Our Lady J has been getting a lot of attention lately.
As a writer and producer for “Transparent” and Ryan Murphy’s “Pose,” she has brought a higher level of transgender representation into popular culture. But while those contributions have brought her new recognition, she’s no stranger to the spotlight.
Trained as a classical pianist, she spent a decade in New York as an accompanist with such companies as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and the American Ballet Theatre, and became the first out transgender person to perform at Carnegie Hall. She’s also collaborated with artists like Sia, Cyndi Lauper, Debbie Harry and Scissor Sisters.
Her 2013 debut album, “Picture of a Man,” garnered critical acclaim and brought her legions of fans for whom she has performed at sold out concerts around the world.
Why, then, did she sideline her musical career to work in television?
“I still love music, but I felt like I had to break up with the music industry because the glass ceiling was not ready to be broken – it feels like it’s stuck in time. I’ve always been a storyteller, even in my music, so for me the transition to television seemed pretty natural. And what I found was that there was a lot more of an opportunity to have a voice.”
She responded to an “audition” call for trans writers by sending a short story, which earned her a place in a workshop with Jill Soloway on writing for television. At the end of it, she was asked to join the writer’s room on “Transparent.” The show had already finished its first season, and Lady J brought a new perspective into the mix.
“It already had a tone to it,” she says. “It’s about how family holds people together, but there are still a lot of problems to be worked out in that family. We wanted to keep the characters real, and in doing so I felt it necessary that we show trans characters’ flaws just as much as we show the flaws of the cis-gender ones.” She chuckles, “It’s really about some very selfish people, but they’re kind of loveably selfish – it’s ultimately a positive message.”
When she was asked to join “Pose,” which deals with life within the New York ballroom culture of the late 1980s, it was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up. During her own time in the city she had been to the balls, and she had been close to people who were part of legendary houses. It was a chance to celebrate their experience – “It’s been great to amplify those voices out into the world,” she says – but there was a deeper motivation for her as well.
“I knew I had to be a part of it,” she says. “It was a really small writer’s room – and they had Janet Mock as well, and just the idea that two out of five writers were going to be trans was really exciting. And we would be writing about diversity and communities of color – obviously, with the national discourse about racism and everything that Trump’s America has brought forward, it was something I really wanted to explore.”
Having been raised in the blue-collar Pennsylvania town of Chambersburg, she says the current regressive turn taken by America is not a shock.
“I’m not surprised,” she says. “A lot of LGBT people seek asylum in metropolitan areas, and it’s very easy to live in a bubble when you’re there. But I’ve maintained a close relationship with my family, and I visit quite often – and there is still a lot of hatred and bigotry in rural America.”
She hopes that representation for LGBT people on television can help bring change.
“I think right now – in this age of outrage, with its culture of ‘call out and cancel’ – it’s important to remember the power of entertainment,” she says. “It’s the very reason why I do the work. It can be really hard, and it can be quite lonely at times – but what makes it worthwhile is knowing I have the opportunity to make that change.”
“We’re just at the dawn of telling trans stories,” she continues, “so there’s a lot of responsibility with being the first trans person in a writer’s room for television – I feel the need to tell everyone’s story, which is impossible. But it’s really an honor, and it feels great that we’re finally coming into a new age of representation.”
Despite the success of her new career, though, she hasn’t abandoned music.. She recently performed at San Francisco Pride, and will be appearing Saturday June 30 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, as part of their summer “Sorting Room” series, where she will be performing her acclaimed show, “Our Lady J: The Gospel of Dolly,” in which she covers tunes by Dolly Parton.
“When people hear that a trans woman is performing Dolly Parton they think it’s going to be an impersonation,” she laughs, “but in no universe would I ever try to impersonate the Queen of Country. She is her own entity!”
She goes on, “When I started singing her songs she caught wind of it and asked to meet me. I really thought that she was going to personally hand me a ‘cease and desist’ order, but instead she just wanted to thank me – she’s such a legend that way, such a gracious person. And so, in Los Angeles, there will actually be a request by Dolly Parton herself.”
Does that mean that Dolly herself will be in the audience at the Wallis?
“I would probably not survive that event,” she quips, “but it wouldn’t be a bad way to go.”
She’ll also be singing some selections from her own album – much of which reflects her love of gospel (she laughs, “I call it ‘gospel for the godless’”) – and says audiences can expect a “celebration of sound.”
“My music has always had a message about my experience as a trans person,” she adds, “and projecting that sound out into the world. I’m calling upon the sirens for healing and love.”
“Our Lady J’s Gospel of Dolly” performs Saturday June 30 at 7pm in the Lovelace Studio Theatre at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 North Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills, CA 90210. Ticket information is available by calling (310) 246-3800 or visiting here.