Just like Eddie: For years Eddie Izzard has remained comedy's best kept secret. But, with an Olivier nomination and a season in the West End, the word is spreading

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The Independent Culture
WADDLING down from Covent Garden, a little tired and heavy, thick wool coat, shoulder bag, gingery foppish hair, red nail varnish - this is Eddie Izzard, and you'll never guess what he's wearing. Trousers: jeans in fact, dirty and greased. He's got a blue shirt, not exactly pristine either, with buttons on the right. And men's shoes. Ugh.

Along Wellington Street to the Dome cafe. This is his favourite haunt, where they all know him from his street performing days. In those days he would wear the odd silly jerkin or funny hat and ride on a unicycle, but never anything like this . . . Here he is, 31 and already nominated for an Olivier Award for 'Outstanding Achievement' in the theatre, and he isn't even making an effort; he's not even wearing a dress.

Some people think the nomination is for his comedy, for the solo show that's still running in the West End two months after it was due to end. Others believe the nomination is for wearing women's clothes on stage and meaning it. Was Jack Dee nominated? Newman and Baddiel? Roy 'Chubby' Brown? These people are funny, but they wear suits] Bad move guys]

The awards are handed out tonight at the Dominion Theatre. Izzard's rivals in the same category include John Osborne, Kenneth Branagh and the Almeida Theatre. Izzard is convinced he won't win 'because it's all political. The judges are thinking, 'A transvestite? Well, that's interesting. We'll nominate him, but he's a transvestite, so he won't win.' '

There is good news, though: he has promised that he will attend the ceremony in a dress. So even if he doesn't win, he'll still be giving television viewers something to remember. A TV on TV - now there's something you don't see every day.

The first thing to know about Izzard is that the dress stuff is for real. People go to the show and see him in women's clothes, and hear him talking very clearly and openly about being a transvestite, and how he knew this before he could even ride a bike, and many just don't believe him. It's hard to take in, even now: talking to him about it is a bit like learning about sex for the first time. So engrossing is it that you want to gloss over that other big and strange thing in his life - his comedy.

These days Izzard does a cracking, two-and-a-half-hour show, some of which may reduce you to tears. There are no one- two gags, few punchlines, and no one goes into a pub with an alligator on his head. Instead it's an affable and rambling conversation in which only one person talks - about horror movies, Daleks, dyslexia, Sweden, Jehovah's Witnesses, Jesus, monsters. It's all familiar pop-culture territory, but seamlessly done. Clean, too. Apart from that one about losing his virginity.

Izzard will end a section by saying either 'true story]' or 'total bollocks]' But even the gibberish is polished. He's been a serious stand-up for about five years. For about a year he earned nothing, doing 10-minute open-mike sets on the London circuit. He used to write sketches, in which he'd play rather crumpled characters with funny, Goons-ish voices. 'I could never do myself,' he says as the adoring staff bring his toast and orange juice. 'I'd write one line as myself and it would come out crap. So I watched tapes of Billy Connolly and Richard Pryor and Woody Allen, and analysed what they were doing. I liked that talking complete bollocks thing of Steve Martin, and I realised from Richard Pryor that you had to act out an idea - his animals got talking, his dog, his monkey. So what I do now is all really me - an extension, a bigger me.'

He began earning pounds 30, then pounds 50, then pounds 80 for his 20-minute modules, and cobbled together an hour for the Edinburgh Festival in 1989. 'I'd put all the stuff I'd ever written on a list, and went through it painfully slowly. I had an alarm on my watch that would ring 10 minutes before the end so that I could cut to my last segment.'

People who saw him very early on say he was rubbish, but he got better, and so it flowered: he improved, got a warmer reaction, grew in confidence, improved further, got a Perrier nomination, did shows at the Bloomsbury and Shaw Theatres. He knew from his days as a street entertainer that if you were good and kept the material turning over, then people will return with their friends. 'Everyone thinks that the natural progression from doing a stand-up routine is television, but if you keep moving you can get just as big an audience. People are even more keen to come again and to bring friends to validate the fact that they've liked you. That was why I was so keen to do the West End: you're then in an equal kudos bracket with people who have done telly, but it proves you can do OK without it.'

Speaking ill of television has become almost as much of a trademark as the cross-dressing. One good experience (Hysteria 3) has been offset by several lousy ones. A recent slot for Comic Relief was a big disappointment: he wore a dress, did some stuff on transvestism and pre-menstrual tension, and realised he may have miscalculated when he saw the studio audience was full of children and grandmothers; many of these people weren't even sure who Hugh Laurie was. 'They thought I was being sponsored to be this unfunny person in drag.'

