A Square Peg in a `Circle'
Eddie Izzard's new show promises more heels, frocks and sharp humor

Edward Guthmann, Chronicle Staff Writer

When Eddie Izzard was growing up, he wanted to look like Raquel Welch -- the blouse- popping, architecturally perfect Raquel Welch from ``Fantastic Voyage'' and ``One Million Years B.C.'' And if he couldn't have that, then he'd settle for Emma Peel, the lithe spy played by Diana Rigg in ``The Avengers.''

Izzard, 38, never got his wish, but in his one-man comedy shows -- the latest, ``Circle,'' opens this week at the Curran -- he gets to disport himself in swell frocks, full war paint and festive shoes. It's a dream come true for Izzard, who says he's wanted to dress this way since he was 4.

``I didn't come out till I was 23,'' says Izzard, who's often called Britain's most successful stand-up comic, ``and I still don't feel I've had my teenage years. So I've got a lot of catching up to do with skirts and makeup.''

Izzard is a ground-breaker, and hysterically funny onstage. But he's not what he initially appears to be. Unlike a lot of men who wear female clothes onstage, he isn't gay, but a straight man who says he's perfectly comfortable with his sexuality. ``I am actually attracted to women,'' Izzard said by telephone from Vancouver, British Columbia, where his concert tour made a recent stop.

``And only to women. So that gets kind of confusing.''

According to Izzard, who pronounces his name ``Iz-ARD,'' the majority of transvestites are heterosexual. Ed Wood, the Hollywood director played by Johnny Depp in the 1994 Tim Burton film ``Ed Wood,'' was one, but Izzard says it's common -- even among cops, truck drivers and military personnel.

``I don't call it drag,'' Izzard says, ``because I'm not doing the drag-queen thing. It's my sexuality, not just the clothes I'm wearing.''

Confused? Onstage, Izzard sometimes calls himself a ``tomboy'' or ``a male lesbian.'' He dresses to feel like a woman, he says, even though he loves women and has no interest in changing his sex.

Six of Izzard's shows have been made into TV specials. The last, ``Dress to Kill,'' was taped for HBO at the Stage Door Theatre in San Francisco in 1998 after a four-week run at the Cable Car Theatre.

The show covered a lot more ground than Izzard's sartorial habits. San Francisco, with its bizarre smoking laws, its lack of taxis, its frigid summer days and its pretentious way of calling itself ``The City,'' came in for a volley of barbs. So did the British, the French, the Germans and all manner of grotesquerie, sham and poppycock.


He's a terrific physical comedian, an astute social observer and so confident and dynamic onstage that one rapidly forgets that he's wearing thick makeup and women's clothes.

Inevitably, because there's no one else doing what he's doing, at least not on so large a scale, Izzard is identified by his visual style and sometimes accused of using it as a gimmick. ``Someone wrote that my career wasn't doing great until I was a transvestite,'' he says, ``which is a lie. It pisses me off greatly.''


London has a huge number of comedy clubs. Before he ever wore a dress onstage, Izzard says, ``I was shooting off the top of the circuit. I gradually announced to the press that I was TV. And it did cause a distinct amount of focus to come in.

``But it wasn't designed to do that. I mean, if it's such a good idea, then why isn't everyone doing it? Why isn't everyone in Hollywood coming out and saying they're gay and lesbian? It's my sexuality and I'm being honest about it.

``If it's a gimmick, I'm taking it enormously seriously.''

Izzard, who's also acted in the films ``Mystery Men'' and ``Velvet Goldmine,'' says he hopes to remove some of the stigma and mystique from transvestism. ``Comedy is a perfect place to do this, and I'm a perfect person to be a transvestite or to come out of that because I can be flip about it.

``I talk about being an `action transvestite' or `executive transvestite,' about total clothing rights and coming out, with these little sound bites and stupid ways of looking at it that spin it around. And, hopefully, if I present it that way, a lot of straight people who would find it confusing will go, `Oh, he seems kind of relaxed' or `I kind of like that.' ''

On the street, where he's not always recognized, it can turn the opposite direction. Two years ago, Izzard took someone to court who called him names and assaulted him in front of a theater in Cambridge, England, where he'd just finished a sold-out three-night run.

``I told him to chill out, and then I got ticked off and told him where he could go, and how he could go there, and what he could do to get there. Some of my best invective strung together. And then he took a swing at me. He had four friends who jumped in. There were two women there, friends of mine, trying to pull them off.''

The assailant was tried, found guilty of grievous bodily harm and fined 200 British pounds.

Izzard has a girlfriend, with whom he's shared an ``on and off'' relationship for several years. He doesn't like to talk about her but says that he often dresses in female clothing when he's with her at home or on the town.

Women are among his biggest fans: There's something in his bravery and outrageousness, he says, that takes them off guard, makes him less threatening. ``Absolutely, they seem to be widely, wildly open to me.'' He even has his share of Stage Door Johnettes and love letters from women -- ``the whole kit and caboodle.''

Izzard lost his mother when he was much younger but says his dad, a former accountant with British Petroleum, couldn't be more supportive of his offbeat son.

``I took six years after coming out until I told him. Having heard some of the horror stories from gay men and women about family reaction, I was afraid. But he was just the coolest dad. He wrote me a letter saying he thought it was OK, and he said my mother, if she were still alive, would have felt the same way.

``He's my personal Nelson Mandela,'' Izzard says. ``I say a lot of things to sort of put myself down before anyone else says it, self-deprecating remarks like `Oh, I'm a weirdo.' And my dad's caught me doing that and said, `Don't say that.' ''