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Dame Edna: Why the fuss?

Dame Edna Everage

By Simon Hancock
BBC News Magazine

Barry Humphries, the man behind the butterfly glasses of Dame Edna Everage, turns 75 this week. But what is it about the lilac-haired international "gigastar" that has proven so enduring?

Dame Edna once described her show as "like an intimate conversation between two friends, one of whom is a lot more interesting than the other."

For 54 years now, ever since the "average Australian housewife", Mrs Norm Everage, appeared in a Melbourne comedy revue in 1955, her rampant ego has grown and strutted on the world's stage, cutting her audiences to shreds with her merciless one-liners.

An early incarnation of Edna Everage in the early 60s
Edna before her 'Damehood' in the mid-1970s

In those early days, possibly only the self-loving Edna herself would have guessed at the success she was to become.

Starting out in comedy clubs and television shows in Australia, Edna Everage satirised the boring and drab suburban Australia of the 1950s - a conservative place, where nothing much ever happened. This was a society that had just got the car and the television and Edna held up a mirror to a culture obsessed with domesticity.

For Everage - read "average" - even her signature flower, the gladiolus, was chosen for its supposed exoticism among suburban housewives at that time.

"When you see the early Edna, in black and white photos, she's a completely different character to the one we know today - a mousey little housewife with a strange hat," says Barry Cryer, a long time friend of Barry Humphries.

Edna's staying power, he says, is down to Humphries' talent to constantly update his character.

Meet the family

"She's just a wonderful creation, with a whole life story which has kept developing over the years, drawing you into an entire world."

Dame Edna Everage
She blazed a trail for older women to reclaim short skirts
Fashion expert Andrew Groves

Over the years fans of the character have been introduced to her family: her long-suffering husband, Norm, who died in 1988 from a "testicular murmur"; her four children, and her mother who was locked away in a "maximum-security twilight home for the bewildered".

The on-going family history has helped to strengthen and flesh out the Edna character in the minds of her audience, and of course has provided an evolving source of material for her act.

Through West End shows and television series, Dame Edna became a national institution in Britain, pioneering a show based around interaction with her audience. Humphries has been credited with inventing the modern comedy/light entertainment chat show format.

Caroline Ahern's Mrs Merton Show, which ran on the BBC in the mid-1990s, shared many central ingredients with Edna's television vehicles - a similar character complete with cruel put-downs of the audience and guests alike. And in being "a monologue interrupted by guests," as Humphries is said to describe the format, he was pre-empting many modern day chat shows, where the host is more of a star than the guests.

Anyone who has appeared with Edna - be they be a mere audience member, or a mere celebrity - has certainly been left in no doubt about their secondary role.

Performing at the Queen's Golden Jubilee celebrations in 2002, she referred to Her Majesty as "the Jubilee Girl", but while slightly sub-protocol, Ma'am was getting it easy.

Salma Hayek
I turned down the role of Frida Kahlo - Salma Hayek was second choice
Dame Edna hits back at Hayek, who criticised her in the Vanity Fair row

To Joan Rivers, for instance: "Tell me the secret of your successful marriages."

Or to an audience member: "I'm trying to find a word to describe what you're wearing... affordable?"

Or: "That dress does look nice in the bigger size."

"It's just the colossal vanity of it," says comedian Arthur Smith. "In that persona she can be the most arrogant, self-regarding, delusional person and say anything to anyone. I think she's an amazing character."

There's something about the layers of makeup, the lipstick, dyed hair, flamboyant glasses and sequinned outfits which provide a kind of force-field around Dame Edna. Cryer says it's a common ploy for comedians to adopt a character to hide behind.

This is only reinforced by the cross-dressing, says Jay Clarke, a drag queen for six years.

"When you're in drag, you feel like you're on top of the world," Clarke, or Jodie Harsh as his fans may know him says.

"It's those heels, wigs and make-up. It's like putting on a suit of armour. You become a much more exaggerated version of yourself. I have to watch my mouth - I just find myself getting a bit lippy and have to check myself and remember where I am."

Controversial comments

But not every step Dame Edna has taken in her man-size high heels has been assured. Comments in her column for the glossy US magazine Vanity Fair sparked controversy in 2003. When a reader asked whether she should learn Spanish, Edna replied not. "Who speaks it that you are really desperate to talk to? The help? Your leaf blower?"

Barry Humphries, without the make-up
Dame Edna describes Barry Humphries as a 'leech' and a 'hanger-on'

The comments, apparently satirising wealthy Americans' tendency to employ low-paid Spanish speaking workers, were seen by some to be insulting and led to a full-page apology. Yet the incident doesn't seem to have stunted Edna's success State-side, where she is regular on the talk show circuit.

