GLAAD has teamed up with audio entertainment leader Audible to co-curate and produce a five-episode written interview series featuring LGBTQIA+ talent from the Audible family.
Our fourth interview features Nikki Levy, co-host of Owning It, a joyous celebration of LGBTQIA+ stories and icons, with six uplifting, raw, and hilarious stories from queer actors, comedians, and personalities.
Check out GLAAD’s interview with Levy below:
Spoken word art is a strong platform for elevating diverse voices, especially within the LGBTQ community. What do you think it is about this type of content that connects so distinctly across different audiences?
That’s a really good question. We want to see ourselves and we want to hear ourselves reflected back. We all know that but – whether it’s seeing or hearing ourselves – it feels good to realize that we aren’t alone in our experiences.
I mean, for me anyway, knowing the people come before us, the people are standing shoulder to shoulder to us, and that tons of people are coming behind us who will be grateful for our experiences – but it’s just so great to know that we are experiencing the same weird, funny, awkward, embarrassing, true stuff – and we’re not alone. I think hearing true stories from other queer people reminds us of that.
I feel so strongly about this question and this topic because as queer people we tend to feel alone in general. When we grow up feeling different, I mean I grew up feeling so different, I’m sure most of us did. In the last year because of the pandemic, we feel more alone and more isolated. Hearing someone like Bianca Del Rio talk about losing her luggage before a big drag gig and having to create a drag costume in 10 minutes with only a Wisconsin Walmart in at her disposal – it’s hilarious and cathartic! Not like any one of us has ever been in that situation specifically, but we’ve all been in a tough situation where we needed to be resourceful and we needed to figure it out. Queer people are so resourceful and will always just figure it out!
For many LGBTQ people, inspiration is often drawn from the role models and idols within our community who have changed the way we are seen, heard, and represented in society. Is there someone in the community who has inspired you or your work?
One is Alexandra Billings. She is so unabashedly herself. She’s such a beautiful writer, a beautiful speaker. Not only was she my teacher but I asked her to perform at a live Don’t Tell My Mother show a couple of years ago. She became part of the Audible 2019 special and then this year she co-hosted with me so I went from admiring her, to feeling like she’s a friend or a colleague. She is someone who I am constantly floored by, I mean she has been through things and I don’t know how she survived. And she talks about the idea that now every year and every birthday is a gift, you know? A trans woman who is HIV positive, who was told that she was going to die at a young age, and here she is on freaking Broadway, so she to me is just stellar!
Someone else that I love who I’m sure you know is Fortune Feimster. I just saw her and she’s so funny. She grinded it out as a rogue comic for years and now she’s doing it on TV and movies and she’s just so unabashedly herself and I love that! She’s awkward, she’s hilarious, she’s goofy, and she embraces all of that, makes no apologies and completely capitalizes on that. Like speaking of owning it? Like she owns that! She owns that she’s this big, hilarious, goofy lesbian and it’s so freeing! She doesn’t try to conform to anything, is like, ” No, it’s who I am. I’m totally cool with it. I’m going to make fun of myself. I’m going to celebrate!” She inspires me honestly all of the time. Every time she finds success, I fist pump.
Thanks to services like Audible, access to LGBTQ stories & content is now easier than ever. What kind of LGBTQ story still needs to be told / heard?
The truth is, there are as many stories as there are people multiplied by like 20 because every queer person has multiple stories about their queerness – like coming out stories, or the first time they had a crush, or the first time they slept with someone, or a bathroom story. There’s a whole world of queer stories just beyond the LGBTQIA+ letters.
Like I have my own story as a Jewish queer lady, that’s where I come from and that happens to be my story.
It’s funny that you should ask this question because I’m partnering with some really wonderful folks for specifically an AAPI queer special, a Black special, a Latinx queer special. I’m not those things, so I am working with people who I really like from those worlds because I think it’s about the marriage of queerness and culture and how your culture and upbringing affects your queer stories. Just because you are Chinese and queer doesn’t mean that every Chinese queer person has the same story, or because you’re Jewish and trans then every Jewish trans person has the same story or every Black lesbian has the same story.
If it was a dance hall, I would want to go to that dance hall of like Black queer stories, AAPI queer stories, Latinx queer stories. I hope people want that, because I am fascinated and that’s one of the things I am working on.
Speaking of LGBTQ content, Owning It was released last month – congratulations! What does it mean to you to be involved in this annual project, and what differentiates the 2021 project from the previous three specials?
