Katherine Ryan has named her autobiography The Audacity, a word (she explains) most commonly used to indicate disapproval. Like, HOW DARE she carry herself with that wicked abundance of self-belief? How AUDACIOUS! It is the perfect title. The absolute perfect title for a memoir by a comedian equal parts louche and lurid, famous for her uncompromising attitude, convincing invulnerability and refusal to self-deprecate. Her cover photo, shot when she was nine months pregnant, sees Ryan lucent and blonde in an ice-blue gown trimmed with marabou feathers, holding aloft in her left hand her favourite of her three tiny dogs.
It is these small dogs that greet me at her front door, and an entirely other lady. Instead of TVs Katherine Ryan, be-lashed and dazzling, a happy cross between Christine Baranski and Taylor Swift, Im welcomed by real-life Ryan, makeup-less in leggings, immediately offering me a plate of halloumi salad and a selection of milks for my tea. A breast pump sits on the counter beside a bag of golden hair extensions and outside, by the dainty heated swimming pool, her 12-week-old baby Fred sleeps gently in his pram. The atmosphere is one of Californian tranquillity in the London suburbs, only punctured slightly by her description of a man lowering his anus on to a bed post.
I had asked what people think of her and she had answered like this: There are men who think Im a dominatrix. And they ask me for a bank account so that they can send me money, or ask me to step on their balls, or to eviscerate them in some way. One man sent a picture of himself lowering himself on to the post of his bed, saying, Please retweet this to humiliate me. She gets a lot of that, because they view me as alpha. The reason why people say women arent funny is because its alpha to be the only person in the room allowed to speak. And I think weve only recently accepted that women can be alpha, too. Which is where the misunderstanding comes from, why people think only men are funny. She pauses to check on the baby. And thats why some men think that I want to stand on their balls.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves, because this version of Ryan, the one who hosts panel shows and receives evisceration requests, was shaped by careful accident over 38 years, beginning in Sarnia, a small petrochemical town in Canada. She was restless and popular, and at 19 worked as a waitress with a friend called Jessica. In her book, Ryan calls this chapter How To Let Your Friends Murder Define All Your Relationships. One day Jessica didnt turn up to work and soon Ryan heard shed been killed by her ex-boyfriend. Thats how it happens, Ryans mum told her that evening. If you leave them, they sometimes kill you. I felt guilty writing about that, she says, because when you write your own book, you really centre yourself. She wasnt my best friend, she wasnt my sister, but it affected me, and it affected all the young women in our town, too. It was a lesson. When your brain is still growing, the events of your life write on the canvas of who you are. Without even knowing it I learned, If you piss them off, theyll kill you. Years later shed joke on stage, Things like, Men are natures gun. Youre statistically most likely to be killed by the one in your house. Haha. And until recently I didnt even realise myself, how scared I was.
A man tiptoes into the room, and wheels the baby away. Not only is her husband Bobby one of the first good men Ryan has dated in the past she had a habit of going out with, the kinds of dudes blind dogs bark at (in standup shows shed laugh that her dad would meet them and think, Did I molest her and forget?) but he was the actual first man, too, her high school boyfriend. They were reunited in 2018 when she visited Canada to film BBC show Who Do You Think You Are?, and married a year later. They hadnt seen each other since shed moved to Toronto for university, where she took a job at Hooters a sports bar known for its waitresses skimpy uniforms and started to have the time of her life. I know in retrospect its maybe not the most aspirational thing that you can do, because it is positioning yourself as being for decoration, which is not ideal, but I was always a student of what I was doing. I thought it was fascinating to hold that position as a young woman.
She performed in their bikini pageant and visited the Playboy mansion. I wanted to exploit that reverence given to delicate innocent youth. She also wanted bigger tits and started to research plastic surgery. It was such a specific time in pop culture, wasnt it? With an interesting kind of feminism. When I was in high school, I certainly knew about plastic surgery and I valued being beautiful. I thought plastic surgery was an aspirational, very Hollywood thing that rich people could do. While many comedians asked about early idols might namecheck perhaps Monty Python or Richard Pryor, Ryan was a fan of celebrities like Jessica Simpson and Britney Spears. I thought it was so amazing that they could change the way they looked with science. I had a checklist of surgeries, all part of my plan for becoming a nice girl whos pretty and tanned. I wanted to alter things, not for any deep dark body dysmorphia. Just curiosity. I wanted to be feminine, and I wanted to be liked. So I got breast implants. And they were great.
