Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death and Jazz Chickens by Eddie Izzard with Lauren Zigman
(Penguin Books, 2017)
Cake or death? If you are a fan of the British comic/actor Eddie Izzard, you probably own a teeshirt with a blue cupcake on it with one of Izzard's signature lines from his fabulous standup routines. To see Eddie Izzard in concert is an experience in hilarity that one shouldn't miss. Recently Izzard appeared at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, which was a rare opportunity to see him up close and personal.
Izzard's recently published autobiography is a frank and humble telling of the comic's struggles to make his mark as an entertainer. Izzard's story is one of dogged determination, in which he continually challenges himself to take his career to the next level. As a shy boy, who lost his mother at the age of six and was shuttled off to boarding school immediately following his Mum's death, Izzard stayed on the outside of the social world at school. He did enjoy playing “football” (soccer in American English), but he gave the sport up at an early age.
Izzard enjoyed performing from a young age, but even in school he couldn't get himself noticed enough to procure a lead in a play. However, when struggling to figure out a career path, Izzard made a decision that he had to perform in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which is one of the largest collection of international arts festivals in the world. Anyone can perform at this festival of comedy and theatrical productions, but one has to have some sort of show to perform and the financial backing to go to Scotland, pay for meals and lodging, and find a venue in which to put on one's performance.
Izzard, who attended Sheffield University, majoring in Finance because it sounded like the right thing to do, assumed that a theatrical group from the University would be forming a group to attend the Festival. When he found out that Sheffield did not participate in the Fringe, he thought, “I'm at Sheffield University, I'm doing Accounting and Financial Management with Mathematics, and I can't get my actual career started---because nobody goes to the Edinburgh Fringe. No one is going. I have to go. Therefore, I will go.” (p. 178) And by sheer grit, Eddie Izzard cobbled together a small group of friends, created a rather unimpressive show, and went to Edinburgh to perform. Although this future Emmy winning performer/writer, did not impress any audiences at his first Fringe appearance, what he learned about his own character by managing just to get there became his mantra for the rest of his life. If you think you can do it, you can and you will.
Izzard states, “Surely it would have been easier if I'd gone to Cambridge University and made it into the Footlights. I wouldn't have had to build everything myself, from scratch. I might have been successful quicker, and I might have made more things in those ten lean years. But in the end, I believe there was something in those wilderness years that was very important for me to experience. There was something I had to learn. It was stamina. And it was also the idea of quality over speed.” (p.307)
Izzard has taken this attitude with him as he has expanded his horizons from playing in Scotland to the West End in London, to the Village in New York City, to the world wide stage, and none of it has been easy. Eddie Izzard carried a secret with him since he was the age of seven, and it was a secret that he wasn't sure how to share with the rest of the world, or even if he should. Izzard is transgender, meaning that he enjoys dressing in women's clothing, wearing make-up, and strutting in high heel shoes. In the autobiography he speaks of his struggles for acceptance in telling his father, who was very cool with the news, and his step-mother, who was not.
When Izzard finally got up the nerve to go out in public “Dressed to Kill” (the name of one of his comedy shows), he encountered some unpleasantness. He tells the story of being in London and passing by a young black woman who was with a white man. As he walked by, she said, “You're sick!” because he was wearing a dress, make-up, and heels. Izzard stopped to ask her why she was having that reaction since she was breaking social mores in her choice of companion. “It was clear that her reaction was coming from her gut,” says Izzard, “and I wanted to try to understand why she was so opposed to me.” (p.141) During their brief discussion Izzard relates, “By discussing it with her, she had seen that I was a human being, so she didn't have as much of a problem with me anymore. It's the humanity that gets lost in these issues.” (p.142)
The common thread that runs through Izzard's life story is about the commonality of human beings. The book begins with a quote from Winston Churchill: How easily men could make things much better than they are---if only all tried together!” Izzard puts his money where his mouth is on the issue of humanity. Aside from being a successful performer, Izzard has worked with the UK charity foundation Sport Relief, which “had developed the unusual idea of asking people who are not very sporty to take on unusual sporting challenges.” (p.340) Through Sport Relief, Izzard began to run marathons to raise money for charities, first in the UK, and ultimately he took on the challenge to run 27 marathons in 27 days in South Africa to honor Nelson Mandela and the 27 years that he had spent in prison, as well as to once again raise money for charity. Although the challenge nearly killed him, Izzard succeeded in his endeavor.
Aside from his successful career as a stand-up comedian, you may be saying to yourself, “Eddie Izzard . . . what have I seen him in?” Izzard had a starring role in the television series The Riches, where he played Wayne Malloy, and he has had roles in Ocean's Twelve, Oceans Thirteen, Mystery Men, and Shadow of the Vampire. Most recently he was thrilled to have acted with the amazing Dame Judith Dench in Victoria and Abdul, which is in theatres now.
Believe Me is a book about struggles and failures, as well as triumphs and success. Although Izzard has been faced with tragedies in his life, he has emerged with an indomitable belief in the power of mankind and an affirming view of the ability of human beings to work in tandem to make our world a better place. This is a book worth reading; a man worth knowing.