Interview with author Leslie Lehr of “A Boob’s Life: How America’s Obsession Shaped Me―and You” (soon to be a TV series on HBO Max) by Suzanne 2/11/21
It was so great to speak with Leslie! We had a fun chat. Salma Hayek will be making her book into a TV series for HBO Max. As you can tell from the interview, she is quite passionate about her book. I haven’t read it yet, but it sounds great.
We started out talking about the weather because it’s been very cold here in Arkansas (and this was before we got a foot of snow!).
Suzanne: It doesn’t usually get or stay this cold like it’s been lately.
Leslie: Oh no, I’m so sorry. Well, you have to come visit me when the pandemic is over.
Suzanne: Yeah. Where are you located?
Leslie: I’m in California.
Suzanne: I’m actually from San Diego, so it kind of ruined me for living anywhere else.
Leslie: San Diego is like always 42 degrees; it’s perfect. How did you get from San Diego to Arkansas?
Suzanne: Well, I moved around a lot for my husband’s jobs. I haven’t actually lived in San Diego since 1982.
Leslie: Oh, I was there then.
Suzanne: Oh, yeah?
Leslie: Yeah. Oh, my gosh.
Suzanne: Are you from there?
Leslie: No, I changed colleges a couple times and went down there for a year. It was the best place I’ve ever lived, for sure.
Suzanne: Yeah, it’s nice. Which college did you go to down there?
Leslie: Actually, I came from Ohio. I was mad at my dad. If you have the book, you’ll see; I used my boobs to get out of going and then came to California.
So, I started at UCLA, and I ended up at USC film school, but in between, I took a quarter off and then moved to San Diego with a boyfriend and then ended up going to San Diego State for, I guess, maybe a year, not quite a year probably. I lived on the beach, and it was fabulous.
Suzanne: Oh, that’s nice.
Leslie: And I went back up to LA for film school.
Suzanne: My husband went to State briefly, and he ended up going to UCSD and graduated from there.
Leslie: There’re some great schools down there. San Diego State, actually, they had one of the big, you know, women in film study things that was after me, but I definitely took some great classes there. It’s known as a party school, but they had a great telecommunications [department]. Although this one TV teacher, I remember he said, “You’re never going to make it, blah, blah, blah. So, that was the day I applied to film school and went back to LA. It’s like, this guy’s a loser; I’m out.
Suzanne: Oh, no. Did you have a house on the beach?
Leslie: I shared an apartment with three other girls on the beach. Actually, there’s a story in the book…two had really big boobs. One had really big boobs and then got a reduction…It was on Mission Beach. That was so nice.
Now I’ve been down there, because my daughter lived there a little bit a couple of years ago. She lived there for a year. Now it’s all bars and restaurants. In ‘82 certainly it was much more of a little beach town.
Suzanne: Yeah, that whole Southern California area has has been built up so much over the last twenty, thirty years.
Leslie: Yeah, it’s kind of sad, because you can’t get a new beach place. I remember, Hooters was just being built when I left. It might have been there when you were there. No, it’s this big giant double decker bar.
Suzanne: Actually, speaking of both boobs and warm weather, before we lived here, we lived in Honolulu for three years.
Leslie: Oh, my gosh. Wow.
Suzanne: It was very expensive, but they paid my husband well, fortunately. But we used to go down to the Hooters – we lived downtown near Chinatown – it was the only sports bar in the area, and if you wanted to watch mainland sports, you had to go really early in the morning…They served breakfast and stuff.
Leslie: Did the girls with the low cut tops serve breakfast, or did they have different uniforms then?
Suzanne: No, I think they served breakfast. I think they wore the same thing. It was it was funny, because it was a lot of his students.
Leslie: Oh, great! [laughs]
Suzanne: You can’t really leer at your students! Not that he’s the leering type anyway…
Leslie: That’s so funny. Did you just wear a bikini the whole time you were there?
Suzanne: No, I’m not a bikini type.
Leslie: Yeah, I like one pieces too.
Suzanne: It’s funny, even though I grew up in San Diego and lived in Hawaii, I did not go in the ocean or the water that much.