This proves unbelievable for some audiences, unable to align her imperious glamour with her modern feminism. They dont like the fact that Im not hiding it. But I dont feel that I should be ashamed about it I think thats what irks people. I havent had as much done as people think, but if thats fun for them to talk about and theres a punch line, I dont mind. She really doesnt. The only thing that makes me a little frustrated is that people dont know the difference between Botox and filler. That frustrates me from a point of just being a pedant. Her implants have served her well, but despite this, she says, shes planning on getting them removed. The only thing thats preventing me from getting them out now is finding the time I was pregnant for 18 months and now Im breastfeeding. But now I think they were such an emblem of the noughties theyre like a lower-back tattoo. Fair.
There are moments during our conversation, while her tiny dogs snore gently on my lap and her large cat (shes called Sara Pascoe) prowls across the kitchen, that I find myself speechless. Not at what Ryan says so much, but with a sweet and awe-filled shock at how little she cares about what people think of her. Trolls, hecklers, critics, people who reel at the way she paints a picture of single motherhood in pastels and glitter rather than concentrating on exhaustion or shame. We keep coming back to this, the audacity of it, and she shrugs. If Im entertaining people then I dont mind what Linda from Leeds wants to write about me in her blog. I wait. I think its unrealistic to hope that everyones going to like you or even that everyone is kind. Many people are unkind, lots of people love to take offence. Lots of people are wrong, and thats fine with me.
She grew up far more concerned with being liked than she is now, but the years have thickened her skin, or better, taught her how to prioritise opinions. My mother would say: If we all liked the same thing wed all be married to your father. But its wonderful to be able to do a job where you connect with people. I dont want a family to waste money on a babysitter and come out to my gig and hate it I want people to have a nice time. I also want to inspire and empower people, and I think I do that for a lot of women.
And those she doesnt? She shrugs again, good luck to them! The not-caring its like a superpower. Well, Im trying to teach it to you, but youve read the book and it doesnt seem to have worked! I promise to read it again, the hardback this time.
The year after winning Miss Hooters Toronto, Ryan hosted the pageant, asking contestants questions like, Alicia, where do we keep the bin bags? on their turn around the stage, and silencing hecklers with sharp one-liners. Shed been getting into trouble for her sense of humour it disrupted the pretty and non-threatening image shed been cultivating and sometimes in the evenings shed tell herself off. I would echo the things that my Hooters manager would say, Why does my brain work this way?
Round the corner from the restaurant there was a comedy club and one day she signed up for its amateur night. Not because I wanted to be a comedian, but because it would be fun for me, my secret. And then in the rest of my life Id be a good girl, well liked, a good wife. It was a little exorcism of, well audacity. When she came off stage after that first set, where she joked about being a dumb, useless girl, she realised nothing had made her feel so shit and so alive all at once. She couldnt wait to do it again.
At 23, when she moved to London with a boyfriend, she got sick. It took months before she was diagnosed with lupus, but once she was prescribed hydroxychloroquine (the anti-malarial drug made famous by Trump) she found a new calmness. That, she writes, was the infancy of the Zen no fucks given mantra that I live by happily and manage lupus with today. And soon after that, she got pregnant. After Violet was born and she split up with her boyfriend, Ryan would joke that theyd wanted a save the relationship baby, but ended up with a regular one instead.
I believe that Violet was the driver of that fateful event, she grins. I do believe that you can be a soul somewhere who moves chess pieces together so that you can be born. So I dont begrudge her that she had to do what she had to do to exist on Earth. But it did mean that at 24, Ryan was a single parent in a foreign country whose office job did not cover nursery fees. I thought, What have I done? Id had a great life, a fun life. I was working at Hooters and making lots of money and going to the Playboy Mansion, then all of a sudden, though Im lucky enough not to be considered an immigrant, Im a foreign, destitute, single mother. So I needed to rescue that somehow. And Im really lucky that I did.
