Sarah Millican: Gossip girl

She's the unlikeliest comedy hit of the year – the one-time lowly civil servant from South Shields whose total candour and killer punchlines have won her a vast audience

Devotees of Sarah Millican are familiar with a certain gesture she employs at emotional moments in her stand-up act.

She raises the outstretched fingers of her left hand to her temple as though about to salute someone, and fans her eyes as if to dry them before anyone realises she's weeping.

You can see it in her stint on Live at the Apollo. Discussing her new boyfriend, the comedian Greg Delaney, she says, "We're having a lovely time but I don't believe in for ever. I don't believe in blokes, or songs, that say 'I'm gonna love you for ever'. No you're not. You're gonna love us for a little while and then you're gonna leave us and you don't really know why." On the word "really" her voice rises to a squeak of lachrymosity and she starts fanning her eyes. The audience murmurs sympathetically. Evidently glad, rather than embarrassed, that they've noticed her distress, she says: "No, I'm fine. Really, I'm fine. He was an arse."

It's not every comedian who can hit an audience's funny bone with observational gags about the sex war and potty-mouth confessions about bottoms and vaginas one minute, then enlist their emotional support for her tales of abandonment the next, but Sarah Millican isn't any comedian. She uses sorrow and regret as the springboard of her extremely funny act.

She claims it was her mixed feelings after divorce that started her off in comedy. "In September 2004, I got divorced," she told Metro last January. "I had written short films and short plays before but never performed, and my divorce left me feeling occasionally devastated and occasionally liberated. On one of those liberating days, I signed up to do a performance workshop. I performed a two-minute monologue, and six months later decided I wanted to do stand-up."

Her rise since then has been phenomenal. She began attending comedy writing workshops in Newcastle and South Shields in 2005 and found herself runner-up in the BBC New Comedy Awards that year. Three years later, she was ready to take her debut show, Sarah Millican's Not Nice, to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It won the Newcomer Award and set a precedent. The next summer, 2009, back in the Scottish capital, her show Typical Woman won rave reviews; her 2010 offering Chatterbox narrowly missed the main Comedy Award.

Last Friday at the British Comedy Awards, she was crowned Queen of Comedy. And this week it's been announced that her Chatterbox Live DVD has sold a stunning 161,400 copies – the best selling DVD by any British comedian, outselling French and Saunders Live which had held the title for 10 years.

Millican is perhaps the most rapidly evolved national treasure in British light entertainment, basking in ubiquity. This year her funny, precise Geordie delivery could be heard, and her frowsy-Northern-lass-in-BHS-frock presence could be seen in every comedy radio and TV show: Mock the Week, 8 Out of 10 Cats, Have I Got News for You, The Bubble, Live at the Apollo, Michael McIntyre's Comedy Roadshow – you name it.

As though anxious to meet every potential Millican fan in as short a time as possible, she embarked on a 120-venue nationwide tour this year. They were mostly sell-outs. A new tour started in October in Hull and will go on for six months, ending in her native Newcastle in April 2012. It's close to being a Royal Progress.

Millican comes from South Shields on the mouth of the Tyne, five miles south of Newcastle. Eric Idle of the Monty Pythons and Steve Furst from the Orange mobile phone ads are its only other home-grown comedians, although the town's former inhabitants include Ridley Scott, Catherine Cookson and two of the babes from Little Mix, this year's X Factor winners. David Miliband is the local MP, but Millican hasn't yet made much capital out of the connection. She is more at home with the humour of domesticity, the hopelessness of boyfriends, the frustrations of dieting – and the grosser manifestations of the human body. For a homely seeming, bespectacled Geordie girl, she revels in explicit discussions of lady parts, self-pleasuring, childbirth and the onset of fatness.

"This has gone beyond a muffin top," she told the audience at the Hammersmith Apollo, indicating her middle. "Ah call it me cake shelf. Someone asked me the other day, 'Are yer pregnant?' Ah said, 'Only if I've been shagged by Mister Kipling. And, yes, it was exceedingly good.'"

She can be a real shocker. When she appeared on the Graham Norton Show earlier this year, sandwiched on the sofa between P Diddy, the rap impresario, and Vince Vaughn, the unfeasibly tall actor, she embarked on a comic story about a "date evening" with her boyfriend. As she explained how they'd gone for a drink and a curry, followed by an evening in on the sofa with a DVD, Diddy looked away in boredom. How, you could see him thinking, did I wind up on a TV show with this uncool frump? But as Millican's story relentlessly unwound, becoming a saga of cunnilingus, flatulence and cries of despair (with a killer punchline that involved Beyoncé), the face of the super-cool rapper gradually froze into incredulity; his host, Norton, patted him kindly on the knee. It was wonderful to behold. "Now who's learnin'?" hissed Millican in Diddy's ear.

At school, she was an outsider, and was bullied. Though creative, she was shy: she'd write poetry and recite it to her mother, but only from behind a curtain. She appeared on stage, but only in the school Nativity play ("which was disappointing as it was a main part – I wouldn't hug the baby Jesus as it was a really nasty horrible doll with Biro scrawled all over its face").

After school she took a number of dead-end jobs in the civil service, about which she looks back wryly: "At one place, I had this big pad of paper on the desk and I'd write 9am, 9.10, 9.20 at 10-minute intervals all the way to 6pm and cross the 10 minutes off as they went by – it was that boring." But she never stormed out of a job, reasoning that she might need a reference. "Even when I left to be a stand-up, I thought: 'I'll still need a reference in case it all goes belly-up.' I'm quite sensible, really."

She got married in 1997. Seven years later, her husband left her and she moved back to her parents' home. But the emotional trauma, as we've seen, turned her into a comedian. And there's no doubt that her success, all over the UK, is a triumphant personal vindication for the girl who was bullied at school.

Check her website and you find she's understandably keen to surround herself with comfort and loveliness. Her triumph last week brought congratulations from all over the entertainment industry – but also a lot of abuse from online haters.

On Sunday morning, she told her Facebook followers: "Just a little note to say I've done some tidying on this page. 99 per cent of you who post here are lovely and polite but for the remainder, if you want to bitch about me, I will delete and block you. My page, my rules. Ta ta for now."

Two days later, she posted: "Have started blocking the daily trolls while having a shit. Seems appropriate." There's the true voice of the unsinkable Ms Millican, whose rapid rise has been a way of informing the nasty, the treacherous and the faithless that she can live without them, outgrow them and eclipse them by getting the world to laugh with her rather than against her.

A life in brief

Born: Sarah Millican in South Shields, Tyne and Wear, in 1975. Her father was a coalpit electrical engineer.

Family: Separated after seven years of marriage in 2004.

Career: Worked for the civil service after school, but took up comedy after her divorce. In 2008, she won the Best Newcomer Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for her debut solo show Sarah Millican's Not Nice. She has recorded her own Radio 4 series, Sarah Millican's Support Group. Her own BBC2 show will be broadcast next spring.

She says: "My material comes out of my conversations or experiences. That's why I have to keep a normal life as otherwise you become too far removed from your audience."

They say: "The more ambitious this supremely talented comedian is, the better she is." Mark Monahan, comedy critic.

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