Nothing like a dame
July 19 2003||thanks Sarah M.

Izzard, by his own admission, is very shy, but an action transvestite needs to go in hard, heels first.

Have fish-nets, will travel. Eddie Izzard, England's funniest man, is coming to town. By Richard Jinman.

Like any stylish transvestite, Eddie Izzard appreciates a good pair of heels. There's an art to walking in stilettos, he says. Some women spend years trying to acquire it and men are no different.

He dislikes the way his hips sway when he wears them; the way he clumps across the floor like a naughty kid in mum's party shoes.

"Women don't naturally walk well in heels; no one does," says Izzard, who isn't wearing them today because he's feeling "blokey". "Normally I can do it, but if the cameras are on me I get self-conscious. I walk less well."

The conversation turns to fingernails. Izzard's are ketchup red. He's just had a manicure, he explains, and couldn't resist the vampy colour. It's at odds with his clothes: dark, well-tailored "strides" and a crisp white shirt.

Izzard's dress sense isn't always this restrained. A few days earlier, he'd felt the urge to twin a miniskirt with a pair of fish-net stockings. He was wearing this outfit when he opened the door of his New York apartment to a visiting British journalist. The reporter was taken aback, but had to admit Izzard was in terrific shape for a 41-year-old.

Yes, Eddie Izzard is a transvestite.

No, he's not gay - he's partial to curvy women, actually - but he's felt the occasional urge to wear women's clothes and make-up since he was four. Today, this sturdy, occasionally hirsute man describes himself as an "action transvestite", a "male tomboy" or a "male lesbian"; a cross-dressing guy who loves women, stilettos, soccer and lippy.

Not everyone understands, of course. He's been bashed in the street because of the way he looks and it isn't just bigots who give him a hard time. Actor Christina Ricci recently told him her gay friends were "pissed off" he didn't openly identify with the gay community.

What's an action transvestite to do?

"I have to be honest," says Izzard. "I'm the person who was in the military and became a straight transvestite. That's who I am."

Actually, that's just a part of who he is. Eddie Izzard is also a star: one of the world's most gifted stand-up comedians (John Cleese called him England's funniest man) and an increasingly in-demand actor. He's in New York to play a lead role in the Broadway production of Peter Nichols's play A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. It transferred from London's West End in March and Izzard's sad, funny performance as Bri, a young father struggling to raise his severely brain-damaged daughter, earned him a Tony Award nomination. Izzard went home empty-handed when American theatre's top honours were handed out on June 8, but so did fellow nominees Stanley Tucci and Paul Newman.

"Just hanging out with those guys was great," says Izzard, who admits he's still able to feel star struck. "To be nominated with Paul Newman! In the days when I was living in Sheffield and sleeping on someone's floor I watched a video of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid 25 times."

Screen legends appear to be drawn to Izzard. He was forced to cancel our first interview because Lauren Bacall invited him to dinner, Meryl Streep popped in to the theatre recently to pay her respects and Peter O'Toole is a fan.

Izzard is big in America mainly due to Dress to Kill, a broadcast of a stand-up performance at a San Francisco theatre that aired on HBO in 1999. It was nominated for three Emmy awards and won two. He's also revered in France, because he performed an entire show there in French, despite being far from fluent.

Izzard is less well known in Australia. You might have seen him charming chat show host Michael Parkinson, or playing Charlie Chaplin in the big-screen whodunit The Cat's Meow. If you were lucky, you got a ticket to Circle, his 2000 show that played for three sold-out nights at the Enmore Theatre.

Standing alone in the spotlight Izzard dazzled his Sydney audience for almost two hours. He talked about the monarchy, mad cow disease, guns, chaos theory, racism and the canteen on the Death Star. He invented characters on the fly and connected the unconnectable: a human search engine in mascara and stockings.

Now he's coming back to tour his new live show, Sexie, in Australia.

Izzard was born in 1962 in South Yemen, a place he compares to "the f---ing moon". His father, who worked for British Petroleum, had been dispatched to the oil refinery in Aden. His mother worked as a nurse in Aden's hospital after Eddie was born.

After a year, BP relocated the Izzards - Eddie's brother Mark is two years older than the comedian - to Belfast. It was a happy time. Eddie learned to throw mud balls at passing cars and ran wild on building sites.

Four years later, BP moved the family again, this time to a South Wales town called Skewen. Their world was about to collapse.

In 1968, Izzard's mother died of cancer. Mark and six-year-old Eddie were sent to boarding school and life was never quite the same.

"My mum died suddenly one day when I wasn't ready," he says. "It was a massive change. Dad was moving up the ladder at BP and we were comfortably middle class. It [the death of a parent] just kicks you in the head. I went to boarding school and didn't see Dad for two-thirds of the year. I cried from the age of six to 11 just to get attention. Then I lost a fight by crying, so I stopped."

The grief and isolation changed him. He became independent, "a survivor", a quality that would be sorely tested when he came out as a transvestite in his early 20s. Izzard, by his own admission, is very shy, but an action transvestite needs to go in hard, heels first.

"I didn't like being shy, so I worked out social skills to cope," he says. "Comedy was my weapon. I'd say 'the transvestite's here, the beers are on me!'" He pauses. "That would be a good television commercial, wouldn't it?"

