If there was one possible upside to 2020, it's that Leslie Jordan became a big star.
Long known as a reliably funny supporting actor (best known for his recurring role as Beverley Leslie on Will & Grace), when the pandemic began last March, Jordan headed home to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Like a lot of us, the 65-year-old clutched his phone day and night. But eventually Jordan turned it around — and turned the camera on.
"I posted a video on Instagram twice a day, for 80 days," he tells PEOPLE for this week's issue. Jordan's daily first-person ruminations — somewhere between the urbane absurdity of David Sedaris and front-porch folksy of Garrison Keillor — proved to be popular. Really popular. The Washington Post declared him "our feisty quarantine uncle."
Jordan felt truly seen. "People knew me from my characters, but I'm amazed that, people discovered me as me. They loved me," he says. "And they came back."
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The actor is from a very small, tightly knit family. "Truly, it's just me and my momma and my [younger] twin sisters. That's it. No heirs for my millions," he deadpans over Zoom, waving his hands around his West Hollywood, California, apartment. "I found out really early that I could keep the bullies at bay with being funny."
Growing up in the late sixties, Jordan's stature (he stands at 4'11") and burgeoning homosexuality left him feeling vulnerable. "I wasn't good at things other boys were good at. My father could tell." When he was 11, his father, a lieutenant colonel in the Army, died in a plane crash on his way to a base in Mississippi."
After high school, Jordan worked with horses and even considered becoming a jockey. He studied theater at the University of Tennessee then headed west. "When I got on the bus in 1982 to come to Hollywood, my mother told me, 'Always know that if it doesn't work out, you can come back to a standing ovation,' " he remembers.
Jordan quickly found work. He started in commercials for Doritos and Foster's beer. Guest roles were booked, many of them for "gay" characters. "I was never closeted here," he says. "Back then, there were about three or four openly gay actors, but they never had us audition as 'gay.'" The roles called for a "mama's boy," or someone "a little fey," Jordan recalls. "They'd even ask for someone a little 'minty.'"
He appeared in '80s classics like The Fall Guy and Murphy Brown. The '90s brought Caroline in the City, Hearts Afire, and many, well, forgettable (and forgotten) television shows. Even he can't remember some of them. "I've done some stankers, honey." But soon came Will & Grace, his Emmy win, appearances in The Help, American Horror Story, and now his beloved Instagram account and 5.6 million followers.
"I think my dad would be so proud of me. I get my gift of humor from him," Jordan says. "He was the funniest man alive." The resemblances don't stop there. "When I'm in Tennessee, I catch mother kind of looking at me sometimes. She'll say, 'You look your dad.'" Jordan's voice catches and his eyes fill with tears. "I can't tell you the number of people that will come up to me in grocery stores back home and say, 'You have got to be Alan Jordan's boy.'"
While he's known for his wonderful humor and gregarious personality on social media, he says he hasn't been out past 6 p.m. in years, mostly because people always want him to perform.
"I love being by myself," Jordan says, who happily lives alone. "I think that has a lot to do with my twin sisters. Growing up, they were so close, and then there was me. I played by myself a lot. I'm very a quiet person and very much a loner. But today I am more comfortable with who I am than ever," he says. "Every day is like gravy."
Of course, he talks to his mother, Peggy Ann, all the time. And his followers on Instagram.
Now 85 — "85 and beautiful!" he adds — his mother recently asked him about his "deep-seeded need to air my dirty laundry." He laughs. "She asked me, 'Why can't you just whisper it to a therapist?' "
Of all of Jordan's accomplishments, he is proudest of the home he was able to buy for her.
"It looks like Laura Ashley threw up in there." Jordan plans to move near her at some point, to return home and return to his first love: horses. "I want a pony farm. I've got it all planned out. That'll be a good story."
Call Me Kat airs Thursdays (9 p.m. ET) on Fox.
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