The secret, not always completely factual life, of a Jewish Gay Icon: Debra Messing
I love today. It’s one of those late summer early afternoons. Probably the last we’ll get for a while. It’s the day after Yom Kippur and I’ve been stuffing my face all day. I’m meeting friends later, to stuff my face a bit more. I’m wearing shorts. The sun is slowly going down and the sky is still a bit blue. I’m on a bustling High Street in one of the trendier bits of East London. I can hear kids and their ever-so-posh parents running about outside. In the air is that hint of a roast. In front of me, aromatic, full-bodied (free trade organic) coffee. And none of this isn’t even the best bit.
Because across from me, opposite me, on the other side of the table, is Debra Messing. She looks stunning, a mess of swirly shiny hair and oversize glasses, a casual top that hints at her good taste, and the necessary accessories that a better gay than me would get really excited about. That grin lights up her face as she laughs and a thought pops in to my head, we could totally be friends. Like maybe Will Truman best friends, but perhaps without the failed marriage proposal in the 80’s! But totally with all the love and adoration. Or Tom Levitt best friends but maybe without the professional split that sends her into the arms of an ex and breaks up her marriage and me into a head-to-head ferenzy with my arch nemesis (do I even have a nemesis?) on competing musicals for a Tony. Although actually, that’d be a kinda fun way to spend a few months. But anyway, we’d definitely stay over at each other houses, and WhatsApp each other all the time, and then call cos typing is hurting my thumbs now, and then hang out cos we’re talkingn anyway, so we may as well do it over Rioja, and sometimes have stupid comedic rows about nothing, and know we can always count on each other when we need for a hug, or a slap or just a mate to not say anything and just press play on the favourite movie we both quote all the time to the irritation of everyone else we know.
But I guess I’ll really never know. Because she’s not actually opposite. Well, she is, I’m not entirely full of BS, she just happens to be on my monitor rather than in person. We couldn’t quite touch base on this occasion, we’re both super busy – listen to me making out like I’m a contender, but she’s filming, I’m writing – plus I’m a bit of a flake and always wait to write until I’m right up to the line. There’s no way anyone else schedule could allow for that level of laizze-faire. So now, about 3-days overdue on a profile I promised and promised my editor, stuck against my own stupid wall, I have a decision to make. I have to get this done. So armed with context that I’m a pretty good fiction writer when I’m wearing my playwright hat, I’ve decided to just make it up.
Well not quite… Debra has been in the public eye for nearly two decades, so in the absence of a her, a quick search on her name gives you immeasurable jumping off points, and you know, who really needs to talk to a person right?
Except maybe you do, otherwise you’re just Wikipedia. So I’m sitting here all like….
How can I make this interesting, different, unusual…? Maybe here’s how… In my head Debra is a bit quirky, born on a sweltering Brooklyn summers day (I don’t know what the weather was like actually – but we all know New York in August is a bit of a bitch), somewhere towards the end of the 60’s, Debra spent a full and enriching childhood singing, dancing, making up adventures and generally being an awesome kid to the joy of her family. They left deepest darkest, well probably more-like a hip-up-and-coming bit of Brooklyn near the start of the 70’s, and from there Debra grew up in a fairly (maybe even atypical) Jewish-America home near Providence, Rhode Island. Her mom, Sandra, was a singer (but did a raft of other stuff too) and her dad; Brian worked as a Sales Exec. Recognising both the talent and flamboyancy in their youngest daughter, they’d often take her to see Broadway shows. The nostalgia brings that engaging smile to Debra’s face.
“We’d go to New York to visit family and see plays and musicals…”
And then I imagine she remembers a story about making her older brother Brett learn and perform all the numbers in Mame. They were completely word perfect on it by the time she was about 8… This might be actually based on my own adventures with Dirty Dancing, Grease and my own bonkers sister… but nonetheless, it feels plausible.
“I grew up watching Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett with curtain rods in her arms, falling down stairs. To me, that’s funny. From a very early age I knew [acting]was something I wanted to do “
By way of school plays, being crowned Rhode Island’s Junior Miss and parents who insisted on a ‘real ‘education first, Debra ended up in New York City. The start of a new decade. One of the finest drama schools in the world… An atmosphere of excitement, hope and ambition. And a ton of hard work. She left Tisch three years later with a Masters in Fine Arts and the boy she met at on her very first day at NYU. (Who she’d later go on to marry, sadly divorce, but also make a baby with!)
