INTERVIEW / Confessions of a 'bloke in a dress': If you haven't heard of Eddie Izzard then things are going very much to plan. The comic tells Tristan Davies why he wants his name to stay a badly kept secret and go to work in a mini-skirt

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The Independent Culture
EDDIE IZZARD is locked in the loo of his dressing-room at the Ambassador's Theatre. There is red lipstick on the rim of a coffee mug by the sink. An Alice-band has been casually discarded nearby. Reflected in the bulb-bordered mirror is a thigh-length Hennes Collection frock-coat (size 42) hanging from the back of the door.

The comedian opens the door. 'You haven't seen me like this before, have you?' He's right. On stage at the Shaw Theatre in July he'd looked much as he'd always done - a short, rather tubby 30-year-old man with blond, floppy hair, hooped rings in each ear, wearing a white shirt and black trousers. Two hours before showtime he looks as he has done since the start of his first West End run - a short, rather tubby now 31-year-old man wearing women's clothes.

'I don't call them women's clothes, by the way, they're my clothes,' he chides, his long, pink-varnished nails skating tight little patterns over the surface of his dressing-table. He is wearing a black mini-skirt, opaque tights, silver-buckled shoes with four-inch heels and a black crew- neck filled out by what look suspiciously like sock-implants. He will change the jumper for the Hennes tunic before going out on stage, but these are not show clothes. 'People expect me to go off and change into a new outfit at half time but it's not a drag thing. I come to the theatre in a dress, go on in a dress, go home in a dress.' He is, and he makes the point more than once, heterosexual; he shares his Streatham flat with his girlfriend. His gel-stiffened hair is brushed forward into a page-boyish bob; his lips are rouged, his eyelids and lashes made- over and mascara'd, but the effect is less Julian Clary than, well, Dick Emery. He is, he says, 'a bloke in a dress', and he looks it.

With four weeks of seats to sell in the West End (at pounds 10 and pounds 12.50 a throw), it doesn't need Max Clifford to tell you that a funny man in a frock can sell tickets like a minister of fun in a football strip can sell newspapers. But despite casually coming out of the closet and revealing its contents to, among others, Ned Sherrin on Loose Ends and Barry Norman's daughter on Dial Midnight, he has yet to be rewarded with a single frock-horror headline in the Sun. His posters still show the mouth-and-trousers Izzard in classic contemplative rock-god pose, head down, fringe falling forward, eyes closed, a spotlit, all-male conqueror of the Edinburgh Festival, the London comedy circuit and 1,000-seater venues nationwide. While dropping his trousers has spiced-up the word-of-mouth on 'The Quite Large Rooms Tour', his voluntary outing is not a stage-managed afterthought.

At four he knew it, at 20 he admitted it to a friend and he's been struggling in and out of dresses, mentally and physically, ever since. 'I've even talked to the top consultant on gender dysphoria, Dr Russell Reid at the Charing Cross Hospital (now at the Hillingdon, Uxbridge) but his ideas on being TV didn't seem to help me much. So I thought, 'Sod it, I am TV, so let's try and knit it in.' I wanted to keep the career and I didn't want it to look like I've got something to hide.' Telling his father, a retired BP employee , was 'a key thing'. 'He said, 'Yeah, OK.' He was very groovy about it. But I haven't really worked it out. It's like asking a 12-year-old to explain all their feelings about sexual attraction. It's just there. My feminine side was being repressed and I'm just trying to express it.'

In public, Izzard's transvestism began as a joke. 'Being white, male and middle-class is useless if you're a comedian,' he took to telling his audiences in recent months, 'You can't say, 'When I was growing up it was . . . well, all right. So all I can say is, 'Thank God I'm a transvestite.' ' When he told it wearing trousers, it was simply funny; now that he's telling it in a skirt, it's still funny but a little unnerving, as though somewhere down the line Izzard's act has taken over his life.

There is, bar the change of top, little to distinguish the Izzard talking about his life in the dressing-room and the Izzard talking about his life on stage. His conversation, like his act, is loosely punctuated with Howerdesque repetitions, hesitations and deviations, the ohs, wooos and yeahs he uses to thread together his ragged material. And his act, like his conversation, begins with an umprompted explanation of his cross-dressing. For at least 20 minutes of the new show, the stage is his confessional. That the bulk of his audience may not believe him, despite the evidence staring back through sea-green eye shadow, is because reality is not so much suspended in an evening with Izzard as spun out of recognition and hung out to dry. Surreal is one word for his rambling monologues; Izzard has another word for it. 'People think I talk bollocks,' he says on and off stage. 'Initially I talked bollocks, but now there is an underlying truth to what I say, with bollocks on top.'

