The Big Issue/April 2002/thanks Mimi
Do You Think I'm Funny?
Eddie Izzard describes himself as a male lesbian transvestite, and used his standup comedy routine as therapy for his sexual hangups. But he's not that weird really, he tells Paul Fischer
You might think judging from his continued absence from the comedy stage, that transvestite surrealist, Eddie Izzard's career has stalled. Or that he was simply lazy, or that he just couldn't find a thing to wear. Not so. Izzard, one of Britain's funniest men, has been kidnapped by the Yanks; taken to heart by American TV -- winning two Emmy awards in 2000 for his Dress to Kill special -- and by Hollywood, where he has appeared in a string of increasingly substantial movie roles.
In the latest, The Cat's Meow, directed by veteran maverick Peter Bogdanovich, which was out last week in the States, Izzard plays Chaplin. Based on a true story, it's set aboard a yacht belonging to newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, where a film director dies in suspicious circumstances. Izzard's Chaplin, however, is more concerned about getting intimate with Hearst's lady friend. US showbiz bible Variety raved: "Thought the somewhat chunky British standup comic looks nothing like the real character, he captures so well the mixture of self-absorption and sheer feckeness in Chaplin's character."
Izzard said he could relate to Chaplin's problem with sexual self-esteem: "The only way he could get someone to have sex with him, have a relationship with him, was by casting them (in a film). He didn't know how to interact with them."
So how did Izzard's low self esteem manifest itself? "When I was a kid before puberty, I was very athletic, running about, playing football. I didn't tell anyone I was a transvestite, and as a straight person I fancied girls, and I was into boy things, so no problem there, I just fancied girls. So kissing girls was great and I was really fine with that."
"And then I hit puberty and it was anger and spots, and sexual waking up and going, 'What the hell is this sex?' I didn't know about that and my confidence disappeared. I went to school where there were no girls so I lost, all that. I lost confidence, couldn't play soccer, didn't like the other sports, and was a non-athletic person." He adds: "I was never able to flirt with women. I had no ability to do that and was very tongue-tied."
But when his career began in earnest at the Edinburgh Festival in the early 1980's, he developed Chaplin-esque strategies for dealing with his sexual hangups. "When I was doing sketches, up at the Edinburgh Festival, I cast this woman in a play and proceeded to get off with her and started having relationships with people working in the shows, which was the only way I could do it."
The Cat's Meow is a snapshot of celebrity private lives in the 1920's. Izzard wonders at the fascination people have with the shenanigans of the rich and famous. "If people seem to have a wonderful, glamorous life, and they seem to be a bit of a bastard, you hope they're taking a helluva lot of drugs and having a bad time of it while , if those people are wonderful and decent and shagging away, good luck to them and we feel happy about it. For me, as soon as I said I was transvestite, I knew that was going to get in the way, and the one thing that I didn't plan for was for people to say, 'Ah! Saying you're a transvestite moves your career forward!' " Which he points out is nonsense: if cross dressing led to success everyone would be at it.
Born in 1962 in Yemen, Izzard grew up in Wales and Northern Ireland, attended various boarding schools where he suffered due to his dyslexia and formed his comic worldview by watching Monty Python, Steve Martin and early Benny Hill. His standup career began while in college, and by the 1990's he was a surefire sell-out, winning British comedy awards in 1993 and 1996. Then came the move to movies; his appearances are now heading into double figures. Over the past few years his films have included the badly received World War II slapstick All the Queen's Men, where he played alongside Friends' Matt LeBlanc as a bisexual spy; the excellent Shadow of the Vampire, the appalling The Avengers and the so-so Velvet Goldmine. Upcoming is a role in Brit director Alex Cox's Revenger's Tragedy.
He hasn't totally abandoned the stage for the silver screen. Izzard has turned in some serious stage role including last year's A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, in which he played a tortured teacher agonising over whether to administer euthanasia to his mentally-handicapped child. He has also played the razor tongued satirist, Lenny Bruce, and Shakespeare's Edward II. But devotees of his brand of humor will be disappointed to hear that he will not return to stand up until 2003.
His fans will also miss his elliptical approach to politics. Izzard labels himself a 'revolutionary liberal', is a gung-ho supporter of the euro (he even went so far as to accompany then minister Keith Vaz on a pro-Euro PR stunt), and once donated £10,000 to the Labour Party, which he insists he does not regret. He also supported the war in Afghanistan, considering the women-hating Taliban and bomb-happy Osama bin Laden as worthy candidates for a good kicking.
Of course it's his sexuality that fascinates purient observers. He calls himself a "male lesbian" (yes he loves to play with labels), but journalists always ask the question: bloke in make-up, occasionally frock -- got to be gay, surely?
"Obviously everyone assumes I'm gay because I'm a transvestite," he says, "I happen not to be, but I'm up for being bisexual, which seems logical." Logical, but he's not. He just likes to wear women's clothes. "Why aren't I bisexual? I ask my genes this, they don't seem to give me any answer, so I just go with it -- male lesbian is how it seems. I'm trying to work out the answers." In the past he said he liked to be gay, but he can't fancy lads.
Izzard seems deeply concerned with his body image, and how he appears to others and to himself. He admits that, in show business, some element of vanity is essential. He goes to the gym regularly, because, he says, he isn't one of those lucky people who can eat plateload of pies and still stay svelte. "I used to think 'I've eaten these biscuits and somehow I'm becoming a whale,' "he told an interviewer last year. "That isn't the case with thin people. They can eat three buckets of lard and top it off with a big lard cake , and they seem to be fine. They just go off and eat another one."
Image-wise though, Izzard is unique. He is probably the only celebrity who is openly transvestite. Lily Savage, for instance, exists only on camara or stage, for career purposes. When the lights go down, and the make up comes off, Savage becomes Paul O'Grady. Izzard, on the other hand, is a 24/7 tranny, although he has taken to dressing more 'blokey' recently, partly because he feels being only identified as a cross-dresser might put potential employers off. "I'm trying to mix it up so I just don't get pidgeonholed as 'the transvestite' because that's going to cut down acting roles," he says.
Which again, makes perfect sense. The only shame is that Izzard's increasing success in the States means that us Brits must suffer from laughter deprivation for a little longer.
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