Isn't that Kiefer Sutherland?
Transvestite comic Eddie Izzard poised for greater fame

Gord McLaughlin |  National Post | February 25, 2000

(Click on the pic for the full picture)
photo by: Lee Locke
Eddie Izzard knew since age four that he liked wearing dresses. His then-girlfriend only found out when he was 23.

It happens that Eddie Izzard is wearing pants and sporting a beard when we meet for lunch on Queen Street West -- not the kind of beard that closeted homosexuals bring to company parties but the kind that sprouts on the faces of men.

"Most TVs [transvestites] are rather blokey," says the British comedian and actor whose proliferating film roles and second North American tour portend a greater fame ahead. Maybe you saw him as one of the Disco Boys in Mystery Men or in The Velvet Goldmine.

His curly facial hair, square jaw and blue eyes suggest the look of a Kenneth Branagh, although that's a new one for Izzard. "More often I'm compared to a dissipated Kiefer Sutherland."

That's about as funny as he gets offstage. Intelligence rather than humour pepper the table talk at Select Bistro, where he can't get over how they use pulleys to suspend bread baskets above the tables.

But starting Tuesday night, a five-night run of his new one-man show at the Bathurst Street Theatre will give Toronto audiences a chance to see what the fuss is about.

For there is indeed a fuss. Izzard has portrayed Lenny Bruce, the ground-breaking American comic, in Lenny, directed in London's West End by Sir Peter Hall. The Daily Telegraph called him "the finest British comedian of his generation." His last one-man show, 1998's Dressed to Kill, was taped in San Francisco and given wide U.S. exposure on HBO.

It reveals that his performance persona is merely a heightened version of his street self -- heightened by the effortless delivery of rambling observations that dig deeper than the usual comedic fare. Heightened also by the make-up and women's clothing. Oddly enough, they fail to hold the attention as he seemingly rambles on, although thickly applied make-up can conspire with his wide-eyed mugging to make him look slightly mad.

With a distinctly European view -- "Europe, where all the history comes from," he chides his U.S. audience -- he tackles such subjects as the reformation of the church and British colonialism. He pokes fun at cultural differences among the Western European countries, effectively but lovingly.

Example: In the middle of a riff in which the pope of the day chides Henry VIII -- not for murdering his wives but for having so many -- the pontiff suddenly turns and gives a sly "ciao" like a Vespa-riding Romeo. Trademark Izzard: It refers back to a previous tangent in his concert, bringing chuckles of recognition from the audience.

So committed is he to the continuation of European convergence that Izzard has performed an entire show -- two and a half hours sometimes, and always evolving -- in French in Paris, where there is no tradition of stand-up. He'd like to do likewise in German in Germany.

Does his distant Huguenot ancestry explain his Europhilia? Armchair analysts who put Izzard on the couch have more than that to sift through.

Born 38 years ago to British parents in Yemen, Izzard lost his mother to cancer when he was only six. But he says he knew even earlier, at age four, that he was interested in wearing frocks.

He was sent to boarding school, where according to the press bio, "Eddie cried relentlessly for a year." At seven he saw his first play and set his heart on performing. At 15 he was caught stealing lipstick but said it was for his girlfriend.

He began playing comedy clubs in 1986, but despite early promise, his career seemed beached until interest picked up about eight years ago. That coincided with his going public as a cross-dresser, although he had confessed to his then-girlfriend years earlier.

"I did not come out as a TV for exposure or publicity," Izzard says, jumping in to answer a question that didn't really ask that. What coming out did accomplish, he says, was to boost his confidence incredibly, and he credits that for his subsequent success.

He notes that his first New York gig attracted huge initial interest from the gay community until the word started to spread: "He's not gay." Izzard appeals to the higher end of the traditional stand-up audience, gay and straight, and distinguishes himself from drag queens.

"What's this I hear about Casual Fridays?" he asks, intrigued by a North American concept that is right up his alley.

Explaining why he's in male garb, Izzard says his transvestism is about achieving equal clothing rights with women, who are quite free to wear pants in society. He imagines greater strides to that end in Britain as more such cases of perceived discrimination are forwarded to the European Court of Human Rights. In his act, he explains it all more elegantly: "I'm an executive transvestite."