Leslie: Those are probably the two places in the country that aren’t totally shark infested like Florida, and the water’s warm. If you’re not going to go in there, then you’re just not going to go in.
Suzanne: I love the ocean. I like the beach. I just like having it there more than actually going in.
Leslie: I hear you. I was a swimmer, and I live about a mile and a half from the beach now, and I go down and I always think, “Oh, I’m gonna go swimming.” I see people swimming, and I was just curious all my life, but I really don’t want to be in the water as much as I want to look at it. So, I hear you. I like to walk and look at the ocean and look at the dolphins. When you’re under water, you can’t really see much.
Suzanne: Yeah, and we used to like going down to Waikiki and sitting in an nice outdoor bar having dinner and drinks, listening to the ocean and that kind of thing.
Leslie: Exactly. My mom loves the Pink Hotel.
Suzanne: Oh, yeah, it’s crazy.
Leslie: That’s where she wants to be, her ashes scattered when she dies. It’s like, “Okay, mom. That’s fine we’ll do that; we can do that.” [laughs]
Suzanne: If you ever get back there, there’s a great restaurant called Top of Waikiki. It’s got a revolving restaurant, and it looks right down on all of that. It’s beautiful from up there.
Leslie: Oh my gosh. Well, as soon as the pandemic’s over, I’ll put that on the top of my list.
Suzanne: I mean, I’m not saying it’s a great restaurant food-wise. It’s okay food-wise.
Leslie: They probably have good pu-pu. We went to place that was named Dukes. That was near the Pink Hotel. Oh, man, now, I really want to go on vacation.
Suzanne: I know what you mean. I’ve wanted to go back there ever since we moved here.
Leslie: Yeah. Well, you would think he would want to do that too, just to visit.
Suzanne: Yeah, he does. It’s just… he’s an administrator, so finding the time to go back there, especially now with the pandemic, of course…it’s crazy.
Leslie: Of course, yeah.
Suzanne: We probably would have gone if not for the pandemic this year.
Leslie: We actually went to [Hawaii] last February. I had been working on the book, and my husband is also a writer, and we were so busy we didn’t go anywhere during holidays at all. So, we went on a vacation around Valentine’s Day but not actually on it; it’s too expensive then. So, we were lucky to have been in Hawaii right before the [pandemic]. Now we’ve been home, and I was like, “Thank God, at least went on a vacation.”
Leslie: We were on the Big Island, I think.
Suzanne: Oh, that’s nice. Yeah, actually we never went to the Big Island, [laughs] but we were only there three years, you know?
Leslie: Three years is a lot, though.
Suzanne: You would think. I don’t know. It’s island time; that’s different.
Leslie: That’s true. There’s a Thai restaurant. In fact, I say to my husband, “We need to get take out [from] this Thai restaurant,” and it’s a little bit of a drive that even with the pandemic, you go, you pick up your boxes, and they have a TV that, I don’t know why, but it only plays a surf channel. It’s always so relaxing. It’s people surfing in Hawaii. They have it on a loop. It’s so fun to watch.
Suzanne: That is cool. When did you decide to write this book, and how long did it take you?
Leslie: I actually had no intention of ever writing a book about boobs, until the moment I realized that I could track my whole life by how I felt about my boobs, and I wasn’t the only one.
I mean, every morning, every woman gets up and has to do something with their boobs. It’s a pretty common experience, but I got out the shower one night, and my boobs were crooked, and I was so mad. We had just moved to this really cool place, and we were going to have a date night. There were still boxes and everywhere. I was a couple years out of breast cancer, which was horrific. I’d had my boobs redone a bunch of times, and they were so crooked. I was so mad that my husband accused me of being obsessed. I thought, “No way, I’m a girl. No way could I be obsessed with breasts; that’s just wrong.” So, he said, “Just calm down.” I wanted to call my plastic surgeon and [be] like, “Fix them,” which kind of troubled me, that I felt like that, because I’d always considered myself a feminist.
