TV

Simon Amstell: 'I had to lie about who I was because I liked boys'

Stand-up comedian and filmmaker Simon Amstell says his 'ashamed and alone' younger self would be thrilled that he is creatively free AND has a boyfriend (who is hot)

Simon Amstell

I think everything I have ever done has been an attempt to reach a hand out to my teenage self and tell him he is ok. As a teenager, I found a lot of courage through people on the television being funny or subversive. I felt that in the television there was safety, there was a place where you could be entirely yourself and be celebrated rather than put in prison.

My focus was almost entirely on getting myself into the television. I appeared on kids’ game shows and did anything to see how television worked. My mum took me to watch the National Lottery Live. The show was 15 minutes long so we queued longer than it was on, but just seeing all those cameras moving across the floor and people holding cables whilst wearing headphones was thrilling to me.

I got mildly obsessed with Eddie Izzard. I loved that he was wearing clothes that weren’t allowed by the culture’s standards but that was not the centre of his performance. He was funny in a different way to anyone else and had this other thing he just happened to be. I found it very encouraging that whatever was different about me wasn’t going to have to define me entirely.

If it hadn’t been for the radio station and annual musical, I’m not sure there would have been a space for me at school. I became a DJ and got larger roles in the musical each year. I went back recently because Mr Mills, who directed those shows, was retiring. I ended up crying right through Little Shop Of Horrors because these young people had something they could be applauded for. The kids on stage might have been fine, I might have been projecting, but I did a very tearful speech full of gratitude for Mr Mills.

When I started doing stand-up aged 13, my mum would help me write my sets. I did impressions of Prince Charles and Sylvester Stallone as Rocky, but didn’t know who they were. When my little sister was born, we got a camcorder to document this baby’s life. I basically stole it and started directing puppet shows with my brother. That is what you need if you want if you want a career in showbusiness, a camcorder.

I went to Paris on my own when I was 18 to kiss somebody and see if I really did like boys

I really love my younger self now. I think he is amazing! But I went through a period of feeling embarrassed by him, because what he was doing – impressions and juggling and learning magic – wasn’t high art. When I moved to London and started meeting people who had gone to Rada or were writing plays, a bit of me felt like I wasn’t cool or cultured.

I had to lie about who I was between the ages of 13 and 21. Or I felt I did. Because I liked boys. I felt very alone, I didn’t think it was possible to like boys without ruining my entire life. I went to Paris on my own when I was 18 to kiss somebody and see if I really did like boys. It is a romantic notion, but didn’t feel like that at the time. It felt like the desperate act of a terrified child. Only recently did I think about how brave that teenager was. But he achieved his mission. I kissed somebody and lost a bit of my virginity. What’s sad is that I then thought I could do without that and didn’t kiss or touch another person for three years.

I would tell my younger self that you have this friend, Kate, who keeps wondering why you are not kissing her. Tell her why and you will have a great time with her. Where I was living at that time, liking boys didn’t seem possible. Tell Kate! She will be cool, she used to live in Camden. It happened eventually, but not until I was 21.

I felt a strong sense of justice and fairness as a teenager. Where I grew up there was a lot of casual racism and sexism. It was another reason I was so drawn to the television. I bunked off PE to watch Oprah and saw how these bad things that were accepted where I lived were booed by that audience. I thought, I need to get in there because that seems to be where equality exists. In the Oprah show. Those people will accept me.

Simon Amstell with Phill Jupitus and Bill Bailey
NMTB
Hosting Never Mind The Buzzcocks in 2005, with Phill Jupitus and Bill Bailey

My younger self would have been happy with everything in my career. I was thrilled when I was 18 and got a job on a kids’ cable TV channel. They gave me the clip-on microphone and an earpiece and there was somebody holding a camera wearing headphones and that was all I had ever wanted. But being on television was supposed to end any chance of loneliness. I was supposed to be happy. But when I was 26, I was a guest on a TV chat show pilot and saw a mini-crane camera sweeping across the room and unlike my teenage self, I felt nothing.

Whether I am doing stand-up or writing a film, it is trying to figure out what is or was wrong with me. I wrote my new film Benjamin to figure out what happened in my 20s. I started with dialogue from relationships I had been in and felt compassion for the person I had been with in my early 20s. I would read a scene and go, I was a total lunatic – that poor guy had to put up with this emotionally closed weirdo. When I finished, it felt like I had shot my 20s out of me and I understood my younger self. A kind of healing happens.

The best thing about stand up is that you say something that you’re almost too scared to say out loud, but people laugh. Either they totally relate and have the same anxiety and shame, or they are saying, That’s peculiar but we are still here. You are ok. Carry on.

1995 – the year Simon Amstell turns 16

  • The World Trade Organisation is established
  • Pierce Brosnan makes his James Bond debut in GoldenEye
  • Hosts South Africa win the Rugby Union World Cup

I would convince my younger self that he is better looking than he thinks. I went through some old photos recently and I was gorgeous. I had no idea! People must have told me, but I thought the only thing that would make me loveable was performing. The idea that I could walk into a room and be 21 years old and that would be enough would have made no sense. There is a scene in Benjamin where meets this beautiful French man but rather than kissing him, insists they watch a film he’s made. It is about someone so terrified of intimacy that he can’t love or be loved.

What my younger self would be most thrilled about is that I am creatively free and I have a boyfriend. He would wonder how that is possible: You have a boyfriend? In real life? Living with you? Good for you! And he’s hot! He would be really pleased having felt so troubled and ashamed and alone.

Simon Amstell directing Benjamin
Benjamin-BTS
Amstell directing his new film Benjamin

I have started doing stuff that isn’t completely to do with my own neuroses. I made Carnage for the BBC about the way we treat other animals on this planet. I used all the things I had learnt how to do because I am so troubled to serve something higher than my own ego. Comedy for me now is more than a defence mechanism. I am really happy that I’m not out here as an open wound hoping to be healed – because there is never going to be enough love and attention.

My main advice for my younger self would be to have a lot of sex for the next ten years. Kiss and touch a load of people! Don’t worry about getting a boyfriend, the relationship will take care of itself. I was so desperate to be in a relationship and would get upset after being dumped by somebody after two dates. It broke my heart and I was sad for months. I’d also tell him to stop arguing with his body. If you are hungry, eat. If you are tired, sleep. And if you want to have sex with that boy and he consents, then please do.

Benjamin is released in cinemas and on digital on 15 March

Image: Neale Haynes/Getty Images

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