Eddie Izzard on beating the bullies and sorting his sexuality

by Linda Herrick / 18 September, 2017
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Eddie Izzard. Photo/Amanda Searle

Comedian, dyslexic, flying-phobic and transvestite, Eddie Izzard meets life’s challenges head on.

Let’s talk about sexuality. In 1985, British comedian Eddie Izzard slipped out the door of his London flat wearing a dress and makeup, in public as a transvestite for the first time in his life. Aged 23, he knew he could meet real hostility on the streets. In his new memoir, Believe Me, Izzard writes that his memories of that landmark day are suffused with fear.

After walking around with a lesbian friend he’d met in a help group, Izzard had to change clothes before returning home because he hadn’t come out to his flatmates. So he went into the ladies’ loos at a train station with his little bag of clothes to wipe off his makeup and resume a male persona.

But he had company: three teenage girls smoking cigarettes, staring and whispering as he went from stall to stall looking for one with a lock. When he emerged, they followed him, shouting, “Hey, mate! Why are you dressed as a woman?”

Izzard led them in the opposite direction of his flat before he thought, “Screw this” and turned around shouting, “You want to know why I’m wearing a dress? I’ll tell you why.” The girls screamed and ran off. And that was the day he learnt that if you confront aggression, you have a fair chance of shutting it down.

“Those girls were trying to intimidate me,” says Izzard, on the phone from London. “Oh, yes. You don’t follow anyone if you’re just curious: ‘Oh, mate, let’s have a chat.’

“That was quite a moment, when I turned around. They could have stood their ground, hurling abuse, but then I would have just hurled abuse at them and it would have gone on and on. Standing your ground is a nice thing. I was very happy it turned out that way. It was the beginning of the next step. If people give you a hard time, confront them and see where the chips may fall.”

In the book, Izzard recounts a succession of people blatantly judging him because of his sexuality. Polite confidence is a good method, he says, “to stop people yelling hellish, negative things at me”.

Watch Eddie Izzard talk about men and makeup: 

Izzard, now 55, has built a career as one of the world’s most successful comedians. He has faced off the challenge of severe dyslexia by performing French-language shows in France and German and Spanish gigs in those countries. Next year, he will tour the Spanish-speaking countries of South America.

He’s also an increasingly sought-after TV and film actor, a pilot (to overcome his fear of flying) and a heroic marathon runner who has raised millions for charities. In 2016, he ran 27 marathons in 27 days in South Africa to honour Nelson Mandela, whom he met in 2010. A political activist, he intends to enter British politics in 2020. Perhaps somewhat understatedly, he describes himself as “somewhat relentless”.

But as Believe Me also reveals, the core of his being pivots around his mother’s death from cancer when he was six. His father, an accountant for oil company BP, sent Eddie and his older brother, Mark, to boarding school in Porthcawl, Wales. Eddie, always “a big cryer”, shut down emotionally. He didn’t cry from the age of 11 until he was 19, when he saw a cat get run over.

“That showed two things, which I’m kind of happy about, I suppose,” Izzard says. “One, if you close down emotionally if you’re in a tough situation, it can help you. When people push you, you don’t react. That helps you in battle conditions. For an 11-year-old boy at boarding school, they’re not going to bully you, because they don’t get any reaction.

“But if you keep that going, you are really dead. Your emotions are blocked and you need to open that up again. So I was pleased both ways that I went through this whole thing. At least I came out of it in a positive way.”

Izzard credits his father, Harold, about to turn 89, for giving him the confidence to make his singular way in life. “Yes, I have said that to him. He laid down the concrete runway from which I could take off. I couldn’t have gone and taken the risks without him being so solid behind me.”

But despite the urgings of some, including the woman who became Izzard’s stepmother, there was no way he was going to follow in his dad’s footsteps. “Although, actually, I am pretty good at adding up. I did the accounts for a show at the Edinburgh Fringe and I was very interested in doing these accounts. I find them very precise. Precision has its place.”

Izzard applied intellectual precision to the analysis of his sexuality during those early days in London after making some futile attempts to seek professional help. “I have this gut feeling about psychiatrists. I’ve been talking to people who have real problems with their sexuality, intimations that they were very troubled, and I wasn’t that troubled.

“I thought, ‘I’m going to work it out myself.’ They talk about gender confusion, but why do they have to be confused? I have boy genetics and girl genetics in my head – the whole human body is confusing. That’s how it is. It’s genetic, I’m so sure of that.”

As he writes: “I am just this guy. I am transgender and I exist. But that is just my sexuality … What you do in life, what you do to add to the human existence – that is what matters.”

BELIEVE ME: A Memoir of Love, Death and Jazz Chickens, by Eddie Izzard (Penguin/Michael Joseph, $40)

This article was first published in the September 9, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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