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Zoe Lyons: ‘I would go back and tell my younger self she will be loved’

Comedian, performer, writer and broccoli lover Zoe Lyons is dusting off her shiny suit for a new BBC quiz show
Zoe Lyons is hosting a brand new BBC 2 game show.

Comedian, performer and writer Zoe Lyons has become a staple of the UK comedy circuit.

We’re used to seeing her on our screens through some of the nation’s best-loved panel shows, including Live at the Apollo and Mock the Week.

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Now, she’s dusting off her shiny suit for a brand new BBC 2 gameshow, Lightning. Producers say the fast-paced afternoon entertainment programme will see six contestants battle it out over six “frenetic” rounds, answering tricky trivia while undertaking physical trials.

Promoting the new show, Lyons sat down with the Big Issue’s Adrian Lobb to pen her Letter To My Younger Self and give the 16-year-old Zoe some life advice. She started by talking about her days as a teenage daydreamer…

At 16, I was a real daydreamer. I had no idea what I was going to do with my life but I knew it was going to be tremendously exciting and creative. I was at high school in Glasgow and had dreams of moving to London and being something cool. I knew I was going to escape somehow. Not that Glasgow needed escaping from, it was probably my own teenage self. I was constantly striving for what I can only describe as a life less ordinary.

My accent was always one country behind where I was living. I was born in Wales, moved to Ireland, to England and then to Scotland so it was always trying to catch up. As a kid, you always feel like an outsider and I guess I was lonely at school. Maybe that is why I was such a dreamer. I loved music but was not the least bit musical, loved art and photography but was not the least bit artistic. I was the kid who hoped to run away and join an Andy Warhol-type scene but just didn’t have any of the skills required, except for an adventurous spirit.

I would go back to my younger self and tell her you will be loved. Because at that point I was struggling with my sexuality and did not know how my life was going to pan out, how I would cope with it, or how people around me would cope. Homosexuality was really not embraced or encouraged. People didn’t talk about it much. And if they did, it was under the horrific banner of the Aids epidemic – certainly for gay men at the time and it was only slightly different for a young gay woman. So I would whisper in her ear that everything will be OK.

'Comedy Rocks with Jason Manford' TV Programme - 2011
Zoe Lyons on 'Comedy Rocks with Jason Manford' in 2011. Image credit: ITV/Shutterstock

I had stress-related alopecia and a third of my hair fell out. I had long hair, so I could hide it in a combover. It was worst when I was about 12. It’s that contradiction in life, where you don’t want to be boring but don’t want to stand out. You want to be unique but with that comes sometimes being isolated. I would tell my younger self, don’t worry, things will get easier and your hair will grow back – but then it will fall out again. Because it has recurred 30-odd years later. I’ve mostly been able to hide it but when the wind blows, the lid lifts. Filming Lightning, my lovely makeup lady would paint it in each morning. So I’d also say, don’t get too attached.

I was in my first little tribe when I was about 16. There were five girls at school that hung out together and they are who I first came out to. They were so sweet and supportive and we remain friends. We rarely see each other, but when we do it’s like being back at school. My first coming out went very well, and you’re constantly doing it, aren’t you? So that was 
very encouraging.

My younger self would say well done – you’ve taken very little quite a long way, haven’t you? You’ve flown on the wings of Icarus there! I’d be very pleased I am not still working in a jam warehouse just outside Glasgow – although that was a brilliant summer job. Working with women packing jam when I was 16 was such a hoot. We got paid well, and Glaswegians are the funniest people on the planet.

Watching Jo Brand on stage for the first time blew me away. She seemed like such a powerhouse. I saw a lot of stand-up comedy when I was at university, but a woman standing there saying whatever the hell she wanted was incredible. I was blown away by her bolshiness. Having now met her and worked with her, she is also the most charming, supportive, lovely and generous person. It felt like coming full circle, from seeing her as a student to working with her on Have I Got News for You. How did that happen?

In the end, the fear of not doing stand-up became bigger than the fear of doing it. I studied psychology at university but spent most of my time mucking about with the drama society. Then I decided to go to drama school, where I realised being an actor is really hard because you are so dependent on other people giving you work. The director of the school said, why don’t you write, then you can do your own stuff? It took me ages to have the confidence, so I was 29 before I started. I wrote 10 minutes of appalling material. I was overwhelmed with absolute fear, but once I got up there – and I was utterly rubbish, let’s not kid ourselves – I loved it.

I found it really hard to imagine what my future romantic life would look like as a younger person. At 16, getting married was something I never imagined would be possible. If I could whisper in her ear that one day she would be able to marry somebody she loved, that would be a fantastic thing. We’ve been together 22 years now. If you can still make each other laugh at the end of each day, that goes a long way.

I was embarrassingly oblivious to politics when I was younger. My excuse is because we moved around so much and didn’t talk about politics at home. At university, when there were marches it sort of passed me by. There was a lot to protest about and it sounds selfish, but I was so concerned with how I was going to navigate my own life. The fall of the Berlin Wall happened when I was 18 and I don’t remember it – there is an idea that when you are a student you are automatically politically involved, but I wasn’t.

Things have changed tremendously for women over the last 30 years. We were just spoken at for a long time. When I started doing panel shows, I was always the only woman on. I’ve never ranked my gender or sexuality high up my list of defining features – I’m more likely to say right-handed before I say gay. That comes after Libra or ‘likes broccoli’. People are quick to define you by labels you don’t define yourself by and to me that included female, so I just got on with it. But when I look back at those shows, it was so tiring being the only woman. I would pat myself on the back and say, you did well despite being talked over and judged more harshly.

I’d tell my younger self not to doubt herself. We spend an awful lot of our youth doubting ourselves, until eventually you realise everybody’s doing it. Unless they’re a Donald Trump-style psychopath. There’s strength to be gained in knowing we all have our own weaknesses.

Zoe Lyons is dusting off her shiny suit for a new BBC quiz show. Image credit: William Cherry

My younger self would be chuffed to bits to know she would host her own gameshow, just as I am now at 49. She wouldn’t believe it, she’d say who are you and what have you been drinking? It wasn’t on my radar but as soon as the opportunity arose I thought I might be made for this. It brings together all the skills I’ve learned as a comedian, host and compere. I’m a gentle comic, I’ve never enjoyed making people uncomfortable. I enjoy talking to people and getting the best out of them so as soon as I put on my shiny suit I felt like I was meant to be here. I enjoyed every nanosecond.

The thing that would surprise my younger self the most is that I’m a capable adult. I can do most grown-up things. And that would not only surprise me at 16, it still surprises me now. I get in the car and can’t quite believe I am able to drive. If I swap energy supplier, I think: Well done you, that’s a grown-up thing!

I am very professional when I’m working but have a realistic approach to life. I’m a comedian, a performer and a writer, but I am other things as well. You know, a broccoli lover, as already discussed. So it’s not my be-all-and-end-all – and the last nine months has been an enormous lesson in why you should never take anything for granted. But my younger self would be absolutely delighted be able to fast-forward into the future and see where I am. There were many times I nearly gave up. But I could never have imagined it turning out quite so well.

Lightning airs weekday nights at 6.30pm on BBC Two