Then, he had taped the last week of David David Letterman’s The Late Show, and David Letterman had all these stars on. I mean, he was this famous guy, thirty eight years on TV, and he was known as the intellectual guy. So, what does he do on one of the most watched episodes of his entire TV career? He tells a big joke.
So, my husband and I looked at each other, and it was like, “I am not the only one who’s obsessed.” This is totally not my fault, but it was really troubling. And date night was off. He went to sleep.
I started unpacking boxes, and I saw this picture of one of my favorite pictures I had. It was the first one I took out. It’s this old picture. It’s actually in the book, and it’s of me and my sister and my mom. I was three, and we’re all wearing red bikinis, and for me and my sister, who was one, there are these tiny red strips of fabric. I remember, I always laugh and look at the picture, because my sister could not keep the fabric [covering] her nipple, because she was, you know, one or something, but I thought it was the funniest thing. Then I realized, “Oh, my gosh, at three years old, I knew that nipples were taboo,” and that said something about the culture.
So, I kind of was like being a detective. First of all, I wanted to prove to my husband, A, that I wasn’t obsessed, or B, that it was okay, because everyone was obsessed, and then I wanted to know why. So, I went through, and I did a whole lot of research and went through my whole life, and I realized that I could connect all the dots of my life from when I was a little girl wanting breasts, a teenage girl wanting bigger breasts to be a cheerleader. My dad had Playboy. Then in college, you know, having breasts meant you were pretty. Then, if you then went [to get] a job, you had to hide your breasts to look professional, you know, and then having a babies and getting big breasts that were gorgeous for breastfeeding, and then having them so ugly and saggy that my mom called me deformed. After I got a divorce, she wanted me to get a boob job, because she thought I’d be lonely without breasts. Then eventually, I got a new job a couple years later, completely unrelated, and I did feel more confident, because that’s how the culture was. It really did make me feel more like a woman.
Then I got breast cancer, and it’s like I did all this, and still they weren’t perfect. And I realized that 300,000 women a year get breast augmentation. It’s the most popular elective surgeries. The same amount of women get breast cancer every year. It’s like, breasts can feed our babies; they can kill us. I could see my whole life now, as according to my breasts.
I looked for other books that covered this. I mean, breasts literally turn blood into milk, and there is not a medical specialty. Here in Oregon, by definition, there’s no medical specialty about breasts. There are books on breast cancer, books on breastfeeding, and, of course, if you google “boobs,” you’ll find porn. If you google “breasts,” you find cancer and chicken recipes. Seriously, I could not believe it, but there was no book that connected the dots.
Then I realized that my life – because I was born right at the edge of 1960, and my life completely parallels the moment when breasts became exponentially important for men and not for babies. It had to do with this historical thing of like – I mean, this is probably too much detail for you, but women had to go back to the kitchen. There had been child care during World War Two, and then [Uncle Sam] closed them. Then suddenly, the sciences were pushing baby formula, so, women weren’t using them for breastfeeding.
Then, Playboy came out that same year, so advertising rose. TV suddenly was in everyone’s homes. Those were the couple years where TV overnight was in everyone’s homes. A man’s eyes – I found the scientific research – look at a woman’s chest within two hundred milliseconds of her walking into the room. So, for advertising eyeballs, of course they’re gonna have women with big breasts on TV, and so we were raised in this culture.
Then the society plastic surgeon said small breasts were diseased. Suddenly, women, actresses had to be in Playboy; Victoria’s Secret came up later. Even beauty queens, everyone had big breasts.
So, my life really paralleled this culture of breast obsession, and since America really sets the tone media-wise for the rest of the world, we were influencing everyone. My life at every stage had been influenced by the songs and the commercials and the news and the fashion and the censorship.
So, that night I like was like, “This is my next book.” I never intended to write about boobs or ever intended to write a memoir. I mean, I’m a novelist; I’d written some screenplays.
And honestly, I wasn’t sure after chemo that I would be able to write another book. My analytic side came back really easily. I was working with other writers, I taught stuff, and that side, my brain was great, but creatively, it just wasn’t flowing for a long time. I was on meds for years, and suddenly, this idea was just fully formed in my head; like I had to write this book.
