not quite Christmas but Liesha Hailey is talking about toys;
specifically about how she thinks future episodes of The L
Word, Showtime’s new drama about the lives and loves
of a mostly queer gaggle of L.A. women could benefit from
showcasing a few more toys. Yes, those kinds of toys. “We
need more of that on the show,” the out actress muses,
over tea and cookies in the garden of Melrose Avenue cafe.
“I mean, it’s part of that world.” When
told that her gay brothers could stand to be more educated
about such accouterment, Hailey raises her hand and proclaims,
“And I’d like to be the one to show ya!”
The 32 year-old Fellview, Nebraska-born actress, pulls a lock
of newly brown hair—she’s blond on the show—from
her face and giggles. “Actually, I just watched the
pilot with two gay men,” she reports. “It was
really fun to watch their reaction because they were screaming
at the TV, like, ‘She did not just say that?’
They especially loved to scream at me.”
to Lesbian-ville go, it’s hard to imagine a better choice
than Leisha Hailey. We first fell in love with her pixieish
charm—she’s one of those girls who could dye her
hair shocking pink and still look adorable—as one half
of the pop-rock duo The Murmurs, a West Coast favorite with
three albums to their credit. Then, in the late 90’s,
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 ’97, Hailey made her own splash as an
actor, playing and 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.
Hailey’s key role in the gay cultural zeitgeist was
affirmed recently when she was asked to take part in the skin-soaked
24-person photo shoot for Vanity Fair's cover story on TV's
Gay Heat Wave. In a slinky dress and strappy heels ("I
really into exploring my femininity right now. I was just
out buying a garter belt to wear under my dress at the premier")
she was one of five leggy lovelies representing The L Word.
"I feel so honored to be a part of this movement,"
Hailey says. "I mean, when I was like ninth grade, I
remember running home every day after school to watch Cagney
& Lacey, just to get the gay fix. Now, 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. The L Word, this is one of the top five things
I'm most proud of in my life."
Given that Hailey is the only out lesbian in the series'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
Given that this is TV land, Alice's beautiful quest for Mr./Ms.
Right is going to have plenty of complications. An ex-girlfriend,
played by Go Fish star Guinevere Turner-who's also a story
editor on 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 new-in-town, straight-but-maybe-not-that-straight
writer named Jenny (Mia Kirshner) 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 professionally closeted 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
writer's 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, 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 L.A. with her architect partner of 20 years and their twin
eight-year-old girls. "When I sensed that the time was
right, I told Showtime my stories, and they just said, 'Yes,
we've gotta do this!'" Chaiken allows that the breakout
success of Queer as Folk kicked open the door for her show,
but hopes audiences won't regard The L Word as just a lesbian
knock-off 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 they couldn't be more different."
For starters, The L Word has more familiar faces in its cast
than Queer as Folk did, a lot more, from principals like Beals
(Flashdance), Kirshner (Exotica) and Grier (Jackie Brown)
to a guest star roster that includes Kelly Lynch, Ann Archer,
Tami Lynn Michaels, Julian Sands, Lolita Davidovich, Rosanna
Arquette, Ossie Davis, and Snoop Dogg. Yes, that Snoop Dog.
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 Jennifer 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 a hundred percent 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
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 mean, I'm very into men,"
allows Kennar, "and I just 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 pow wow 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 to 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 face like, 'Oh my God. I'm not supposed
to do it like that?' It's going to be very educational, this
Given that Showtime prides itself on its cutting edge "no
limits" reputation, one might assume The L Word 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. 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 them some
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 too beautiful. "When we made Go Fish,
people were like, 'Why are all the lesbians so ugly? Some
of us wear make-up and dresses'," recalls Troche. "Now,
probably after The L Word, people will 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
"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."
"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, you know,
make the case."
And let's not forget the considerable charms of star-in-the-making
Leisha Hailey. "She's an absolute natural," gushes
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 un-hip guy who
“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 resume consists primarily of a handful
of indies and those yogurt commercials. And while we’re
on the subject, are those Yoplait spots super gay or what?
“I think so, too,” Hailey chortles. “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 women would be excited about a weekend
with no boys?”
Hailey’s off-screen lesbian tendencies kicked in right
around the same time as her thesbian ones, when at 17, she
left Nebraska to study acting at the American Academy of Dramatic
Arts in Manhattan. “Soon to follow was my whole evolution,”
she explains. “I mean, I had fantastic boyfriends in
high school who 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’s been
dabbling in songwriting during her downtime from The L Word,
“but we felt like it was time let ourselves grow in
our own directions musically."
Hailey's less comfortable discussing the break up of her nearly
five-year romantic relationship with singer kd 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 sex symbol,
to be Jennifer Anniston 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 then
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 the 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
kd’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 after, but I was very
proud of kd and all her accomplishments and never felt squashed
by her fame in any way."
It's good Hailey's 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 gotta 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."