Profile: Whole lotta woman: David Lister on the transition from Ms Alternative Comedy to a role model for Miss Average

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The Independent Online
FAT has become a fashion accessory. Open the pages headed 'Beauty' in the latest Tatler: velvet drapes linger over hanging folds of skin and bulging thighs as actresses and models, all of them opulent, recreate Rubens' paintings.

And who is that bejewelled Bathsheba At The Bath in white chemise and black velvet fabric, a knowing smile playing about her full and ruddy cheeks? It is she who might, not long ago, have taken the queen-sized mick out of such an enterprise: Dawn French, comedienne, actress, adoptive parent and, now, proselytiser for the overweight as the truly sexy, beautiful and desirable. Turn to Esquire, the men's style magazine, and the same opulence is displayed.

What sets alternative comedians apart from their more conventional forebears? They take themselves just a little more seriously as their middle years approach, embracing -ologies and -isms. French arguesthat the media have made large women invisible, that their desirability is 'not celebrated'. She aims to alter that. Next month an entire South Bank Show will be devoted to French's paean to fatness. And Esquire carries her philosophical justification for the cheesecake pose.

'A lot of men,' she writes, 'keep their desire for big women as a kind of dark secret. They love to sink themselves into softness, they love to sleep wrapped round curvy hips and swollen bellies, to rest their heads against delicious, ample bosoms. However, they choose to be seen out with coat hangers because fashion dictates that they should.'

The nub of her argument is a plea for FC, fashion correctness: 'Today we live in the fast market of magazine culture, so photography is the dominant medium for portraying women. Fashion photography is the most fertile area for the seeds of this tyranny to have grown. Who reads fashion magazines? Women mostly. Who generates the pictures? Designers and photographers. Men mostly. Who owns the magazines? Mostly men again.'

Up to a point. Some inconvenient facts are ignored. Who are the fashion editors and writers? Women. Who are the stylists who book the models and 'choreograph' the photo sessions? Women. But one gets the gist.

Is French merely recycling a familiar argument - that the media stereotype of the skinny woman is at variance with reality - in the hope of grabbing a few headlines? French herself has told friends that she suffered a dramatic loss of confidence on returning to work after a year at home with her new baby. Neither the West End play in which she is starring with Jennifer Saunders nor the Murder Most Horrid series in which she appears on BBC 2 has set the world alight.

But that might be too cynical. It is possible that a talented, bawdy and highly paid sketch writer and performer could become something that even a month ago would have had her chuckling into the biscuit tin that's often at her side - a role model for Miss Average.

DAWN FRENCH was born in Holyhead, Wales, 36 years ago. It was the home town of Harry Secombe and she claims to have been given his legs. Her late father, an RAF pilot, gave his daughter a lifelong sense of self-esteem, she has said. 'It was my dad who taught me to value myself. Five minutes prior to my very first trip to a discotheque, at age 14, he sat me down for a 'talk'. I feared it was going to be the usual time restrictions, dress restrictions and so on.

'Instead I was the recipient of the most extraordinarily emotional eulogy. He told me that I was uncommonly beautiful, that I was the most precious thing in his life, that he prized me above all else, that he was proud to be my father and that if any randy, geek, biker shithead ever laid a finger on me, he would hurt them badly in their Brut-sprinkled soft places.'

When she was 11, she was sent to a girls' boarding school at St Dunstan's Abbey in Plymouth, spending weekends with her grandparents, who ran a newsagents nearby. School was a culture shock. She never felt she belonged with the posh kids who had basins in their rooms at home and gave her salad when she went to visit rather than meat and two veg. 'I loved the school,' she said in one interview, 'but I went through a terrible period of blaming my parents for not having money or chintz or beige things.'

She went on to the Central School of Speech and Drama in London to train as a teacher; she met Jennifer Saunders there in 1977. Saunders, too, was the daughter of an RAF man, but he was a group captain and she was therefore posher. The two disliked each other on sight, but quickly changed their minds and were soon sharing a flat and a sense of humour.

But mutual bemusement lingered. Saunders recalls French as a stout, bossy person in a fawn corduroy skirt, 'the only person on the course who really wanted to be a drama teacher'. (One must assume, though, that French was mocking her own bossiness when, as a trainee teacher, she made a class bow down and worship her.) French, a workaholic, couldn't fully comprehend the more dreamy but mercurial Saunders.

They became a double act, in the forefront of the Eighties alternative comedians. At London's Comedy Store French met and later married the black comedian and writer Lenny Henry. She broke it to her mother gently, saying: 'You know the big black bogey man you said would come and get me if I didn't go to bed when I was told? Well he came and got me.' Or so she tells it.

The only time in her life that French dieted was for the wedding. She slimmed from a size 20 to a size 12 in six weeks, with the help of a fruit/meat diet and injections from a Harley Street doctor. It made her desperately unhappy; she could hardly concentrate on the ceremony for thinking about the food. Why she bothered is unclear. 'My husband's a Jamaican,' French told Tatler, 'and comes from a family of big women. For him it's the norm and thin women are a turn-off.'

As alternative comedians prospered, so did French and Saunders, taking part first in the Comic Strip films (one of them was a feature of Channel 4's opening night) and then getting their own television series. It gave wonderfully fresh and funny insights into the relationships between women friends and mothers and daughters, and the success was such they got a five-year, pounds 2m deal from the BBC. Saunders, in Absolutely Fabulous, which French admits to watching with both 'pride and raging jealousy', has achieved the greater solo fame. Yet French has been far more prolific outside the partnership. She has given lead performances on the West End stage in Sharman Macdonald's When I Was A Girl I Used To Scream And Shout and Ben Elton's Silly Cow. On television, she has played a straight role as a nurse with an obsessive commitment to euthanasia.

The mixed race daughter, Billie, that she and Henry adopted is now aged two. French told Hello] magazine at their Queen Anne mansion in Berkshire: 'We think she has a double dose of everything that's good. Some seem to think that mixed race children are somehow half of something. In our opinion they have twice as much.' She has refused to say why the couple have not had children of their own. 'Surely, there have to be some things that only belong to you, and what goes on inside your own body is your own business.'

It was a slight, but rare, piece of introspection from French, who is apt to turn interviews into sessions of jokes and bawdy sexual references. She says that, like other alternative comedians, she was 'anti-sexist and anti-racist and all that'. She considers such emotions too obvious to be worth analysing or making a song and dance about.

But if the inside of her body was her own business, she decided that the outside was everyone else's. She has been fat since she was a child but always refused to discuss her size until she met the designer Helen Teague. In 1991, the two opened a shop in Camden, north London, selling fashionable clothes for 'big women'. It was called 16-47, because 47 per cent of British women are said to be size 16 or over. Its features are shop assistants of sizeable girth; no communal changing rooms; Belgian chocolates on hand; and a doorbell which customers must ring for admittance, so giving the shop a private atmosphere. It has achieved a pounds 500,000 turnover in two years.

So the 'fat is beautiful' campaign makes good business sense, even though Teague says French is still worried that her size 'will deflect from her career as an actress'. But as Marion Hume, fashion editor of the Independent, points out, the campaign raises two distinct issues. 'If we're saying 'Can fat be feminine or attractive?' the answer is definitely yes. In fact I think women are far more attracted to the waif-like models than men are.' The fashion industry is a different matter. 'The supermodels show clothes off beautifully because their forms are like a tailor's dummy. They tend not to have this strange area called the stomach that normal women have, so designers always want to show their clothes on them. It's very unlikely that a larger-sized woman will become an icon of fashion.' We shall see.

(Photograph omitted)