Eddie Izzard: “I reclaimed the word ‘transvestite'”

Comedian Eddie Izzard on the death of his mother, coming out as as transvestite in the 1980s – and why he failed to impress the girls in his school days

When I was 16 I made a definite pact with myself to make a go of acting. I’d decided this at seven but I re-confirmed at 16, the way people renew their marriage vows. I’d made some headway with a decent part in a school play. I played a servant hand-cuffed – with a pair of manacles on a big chain – to one of the main characters, a duke. I had this huge helmet on, with a visor which I could make go up and down as if by magic. So I kept doing this, while sitting with the duke in a pub, trying to drink a beer through this intermittently rising and falling visor. My teacher said, that’s not really Shakespeare is it? But it got a huge reaction, big laughs. And that was my first experience of comedy.

I think, looking back, I started performing to get affection from the audience

My mother died when I was six. I got my first role in a Christopher Fry play when I was seven. I think, looking back, I started performing to get affection from the audience. That seems like a swap I did. I don’t want to think about whether I might have been a different person if my mum hadn’t died because the way my brain works I’d spend hours going through different scenarios with her in them, instead of not there, and it would be too painful.

Eddie Izzard on the campaign trail
Eddie Izzard campaigning for Remain in the EU referendum

I have some very vivid memories of my early childhood. I think that’s because my mum died – in the immediate years after I would bathe myself in these memories, then re-bathe, then re-bathe. I didn’t talk about it with my brother. But I went over them – ‘and then we came back from school and she was there… and then that Christmas we wrote those Christmas letters and she put them up the chimney… then we went to Sweden on holiday…’ I just kept re-painting and re-painting and I locked them all in. And they stayed with me. Lots of people tell me they don’t have any memories from before they were six. But I do. I have them painted brightly in.

I started using chemistry classes as a comedy practice tool. The teacher had a slow, methodical way of speaking and I started finishing his sentences. “We have sodium and we have chloride and we put it…” “In a bag?” “No, not in a bag. We put it…” “In your hat?” “Not a hat, just shut up.” So I was getting the laughs. I only recently found out my brother did exactly the same thing with the same teacher. I wasn’t an obviousromantic lead but I did think that comedically I was punching above my weight.

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Even though I am transgender, I am one of the lesbians. So when girls came back to school after three years I was quite excited. But I didn’t impress them at all. “Hey, I’m not in the team, I don’t do much except the occasional bit of acting, do you want to go out with me?” I tried looking like a cool rebel by not doing any work but that didn’t impress them as they were all working very hard. Which annoyed the crap out of me. There was nothing interesting going on with my looks. I couldn’t master clothes. I was just about getting my acne together. I was just about discovering how hair dryers and brushes could stop your hair all going in one direction.

I describe myself as emotionally dead when I was 16. I could function; I could hang out, I could pass some exams, I could make people laugh. I was never brave enough to step in if someone was being bullied. I’d stand aside and hope someone else would come along and stop it. And then I’d feel ashamed. But if someone bullied me, I never cried. I just didn’t feel anything.

There have been certain markers in my career when I thought I had turned a corner. My brother was always very honest with me. He came to see my college shows and he wasn’t very impressed. Then one day he came to see me at the Town and Country Club 2 in Highbury and he said wow, you’re really doing it now. Then around 1988 I went solo and started doing street performance. I’d go to Edinburgh and do my thing on the Mound. One day when I was setting up my little stage a man came up and said ‘Oh…’ then ran off. Then he came back, dragging his whole family, and they all sat down to watch me. He was obviously saying, this is going to be good. I suddenly realised I had the It thing. I just had to get it indoors. Then in 1991 I was nominated for the Perrier award.

Eddie Izzard completes his 40th marathon in 47 days in aid of Sport Relief
Eddie Izzard completes his 40th marathon in 47 days in aid of Sport Relief

I’d love to tell my teenage self that not only does he get to perform, he does it in multiple languages. So get ready for that. He wanted to be in the forces, so I’d have to tell him you won’t be in the forces but you’ll do more marathons than anyone can count. And you know there’s something different about you, though you wouldn’t call it transgender yet – not only will you be able to come out with that, you’ll actually stand for parliament. And most people will be okey-dokey with it. You’ll go on the campaign trail and most people won’t ask why you’re wearing lipstick or a dress, they’ll ask about schools and hospitals. Not everyone – some people are just full of hatred – but other people will tell those people to shut up and grow up. I’ll be standing again in the first general election after 2020.

In stand-up I don’t think you play a character, I think it’s just you in brighter colours. It was a risky move coming out as what we used to call a transvestite, and I felt quite proud of myself. Back in the 1980s I said I was TV and I had to explain to people this didn’t mean I was a television. I reclaimed the transvestite word because then it was a very negative thing. I talked about boy-mode and girl-mode. But I avoided telly. I still don’t do sketch shows or sitcoms or panel shows, only interviews. I didn’t want to get put into a box.

If I could go back to any time in my life it would be when we lived in Bangor in Northern Ireland, or Wonderland as I call it in the book. It would have been just before The Troubles kicked in. Mum would be alive and I’d be in my gang in Ballyholme primary school. I’d have a sugary breakfast then mum would hand me my satchel and she’d walk us to school. I’d paint a picture in class, then play in the playground, then we’d have one of those little cartons of milk that Margaret Thatcher eventually took away – obviously a horrible person. Those were just good days and we didn’t think that would ever change.

Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death and Jazz Chickens, by Eddie Izzard, is out now in hardback (Michael Joseph, £20)