In 1969, the itinerant Izzards moved to Bexhill in East Sussex, an anonymous English town. Eddie went to a local boarding school and discovered soccer. He became a tenacious player.

"I lived for it and I was respected as a right-half," he says. "I was a worrier and a harrier. Just like my dad when he played."

He dreamed of turning professional, but had the sense to realise he wasn't good enough. He still worships the game and supports Crystal Palace, the South London team whose history is marked by financial dramas and failed promise.

Once you've seen Eddie Izzard in full make-up and fish-nets it's a stretch to imagine him caked in mud, thumping a ball upfield. But this paradox - Izzard, the male tomboy, would argue it's no paradox at all - is part of his fascination.

His brief love affair with the military is also hard to visualise.

The last boarding school Izzard attended had compulsory cadet training. The boys marched, carried .303 Enfield rifles and ambushed each other in the Sussex countryside. Izzard loved the "running, jumping, climbing, standing still" aspects of the service and even purchased his own pistol and colonel's pips.

He might be driving a tank today - a terrifying thought - if it wasn't for comedy. Izzard liked guns and camouflage, but he loved making people laugh. The SAS didn't employ comedians, so Izzard moved on.

He headed north to Sheffield University to study economics, maths and accounting. He's good at "counting up" he says, but acting and the stage were to prove a powerful distraction. Joining a university theatre group, he dreamed of doing stand-up like Billy Connolly. In the end he combined both disciplines, inserting the characters he invented for university revues and street theatre into a wildly inventive stand-up routine.

Surprisingly, for a man whose comedy has evolved into a complex web of ideas and cultural references, Izzard doesn't read much. He's mildly dyslexic and uses television as his tutor.

"I watch a lot of telly," he says. "If you watch a Discovery Channel program on sharks, you'll learn a ton about sharks in an hour. I'm a perfectly evolved TV watcher and if you think about it, my comedy is a bit like channel surfing."

I ask him how much of his stand-up routine is rehearsed.

"It's like a journey between two cities," he explains. "I know where I'm going, but I head off on side roads. I have material that I made up yesterday, stuff that's three months old and I ad lib new stuff on stage."

Izzard was 21 when he made the decision to come out as a transvestite and 22 when he did the deed. He's convinced it's a genetic characteristic, not a lifestyle choice. It took him another six years to tell his father, a man he describes with undisguised admiration as a "1950s hippie".

He needn't have worried.

"He was cool. He probably liked the fact that I was ballsy enough to stand up and say that."

Izzard says his decision to come out was made easier by the internal resolve he had developed at boarding school.

"I was the right kind of person to do it because I'm stubborn," he says. "It's a character-building moment, but I don't mind scaring the shit out of myself. I do gigs in French, I've learned how to fly and I've ridden a horse in a western for five months [Izzard recently played a histrionic German cowboy in the French "baguetty western" Muraya - L'Experience Secrete de Mike Blueberry]. I do things that scare me so no one can say I'm a pussy."

Izzard said something similar to Harvey Fierstein at the Tony Awards. The American won a Best Actor award for his role, in drag, as Edna Turnblad in the stage musical version of John Waters' Hairspray.

"I told [Fierstein] that alternative sexuality people have to be really good to push against the white male thing that tends to dominate," says Izzard. "We have to be better. We have to be shit hot."

While he's almost evangelical about his sexuality - he believes his candid approach may help younger transvestites - Izzard is guarded about those close to him. He has to be coaxed into talking about his brother, for example. "We're close, even though we moved in different directions," he says after some prodding.

He's just as reticent about his love life, but says plenty of women find an action transvestite sexy.

"Think about the whole glam rock thing," he explains. "Marc Bolan had girls falling all over him. When I came out I thought women wouldn't be into it, but some find it curious, sexy and interesting. It was f---ing brilliant, to be honest. Be brave enough to come out and you get this wonderful gift bag from left field."

His camp image was more limiting when he began acting in movies. Producers typecast him as a funny guy, a drag queen or both. In 2001's All the Queen's Men, for example, he played a World War II agent who disguises himself as a woman to infiltrate a female-run factory in Berlin.

His role as Chaplin in The Cat's Meow was a mould-breaker. It involved no cross-dressing or comedy, and Izzard nailed it to the floor. The New York Times lauded his "incisive picture of Chaplin's charm and irresponsibility" and few reviewers disagreed.

"I know a lot about Chaplin and I didn't like his comedy actually," says Izzard. "I dumped all of his comedy and focused on one thing: this is Chaplin trying to get laid on a boat."

At 41, Eddie Izzard seems contented enough. A devoted polymath and risk-taker, he says he still feels 25, until his body reminds him otherwise. He includes a personal trainer in the entourage of assistants and stage technicians that accompanies him on tour.

"If I had Marilyn Monroe's body I'd just lie around, but my body punishes me if I don't [work out]."

Is he vain?

"If vanity is trying to look your best, then 'yes'. But I'm not narcissistic."

Izzard will admit to amplifying his appearance on stage, however.

"You can't go out there with a touch of this, a touch of that and a pair of pyjamas," he says. "If you're gonna do it, well, let's do it right!"

Sexie is on at the Enmore Theatre from Thursday. Tickets for a sixth and final show, August 1, go on sale Monday.

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