Entertainment

Paula Pell Came of Age with Kate Bush and Orlando Porn Stores

The 'Girls5eva' star and former 'Saturday Night Live' writer discusses the cultural touchstones that influenced her queerness.

Design by Maggie Rossetti for Thrillist
Design by Maggie Rossetti for Thrillist
Design by Maggie Rossetti for Thrillist

Paula Pell didn’t come out in one fell swoop. Like many queer folks, especially ones born in Florida, she did it in fits and starts, sometimes telling the people in her immediate orbit and other times shoving that aspect of her life to the back burner. Pell was hired as a writer at Saturday Night Live in 1995-she’s responsible for Debbie Downer and the Spartan cheerleaders, among other classic sketches-but didn’t acknowledge her sexuality in Rockefeller Plaza’s storied halls until 2001. After that, there was, more or less, no going back. She has since married and become one of today’s most recognizable lesbian comedians, with memorable roles in Girls5eva, A.P. Bio, the Amy Poehler-directed movie Wine Country, and 30 Rock.

Thrillist asked the 59-year-old Pell to tell us about the queer cultural touchstones that influenced her coming-out journey and ongoing sensibilities.

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Personal Best

My wife and I have a little studio that we made it into a little gym. I had purchased, a while ago, original posters from Personal Best, and I just got them framed and we were laughing because we’re like, “This is going to be the gayest workout room.” One of them is just Mariel Hemingway-really cool, sweaty-and the other one is [Patrice Donnelly], who’s her love interest in it, and they’re both kind of sexy-fighting and she’s got a wet T-shirt on. It’s so much more filthy-looking than I had remembered.

That movie was so pivotal to me. I was going into my first relationship, which remained secret for many years-like all through college and many years after that. I watched it recently and I really remembered how much it connected with me because it was actually an ordinary story. The relationship itself was so normal in that movie in terms of just two people that are trying to be in the Olympics and they can’t get enough of each other. And then they realize, Oh, we’re laying here talking with our legs entwined. That’s how my first relationship happened, too-a really close friend. It was kind of the movie I watched again and again, but it’s also not acting like it’s such a big, massive thing. I just hated the end because she’s with this guy who you don’t even think they have that much of a connection. I guess that’s the way all the old white men that were producing movies then had to do it.

‘Fake’ lesbian porn

We, of course, didn’t have the internet, so my friends and I would go to this adult superstore in Orlando when I was growing up. I remember watching lesbian porn, per se. Most of it was fake. I even wrote an SNL sketch one time about it, which we never did because I think it was impossible because it was too risquĂ©. [The porn] was all these ladies with super long nails, and they’d just be like [makes grunting noises]. And you’re like, “Are they even touching each other? They’re like a foot away from each other. Who’s touching?” When I would rent, at the time, the “authentic” lesbian movies, nothing would happen in them. I remember watching and being like, “Ugh, just put something in something-anything! Lay on top of each other and roll!” It was just not good porn.

I got a VHS of one of very few that I actually liked that seems real. I can’t remember the name of it. I was making zero money at the time. I walked up to the counter, and the guy was like, “$189.” And I’m like, “Sorry?” They were used videotapes, and that’s how few and far between of what they had. It’s going to be a premium price, even though it’s secondhand. I was crying laughing when we left because I had this fucking chequebook and I’m writing with a shaky hand. It was too late for me to go, “Oh, well, then forget it, I don’t want it.”

Mick Hutson/Getty Images
Mick Hutson/Getty Images
Mick Hutson/Getty Images

Kate Bush and other female singer-songwriters

I had a very full gay-bar life of going out, dancing constantly. It’s probably why it took me five years to graduate from college. It was the early- to mid-’80s, and I had an asymmetrical bob and wore all vintage clothes. We were really into Kate Bush, really into Chaka Khan, a lot of club music of that era, like Sylvester. And then I was deeply, always immersed in the singer-songwriter world of Joni Mitchell, Melissa Etheridge, Indigo Girls, all those. I loved Shawn Colvin, Emmylou Harris. I always call it bubble-coming-out-of-your-mouth heartbreak songs.

