A CHILDHOOD spent yo-yoing between Nigeria and London made stephen k amos seek his identity in comedy clubs. his memoir minimises the detail and fudges the facts. why so shy?
Their parents always said they’d left Nigeria for a better life. But growing up in London, the Amos children – usually the only black faces in their schools – were regularly the targets of racist abuse. The family moved so often that, jokes Stephen K Amos, “I thought we were in the Witness Relocation Programme.”
When it was announced that the family would holiday in Nigeria, the reaction from this brood was muted. “All our lives we’d been told we were Nigerian first and British second,” writes Amos, who was 12 at the time. “But when we asked why we had to live in England … Mum and Dad told us that it was worth it … We had figured that Nigeria must be really, really bad if this was the best option.”
Amos’s parents came from the same town in south-west Nigeria, but met as adults, in Lagos. They emigrated in the late 1960s, to ensure that their future children – ultimately there were seven – would secure good educations and all the opportunities that this would provide.
Nigeria proved eye-opening, not least because there was another surprise in store: they were going to stay. At least that was the plan. In fact, they returned to Britain after a year or so. If I sound hazy about time, it is because what Amos writes in his memoir, I Used To Say My Mother Was Shirley Bassey, doesn’t always dovetail with what he says when we meet at Edinburgh’s Hotel Indigo. This wee fudging of the specifics seems to link to his famous need for privacy, so I’m baffled about why he embarked on this project at all.
He was originally asked to write a straightforward autobiography. “I couldn’t do that. Too many deep feelings and it would just bring up so much stuff that I couldn’t go to. Like a lot of families there are a lot of secrets and dirty laundry we don’t like to air. So I thought, OK, I’ll write a memoir [full of] stories from the past that are funny that people will either relate to or laugh at. I didn’t want to look into my past and look at the horrible stuff and put it out there. I don’t want to upset people, or upset myself. I just want to have a laugh.”
The Amos clan, as he depicts them, is wonderfully entertaining. When Amos, who has a twin sister, asked his mother what their birth was like, she replied, “Ah Stephen! It was all the joy of having one child … but totally ruined!” One year, to curb expenditures, his parents tried convincing the kids they were Jehovah’s Witnesses, and were therefore prohibited from celebrating Christmas.
He inherited his sense of humour from them, then? Warily, he replies, “There was a lot of laughter with the kids, I’d suggest. Older brother, older sister, twins, then the other creatures,” he waves his hand dismissively, and then explains that the young lady joining us, with whom he clearly shares a warm relationship, is in fact his younger sister.
“For example, at the age I am now, my parents had had all these kids.” And that’s how old? “I was born in 1976,” he says, giving me a look that defies contradiction.
“The reason I don’t say my age is because in this business people pigeonhole you and go ‘This is what you can do at this age.’ I surround myself with younger, upbeat, enthusiastic people who inspire me. I do silly stuff that I shouldn’t do at this age.”
On paper his parents sound strict, but fun. “It didn’t feel that way at the time. Because you’ve got so many brothers and sisters, and my parents were quite young, and immigrants, we didn’t appreciate the stress they must have been going through. The things they said, it was clearly a kind of envelope to protect us, but it came out wrong. Like if I stayed out later than was planned at night, the door to the house would be locked.”
Didn’t he have a key? He rears back, hand to chest, looks at his sister and then at me. “A key!? Your own key to the house? No.” Thoroughly versed in his mischievousness from reading the memoir, I speculate that he threw pebbles at the windows until someone let him in. “That’s exactly what I did. My twin sister’s bedroom faced the street.”
His other great trick was walking upstairs backwards, so if caught mid-flight and fully dressed he could insist that he was just popping down to check that the front door was locked. “Ha, I did that! [Home] was full of love and care and supportiveness, but they didn’t let us see their distress, which must have been there.”
Enough distress to send them back to Nigeria? ”I think they had a romanticised view of what Nigeria was like when they left. They’d been gone a long time, and hadn’t seen what it had become. And maybe they got sick and tired of England, or maybe even they had problems in their relationship. We don’t know. All we knew was we were uprooted and suddenly taken to this strange, horrible place.”
After London, where he was taunted by his teachers and his peers for being different, and where neighbours painted racist slurs on their car, wasn’t it wonderful stepping into a world where black skin was the norm? “At first it was an exciting adventure. We saw family members we’d only ever heard of. People who looked like us. We had none of that in England.
“It was so ecstatic, going to a place where you are judged by your character, because they can’t make a judgement about your skin colour. But we found out, quite quickly, that when you spoke you were different. Or you weren’t quite as dark as the other people. We had that in England anyway, a kind of thing with lighter-skinned black people saying, ‘You’re so dark.’ But going to Africa, our homeland, and seeing the rainbow of colours within the family – and outside the family you’re still the darker one, or people judge you or guess which tribe you’re from. That was weird.”