But that was nothing compared to his trials with Paramount City, a televised showcase for new talent. 'I was cut out, and there were loads of lies as to why this was - they said it was an administration error. All these stand-ups were coming through and being unsettled by this programme. Comics were being treated like cattle, in-out, in-out, do this, do that. So I thought, 'stuff it'.

'I know that power corrupts immensely. Comics get pushed around, and they want to be on telly so much that they'll just do anything. I hate losing control. It wouldn't be so bad if I was losing control to someone who was any good, but only about 5 per cent of comedy producers know anything. The other 95 per cent are cruising through on their way to some different power position. Essentially, they're dickheads.'

This isn't a bad card to play, of course. The more he protests, the more television producers slaver, and the higher his asking price goes. He's writing a sitcom called Cows, about a gang of cows who chew the cud and talk to each other (yes, truly), and the folks at Channel 4 and BBC2 are hot for it. But some people are getting rather pissed off by his high-fallutin' stance. It's not hard to detect a certain preciousness in his attitude, viz the situation over publicity photos. When we wanted to take pictures of Izzard to accompany this article, we were told we'd have to use some taken by Kev Dutton, a friend of his. Madonna and Herb Ritts you can understand, but Izzard? Maybe it's because he's no oil painting: one third Kenneth Branagh, one third Kiefer Sutherland, one third Porky the Pig - maybe there's some ego thing at play here.

At first he dismisses this. 'He's done my photos for two or three years, and I like what he's done . . . everyone's trying to get that picture of me in a dress.' But we don't want a picture of you in a dress, it's ego, isn't it? 'Oh well, yeah, it's distinctly a problem in the narcissistic area. I tend to look shit in photos.'

Izzard was born in Yemen. His father worked at the BP oil refinery, his mother was a nurse. The family moved to Northern Ireland before he could talk, and to Wales when he was five. He recalls his boarding school in the programme notes: 'It was run by a very pleasant man called Mr Crump whom we nicknamed 'the man from hell who we hate'. Seeing as my mum had just died I decided to cry relentlessly for about a year. Mr Crump would help me along with beatings when he could fit them in.'

The next port of call was Bexhill-on-Sea and another boarding school in Eastbourne, where he was bitten by the stage bug. Normal school stuff first, Shakespearian spear-carriers and jailers, and then more contemporary fare at Sheffield University and college.

All of this was in men's clothes. These days he reckons he knew he was transvestite from the age of four. 'Some boy on my estate was wearing a dress, and I thought, 'Oh, that's something I'd be into'. My mum died when I was six, but I don't think that's got anything to do with it. People say it caused it or cemented it. I don't think so, because the feeling was very constant. I think it was just there - chromosomes, genetic, whatever.'

He came out about his transvestism to his friends eight years ago, at the age of 23, with the aid of an Islington self-help group. He only told his father two years ago: 'That was a key,' he says. He jumped another hurdle last December, when he wore a dress on stage for the first time at a London pub gig. 'It's a place where established comics do five minutes of new material. I wore the new material. I didn't really want to do a gig in a dress, but I was frightened of it, so I thought that was the reason for doing it. That's the whole thing about being a TV - you're just scared that everyone's going to attack you all the time.

'There's a couple of minutes when the audience goes, 'oo-er, it's a bloke in a dress,' and then they just forget about it. Men have a harder time with it than women. But everyone's usually quite fascinated. I used to say I was heterosexual just to explain to people. But then I thought it sounded wrong - you know, as if I was saying, 'I may be wearing women's clothes, but don't worry because I'm not gay.' I just happen to fancy women and don't fancy men.'

The honesty doesn't let up: in a magazine questionnaire he was asked whether he used pornography, to which he answered 'soft-core yes, hard-core no'. The frankness extends to his act, and perhaps this is why it works so well.

'There are no role models,' he says, 'so you can't really set a game plan. And I'm not trying to set myself up as a militant figurehead either. The image of TVs is all based on repressed TVs. The image of gay and lesbians has become much more statesmanlike, but with TVs it's still strange and perverted. I'm trying to bring a little maturity to it. I'm my own work in progress. The key thing is to wear trousers, or wear a dress and say, 'Lots of women do it, so why can't I?' '

Eddie Izzard is at the Ambassadors Theatre, WC2 (071-836 6111 / 1171), until 1 May (not Sundays).

(Photograph omitted)