Rosie O’Donnell adopting kids

In the early ’80s, I had a big heartbreak-the early love of my life. I’ve called it “going down Penis Avenue,” but for a short amount of time, I thought that maybe I wanted to have kids [and] maybe I’m open to all genders. There was no model for a queer woman having children, ever, unless she had kids, divorced, came out, admitted she’s gay, and then had her children still. But there was no starting from scratch with kids, because you couldn’t adopt. And then when I looked back on it, I remember thinking how Rosie was adopting kids and then having kids, and I was just like, “Man, that just wasn’t there when I was going through that period.”

Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images
Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images
Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images

WNBA games

My first wife and I had WNBA season tickets in New York in the ’90s. We would go to those games constantly, and it used to drive me crazy-I think it’s changed a lot-because back in the day, when they were trying to get it going, they made it all about kids. At the halftime, they’d have kids’ games. And at that time, there weren’t as many queer women that had kids, so they were all sitting there like, “I guess I’ll go get some popcorn. I don’t want to really see two 5-year-olds chase each other for a piece of candy.”

I may have even told Rosie O’Donnell this one time when I was working with her: I had a really funny thing happen one night. Rosie always sat a couple rows in front of us because we always had the same seats. I didn’t know her at the time. And Joan Jett sat off to the side of us. One night, the game was Breast Health Awareness Night, and Rosie was sitting in front of me. Then I got an emergency call that someone found a 30-pound cat on the Upper West Side and was asking me, “Can I bring it over to your house?” It was going to have kittens. My friend James Anderson was like, “That’s the most lesbian night I’ve ever heard in my entire life.” I ran home right after the game. I’m in tears because I think I’m going to deliver this giant cat’s kittens, and the kittens that were coming out were two testicles because it was a big male cat.

Co-writing the Homocil sketch for SNL

I wasn’t open for quite a long time. The SNL commercial Homocil that my best friend James Anderson wrote [in 2001], I helped with a little of it and I worked on it later with him when he shot it. We would go to all these meetings, and they were truly concerned that it was going to be offensive. At that time, people feared that they’re being offensive by just doing gay content. With Homocil, the whole joke of it was that it’s a very pro-gay thing. It was the early years of Prozac and all those commercials for antidepressants with people staring out a window. It’s Will Ferrell starting out, and it’s like, “Do you feel anxious? Depressed?” And then you see that his kid definitely is gay and that he’s watching and kind of like, “What the fuck?” And it’s like, “You take a pill because it’s not their problem-it’s yours.” It was like the most queer-positive thing ever.

It was what every kid wants to say to their family members: “I hope you find help with your heart palpitations because you’re screaming at me.” They were truly, genuinely trying to figure out, is this a positive? And I just finally, in a meeting-this was years after I had been there-was like, “Well, I’m gay, and I’m telling you right now that this is absolutely the most queer-friendly thing you have ever shown.” And then, of course, the next year GLAAD was playing it at their ceremony.

I didn’t have any relationships for a long time in those first few years of SNL. I just was just so enmeshed in that world and my job, and I just was fearful because I had had heartbreak before. Nobody could really figure me out anyway, so that was the break at work where people started very quietly telling each other, “Did you know that Paula Pell is a lesbian?” People would come up and go, “By the way, I didn’t know that and that’s great.”

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Matthew Jacobs is an entertainment editor at Thrillist. Follow him on Twitter @tarantallegra.

Entertainment

Why the Shocking Twist in 'Bodies Bodies Bodies' Is So Killer

The A24 horror-comedy has a lot to say about how logged on we are today.

A24
A24
A24

This story contains spoilers about the ending of Bodies, Bodies, Bodies.Even if you’ve tried to game the TikTok algorithm to feed you videos from #fashiontok, #foodtok, or whatever else you might be interested in, when you open the app, you tend to be inundated with a whole lot of discourse. In many ways, it’s incredible how attuned young people are in knowing who they are and how comfortable they are having frank conversations. But in other ways, sometimes it can feel like quick-hit platforms have a tendency to deduce real issues or strip things of their meanings-whether that’s teens self-diagnosing themselves with mental illness, or people labelling musicians as “female or male manipulator artists” without ever listening to their music.