She forced herself to say out loud the elements of her life she was grateful for, and then, I just slowly moved forward in baby steps until one day I kind of looked around and was like, Oh my gosh, were safe. Those baby steps were standup gigs, where her fellow female comedians would babysit Violet backstage while she was performing, and then panel shows, and then tours, and later presenting jobs, Netflix specials and a sitcom about a single mother called The Duchess. But, of course, I can still be cancelled, she sings.
The most controversial of her stories I think, and the one sure to raise a number of hackles, far more than her man-hating jokes, is the story of how shed potty trained her daughter by 10 months. I can hear parents jaws clicking open from here, the sweep of eyes narrowing. Remember, the absence of training, she says, her head on one side, is still training. By putting them in a nappy youre training them to go in a nappy. People can disagree, I dont care. But I do care when I have to share a space with a four-year-old in a nappy. Before she reunited with Bobby, shed planned to have a second child using donor sperm, but the week after she wrapped filming on The Duchess, in December 2019, she got pregnant. At the 10-week scan, they were told there was no heartbeat. Three weeks passed and she felt, she said, like a walking tomb. Shed be telling her body, Youre having a miscarriage, you need to just let it go. To which her body would reply, Fuck off, Im FINE. You need to give me as many gin and tonics as you can and get into a fight with a rapper in front of everyone at the NME Awards. I did that. Then I actually fell down the stairs. She discussed the miscarriage on her podcast, Telling Everybody Everything I have felt, she said, this collective grief. One tabloid ran a story about it beside a photo of Ryan and Bobby at Jonathan Rosss Halloween party, covered in blood. It looked like we were just leaving the hospital in a terrible state.
A few months later, in May, she was pregnant again. At a nine-week scan she was ushered into the Crying Room and told the baby had a problem with its abdominal wall and at the start of her second trimester, miscarried again. She had decided to be open about her first miscarriage in case it helped other people feel less alone, but the emotional toll the griefy messages, the vulnerability meant she was not prepared to do it for a second time. It takes a lot of skill and strength to continue telling jokes through a year like that. She just, she writes, quietly moved forward. And then, after 18 months of pregnancy, she had Fred, who vibrates gently in his chair beside her now, legs like ice-cream. She plans to potty train him as soon as possible.
In the past shes made jokes she regrets. In one of her specials she starts the show by asking everyone on the front row individually whether theyve raped anyone. I wouldnt do that today. Because it can be very triggering for other people in the audience to hear something like that. At the time, I thought that it was a good way of demonstrating that if you havent raped anyone, then its a ridiculous question. But for Bill Cosby at the time, you werent able to ask him that because obviously, he had. She thinks for a second. I dont think Id even use the word rape now in a crowd setting. I like being provocative. But if thats a triggering word for people in the audience whove been survivors of abuse, I wouldnt want to use it.
Ryans is an industry swamped in conversations about cancel culture Chris Rock blamed all the unfunny TV shows he sees on the fact that everybodys scared to make a move, joining a chorus of voices concerned that cancel culture is killing comedy. To Ryan though, its quite simple. I just started articulating myself more thoughtfully, because if I didnt, it might be hurtful to people. And when thats explained to you we evolve as a society. I feel like cancel culture has become about hurting people. Its not even to make things better. I m all for taking accountability and giving someone a chance to say, I misspoke. But I think theres a new thirst for exposing people I even see with my daughter and her friends on TikTok, so worried about being cancelled, that they point the finger first. She shivers slightly in the heat. I always articulate myself the best that I can with the knowledge that I have at the time. And then if I have to reassess what Ive said, or apologise, then Ill do that.
The world changes this is something she is keen to teach the young people in her life. Violet might look at me and say, Why work at Hooters, thats not very feminist? Well, I was just living in the world that I was in, and it was different. And we didnt have smartphones, Violet, and this was still acceptable. Its not like I was misbehaving thats what the world was. She exhales meditatively. If I was the same person 10 years ago that I am today, that would be horrible. Dont you think? Honestly? We could do worse.
Hair by Narad Kutowaroo at Carol Hayes using GHD and Unite Hair; makeup Fiona Eustace using Suqqu and Tom Ford
The Audacity by Katherine Ryan is published by Bling at 20. But it for 17.40 at guardianbookshop.com. She is also touring the UK with Missus (livenation.co.uk)
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