So, I actually started it when we thought Hillary was going to be president and kind of thought, “Oh, this is so important,” and then that didn’t happen. And I pitched the book, and nobody wanted it. Everyone was was like, “Oh, breasts aren’t important.” It was so, insidious, I guess is the word. We take breasts for granted that we don’t realize how much they affect our whole lives and men’s lives, too.
We all get into these roles, and especially now with a pandemic, women are like, “Our breasts definitely are defining us.” It’s harder to work. If we have children, we need childcare. We’re not taking care of ourselves, because we’re taking care of everyone else. We’re getting sick. So, it just told this bigger story.
I actually started the book in 2016, and then I wrote a query, and I wrote a proposal, and they didn’t sell. Then finally, I read the whole book, and I thought, TV. I got interest from a producer, actually, pretty early on, when somebody read the manuscript, but it still didn’t rate; it still didn’t sell this book. I mean, I had so many rejections. Now, I’m getting these rave reviews from publishers weekly; [unintelligible] is like the holy grail of the book industry.
The problem was too, it’s a memoir, but it has cultural analysis. I’m using my life, my personal emotional experience, in relation to the wider lens of our nation with a lot of humor and a lot of research. It shows the power of biology is something we can’t change, but also the way we react to it, that we can kind of change the culture. So, it was kind of unusual. It wasn’t like strictly memoir, and I’m certainly not a celebrity. So, who would buy it, right? And now, those are the very things about the book that people are really praising, and it’s just thrilling.
I just had so many moments of doubt, like, “Oh, maybe it’s not a book.” But it’s clearly a book, and now, obviously, it’s going to be a TV show. I couldn’t be more thrilled to get this message out for everyone to stop judging ourselves and each other and understand what the realities are about living in a woman’s body and how it affects everybody.
Suzanne: So, even though you’d already gotten books published, it didn’t matter. They didn’t want this.
Leslie: Yeah. They were like, “Oh, Leslie’s such a great writer, but this is not for us.” I just hope all those people are watching now! [laughs] Not in a mean way, just be more open minded, because people are calling this a really important book.
There’re really only five big publishing houses, and there’re lots of imprints, and they have to sell sure things. They need a sure thing, and this was kind of an unusual book, and boobs are like, “eww.” I mean, I even lost my first agent. She said she just wasn’t a boob person, and I thought, “That’s how important this book is, because you’re in denial that this is really important.” She’s smart, she actually had gotten an offer to go to a bigger agency and handle people like Kamala Harris…bigger people. But I got a new agent immediately and totally understood.
Then, it was just a challenge, because people just take boobs for granted. Yet every morning, we get up and we decide, are we wearing a bra or a sports bra? Are we showing them? Are we not? Are we wearing no bra? [unintelligible] So, they are a big deal, and that’s what I’m just thrilled about, that that’s a real thing now.
Suzanne: You know, I never really thought about any of this before. I guess, I don’t really think about it.
Leslie: Exactly, nobody does. Honestly, I would not have, and my whole life – like all my friends from high school – I grew up in Ohio – they’re all like, “Oh, Leslie, boobs.” You know, it’s it’s like, “Yeah, well…” Didn’t mean it.
There’s serious stuff in this too, but there’s plenty of humor, because boobs are funny, and that’s why I didn’t name it A Breast’s Life. It’s like, why so serious? Boobs are funny, and yet they’re the same thing. And then, Oprah Winfrey calls them “The Girls.” We objectify our own bodies. It’s really interesting.
So, that’s my point, for regular great women like you who just don’t think about boobs: we take them for granted. So, I’m just trying to say, “Hey, the way we think about boobs affects how we live.”
Suzanne: Somewhere I read you said that you had wanted bigger boobs when you were younger. Was that because you just hadn’t matured yet, or did you think you had ones that were too small?
Leslie: Both. I used to watch we watch Miss America every year, and I would put socks in my little bathing suit, parade around like Miss America with a towel and my cape and a tinfoil crown. I wanted to be beautiful.