2021 is the first Audible special where every single story was recorded in someone’s house. We used to record this special live on stage. And then last year some were recorded live before the pandemic, and the rest we had to record in peoples’ houses, and so it was a mix. And this year every single story was recorded in someone’s house, most often it was recorded in their closet. We made the 2021 Pride special in the closet! The irony is awesome. For real we recorded a whole special in the closet. Technically, I recorded live with Alexandra because I got vaccinated, but everyone else’s stories were recorded in their own closets.
This is the fourth time I’m doing this and it’s my favorite project to do all year. And it started as a lark, because the live event that I do, and that I will do again once the pandemic is over, is Don’t Tell My Mother! that I started a decade ago. We had like really cool celebrities, queer and not by the way, like Tracy Ellis Ross, Lance Bass, Kate McKinnon, Bobby Burke, and Ali Wong tell these true stories they never want their moms to know. Every October we would do a big coming out show so it would specifically be queer celebrities telling these true stories and it’s a huge party and it’s always my birthday in October and it’s always the most fun. Then I talked to Audible and I said, “Hey, you all should come and shoot this one time” And that was four years ago.
What do you hope listeners take away from Owning It?
Even though maybe [listeners] feel alone, and feel like whatever they’re going through maybe nobody can understand – I want them to know there’s probably not a single situation they are going through or a single emotion that they have that is not felt by many other people, especially queer people. And when they listen to people like Jen Kober (who has a great story about going to Jewish summer camp and falling for a girl and finding a way to spend a whole summer with a girl because the girl broke her leg and Jen volunteered to be the girl’s sherpa), or Chase Strangio (who fought and won the first trans Supreme Court case), to be like, “Oh my God I see myself in this. I’m not so weird. I’m not so different.”
There’s all these super talented LGBTQIA+ personalities celebrating their struggles, celebrating their weirdness. If we can poke fun at ourselves and laugh at ourselves, I think we give other people the permission to laugh at themselves. And that I know for me makes everything more bearable.
Oh, and Harvey Guillén is so wonderful! Harvey is freaking awesome; he told his amazing story about how he was so excited to go to Mexico as a kid to meet his family for the first time in his life because he grew up in Southern California. There, as a little boy, he was out on the farm playing with these neighbors of his family and [a boy] called him a word he had never heard before, and he didn’t know what it meant. But he said he just knew it was bad, and that he knew inside, “Oh, I know what they’re saying and I believe that they are right. I know what this is.” We know what people are saying even when we’re 11 or 8, we just know. And then he went back to California and kind of fought and struggled to find where he fit in. Because he knew he didn’t fit in with those kids playing trucks in Mexico. And it’s kind of actually the origin story of how we discovered theatre and improv, running towards where he belonged. I love him so much.
As someone who has found success across live events, television, podcasts and more, what draws you to spoken word platforms like Audible, and how are these projects unique compared to the others?
Audible was my first time working in an audio only platform – and thank God, because of the pandemic – but I absolutely love it. What I like about it is you can’t rely on your body language, you can’t rely on your physical expression to tell the story, right? You have to make people believe the story that you’re telling and the parts of the story that you’re telling only with your words and your voice. It’s so sexy. It doesn’t matter who’s on the other side of the mic. It all disappears and you are just there to help someone get lost in your story. And there’s actually a bit of anonymity to that which I love.
I am a huge, huge audiobook person – it’s insane. Like at any one time, I have Audible and a few library apps open, and am currently reading a book on all three apps right now. And it’s cool because you might be driving a car and listening, you’re doing the dishes and listening. I just think it’s a very sexy medium because you can just get lost in a story like nothing else and you can be doing other things while you’re listening. Which is great because we are all, you know, busy. We’re also all home. I listen and fold laundry all the time.
Don’t Tell My Mother! just launched in March as a podcast with Jon Cryer from Two and a Half Men and his production company producing that. Now even the live event is audio only. The podcast is called Don’t Tell My Mother! and it’s celebrities coming on – they tell a true story they don’t want their moms to know and then we bring their moms and they tell their mother.
It’s really cool and that’s something that we would never be able to do in the live format. To me audio makes the world a smaller place. I could only have people in audio special who were in LA because everything was live. And now you know Bianca was in Palm Springs, Harvey was in Canada, Jen Kober was in LA, Chase Strangio was in New York, I am here in Los Angeles. It just opens the world and makes it smaller at the same time. Which to me is such a huge gift.