Why “Dolemite” Star Da’Vine Joy Randolph Is Forever Grateful to the Gays

Also: Debbie Harry says Blondie was a trans persona.

One of the more enjoyable films of this awards season has been Dolemite Is My Name, a sort of black Ed Wood about Rudy Ray Moore, an all-around entertainer who ended up making a terrible but endearing action film called Dolemite in 1975 and turning it into a hit.

The movie about the movie has some zingy performances, including Da’Vine Joy Randolph, who got a Tony nomination for playing Oda Mae Brown (the Whoopi Goldberg character) in Ghost the Musical in 2012. In Dolemite, Randolph plays Lady Reed, a woman who turned out to have a bawdy comic gift and became an unlikely movie star as part of Moore’s caravan. I talked to Da’Vine about her divine life—and how a gay guy helped save it.

Hello, Da’Vine. What had Lady Reed done for a living before Rudy Ray Moore enlisted her as a comic/actor?

I don’t want to say a sex worker, but her close friends were. And her material partly involved telling women to be safe and get their money. She would address women in general and urge them to know everything that’s involved in the situation and be safe. Women’s empowerment. I had big shoes to fill—that of a woman who was authentically confident.

In the movie, Lady Reed thanks Rudy for including a plus-sized woman like her on the big screen. Was that for real?

Yes, and I meant it when I said it. Even in the blaxploitation era, women were curvy, but not her size. I admire Missy Elliot, who used entertainment as a platform where you didn’t look at her size. But it hasn’t happened for movie leading ladies. I’d love that to be my own personal narrative. It’s important for people to see these different types and sizes, as well as different genders and LGBTQ. We need to make it an everyday occurrence, so it’s the new normal.

Truth. How did you get the part?

A regular audition. I had worked with director Corey Brewer. There were four or five auditions and it wasn’t until the fifth one that I knew Eddie Murphy was involved. I knew no matter what happened, it was a great experience. The callbacks felt like work. Together, we were creating this character. And I was in excellent company. I quickly began to notice that half of the women auditioning were straight-up comedians and the other half were actresses. I said, “Okay, let me shoot for in the middle.” Comical yet presenting the person.

You’d be great in Little Women. I loved it, but you’d really make it lively.

That’s how I think! When I was looking for an acting school, I would tell schools, “I want to play Juliet in Romeo and Juliet.” Not for shock value’s sake, but to reflect reality. The women I look up to have a transformative nature and range. I don’t want to be pigeonholed into one thing—a Da’Vine Joy Randolph-type, as opposed to a craftsman. Well, Yale Drama School said, “Absolutely.”

So you went there?


Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Da’Vine Joy Randolph at the Los Angeles premiere of Dolemite Is My Name.

I love it. You mentioned LGBTQ people. What does the queer community mean to you?

After Yale, I had nowhere else to go. I was only making $1200 a month as a nanny on the Upper West Side. A gay male friend in Harlem let me sleep in his closet. He made costumes for tours and for Drag Race, and he worked at Industry Bar. With the help of butt pads and pillows, I slept in his closet!

So you eventually came out of the closet?

[Laughs] I stayed for five or six months in 2011. Then I got Ghost the Musical in London, then came to Broadway with it and got my own place. But the gay community was warm and welcoming, like a family. It was a group of people who embraced me and didn’t judge me. They were full of love and support and they welcomed me in. I’m forever grateful that they got me back on my feet.

I bet they loved you at Industry Bar.

Yes! They were great. So many good times.

Gee, someday I’d love for them to welcome me like they did you.[Laughs] Congrats and see you again real soon, I’m sure.

Debbie Harry: As Blondie, I Was Portraying a “Kind of Transexual Creature”

Pete Still/Redferns
Debbie Harry/Blondie, 1980.

Also loved by the gays, rock legend Debbie Harry has a new memoir, Face It, which is a breezy and insightful look at her longtime artistic independence and integrity. And it seems that she’s not just a queer icon, but in some ways more than that.

Reveals Debbie, “The ’Blondie’ character I created was sort of androgynous. More and more lately, I’ve been thinking that I was probably portraying some kind of transsexual creature. Even when I was singing songs that were written from a man’s point of view—‘Maria,’ for example. … I had to be kind of gender-neutral so it seemed that I wanted Maria. A lot of my drag queen friends have said to me, ‘Oh, you were definitely a drag queen.’ They didn’t have problems seeing it.”

So, her Blondie persona was sort of trans, drag, and lesbian/bi all rolled into one? Top that, Lizzo.

Michael Musto is the long running, award-winning entertainment journalist and TV commentator.