I have the statistics in my book; I have all these kind of pages of facts in between the chapters, and one is about Miss America and Miss USA beauty pageants. By 1999, so many beauty queens, entrants of Miss USA particularly, the majority of them had breast implants. I mean, it’s a big deal. Breasts are important.
When I was little, I was just dying to get a bra, and then suddenly, when I was big enough to get a bra, it was Vietnam and women’s lib, and if you had to not wear a bra to be against the war – I was like, “Okay, now my breasts are political. I want to wear a bra, but I don’t want boys to get killed.”
It’s like breasts meant everything, and then they weren’t big enough. The boy I liked, you know, my best friend had big boobs, and I was sure he was gonna ask her to the dance. He asked me, and I was like, “Why me?” She had the big boobs.
You know, boobs were really important. Cheerleaders had big boobs, and I wanted bigger ones. Then when I had babies, I had giant ones, and then, it was great, but then there were the babies, and then I was just completely flat.
And you had to pretend you didn’t have boobs to get a job, wear suit coats and those shirts with floppy bows. I always wondered what it would be like to have really nice, not like giant boobs, because here’s the thing: if you have giant boobs, then you’re a bimbo, and I didn’t want to be a bimbo. I mean, we definitely judge women by how big or smaller boobs are. I didn’t realize – I did an interview the other day and someone said, “Well, of course you got breast cancer, because you’re all about boobs.” I was like, “No, no, no, no, no.”
Leslie: Yeah, exactly. Why?
I had no idea that my life had any through-line about boobs until I actually sat down and thought about that night, when I was like, “Why do I care so much? Why do I want to fix my boobs? Are they broken? What does that mean?” When I have a body part that I think is broken, what does that mean?
Suzanne: Did your mom at all – and I’m not saying you should blame her, but what was her attitude about boobs? Did she influence you at all?
Leslie: My mom was beautiful. She also got a PhD while I was in elementary school, and she worked for Planned Parenthood. My mom was totally smart and pretty. She was the whole package, and yet my dad cheated on her with girlfriends with big boobs. He married several women with big boobs who were not as smart as my mom. My mom was raised in the 50s, and it was really important to be beautiful, and being smart didn’t help her keep her husband. That was part of a woman’s identity then, and she was really affected by the culture as well. She still to this day feels that beauty is really important. She gives both my daughters a little allowance each month – my daughters are now in their late twenties – to get their hair done or their nails or something, because how we present to the world is how we are judged from the world. I hate that, and yet I acknowledge it as a truth.
So, she felt like when I got divorced, I had really saggy little boobs; my nipples pointed down…I wore a camisole all the time; I never took off, and when she saw me, she first thought, “Men like boobs, and you’re going to be lonely, because nobody wants to look at that.” It was because she never nursed, and her mother also was gorgeous and very well built, and my mom still had great boobs.
It was like she just wanted me to have every advantage, and as a woman, being smart isn’t the whole advantage. I mean, you have to be pretty too. It used to be you were smart or pretty, but nowadays, I feel like the new generation who is having more opportunity, they have to be smart and pretty.
Even this whole body positivity movement is fabulous, but I think it’s bigger in the media than it is in real life, and it’s gonna take a long time for real life to catch up. I think men look at women, and it’s just biological imperative. If you want someone who can give you children, whether you’re consciously aware of that or not, that’s the biology of it. A woman with a curvy figure and big hips can have babies, boobs, you know, make milk. So, part of it is valid, you can’t fight that. So, what I want is for people to just be aware of it, so that we stop being hard on ourselves, and we stop judging other people. I think I feel like when we know better, we do better, and that’s my message, I guess.
Suzanne: That makes sense. And now it’s being turned into a TV series?
Leslie: Yeah. The pilot’s being written now, and I’m executive producer, so I’ll have some say on who plays Leslie, but Salma Hayek is just this genius producer. I really feel like she and Dolly Parton have the biggest boob power in the world. They they use their boobs for good, because people love their boobs, and they use their power, because they are brilliant women, and Salma Hayek is a genius. I mean, we see her for her movies, but she produced Frida; she was executive producer of Ugly Betty. She has this huge Spanish language hit called Monarca. She has so many projects, and she’s such a humanitarian, and we don’t hear this part of it, because it’s kind of unusual; she’s doesn’t get acknowledged for it. I think she got an Emmy for something and then didn’t work for a while; after she produced or directed something. It’s like, people like the boob part, but she’s really, really smart.
