Today’s Southern Voices submission comes to you from StyleBlueprint’s Associate Editor and Lead Nashville Writer, Jenna Bratcher — also known as actress Jenna von Oy.
I won’t try to pretty this up; I ugly cried when I learned that Emmy Award-winning actor, comedian, and activist Leslie Jordan had passed away unexpectedly from sudden cardiac dysfunction. It was a moment that froze in time and dredged up all kinds of emotions in me.
Perhaps it had a particularly profound effect because I’d had the honor of working with him on an episode of the series Call Me Kat in October 2021. Maybe it was because, in between scenes, we had a memorable conversation or two about country music, our fondness for Nashville, and how precious it is to find honest-to-goodness-real love in this lifetime. Or maybe it was because he was a living reminder of what it means to embrace your true self and hold on tight.
In my short time with Leslie, he left an indelible mark on my heart. But that’s only my brief experience with his precious, generous soul. He wrote several sentences in the story of my life, but for others, he wrote entire chapters. And those stories deserve to be told again and again.
Leslie was endeared to the masses. For many people, the fondness began when he spoke his iconic line on Will and Grace, “Karen Walker. I thought I smelled gin and regret.” But his unabashedly candid Instagram videos in the early days of COVID won the hearts of a whole new legion of fans. He transcended demographics — he was approachable and inclusive, and you didn’t have to know him personally to adore him. He was, and remains, a mascot of bravery and light and impeccable Southern charm. Moreover, he was unapologetically Leslie.
Once word got out of Leslie’s passing, it was clear that nearly everyone seemed affected by it in some capacity. Much like the loss of Betty White, losing Leslie incited widespread grief.
“I’m beyond sad about Leslie Jordan’s passing … You know I loved him!” texted my coworker, Melissa. “He got me through the pandemic,” said a teary-eyed friend over cocktails. “Can we dance to Mr. Leslie’s Instagram video again?” my 8- and 10-year-old daughters continue to ask when they need a pick-me-up.
That was the magic and magnetism of Leslie. At four-foot-eleven, he was larger than life. Quite simply, he dazzled. Singer Brittney Spencer phrased it best: “I usually joke that I’m the rhinestone on the belt buckle, but Leslie was the whole damn belt.”
And so, friends, family, and fans assembled at the Grand Ole Opry on February 19 to celebrate and honor the unforgettable man who gifted so many of us with laughter and love. Reportin’ for Duty: A Tribute to Leslie Jordan was a star-studded affair — a lineup of performers and celebrity speakers hit the stage to offer up camaraderie, unity, incredible music, and, of course, hilarious and heartfelt stories. We’re talking about a roster that included Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder, country artists Tanya Tucker, Maren Morris, HARDY, and Lainey Wilson, comediennes Leanne Morgan and Margaret Cho, actors Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory) and Max Greenfield (New Girl), and so many others.
The night was downright electric.
“It was incredibly powerful to be able to have a community acknowledgment of everything Leslie stood for,” said my dear friend Mayim Bialik when we reminisced about the event a few days later. She executive produces and stars in Call Me Kat, so she worked alongside Leslie very closely for the last three years. She also gave an emotional speech at the tribute.
“There was something very special about hearing the impact that he had on so many people,” she told me. “In particular, being able to celebrate with so many members of the queer community, whom he had elevated — especially right now in Tennessee — was incredibly meaningful. And as a person who isn’t entirely comfortable with public grieving, it was also kind of a personal exercise in setting aside my own fear and anxiety to be able to witness all of these incredible people coming together … as well as being there for a charity that was so incredibly important to him.”
All proceeds from the tribute event benefited research for Epidermolysis Bullosa, a life-threatening genetic disorder that causes fragile, blistered skin. There is currently no cure for the condition, but Leslie was intent on changing that. “The most impactful thing for me was Eddie Vedder sharing his and Leslie’s involvement with the EB Research Partnership,” Leanne Morgan told me. “It really showed Leslie’s precious, giving heart.”
And Leslie extended his love beyond charity. He broke down barriers. The outpouring of support and attendance by Nashville’s queer community was unparalleled — we showed up in a big way. Not to mention, the LGBTQ+ performers were groundbreaking and enlightening. Artists like Fancy Hagood (who sang a rendition of Vince Gill’s “Go Rest High on That Mountain” that had me scouring the depths of my purse for tissues) and Belmont alum Jake Wesley Rogers (who’s a star with a capital “S”) brought the house down.
I was, in short, moved. It was everything I didn’t know I needed for my soul. And the event was a not-so-gentle reminder that authenticity might just be the key to giving and receiving more love.
“Leslie loved being famous for getting to be himself,” Mayim told me later. “It’s not enough to say Leslie loved being famous, which he did, but he loved that he lived and got to live his true, authentic self as a sober, gay man in love. Those were things about him that so many people have to hide. And he finally got to really bask in it. And so I think he would’ve felt truly honored. It’s very hard to imagine what his response would’ve been, but he loved the love he received in his life, and so it seems fitting that we all really felt like we were giving him a tribute that he deserved.”
Love. Light. Leslie.
If you have a story of your own you’d like to share, we’d love to hear it! You can find the submission guidelines for our ‘Southern Voices’ series HERE.