In other words, wherever one goes in the world, the rush to label people is universal? “That’s why I do a joke in my show about dual heritage. People don’t realise that I had to fight for who I was. When you’re doing history as a six-year-old reading about slavery and Britain ruling the world, you think, ‘Britain ruled the world. I’m British.’ But your friends go, ‘You look like slave’.”
Back in London, Amos began acting up. He was often in trouble for antics such as talking in class and giving everyone unflattering nicknames. Once he locked a much-despised teacher in the supply cabinet.
“At that point I knew that my parents would not be able to do that scam on me again. I was going to stay here, if it meant me ringing social services or the police. I started running away from home – though I didn’t go very far – staying out late and finding who I was. With families there are so many personalities and different points of view; you don’t have to love your family, we’re all different people. I found my path and thought, this is where I want to go.”
Two women are largely responsible for the way Amos’s life turned out. One was his glamorous next-door-neighbour, Fola. With her regal bearing and sophisticated ways, she made a huge impression and befriended the teenager. Fola was dancing in Cats, and brought him to the West End to see the show – his first. He writes, “Fola was the first black performer that I had ever met. Until then I just hadn’t considered the stage as a decent place for a black person to be seen.”
We never forget our first, bedazzling exposure to glamour, do we? “It made such an impact,” he agrees. “Not because at that time I wanted to be on stage, but the knowledge that there was a black woman who was doing something she wanted to do, who loved what she was doing and was fabulous with it. When she took me to the show my jaw was on the floor. I was looking around the audience, going, ‘You don’t know that I know her.’ She was on the West End stage in a very successful musical, doing wonderful work, something my parents did not understand. Something that was destined for my journey. I wanted to marry her.”
But she was already married. “I know. And I was gay!”
The second pivotal influence was Delphine Manley, now an agent, but back in the day, a young woman doing comedy in rooms above pubs. Amos, who had studied criminal justice at Westminster Polytechnic, met her while on a trip to New York that he won as part of a promotion when you bought a Hoover vacuum cleaner. She encouraged him to give stand-up comedy a try, sensing, from the way he creased her up, that he’d be a natural.
“Delphine made it happen. Nothing – I’d done nothing. Delphine Manley saw something in me that I didn’t see myself. She turned my life around. If she hadn’t believed in what I was about and encouraged me to do this, I would not be here.”
At that point, he writes, the only comedy he knew was, “Mainly portly, middle-aged men from the North in dinner suits – all telling black jokes, Paki jokes, gay jokes and mother-in-law jokes.” Delphine told him that the scene had changed, and persuaded him to give it a chance. When she found a room in London, she offered him a job as her compere. Initially he demurred, but she wore him down. “I thought, ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ The worst is that people hate you. No one’s going to die. Move on.”
Backtracking a bit, I ask what it was like growing up “other” in white Britain, with the added “otherness” of being gay? “Confusion. Depression. Sadness. Thankful, that there are other boys in the family who can continue the family tree. Fear of not being able to tell. I don’t know how things would have turned out if we’d stayed in Nigeria. I know people [there] who are hiding on the ‘downlow’. Who are married. With kids. It’s the pressure of family expectation.
“To be honest, when I told my parents nothing bad happened. They must have known. I left home early and didn’t ask them for anything – no money, no support, nothing. When I got my own place and they started visiting, it was like, ‘You’re in my house now, my rules’, and they were fine with it.”
Those close to him knew, but as for the public – I tell him that a couple of years ago his sexuality felt like a major talking point of the Fringe. “People who know me personally know exactly who I am. I don’t do what’s perceived on the mainstream as gay comedy. I think you can be gay and funny and not talk about gay issues. In that show I just said, ‘And oh, by the way, I’m attracted to men.’ The audience was like – gasp! – and suddenly it was a me-coming-out show. And it wasn’t. I hadn’t lied to anybody.”
Amos believes in the importance of role models, the need for prominent, successful homosexuals to live out of the closet, to inspire the next generation. At the same time, no one should be forcibly outed. “When you’re comfortable with who you are, that’s when you can express what you are. I now know I never, ever, want to look behind me and think that somebody’s got a story or gossip about me.”
And this family of his, have they read his memoir yet? “No, they have not. My twin sister has and said, ‘Why don’t you do a book that is more autobiographical?’ She doesn’t like it. I was like, no! I couldn’t do that. I was very shocked by her reaction, which was about facts, like maybe there are people here who think that didn’t happen then.”
Surely it’s true of every family that no two members remember events identically? He says, “My parents will read it, but they’re just caricatures in the book, that’s why it’s a memoir and that’s why there are no pictures – because then it’s out there. Even though I’m on Twitter and Facebook, that’s for work. But to put myself out there, I couldn’t do it.”
It’s such a familiar refrain from performers: their exposed public self is someone to hide behind. If he’s that shy, what force propels Stephen K Amos out on stage every night?
“To be perfectly honest, I think it’s about respect. Because of my parents’ story, and what I went through, if people respect me for something good, I’ve done a good job. I go on stage. People laugh. Great. I’ve done that. Respect.”
• I Used to Say My Mother Was Shirley Bassey is out now from Constable & Robinson, priced £16.99.