Irish Examiner | July 3, 2003
For the past four or five years,
Eddie Izzard has dabbled with conventional masculinity in the same way other
people toy with vegetarianism. During what he describes as his “blokey phase”,
he wore jeans and a t-shirt and took serious acting roles.
Now Britain’s most famous transvestite is looking for a change, so he’s gone back to doing what he’s famous for – stand-up comedy wearing women’s clothes.
And his cross-dressing is not exclusively reserved for the stage.
When I arrive at his hotel room in London’s Savoy Hotel, the 41-year-old is wearing nothing but a dressing gown and his underwear. His cheeks are heavily rouged, his lips are painted deep scarlet, and he has matching nail varnish on his beautifully manicured fingers and toes.
It’s a slight shock, but a bigger surprise is that he wears it well – somehow there is no aesthetic jarring between his makeup and his wide shoulders.
He invites me to join him on his hotel bed in a manner that manages to combine chivalrous male charm with feminine collusion.
And he is so comfortable with this bizarre duality that he evidently sees it as one of his selling points.
“I call myself an action transvestite,” he says. “If you are a straight transvestite like me you have a big slice of boy going on. I love running about and shooting guns and things.”
Although there have been plenty of drag performers, Izzard is alone in his status as a “positive transvestite” who loves wearing makeup all the time.
As a breaker of taboos, he might be expected to be sidelined to cult interest. Yet the honesty and openness he displays on stage during his confessional, stream-of-consciousness monologues is so appealing that he has managed to overcome people’s natural conservatism and win mainstream support.
Face to face, Izzard is just as frank as he is on stage, happy to talk about everything from buying high heels – which is no problem because his feet are a ladies’ size 6.5 – to coming out as a transvestite.
He was born in the Yemen in 1962, where his father was an oil-industry executive. His mother died of cancer when he was six, and shortly afterwards he was sent to the first of a series of boarding schools.
He knew he was a transvestite at four, but waited until he was in his 20s before coming out gradually.
“I was a little boy in Northern Ireland. My kid brother’s friend was wearing a dress and all the other kids laughed, and I joined in,” he says.
“Probably I was saying, ‘Yes, yes, foolish chap’, and in my head going, ‘No, I find it strangely beguiling’.
“The same feeling stayed with me, and then I told my ex-girlfriend when I was 21.
“After doing that, I stood by the window in Sheffield, and said, ‘I’m going to tell everyone’. Then it kept coming back to me, and it wouldn’t go away because it had been said out loud.”
But it was not until he was 29 that Izzard finally took the plunge, first telling his father, who now lives in Hastings, Sussex.
“When I came out there was a big chance that my career would go out of the window. My stand-up was just taking off. But I had to take the chance.
“Now people look at it inversely and say, ‘You got somewhere because you’re a transvestite’. I think, well if that’s it, why isn’t everyone doing it? Who’s leaping on my bandwagon? No-one as far as I know.”
Although Izzard has always made it clear his tastes are totally heterosexual, he’s been attacked in the street for being gay.
“People think, you’re lying, you actually are gay. But what would be the point of pretending I’m straight when I’m actually gay and I have taken all this flak for wearing makeup?
“It would be wonderful to be gay, because there is such a big gay community. Straight transvestites are not out so much.
“Everyone has heard the story where the woman finds her husband or her partner wearing their clothes and they divorce them and never talk to them again. That’s my community.”
When Izzard first came out he was relieved to discover it wouldn’t preclude him from ever having another relationship with a woman.
“A lot of women find it sexy, which I didn’t expect. I thought, I’m never going to get any relationships going. But there are some who go, ‘Get it on, why aren’t you wearing a dress, put your makeup back on’ – which is great!”
Although he is undoubtedly a natural performer, it still took Izzard 13 long years of hard graft to make it. He originally wanted to be an actor, but lack of success at school drove him towards comedy.
“I didn’t know I could do comedy, I sort of got into it because I wasn’t getting any parts at school when I was about 15. I got a Monty Python video and thought, I can do that – I’m not getting the parts, so I’ll write the stuff myself and do it.”
After dropping out of university Izzard became a street performer for five years, and then tried to make it in London without much initial success.
He became so despondent he nearly gave up performing altogether and tried to set up a computer business instead.
“I tried to get work and didn’t get very far, so I just watched telly for a year – a lot of daytime soaps and Australian soaps.
“Then I taught myself machine code. I had learned the basics and I had one of the first computers. I have always been a gadget freak and I wanted to write games. I tried to write designer games and set up my own company, but I wasn’t good enough at machine code, and I never really got there.”
After moving into London’s alternative comedy circuit, Izzard’s career finally took off properly at the age of 30 when he co-wrote a Channel 4 sitcom called Cows.
Acting is still important to him. In fact, if he had to make a choice, he would drop comedy first. “I love film, film is my first love,” he says.
Izzard has used his four years away from live stand-up to make three Hollywood movies – All the Queen’s Men, The Cat’s Meow and yet to be released, Blueberry, a French western.
At the moment he is touring again, with a show called Sexie, which starts in Britain in December then tours Australia, New Zealand, America and Canada.
It is sure to be a big success if Izzard continues to be what people love so much – himself. And if anyone was wondering how he finds the courage to do that, then the answer may lie in a piece of advice he received years ago.
“There was a transvestite transsexual help group in Islington where I was living. I was living one bus stop away from the only one in England, and I thought, ‘This is karma, this is the bell ringing, I have to come out’.
“I met a lawyer there who said, ‘This is a gift’, and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s a good way of looking at it’, and I have used that ever since.”