It is his free-flowing skill as a bullshit artist that has, since his first stand-up appearance in 1988, earned Izzard a huge live following, and, in the past week or so, rave notices from such unlikely mainstream critics as the Daily Mail's Jack Tinker, for his musings on life, the universe and everything from the word of God to the world of spiders. Last week his run was extended from four to six weeks; this week it has been stretched to eight. By the standards of any of the latest batch of comedy crowd-pleasers, Izzard is doing boffo box-office; and, unlike contemporaries Frank Skinner, Newman & Baddiel or Jack Dee, Izzard has done it without the help of television.

Izzard refuses to sign along the dotted line and adapt his act for the cameras, although there have been plenty of offers since his three-minute appearance on Stephen Fry's Hysteria show in 1988, which did for Izzard's reputation what the Wembley Mandela tribute did for Tracy Chapman. Yet since then, Izzard has barely recorded enough to fill a commercial break. As his business partner Peter Harris gloats, 'He's turned down Wogan twice, Paramount City twice and Jonathan Ross five times, including the offer of the whole of the second half of a show.' Izzard's truculence is perplexing. Most comedians pray for the day they can escape the purgatory of the live circuit and get to TV heaven.

His reluctance to play ball with producers and agents has given him a reputation of being as hard to deal with as he is hard to get. 'We call him Eddie the Ego,' says Addison Cresswell, of Off The Kerb Productions. 'I don't see what his problem is with television. It's like being in a band and saying you won't sing with electronic instruments. It's the best medium for comedy, it sells tickets and makes you a star.' 'He's been building a live audience very cleverly,' says Seamus Cassidy, C4's commissioning editor for entertainment. 'Up to now it's been a good plan. But some producers say he's shot his bolt.' His failure to deliver The Cows, a sitcom he first mentioned to Cassidy five years ago, has only irked them more. 'There's a school of thought that he hasn't written a word of it,' says Cassidy, who groans at the very mention of it. 'I don't subscribe to that, but it does seem to be taking rather a long time.' Nor has he made himself popular by ringing round inviting producers and commissioning editors to make him an offer for the show, in which the star role goes not to its writer but to a family of cows whose views of life are not so very far removed from his own. 'I wouldn't hang around too long, if I were him,' concurs one of those fast losing patience. 'I've seen it happen before. Look at Jeremy Hardy - he held out, then pissed off so many TV producers that they'd have nothing to do with him. What a talent gone to waste.'

So what is Izzard waiting for? In the case of The Cows, for at least a year. 'I want to get it right first time, not in the second or third series,' he says. In the case of his stand-up, for 1998. 'We have been videotaping the shows ourselves; we'll release it five years from now and not before.' He is clearly enjoying making television sweat it out ('I wanted to get on television desperately 10 years ago and they didn't want me; now they do, they'll just have to wait'), but there is another reason. 'I want to go and do Serious Acting.' And television exposure, with or without the dress, would make him a laughing stock. 'If I sell out for a long time here I'll be seen by maybe a few thousand people. Perhaps 500,000 will have heard of me by now; you do a Channel 4 show and instantly you're seen by two to three million. If I keep my head down, not only will I have to work harder to make the act good and get the audiences, I'll still be Eddie Izzard, Who The Hell's He?'

Which will leave him free to have a crack at the dramatic roles he was never given in more than 10 years of auditioning at public school in Bexhill- on-Sea and university at Sheffield. Next year he intends to change his name, place an order for the Stage and start spear-carrying his way into Shakespeare's 'trouser parts'. He is prepared to fall flat on his face. 'I know I'll be crap, but what you get with coming out about being TV is the confidence to walk down the street in a skirt and high heels and to say to the person who comes up to you and asks 'Are you a bloke in a dress?', 'Yes, I am thank you very much.' I'm into taking the humiliation of starting off in a new environment.'

It is fear, says Izzard that motivates him, and he likes to frighten himself. As well as being a would-be actor and comic, the former Covent Garden street entertainer (Escapology Division) also manages his own comedy club (the currently resting Raging Bull) and an indie rock band. Who knows where Izzard will end up, or what he will be called and what he'll be wearing when he gets there? For his part, he hopes he'll never find out. 'It's like Jack Nicholson once said: 'Always be No 2 and No 3, never get there.' The journey's what's interesting; there's nothing there if you get there.'

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(Photograph omitted)