‘Most people know me as a comedian. They don’t even know that I had that whole other life before.’
In my quest to create an ‘arty lesbian connect the dots’, a meeting between comedian Rosie Wilby and The Well Connected Lesbian seemed inevitable.
Once described by DIVA’s Jane Czyzselska as ‘she actually morphed into a lesbian Eddie Izzard before us’, Rosie is already a well-known face in the lesbian press. Type ‘Rosie Wilby’ into Google and any number of interviews will appear.
One such interview can be found on the cool When Sally Met Sally website, which taught me a new and interesting fact about Rosie. It reveals that she is also (amongst other things) a musician, and back in 2000, released an album, called Precious Hours. Out of idle curiosity, I look up a playlist from the album. Many, many listens later (plus a subsequent purchase of the album), and I realise that this is not just going to be any other Rosie Wilby interview. This is going to be my open letter to Rosie – my petition to entreat her to pick up her guitar once more, and make the second album.
So on an unusually hot and sunny day in the rainy summer of 2012, we meet on the steps of Liverpool’s Lime Street Station. Rosie is amused to discover that the first time I saw mention of her, was in my childhood local paper, The Crosby Herald. Now if you live in Chorlton, Hebden Bridge or Stoke Newington, you may be blasé about openly gay, female comedians appearing in your local paper, but in Crosby this is still newsworthy.
Fortunately Rosie is not fazed by the possibility of small town narrow-mindedness, and is out and proud about her sexuality, even in The Crosby Herald. She declares, ‘I feel, why hide who you are? I always think you should talk about your own life and who you are. What else can you talk about in a really, really important way but your own experience? So yes, being gay is really important to me. It certainly did not feel easy to be gay when I was at school, and I think that has really defined me and who I am.’
So does Rosie use her stand-up to consciously challenge perceptions about what ‘a gay woman’ is? She muses, ‘well I don’t know if anyone really knows what a ‘gay woman’ is. I think gay men do well in entertainment because there is a firm tradition of ‘the funny gay man’. People like Kenneth Williams in the Carry On films, Larry Grayson, John Imman, Graham Norton and Alan Carr. Whereas we don’t have any idea of what ‘a lesbian’ is. But why is that? Is it just because we have been so blocked from being in mainstream, popular culture? When I was growing up the only famous lesbian was Martina Navratilova. So there was a perception of lesbians as being very sporty, but no sense of what a ‘lesbian entertainer’ might be.’
Thankfully though times are a-changing, and the number of visible gay women on the comedy circuit is growing. This has no doubt been helped by the emergence of all-female comedy nights like Laughing Cows Comedy and Lesbilicious, at both of which Rosie has performed. I mention that I really enjoyed her set at the rather marvellous night of ‘Auntie Irene’s Bottom Drawer’, hosted by my favourite folkstars, Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow. Only Rosie has to correct me, as I struggle with my pronunciation. She commiserates, ‘no one ever knows how to say poor Heidi’s surname. I was doing a charity show in Leeds recently, hosted by the gay choir, Gay Abandon. Belinda and Heidi were in the audience having a drink, and having a night off from their tour. The compere announced one of their future gigs, but he jokingly said their names wrong, and called them O’Hooley and Tiddler.’
At which point, Rosie and I break-off from the interview as we experiment with a range of possible pronunciations – ‘Tid-ow’, ‘Tide-ow’, ‘Tee-dow’ and ‘Tee-doh’ - concluding that really it is best just to say it as quickly as possible and move on.
So we do. With not long before Rosie needs to catch her next train, it is time to discuss her current solo show, called How (Not) To Make It In Britpop . The show began life as Rosie’s Pop Diary, and is based on columns that she wrote back in the nineties, for the now defunct magazine, Making Music. These columns documented Rosie’s journey as she attempted to make it as a pop star. She clarifies, ‘well I say ‘pop star’, but we were much more an acoustic, folky pop sort of band.’
As a child of the celebrity-obsessed eighties and nineties, I am suddenly thrilled to be here, interviewing a former ‘pop star’. This leads on to the question; what has been Rosie’s own greatest ‘pop star’ moment? She laughs, ‘erm, I don’t know really. I suppose it was hearing my music on the radio. The then-music editor of Time Out had a late night Indie show, on a Thursday night, and she started to play my songs a lot. That was nice. There were a couple of other things too… We made a low-budget pop video, which was played on a music show on Sky 1. Also, as I talk about in the show, I ended up miming one of my old songs on ITV Carlton Kids Television. We finished the song and the presenter then went “So that was Rosie Wilby and the single Boredom… and now Worzel Gummidge”. I was really excited to link in to Worzel Gummidge.’
The notion of the ‘pop star’ moment is something that Rosie has explored herself in her work. She is currently developing a book based on her Britpop show (click here to read an extract) and explains ‘I think the experience really lends itself to a very nostalgic book. In it I am looking back at the 1990s, at chasing stardom and success, and at what that really means. I think there are some interesting questions in there, such as how do we actually define success?’
However, it is not just her personal experience of success/failure that Rosie is examining. She is also reflecting upon what she terms the decade’s ‘beautiful optimism’. By this she means the mood of movement and change of the mid-to-late nineties, created by the rise of New Labour and Britpop. Rosie reflects, ‘it is strange how the music really defined the era. You can listen to an Oasis track now, such as Wonderwall, and it is incredibly evocative of what was going on at the time. Blur, Pulp, Suede – there was a whole movement which was really exciting. Pop tends to dominate the charts, so it is exciting when an alternative form of music becomes the most commercially successful.’
But of course, as we all know, this ‘success’ was to be short-lived. Or as Rosie says, ‘it turned out to perhaps to be something of a false dawn’. As love for New Labour started to wane and bands like Steps rose to the top of the charts once more, Rosie’s life also took a turn for the worst. She explains, ‘at the end of the nineties, for me there was actually a lot of personal loss. My mum died and there was a serious fire in the house where my girlfriend of the time and I were living. We lost a load of stuff. Having to start from scratch again, at the time of the new Millennium, was a weirdly profound feeling.’ So although the show does contain comedy, it is punctuated with some more poignant moments. It is also an opportunity for the audience to meet Rosie Wilby the musician, ‘what is really nice about this show is that in it are five of my old songs. It means I can dust my guitar off and sing again’.
It is the moment I have been waiting for, as I ask hopefully, does this mean there is a possibility she will make a second album? ‘Oh God!’ says Rosie, ‘my girlfriend keeps asking me this too. Recently we were outside in the garden in London, in the evening sunlight, and she took this really nice photo of me. Then she says, “this looks like a cover for your second album Rosie”.
This is good news. I mean, if she already has the album cover sorted, well she might as well get on and make the album. I make a mental note to secretly get in touch with Rosie’s girlfriend, Wendy, to get her to sign my petition.
But alas, on this tantalising note the interview must end. It has been a precious half-an-hour (bad pun alert…), but now Rosie must catch her train to Ormskirk to visit her Dad. As I step onto my train, still thinking about whether or not Rosie will go on to make more music, I find myself humming a line from an old Elastica song, which goes, ‘I don’t understand how the last card is played / But somehow the vital connection is made.’