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Why comedian Rose Matafeo says she's an extroverted introvert

Rose Matafeo. Photo/Getty Images

Like many comedians, Rose Matafeo reckons she is more of an introvert than the extroverted “horndog” who wowed this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Michele Hewitson caught up with the rising star and crochet exponent.

Rose Matafeo likes a bit of bleak. “I do. I really do,” she says, on the phone from London, where she now lives. “Oh, I’m relatively bleak.” So here’s a funny joke: the relatively bleak Auckland-raised comedian won this year’s Edinburgh Comedy Award.

She had another thought about her self-proclaimed bleakness: “Just because I speak loudly on stage and scream and shout and all that shit probably doesn’t seem all that bleak.

“But,” she says, cheerfully, “I’ve got a dark side.”

She realised, she told me in 2015, that “I might be an introvert, ha, ha, because I took a test online. I’m like, ‘I’m sure I’m an extrovert’. Then I read all this stuff, such as: ‘When you go out with people and you’re talking to people, do you get energy from them or do you feel your energy is being sapped?’ And I feel like my energy is being sapped.”

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The Edinburgh Fringe Festival comedy award is, as the Listener’s Books & Culture editor Russell Baillie tweeted, pretty much the comedy equivalent of the Man Booker. Steve Coogan has won it; so have Dylan Moran and Hannah Gadsby. The Guardian called Matafeo “a near-perfect comedian”.

She met Coogan – he presented her award, a cheque for £10,000 and “a big plastic award thing”. She came over all fan girl. “It was absolutely crazy. He gave me a hug and said ‘congratulations’ and I’m, like, ‘Nice to meet you.’” She says this in a squeaky little voice, like a tweenie meeting Taylor Swift. “Then I gave an awful speech and went home. It was shit, I had nothing prepared. I forgot to thank people. It was a bit of a disaster, really. A true indication of how unexpected it was.”

She loves Coogan. So do I. But what’s funny about him? His comedy is so bleak and sad, isn’t it? “Well, yeah. But I think that’s my favourite type of comedy – that utter bleakness.

With Steve Coogan at the Edinburgh Comedy Award presentation. Photo/Getty

“But, no, maybe I’m not bleak. I’m hyper-emotional. Maybe that’s the problem.”

That might be a handy trait for a comedian. Is it all right being hyper-emotional? “Yeah, if it’s funny – only if it’s funny. But I think I have no problem sharing the personal side. Most observational comedy, I think, has to be a bit emotional and a little bit true, and it seems that I’m very much that kind of comedian now.”

We can fairly safely say that she is our most celebrated horndog (the name of the show for which she won the award). I don’t actually know what a horndog is, I tell her. “There are,” she says, “definitions of it on the internet.” That is just mischief-making.

The person she is on stage is, of course, a heightened version of herself. “Yeah, absolutely I think it is. I’m not loud at all. In real life, I’m very shy and quiet. I’m not very shy and quiet! But I’m not that energetic. However you think about me on stage, just think that I’m 10 times worse than that in real life.”

People who see her on stage often fall in love with her. They think she’s their new best friend, or that she is just like them. In real life, she is an awful person, or so she says. “I’m awful, guys!” But then she fails to offer proof of her awfulness.

What she really means, I think, is that she is really boring. She likes to do crochet. She plans to spend some of her prize money on an armchair. An armchair! “I want to get an armchair that I can sleep in and sit in and it’s, like, a beautiful colour and I can do all my work in it but not do work in it.” No, she’d sit in it and watch the telly and do her crochet.

“I’m a relatively ambitious person,” she says. She once said she wanted to win an Oscar. That may have been a joke. I ask if she still wants to win an Oscar and she says: “Yeah. Absolutely. No. I want to go to the Oscars. I’ll become a seat filler.”

Matafeo in character for Horndog.
What big dreams she has. She wants to finish the blanket she’s crocheting, find that perfect armchair and be a seat filler at the Academy Awards. When I phone her, she is at home in London making her Halloween costume. She was going to a fancy-dress party as Ripley from Alien. “I’m hand sewing all my patches for my flight suit.” She was using the smaller award she got for being a nominee for the big Edinburgh award to hold down the felt patches for her costume.

She also made a flamethrower out of cardboard. She didn’t tell me this. I saw it on her Twitter page. She also had a small stuffed ginger cat. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had crocheted it. Her ambition is right out of control.

She is such a nana. “I am not a nana. I’m a 26-year-old woman who is having the time of her life. There is nothing nana-ish about crochet. It’s for everyone and I think that’s an unfair assumption.” So that was me ticked off.

All right, she is not always a nana. She is a chameleon. She mostly does geek chic – little woollen cardis and nerd-girl specs and tweedy skirts – but she can scrub up beautifully. There’s a snap of her, on her Twitter page at a do in Melbourne, wearing a beautiful golden dress. She looks like a goddess. “Oh, that’s sweet.” The dress was a loaner for the night. She should have pinched it. She could wear it to the Oscars. “I should have pinched it. Damn it. I’ll find the dress. I’ll become a seat filler and get to the Oscars.” I forgot to ask what she was wearing on her feet. She has size 10 feet and told me last time we met that she can’t fit girls’ shoes. “Look, I’m Samoan, right?” She has had her feet photoshopped on billboards, which she finds hilarious.

She has been having a nana-ish time just now, after the whirlwind that was winning her big award. “It sounds so cheesy but it was just a really surreal thing to happen. It’s still quite strange to remember that it happened. I understand the phrase: beyond someone’s wildest dreams.”