And from then on we all know the score… various stage and TV parts in the 90’s. Then boom, a cute pilot goes global for NBC, a star is born… and then come the awards, the accolades, the movies.
But consistently, throughout, from those early jobbing days through to her worldwide fame, was the activism. I ask Debra (out loud to my monitor) if the two things have always been linked for her?
“The little money I made would always go to charities that supported gay right or research for Aids. And when Will & Grace happened and, I became the global ambassador for Youth Aid. For me it feels like its been part of a larger mission, part of my life mission.”
“It was also showing the world a community that is not often celebrated or that people don’t really know very much about, and once Will & Grace became the socially important show it became, it really did start to feel like that was sort of part of my life, because I’d lost a very very important teacher of mine, to Aids, at NYU.”
You can tell Paul Walker meant a lot to Debra. (She named her son after him). Which feels like a beautiful tribute to a beautiful man. A man who died in 1993, at 41 years-old. He was Debra’s improv and theatre games tutor at Tisch.
“He was one of the most extraordinary persons that I have ever met. He had the energy and the carefree nature of a seven-year-old, and I say that with a big smile on my face. When I was scared of doing an improvisation, he’d encourage, ‘You get to do this!’”
He’d been living with HIV since 1981, and during Debra’s second year Paul’s health started to decline. He was in the later stages of the infection, and AIDS related KS had begun to develop. He needed to take time out. Debra remembers how no one really spoke about it at the time, that they were just a bunch of actors really. Students and teachers alike. How cool that was.
Then a year later Tony Kushner brought Angels in America: Perestroika to Debra’s class for a Broadway pre-production. It was the infamous five-hour version and Debra was cast as Harper Pitt. The workshop opened on the same night as Angels in America: Millennium Approaches opened on Broadway. And despite his illness, Paul turned up to support his students.
“I remember Paul being there and being very, very sick. I remember imagining how personal and painful it must have been for him to be there that night, but I was grateful he was with us.”
His death soon after prompted Debra’s early activism, his face was the first she associated with the disease. The first of many beautiful people taken from the community she so loved.
“He was forty-one and I keep mourning his loss”
Fast forward 21 years and she’s the go-to Hollywood advocate for GMHC, amfAR and God’s Love We Deliver. She’s an ambassador for PSI, a global health organization battling AIDS, malaria, and children’s illnesses in Third World nations. She’s spoken up for GLAAD, and out against homophobic comments and policy, she has appeared alongside Zachary Quinto and Jason Alexander at a one-night-only benefit stage reading of one-act plays about gay marriage. At Trevor Live, an annual fundraiser for The Trevor Project – the leading US organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth – she was cool about the idea that her own son could come out as gay one day.
And Equality California honoured her work promoting gay civil rights, her history of supporting gay issues, having come out in 2000 against Proposition 22, a state law that banned gays and lesbians from marrying and for bringing the stories of LGBT people to television and stage.
“For me, it’s a no-brainer, equal rights means equal rights for everybody.”
The evening also included a fashion show featuring designs from the cast of “Project Runway”, a show Debra has also been involved in. And it turns out, a show that has a special place for Debra.
“Project Runway was my guilty pleasure while my son was napping or nursing.”
Her other guilty pleasures include diamonds, which apparently make her hands shake, and Valentino…she loves the glamourous things. England, where she had the time of her life in the countryside… Her iPhone (over 400 apps-I secretly want her to be on Grindr for the giggles) and of course, her first love, musical theatre. It turns out she doesn’t like exercise (yay-who does?) but she does love Court TV.
“I can’t stop watching it. I am absolutely obsessed! If I’m not reading a book or spending time with my husband, my friends or my dog, I am watching Court TV.”
I wonder if this might have been the second career had she not found fame and fortune. Turns out, maybe.
“I would absolutely be a litigator. I watch Court TV every day.”
I’m not entirely sure that’s all you need. But I feel like she could totally make it work. After an hour or so of musing, I don’t really have time to talk about Judaism, whether she’s practicing, secular, cultural, but my parting thought, as we make our pretend goodbye’s and promise we’ll hang out again soon, is that it’s probably not a hundred miles away from Grace Adler’s. Smiling as that immortal Will & Grace line rings around my ears.
“I don’t know what to tell you, man. Jews and chicken… it’s real and it’s deep.”
She might just have a point.