

I asked her what it was, and she smiled.

"It's your ticket out of here, Mary."

It was the show that got me back on stage and reminded me that the only thing that was trapping me...was me. It gave me back a sense of who I was and what my dreams were. I loved being at The Baton. I loved what I did. I was never ashamed of it. But I was bored. I was stuck. And I felt helpless. Chili was the first one who believed in me and told me I had the power to change anything and do anything, and most importantly, BE anything.

I didn't find out until years later that the role in Vampires was actually offered to her first. She turned it down and gave it to me.

That was a great, great memory.

There was also the night that Kelly Lauren did a cartwheel in the middle of "Burning Up For Your Love" and fell off the stage and headfirst into the front row. That was also a great, great memory.

Can you briefly describe what it was like to work with Yul Brynner and Carol Burnett?

Well, I was actually only six or seven years old. My father was the musical director at Harbor College (and head of the music department) as well as the conductor at The LA Civic Light Opera House, so when I started in theater I was very, very young. I was doing musical theater before I could spell it, really. While most kids were outside jumping rope and playing house I was learning lines and mixing cocktails for cast parties.

The only thing I remember about Yul was that he was very tall and very ill.

I remember Burnett very well. She's exactly the person you see on her show. Exactly the same. What a dame.

You've worked on many television series in recent years. Which show was your favorite experience?

I have to say the very first one I did is still my favorite. It's a tiny little movie that pops up on TV every once in a while called Romy and Michelle: In The Beginning. With the exception of a moronic and maniacally erratic Paula Abdul, it was the happiest, most alive and hilarious set I've worked on. Katherine Heigl and I met there, and we're still friends. She's one of the kindest people in this town, and was unbelievable to me when my wife and I first got here. She showed me where the In-N-Out Burger was located. She's been my personal hero ever since.

What's your favorite song from your two CDs, Being Alive and The Story Goes On?

I think "Let the River Run" is probably one of my favorite songs period. It's a near-perfect song. The lyrics, the musicality and the feel of it. It's one of those songs that resonates with me really strongly and one I never get tired of singing.

You used to live in Chicago and now you live in Los Angeles. What's your favorite thing about each city?

I love the physical city of Chicago. The look of it, and the architecture. I've been a lot of places and I have to say, it's one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

As far as LA goes, the great thing about living here is you can be at the beach or making snow angels in a matter of six hours driving either way. You just better make sure you drive quickly, or someone will set your car on fire.

What's your new movie, Wildcat Road, about?'s all hush hush and stuff. I'm bound by one of those silly contracts. Bound I say! Bound!

In high school I was:

Trying to act like a boy and behaving like a girl. My gym class was completely confused.

If I had to gain 30 pounds for a role, I would eat:

Exactly what I eat now. I live on lard, fat and sugar.

The last good book I read was:

Letters From A Poet.

If I could be part of any TV family in history, I would choose:

The Ricardos. But I'd have to be Lucy's sister. Her schemes were always filled with so much joy and I'd have to be her partner. So I guess I'd have to push Ethel out an open window.

When I was growing up, I never missed a television episode of:

Password, The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, Monty Python, Night Gallery, Bewitched, Dark Shadows, and I Love Lucy. In fact, since the invention of the VCR, I've watched I Love Lucy every single night of my life. My wife can attest to this.

Today I never miss an episode of:

Medium, Hung, and So You Think You Can Dance. The rest are TiVoed episodes of the list from above.

The very first album, tape or CD that I purchased with my own money was:

The original soundtrack of Mary Poppins.

If I was stranded on a desert island for a year, I would want to listen to:

Judy Garland live from Carnegie Hall.

If I could go back in time and see any Broadway show, I would see:

The original cast of A Streetcar Named Desire. Not necessarily to see Brando but, moreover, to see Jessica Tandy. Supposedly she was run over by Brando's brilliant performance, but I'd like to see it for myself.

I also would love to have seen Laurette Taylor in The Glass Menagerie. This was supposedly a defining moment in American acting, and I would love to have been there and witnessed some of her gifts.

If I could star in any role in any Broadway musical or play, I would be:

I would eventually like to play Arkadina in The Seagull and Mame in Mame.

Five movies that I think everyone should be required to watch are:

1. Young Frankenstein

2. The Manchurian Candidate (the original)

3. Gentleman's Agreement

4. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

5. The Band Wagon

...and of course, every person on the planet should see The Wizard of Oz. If this were shown on a loop in the Middle East, I have a feeling things would be much calmer over there.

If I could give an Oscar for any neglected film performance of the past, I would give one to:

This is an easy one. I'd hand it over to Garland for her miracle of a performance in A Star is Born. If you've ever seen the clip of Grace Kelly accepting this award for The Country Girl, you can see even SHE'S shocked beyond words. Groucho Marx once said: "This was the biggest robbery since Brink's."

If I could have anyone in the world--living or dead--be a guest at my fabulous cocktail party, I would invite the following people:

Well, I don't drink so this would actually be a fabulous root beer and cheese party, but I think I'd like to surround myself with Stephen Hawking, Katharine Hepburn, Albert Einstein, John Wayne, Bette Davis, Richard Rodgers, Nanette Fabray, John Cassavetes, Gena Rowlands, Johnny Mathis, Richard Nixon and Abigail Adams.

I guess I'd probably have to break down and get some booze though. Half of those people wouldn't stay ten minutes.

What's next for Alexandra Billings?

I'm going to be opening at Vitello's, which is a fancy nightclub here in LA in November, and I'll be the opening act for Leslie Jordan's new one-man show through the month of December at the Gay and Lesbian Center in Hollywood.

As far as what else is next, I have absolutely no idea. My life has always been a series of happy accidents. I've never, ever had a plan for anything, and I've never known what the next big thing was going to be. I'm going headfirst into the fire, and I have no idea how it's going to turn out. And I love it.

I just hope I'm wearing the right shoes.

Thank you, Alex, for getting Deeper with us here on the Dish (and I hope to someday see you as the marvelous Mame Dennis). To learn more about Alexandra Billings, check out her website and her wonderful blog, Stillettos and Sneakers. You can also become a fan of hers on Facebook by clicking here.

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