A24’s latest horror comedy Bodies Bodies Bodies (out now in theatres) about a group of 20-somethings partying during a hurricane that turns into a hunt for a killer is like a movie downloaded from the current millennial-Gen-Z cusp moment of the internet we’re in. When the trailer for the movie directed by Halina Reijn and written by Sarah DeLappe, based on a story from “Cat Person” author Kristen Roupenian, dropped earlier this year, it made that very clear. In just over a minute and a half, we hear the cast of cool girl breakouts yelling, “You’re always gaslighting me,” “you fucking trigger me,” “you’re so toxic,” and “you’re silencing me.” Even the movie’s tagline is, “This is not a safe space.”

Bodies Bodies Bodies is very much logged onto millennial/Gen Z social media-isms throughout, from lines hilariously pieced together by the Twitter zeitgeist to scenes featuring TikTok dances. The movie operates on a delectable kind of slasher-movie paranoia, making the audience just as unsure as the slumber party gone wrong with who is killing them off left and right. But given how much of a playful satire it is of contemporary youth culture, it ends up being a twist that feels all but inevitable, and couldn’t be more razor-blade sharp.

A24
A24
A24

Once the torrential downpour stops and the sun comes up, it seems as if Maria Bakalova‘s Bee is about to be our Bodies Bodies Bodies final girl, now that she’s realized how much her relationship with Sophia (Amandla Stenberg) is based on lies. As a test to see how easily Sophie can lie-and therefore deny killing all of her friends from midnight until dawn-Bee asks her if she cheated on her with Myha’la Herrold’s Jordan. It’s a fact that Bee already knows to be true, considering she came across a pair of panties in Sophie’s car that matched a bra she noticed in Jordan’s bag. When Sophie denies it, Bee tries to take her phone (which Jordan admitted would have texts about their recent hook-up on it), and the two start fighting outside in the remnants of the storm. Bee eventually pulls a phone out of the mud, and it looks like the WiFi and cell phone service that was gone all night is finally back. Thinking she’ll pull up the evidence she needs-and confirmation to get the hell out of there-she’s surprised when Sophie says, “That’s not my phone,” and even more surprised to see what’s on it.

It turns out that it belongs to David, Pete Davidson’s coked-out rich kid character whose parents’ house they’re partying at and was the first one to die in the movie. They know it’s David’s phone because it opens to a TikTok, soundtracked by the lockdown classic TikTok song “Bored In The House” by Curtis Roach and Tyga, that shows him waving around his dad’s decorative but very real sword (!) to try to open a champagne bottle (!), idiotically waving it towards himself, only to slice right into his own neck. As it turns out, nobody killed David-not an intruder, not Jordan, not Sophie, not Alice’s (Rachel Sennott) older boyfriend Greg (Lee Pace) she knew nothing about (except for the fact that he was a Libra moon), and not their friend Max (Conner O’Malley) who left early the night before. David accidentally killed himself, and hysteria is what killed everybody else. You could say that it’s almost predictable that it turns out to be a clout-chasing TikTok that led to the movie’s murderous spiral of events. Although, that would undercut what Reijn and DeLappe are trying to say with the darkly funny movie with an especially dark, funny twist. Like TikTok or Twitter, the movie is a constant feed of discourse, buzzwords, and blanket statements that snarkily laugh at and with its ensemble. There are many moments in particular that drive this home-like Alice trying to be sympathetic in talking about mental health, only to make the conversation about her, and David ridiculing his girlfriend Emma (Chase Sui Wonders) for getting all of her thoughts from Twitter after she says he “gaslights” her. On top of that, David picks up the sword and tries to go viral to begin with because his masculinity felt threatened by Greg, who did the trick in the first place.

While it would be downright terrifying if a party with people who are supposedly your best friends turned into a slasher flick, in Bodies Bodies Bodies, the horror isn’t a vengeful or heartless killer. Everybody may become a psychopath of sorts when they feel physically threatened or legitimately toxic name-calling and backstabbing ensues, but Bodies Bodies Bodies and its devilish twist is about the humour and horror in the devoid way we can use social media today more than anything else. Like Sophie and Bee’s terrified realization at the end, it makes you want to log off for awhile… right after you post a 100K-worthy tweet about it.

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Sadie Bell is the entertainment associate editor at Thrillist. She’s on Twitter and Instagram.

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