Wildest dreams? She has been enjoying having a “down-time week”, going to the movies on her own, making her Halloween costume. She’s enjoying doing nothing much after all the excitement of Edinburgh and a sold-out show at the Soho Theatre in London. She does another two-week slot in January and that is almost sold out, too. She’s appeared on Have I Got News For You and The Great British Bake Off: An Extra Slice.

The money is “safely tucked away”. She’s very grown-up for a 26-year-old. I think she was born grown-up, although there is a part of her that will always be like a wide-eyed 10-year-old meeting Steve Coogan.

“Basically,” she says of the award, “it’s meant that I’ve only just begun to think that I’m a comedian. It’s not so much a validation but it was an awesome affirmation that that’s what I do and people are okay with me continuing to do it.”

She’s sort of famous. She does get recognised in London, mostly, she says, by other New Zealanders who presumably have seen her on Funny Girls and Jono and Ben. Still, as she is so ambitious, she must want to be really famous.

Matafeo with Work Do co-writer Alice Snedden. Photo/Andi Crown

“No. I just want to do fun things and when it comes down to it, my god, if I could just make Halloween costumes for a living, I’d do that. And when you see famous people, it’s so stressful. It’s like they’ve got to exfoliate, or get a tan. You know, such work goes into it, and I’m such a lazy person. I cannot be dealing with that shit, so I don’t know. It’d be great if I could get famous, sure. But it would be a shock not only to myself but to friends and family that I would be bothered to put in the effort to maintain that fame.”

What she is famous for is worrying – she thinks she is going to die any minute and in 2015 wrote a show called Rose Matafeo: Finally Dead, in which she staged her own funeral. A flat-pack coffin was the central prop. So I regret raising the grim spectre of fame. She worries away at the very idea. “I’d have to sort my skin out and pluck my eyebrows and I haven’t plucked my eyebrows in two years.”

I’m not sure what she is ambitious for. She says she has never wanted to travel the world or to own a house. “Maybe that’s just a poor upbringing, with no focus on financial security.” She is joking, but her parents were totally cool, laid-back Rastafarians. Her mother, who is Croatian and Scottish and – her daughter claims – “just wants to be African”, went as a teacher to Uganda.

Perhaps Matafeo’s ambitious for happiness. “No, god no! Absolutely not. I’m not crazy, Michele. I’m just ambitious to continue to make good things and I know that sounds like a bullshit answer but I’m genuinely ambitious to keep doing this as a job, being able and allowed to do it for as long as I can. I completely understand if I can’t.”

Her claim to be lazy is rot. While doing Melbourne and then Edinburgh, she and Alice Snedden, writer and performer of Funny Girls, somehow managed to find the time to write a play, Work Do, for the annual fundraiser for the Basement Theatre in Auckland, which runs until December 21. Set in 1997, the plot revolves around a travel agency’s Christmas party featuring “mid-shelf” plonk and bad Christmas jumpers. Matafeo is not in the cast but will be making a guest appearance.

She is an odd mix of angst and ambition, of shy and stroppy, of lazy and driven. This makes her sound like a hot mess – and she is a bit of that, too – but the combination is somehow beguiling. I know about the stroppiness because I have interviewed her before and I stupidly joked that, despite her being half-Samoan, the reason she has never gone to Samoa is that the food is crap. I was, she said sternly, being racist.

She has always had strong opinions on things, including – I did ask – whether the disgraced comedian Louis CK should go on performing comedy. To which the short answer is: nope.

“The time he’s had off is pitiful and, to be honest, I think that, once that happened, do something else, dude. Because, it’s not like it’s a privilege to be on stage, but that space you’re taking up, there is power in that and an amount of responsibility. You know, you’re going to be performing and nobody’s into it and are leaving the venue. I’m like, ‘Take some sort of hint. You have enough money to retire.’” She doesn’t mean that you have to be a good person to be a comedian, but, “I think, like any other job, you should not sexually harass your co-workers. That’s the bottom line.”

Anyway, loser, get off the stage and make way for the winner. The award means she won’t have to make a new show next year if she doesn’t want to. She won’t be doing next year’s New Zealand or Melbourne comedy festivals. “Huh?” I ask, not having learnt my lesson the first time around. “You’re not coming back to us? Have you gone all snooty now you’ve won the big award?”

There is a huffing sound on the end of the phone and she says: “Hello? Do not tall poppy me – I’m not having that bullshit and that is exactly why I won’t come back. It’s like going over to my aunty’s house [and she says], ‘You never come around.’ You’re there and she’s, like, you never come around. Hello!”

She went to London to be with her boyfriend, English comedian James Acaster. They are no longer together. “No, I’m alone up here in London, loving it. That was convincing, wasn’t it?”

She came late to boys. Horndog is, in part, about having kissed “nearly 10 men”. Nearly 10? Did she go in for the pash with a 10th and miss? “No! I mean nearly 10 as in nine.” Is that true? “Yes, at the time of making my show, and I won’t tell you anything else, Michele. Correct at the time of the debut performance.” I reckon she’s making it up and it was more like four. “Oh, shit. It was four, actually.”

Horndog is “more about having, I don’t know, indescribable energy. What I talk about is being horny for things. It isn’t necessarily a sexual thing, but just having a lot of time and energy, basically putting effort into a thing that perhaps I shouldn’t, because I probably didn’t kiss many people as a teenager. I put that energy into other pursuits, as opposed to boys. And that’s kind of still the case at 26. As is clear: I’m making f---ing homemade felt patches for a Halloween costume.”

This article was first published in the December 1, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.