I wasn’t going to talk about stripping,” says Scots comedian Fern Brady. “Because when I’ve spoken about that part of my past with journalists they usually present it as empowering or degrading, which is stupid when the reality is that it’s both of those things.”
Fans of Brady’s fiercely intelligent stand-up will be familiar with this direct style. The 33-year-old is a fast-rising star in the comedy scene. Last year she became the first Scottish woman to appear on Live at the Apollo. And now, after earning five-star reviews for her sell-out run at the Edinburgh Fringe, Brady is embarking on her largest tour yet, appearing in Manchester tonight and ending in Glasgow in the last week of November. With a sitcom in the works, Brady seems on the verge of breaking through to mainstream success.
She’s snarling on the posters for her new show – Power & Chaos – and reviewers have described her performance style as “caustic”. But, in person, she is shyer and sweeter, cradling a non-alcoholic beer in the café of the Soho Theatre, in London. She assures me, however, that she’s “honestly more myself on stage than I am in conversations like this”.
Born in West Lothian in 1986, Brady tells me she was a “shy, dorky child with thick glasses”. Her father was a mechanic who slogged his way into management and her mum worked on a checkout. They were rather bewildered by their daughter’s series of “weird, obsessional interests” – attempts to speak Danish, master all the instruments in a brass band and memorise every fact about Sylvia Plath.
“At 16 I became obsessed with getting straight As, went mental and ended up in an adolescent psychiatric unit,” she says. While there, she read about Asperger syndrome (now redefined as high functioning autism) and recognised herself in the description. She rolls her eyes as she recalls the doctor’s dismissal of her self-diagnosis. “ ‘You can’t have Asperger’s,’ he said, ‘because you’ve got a boyfriend.’ Ridiculous! Women on the spectrum tend to be better at social masking.”
Brady still doesn’t have an official diagnosis, but is convinced she is “running different software to most other people” and credits this with the ability to “speak honestly about topics other people find uncomfortable”.
While studying for a degree in English literature at Edinburgh University, Brady thought her future lay in journalism and did internships at The Scotsman and the Evening News. But they didn’t pay and she ended up stripping to support herself.
How did it make her feel?
“Because everyone told me I was an ugly child I needed the validation for a while,” she says. “But you soon feel the hollowness of being told you’re pretty. You know it’s a diminishing currency. And you become aware of how tiring it is to perform that kind of submissive femininity.” Besides, as she has told audiences, she was “the worst lap dancer Scotland has ever seen”. (When one man asked her to “humiliate” him, she insulted his appearance – making fun of his bald head – rather than doing something sexual.) Nevertheless, it sounds like she got on well with her workmates and, in fact, speaks more fondly of the women she met stripping than those she met at the newspapers. “One is now a vet,” she says. “Stripping’s just a job.”
It was the combination of writing and performance skills picked up during this double life that gave her the confidence to try comedy. She reached the finals of So You Think You’re Funny at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2011 and has since appeared on shows like 8 out of 10 Cats and The News Quiz.
Today she’s angry about “how much I changed my appearance to get on TV. I mean, the guys just crack on like average blokes. I lost loads of weight. I got hair extensions. Because female comedians are judged so harshly on how we look and we have to get through that before we’re heard.”
Brady’s Power & Chaos show was inspired by Soraya Chemaly’s book Rage Becomes Her, “which explored how women’s suppressed anger comes out as depression or chronic fatigue syndrome or eating disorders”, and she is pleased there are so many more female comedians talking openly now about issues such as sex, birth, suicide and abortion.
“It’s electric. And there are so many young girls in our audience,” she says. “It gives me hope we’re changing s---.”
Power & Chaos is at Bread Shed, Manchester, tonight, and touring; fernbrady.co.uk