"Humphries has always had this ability to offer different audiences different things," says Dr Robert Crawford, research fellow in popular culture at the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies in London. "He started off speaking to Australians about Australia then satirised Australians for Britain, then used the inherent Australian quality of taking the mickey to poke fun at the British.

"To Americans Dame Edna is far more a drag show, which is a novelty act in a country which doesn't have the same drag tradition."

So what would Edna make of Humphries' landmark birthday this week? She has always dismissed him as a leech and a hanger-on, but as long as she continues to put up with him, the character looks like it still has legs.

"I really don't think the character has dated - other than the obvious in having been around for 50 odd years, " says Smith. "He's got great gags which you hardly notice because he's so so quick and he's a great ad libber.

"He's never lost that energy because he loves what he does. Even now I've heard he records all his shows to learn from them. I think he'll go on for a while yet."

Dame Edna Everage
1. Her unique hairstyle was highly influential on a young Mrs Thatcher
2. She single-handedly made spectacles sexy, modern and young
3. The slash of bright red lipstick makes her a Warhol portrait made flesh
4. A gladioli thrust skyward like a floral sceptre conveys majesty
5. This alarm-bell red, panne velvet dress is sexy not sluttish
6. She blazed a trail for women of a certain age to reclaim short skirts
7. Dripping in jewellery, she snubbed the twinsets and pearls of her peers
8. The American tan tights are now the choice of supermodels
9. A simple yet stylish classic silver pump commonly worn by the Queen
As reviewed by Andrew Groves, course director, Westminster Fashion

Here is a selection of your comments:

Long live Dame Edna! Keep holding that mirror up to us so we can see ourselves as we really are - warts and all! She's an eagle-eyed filleter of society, slicing and dicing with humour with an acid tongue and penetrating insights - a woman for the ages!
Ailsa Thalacker, Monroe, USA

A comedy genius who, thank God, is still relatively unaffected by PC protocol. He/she has this ability to get people to laugh at themselves in an age where it is not the done thing for fear of recrimination. Long may Barry Humphries keep performing, bringing laughter to all. He surely must go down in history as one of the very top comedy acts, who appealed to all ages over many years, and influenced generations of other comedians.
Blair Hunter, Worcester

Happy Birthday Barry. I have managed to enjoy the same name as Barry Humphries (although mine is spelt with a "reys") it has got me into many restaurants in London when making a booking. Funny that!!!
Barry Humphreys

I love Dame Edna to bits! Until I was about 10 I thought she was a "real woman". I get caught up in her character and forget she's a drag act. She's the original and not even Danny La Rue can be such a lady. She would tear Anne Robinson to pieces if she ever went on the Weakest Link.
Richard Mole, Stockholm, Sweden

Dame Edna gets away with it because she says exactly what we're all thinking!
Fee Lock, Hastings

I remember the time when Dame Edna had Mary Whitehouse and Cliff Richards as his (her) guests. Dame Edna announced they'd got the very controversial Austrian Chancellor Kurt Waldheim on the show. Waldheim appeared on the sweeping stairs at the back of the set and slowly descended. Halfway out on a small landing, he paused to take in the applause. Dame Edna grimaced and pulled a lever by her chair. Waldheim promptly disappeared down a trapdoor. Mary Whitehouse and Cliff Richards were utterly stunned and open mouthed. Absolutely classic. (Of course it was a Waldheim look-alike).
Chris Powell, London

Surely Dame Edna's ennoblement is overdue? A seat in the upper house alongside her protégé Lady Thatcher must be announced in the next honours list!
Douglas Simmonds, London

A funny man but even funnier as Sir Leslie Colin Patterson, Cultural Attaché to the Court of St James and Chairperson of the Australian Chapter of the International Cheese Board.
Philip Lattimore, Thailand

Time he packed it in. He's become a pain.
Richard Norfolk, Congleton

"To Americans Dame Edna is far more a drag show...." I completely disagree. A drag show in America is completely different kind of show than Dame Edna provides. I already knew of her before I saw her on Broadway. She was brilliant. I laughed so hard I started coughing and couldn't stop!! It was one of the most enjoyable shows I have seen on Broadway (or in the West End for that matter). Barry Humphries is a brilliant ad libber. I can't wait for her to come back. Happy birthday and many happy returns of the day! Come back to Broadway please! We miss you.
Mary Elizabeth Delaney, Oyster Bay, USA

To quote Peter Cook on the subject of Edna Everage "A genius." Keep us laughing till you're a hundred and five.
B J nicholson, Manchester

You mean she's a bloke!!?
Simon Mallett, Maidstone, Kent

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