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Orange Is the New Black: The 20 Craziest Real-Life Backstories

Which star sings in two metal bands?!

Liz Raftery, Sadie Gennis

On Season 3 of Orange Is the New Black, we've gotten a glimpse into several more characters' backstories, ranging from the sad (Big Boo) to the strange (hey, Leanne!). But even the most bizarre flashbacks don't hold a candle to some of the real-life histories of the actors who portray the characters we've all come to know and love (or hate). Here are 20 backstories about the stars of Orange that are almost too crazy to be true.


Lea DeLaria

JoJo Whilden/Netflix

Lea DeLaria (Big Boo)
Long before she refused to be invisible on Orange, DeLaria made history as the first openly gay comic on late-night. In 1993, DeLaria appeared on The Arsenio Hall Show, where she declared, "It's hip to be queer, and I'm a biiiiiig dyke!" In addition to her work as a stand-up comic, DeLaria is an accomplished Broadway star, appearing in The Rocky Horror Show and opposite Jesse Tyler Ferguson in On the Town. DeLaria, whose father was a jazz pianist, has also released five jazz albums, including the recent release House of David, an album of David Bowie covers.

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Natasha Lyonne

JoJo Whilden/Netflix

Natasha Lyonne (Nicky)
Lyonne was raised Orthodox in New York City and began her acting career when she was 6. By the time she was 16, she was cast in a Woody Allen film, but had also been expelled from her yeshiva school for selling marijuana. Much like her Orange character, Lyonne struggled with addiction. She was famously arrested for threatening her neighbor (as well as threatening to molest the neighbor's dog) in 2004 and was evicted by her actor friend and landlord, Michael Rapaport, who wrote an article about evicting her in Jane magazine. In 2005, she was admitted into the intensive-care unit to treat various ailments, including hepatitis C, a collapsed lung and a heart infection. She completed court-appointed rehab in 2006, and has since continued to work on her recovery. She also inspired the Rufus Wainwright song "Natasha."


Laverne Cox

JoJo Whilden/Netflix

Laverne Cox (Sophia)
Cox may have become the first openly transgender performer to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy, but the actress got her start on reality TV. In 2008, Cox appeared on the VH1 competition I Want to Work for Diddy, where she lasted six episodes. In 2010, Cox produced and starred in TRANSform Me, in which three trans stylists gave a cis female contestant an internal and external makeover. During the first season of Orange, Cox, who originally studied classical ballet in college, continued to perform at a New York drag restaurant.


Matt McGorry

JoJo Whilden/Netflix

Matt McGorry (Bennett)
Before starring on two of the buzziest shows on TV, McGorry was a competitive bodybuilder and personal trainer. He even won a bodybuilding competition in 2010! McGorry eventually decided to ease off the bodybuilding to focus on his acting. Though, that doesn't mean he never hits the gym. The actor still regularly works on his fitness, which is clear every time he strips down for a shirtless dance scene on Orange or makes it rain on How to Get Away with Murder.

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Mike Birbiglia


Mike Birbiglia (Danny Pearson)
Birbiglia may have played the insufferable Danny on Orange's third season, but in real life he's one of the funniest comics out there right now. He's starred in three Comedy Central specials and released three comedy albums. He's created two one-man shows, the first of which, Sleepwalk with Me, he adapted into a feature film that won the NEXT Audience Award at Sundance in 2012. He's a regular contributor to This American Life and has been a panelist on Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me. Birbiglia also has rapid eye movement behavior disorder, which caused him to run out of a second-story motel window in 2005, an incident he adapted for Sleepwalk with Me.


Beth Fowler

infusny-142, Jennifer Graylock/INFphoto.com

Beth Fowler (Sister Ingalls)
Before starring on Orange, Fowler had a successful career on Broadway for more than 40 years. Most notably, the two-time Tony nominee originated the role of Mrs. Potts in Beauty and the Beast and played Mrs. Lovett in the 1989 revival of Sweeney Todd. And her role on Orange isn't even the first time Fowler has played a nun: She appeared in both Sister Act and Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit!


Jackie Cruz

JoJo Whilden/Netflix

Jackie Cruz (Flaca)
To some, Kim Kardashian will always be Paris Hilton's assistant. Just like how Jackie Cruz will always be the girl Kourtney Kardashian made out with. After meeting Kourtney in an art class, Cruz began appearing on Kourtney and Khloe Take Miami in 2009, and in one notable episode, the two were filmed making out. But long before Cruz gained minor fame as Kardashian's make-out buddy, she was an aspiring singer. In high school, Cruz was part of the girl group Krush Velvet that worked with will.i.am's label but was never signed. When she was a teenager, Cruz also became homeless and was involved in a traumatic car accident in which she suffered a collapsed lung, ended up in a coma and had to undergo brain surgery.


Diane Guerrero

JoJo Whilden/Netflix

Diane Guerrero (Maritza)
Guerrero was born in New Jersey to Colombian parents and was raised in Boston. But when she was 14, her parents and older brother were deported without any warning. Because Guerrero had been born in the U.S., she was allowed to stay. No government official contacted her to make sure she had a place to live, and Guerrero found herself on her own. Luckily, the parents of friends took her in. Guerrero is now a passionate advocate for immigration reform and is writing a memoir based on her own immigration struggles.

