Bye-bye, possums! After 50 years in the spotlight, Dame Edna exits stage left

  • @cahalan

Farewell, possums. Barry Humphries, the man behind the big glasses and purple hair of Australia's first lady, has announced he is retiring Dame Edna Everage from the stage after admitting he is feeling a "bit senior".

The comedian, 78, who for half a century has fronted the world's most recognisable drag act, said his other famous character Sir Les Patterson would also retire, during a farewell tour of Australia this summer.

"Edna will crop up on television, I guess, but not in a live show," Humphries said. "The fact of the matter is that I'm beginning to feel a bit senior."

At the forefront of his thinking was the memory of his parents taking him to a show featuring performers who had "outlived their shelf-life". Humphries remembers someone commenting: "You should have seen him when he was funny". "I want to avoid that being said about me and know that I can't keep doing it," he said, adding he had a contract to write another book. "It's the best aerobics you could do, leaping around on stage, but it's gruelling when there are other things to do," he told Australia's Sunday Telegraph.

Humphries created Dame Edna in 1955 when he was touring country towns in Australia, and she made her first appearance in a Melbourne University revue the same year. Originally billed as Mrs Norm Everage, Humphries evolved the act to include that hair, the dresses and those killer shoes, which helped to catapult Edna to a dame in the 1974 film Barry McKenzie Holds His Own – when Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam made a cameo to award the honour.

Her success in the UK peaked in the 1980s and 1990s with a string of television shows, including talk show The Dame Edna Experience. She famously described her chat shows as "an intimate conversation between two friends, one of whom is a lot more interesting than the other". Between touring Britain and America, she made cameo appearances on Ally McBeal and wrote an autobiography.

Humphries is due to keep audiences guessing during his farewell tour, Eat Pray Laugh! – a reference to Elizabeth Gilbert's novel, which became a 2010 film about a spiritual journey starring Julia Roberts.

"Les has become a celebrity chef. We'll have a kitchen on stage and Les working away, clearly preparing a meal for political colleagues," Humphries said. "Edna, of course, will be discussing her spiritual journey. She's on a journey to find herself, to lose the trappings of megastardom and become a real person."

Humphries said he would also keep his audience guessing to the end by featuring a new character.