You’ve seen her everywhere — from NYPD Blue to ER to Without a Trace to movies such as The Terminal and commercials for Verizon and Pfizer (you might have spotted her recently in the “My Time to Quit” commercials) — but you may not know her name. She’s Carlease Burke, and for the past two decades, she’s been one of the few out women of color working in Hollywood.
“I’m very open about it,” she says about her sexuality, “but to be honest, I don’t know who knows and who doesn’t know. It’s not a secret. Anyone who Googles me or reads will find out. Any time I work on a project, there’s usually someone there who knows me or who has seen me out in the community, so we hang out together. I’m open about talking about stuff; I don’t hide it. I don’t know if it’s had any impact on my acting career at all.”
Probably not, from the looks of it. She’s auditioning for higher-profile projects lately and against actors such as Academy Award-nominated Amy Madigan. “She and I tested for the same role in a pilot,” Burke said. “I also tested for a J.J. Abrams [Lost, Alias] project — not a slouchy thing at all. It puts me in a different level in my career. I had an audition for CSI recently, and Mackenzie Phillips was auditioning for the same part.”
At a commanding 5 feet, 8 inches tall, Burke is often cast as a police officer, as in a recent episode of The Riches on FX, but another common role for her is a nurse. She’s currently shooting the Anna Nicole Smith feature film in which she plays Smith’s private nurse, and she also played a nurse in a recurring role on Desperate Housewives.
Other recent television appearances include ABC’s What About Brian, Showtime’s Dexter, CBS’ How I Met Your Mother and TNT’s The Closer. Her film work includes In Her Shoes (2005) with Cameron Diaz, Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal (2004) with Tom Hanks and Get Shorty (1995) with John Travolta.
“I’ve wanted to be an actress my entire life, since I was a little girl,” Burke said. “I was an only child and had a vivid imagination. My parents didn’t support my becoming an actress, but the desire never went away, even though I tried lots of other jobs. My mom did sign me up for dance lessons, but it was for poise and etiquette rather than supporting my career choice.”
Burke took a comedy class in the ’90s, which gave her career a different turn — and was instrumental in her coming out. “Stand-up comedy and coming out coincided. As a comic, I was hired to do gay and lesbian events. I felt like I needed to be on their team,” she said, laughing.
But as with many queer women, there were hints of her sexual orientation while growing up. “I would look at my uncle’s Playboys, and I remember watching women’s wrestling with my dad — this was in the days before the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, mind you — and I would feel something,” Burke recalled. “I knew what a lesbian was, but there were no role models. I was raised in the black Baptist church, and there were gay guys who were choir directors, but they weren’t talked about. Deep down inside, I’d think that’s who I am, but I didn’t have the nerve to pursue that.”
Burke continued: “All along I had lesbian and gay friends, but I couldn’t see myself going down that route due to fear. I started meeting more women while working as a comic, met a young lady in 1994 who caught my eye. It didn’t end up being a good relationship, but I grew up a lot … I started being more free and flirty in comedy clubs. From that moment on, it gave me a lot to talk about.”
It was during that first relationship, when Burke was 40, that she came out to her mother. “That was my scariest coming-out,” she said. “My mom was coming out to visit, and I was with this woman who there was no doubt about who she was. I was not going to pretend [to] not be in a relationship with a woman.”
Now 51, Burke has had two long-term relationships with women in the last 11 years, but she’s not eager to declare an identity. “Back then I would have said I was a lesbian,” she said. “But now, since the breakup with my last girlfriend, I’m wondering if I’m bisexual. I prefer women. I say it in my act, and it’s in my heart. I feel like a lesbian, but I’m not putting a period on it. … Labels have always made me sick — I think people should be who and what they are, and if that changes, that’s OK.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is her love for making women laugh. She’s performed at numerous Pride festivals and the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, and she hosts Laugh a Latte, a comedy showcase at a coffeehouse near her home. But a particular favorite for her are the Olivia cruises, of which she’s done two so far.
“They’re a lot of hard work, but it’s fun work,” she said. “They’re places where I feel really comfortable around women and lesbians, and there are lots of couples and romance going on. I get to meet lesbians who have been in relationships longer than most of the straight people I know. I find them all fascinating.
“I’m 25 in dyke years, because I came out so late. The highlight of the cruises is being around so many kinds of women and hearing so many different stories. We’re living together, bonding and eating together. The cares of the world are left behind for a week. I get to share my gifts, host the Olivia Idol show, make people laugh. It’s great to have a place like that.”