And she told me that she’s obsessed with my book, and she has a first look deal at HBO Max, and they are making it into a TV series. It’s going to be a comedy, and yet, it’s going to be about the reality of living in a woman’s body. After talking to her, I completely trust her. It won’t be exactly the same as the book, and it also will take a long time, especially with this pandemic, until it happens.
So, I really want people to read the book. There’s tons more in the book, and there’s sixteen pages of pictures and six pages of footnotes, and a lot of funny stories that won’t be in the [series]. The [series] will start present day, and then we’ll have some flashbacks, and hopefully they’ll cover everything in many seasons. Also, I have two daughters. It might be a daughter and a son. They’re going to do what’s best to make it a really great show. So, I’m thrilled, and really excited about that.
Suzanne: When do you think the pilot’s going to be finished? Do they have an idea yet?
Leslie: Right now it’s just being written. Then, I get to read it, and the other producers get to read it. It goes back and forth for a while until it gets approved and then has to be greenlit for the series. So, it’s a long process, just like the book. It’s been five years since I started this book. It won’t take that long for this TV show; I’m guessing like a year, so, anybody can really look forward to it. So, read the book, then you’ll get a preview for sure.
Suzanne: They’re a lot faster now making a series and I think, because of the pandemic, they got really fast. They’re churning out things now.
Leslie: They had a lot in the pipeline, so they’re trying to get stuff out. It’s definitely difficult to shoot and to cast, and just the project, the process of actually making TV, takes a long time, because there’re so many people and so many steps involved and so much money involved. So, she’s going to be very careful and make sure that this is a good show that can last a long time. So, they’re not going to rush it out.
Suzanne: Oh, no, I didn’t mean rush in a bad way. I just meant, they’ve gotten much more efficient, because they had a time crunch. Just from some of the interviews I’ve been on lately, I’ve been hearing about that. Yesterday, actually, HBO Max had a whole day for the TCA online, and one of the shows, they’re saying normally they have a whole week to shoot an episode, and they did this only two days per episode, which is really cool.
Leslie: Yes. That’s just because of getting everyone in the room healthy; they only have so much time. So, that is a really tricky thing.
Suzanne: Some of these movies they do on TV, like Lifetime and everything, they’ve got them so fast now. They’ve got it down to a fine art.
Leslie: Well, that’d be great. I’m looking forward to seeing who they get to play me.
Suzanne: I’ll bet; that would be exciting.
Leslie: Yeah, and they’re using my name, too. I was thinking last night, “Do I want to switch the name?” Then again, it is my story. It will be fictionalized; it’s not really me. I don’t know; we’ll see.
Fingers crossed. I hope it happens for me. Just right now, I really want people to [read the book]. The book comes out in two weeks. I don’t know when you’re going to publish this, but I definitely want people to preorder. I think the success of the book also will help the success of the TV show. For me, it will help me keep writing. Also, there’s just so much in the book that I’m not sure what all will be in the TV show, but I know it’ll be good.
Suzanne: So, right now you’re just working on helping out with the TV show? You haven’t started writing another book or thinking about another book?
Leslie: Well, I’m waiting until I see the pilot script, and then I’ll be working with the TV show, but I’m definitely working on another book. And right now, I’m trying to do my best to help people get the message of A Boob’s Life and understand to love your boobs and all that. So, I’ll be busy with this book for a while, but I definitely am working on another book, which has some similar themes, but it’s a novel. Hopefully, I’ll finish that and take few months. I mean, I’m a very careful writer; I’m a very craft oriented writer, so it needs to be really good for me to show it to anyone, so it’ll be a little bit, but I’m on the third draft of it.
Here is the audio version of it.
Interview Transcribed by Jamie of http://www.scifivision.com
Proofread and Edited by Brenda