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Taryn Manning

JoJo Whilden/Netflix

Taryn Manning (Pennsatucky)
Though Manning is best known for her acting career, she and her brother Kellin also make up the electronic pop duo Boomkat. Their first single "The Wreckoning" hit No. 1 on Billboard's Hot Dance Club Play chat in 2003 and they released their second album in 2009. Manning recently revealed that Boomkat is recording new music again, while she continues to work on her solo career. The actress, who once auditioned for Popstars on The WB, released a solo album in 2013 and a new single, "All the Way" earlier this year.


Abigail Savage

Jessica Miglio/Netflix

Abigail Savage (Gina)
Savage might only have 12 acting credits to her name, but she has a whopping 75 sound credits! She originally got into sound engineering so she could have a job outside of acting that wasn't waiting tables, and quickly fell in love. Savage has worked on the Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job, Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon, Half Nelson and her Orange co-star Mike Birbiglia's film Sleepwalk with Me.


Michael Harney

JoJo Whilden/Netflix

Michael Harney (Healy)
Before he took on the role of prison guard Sam Healy, Harney's early career aspirations were to be a social worker or a Jesuit priest. (He got rejected from the Jesuit priesthood because of a "checkered past" that included enrolling in a program to get his drinking under control.) He fell into acting after taking an elective acting class in college, in which his mentor was John Barrett - a retired nuclear physicist who had worked on the Manhattan Project and switched to acting following a breakdown.

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Kate Mulgrew

JoJo Whilden/Netflix

Kate Mulgrew (Red)
Red may have a tough, no-nonsense exterior on Orange, but Mulgrew shared intimate details of her life in her 2015 memoir Born with Teeth, in which she revealed her decision to give up her newborn daughter for adoption through Catholic Charities in the late 1970s. After years of searching for her child, a chance encounter in the late 1990s with the nun who supervised the adoption led to Mulgrew reuniting with her daughter, then a junior in college who had also been looking for her birth mother. The two remain close to this day.


Uzo Aduba

JoJo Whilden/Netflix

Uzo Aduba (Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren)
Though she doesn't have a knack for penning pornography like Crazy Eyes does (or at least, not that we know of), Aduba is a trained classical vocalist who can sing opera, as she recently demonstrated on The View. Aduba studied classical voice at Boston University and was a Broadway actress before she was cast in Orange, with such credits as the revival of Godspell.


Dascha Polanco

JoJo Whilden/Netflix

Dascha Polanco (Daya Diaz)
Polanco had given up on acting for good and was working in her backup field, as a hospital administrator in the Bronx and studying nursing on the side, when her fiancé encouraged her to go back to her first love. After attending acting classes, she was signed by a talent agency and landed a couple of small TV roles before auditioning for Orange. The rest, as they say, is history.


Samira Wiley

JoJo Whilden/Netflix

Samira Wiley (Poussey)
As one of the openly lesbian cast members of Orange, Wiley has been an advocate for LGBT rights for literally her entire life. Her parents, Dennis and Christine, are co-pastors of the Covenant Baptist United Church of Christ who have been lauded for their efforts promoting LGBT equality from within the religious community. Their church has been performing same-sex unions since 2007 - and, at the time, was the only Baptist church in Washington, D.C., to do so. Wiley, who is dating Orange writer Lauren Morelli, credits her personal and professional success to her parents' acceptance and open-mindedness.

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Annie Golden

JoJo Whilden/Netflix

Annie Golden (Norma)
She may not have much to say as Norma on Orange, but Golden's voice is what first made her a star. In the 1970s, Golden was the lead singer of New York punk band The Shirts, who headlined CBGB's in its heyday. In between stints with The Shirts, Golden was also one-half of the duo Golden Carillo. During a solo career in the 1980s, her song "Hang Up the Phone" was included on the Sixteen Candles soundtrack.


Laura Prepon

JoJo Whilden/Netflix

Laura Prepon (Alex Vause)
Prepon's real-life vice is not smuggling heroin, but playing poker. The actress has described herself as "totally obsessed" with the game, and was a former host and executive producer of E!'s Hollywood Hold'em. She's also participated in several charity poker tournaments and frequently hosts games at her home. Her poker nickname? "Red Dragon."


Jessica Pimentel


Jessica Pimentel (Maria Ruiz)
She's fairly reserved as Maria on Orange, but off screen, Pimentel goes by "The Crusher" and is the lead singer/guitarist for the death metal band Alekhine's Gun, and bassist for the hardcore band Desolate. But her musical tastes weren't always so heavy. Pimentel went to a performing arts high school as a violin major, having played classical violin since she was a child and intending to pursue a career as a classical musician. But, after she developed such severe tendinitis that doctors told her she needed to stop playing, Pimentel switched to drama.


Constance Shulman

K.C. Bailey/Netflix

Constance Shulman (Yoga Jones)
Do Yoga Jones' spiritual musings sound familiar to you? It might be because Shulman was the voice of Patti Mayonnaise on the Nickelodeon cartoon Doug throughout the 1990s, before she temporarily quit acting to focus on raising her children.


Lin Tucci

Jessica Miglio/Netflix

Lin Tucci (Anita DeMarco)
On the awards circuit, Orange has gotten nothing but acclaim, but Tucci has a more dubious honor. After starring alongside Elizabeth Berkeley in 1995's notorious box office flop Showgirls, Tucci was nominated for a Razzie (aka the anti-Oscar) for her role as Henrietta "Mama" Bazoom.