Should a mix tape put together by your first love be worth more than a vintage typewriter given to you by a philanderer?
These were some of the conundrums faced by Canadian actress, comedian and writer Haley McGee, who decided to sell the gifts her exes had given her to pay off a £10,000 credit card debt.
The eclectic mix of items she had amassed included a Romanian ukulele with a string missing, a porcelain and mango wood jewellery box crafted by a semi-famous ceramist in Finland and a white gold, sapphire and diamond necklace, worn twice.
The project involved enlisting the help of a mathematician to create a formula – with 87 variables – to price up the cost of love and turn sentimental value into cold hard cash. It also sparked a solo show, The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale, and an eponymous book.
“It was borne out of me being in credit card debt and a moment of desperation,” she says now. “Barring my computer and my phone, there really wasn’t much I could sell that hadn’t been given to me by exes.”
The list of variables she details in the book is long. It ranges from the basic cost of the object and its appreciation or depreciation, to how much thought the boyfriend put into the gift, the value of the life lessons the relationship taught her and the ratio of fun to misery during the relationship.
It’s extremely witty, as McGee, 35, charts the minutiae about the preparation for dates (she doesn’t pluck her nipples as she needs obstacles in place to ensure she doesn’t sleep with a guy on the first date).
And as time goes on, her romantic goalposts change. By her 30s she’s done with one-night stands, having had her share of those while touring.
“I’ve had my fill from the all-you-can-eat buffet and now I want an a la carte meal that satiates my finicky palate.”
The daughter of an English professor, McGee studied acting in Toronto as a teenager, working there as an actor and playwright until she relocated to the UK in 2016.
As well as lucrative voiceover work, her show and her book, she has also appeared alongside Jodie Whittaker in Doctor Who as Dorothy Skerritt in the episode ‘Nikola Tesla's Night of Terror’, and hosts The Cost Of Love podcast, talking to experts on matters of the heart.
She had been touring her solo shows in Canada and appeared at the Edinburgh Festival in 2013 appearing in Oh My Irma is at Hill Street Theatre.
One reviewer wrote: “The text is littered with unexpected phrases, as McGee allows lines like ‘Well gag me with a wooden spoon’ and ‘Rich people sleep on such clouds’ to find their way into the piece. Her performance is subtle in its comedy, letting small pauses and glances do the work rather than gurning or shouting. Like Fleabag, we see a picture of someone who has gone through a lot brushing it off with confidence. Haley McGee is one to watch.”
After the Fringe slot, McGee moved to London, where she had a 10-week acting contract in a fringe show – but when work tailed off, the debt piled up.
“I was very lonely. I had no friends here, but my pride wouldn’t let me go back to Canada,” she admits.
She found some work, but initially mainly fill-in jobs while she went for acting roles, although voiceover work had previously kept the wolf from the door. Then came the idea for The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale.
She features eight exes in the book, naming each one by the gift they had bestowed on her. ‘Bicycle’ was a particularly painful episode.
But the biggest shadow in the background is ‘T’ (his real name is not revealed), her on-off beau from Canada who clearly had a commitment problem.
“He had a profound effect on my life. In some ways, he was so deeply encouraging of me pursuing work that was really interesting to me and if it hadn’t been for him I don’t know if I’d have made the leap and come to the UK.
“But it was also partly that he was off doing his thing and couldn’t really commit to me,” she reflects.
“At the point when we broke up, he was the person I felt I could bring the most of myself to. With everyone I dated before that, I could bring about 60% of my personality to them and had to squirrel about 40% away because they weren’t things we could connect over.
“The great lesson and the great pain of that relationship was, just because you feel someone really feels you and knows you, doesn’t necessarily mean that you can be in a relationship with them.”
She says that she has had a therapist since she was 25.
“I had broken up with the guy who I named ‘Bicycle’ in the book when I found out that he was dating a mutual acquaintance. I absolutely lost my mind. Six months after we’d broken up I couldn’t stop talking about it.
“I was that heartbroken person who brought every conversation back to my pain. In the end my brother told me to get over it, and I thought, I need to pay someone to listen.”
When she moved to London she kept the same therapist based in Toronto, who continued her sessions unpaid until she sorted out her debt problems, and still speaks to her now.
While the book is funny in parts, some of it is also very sad, as she details the men who cheated on her as well as charting the ways that she let down smitten, lovestruck boyfriends who she quickly lost interest in.
“I’ve been a late bloomer in love in that it’s taken me a long time to find the kind of relationship that I had so desperately wanted. I was so focused on my career, wanting to be an actor and writer, was I unlucky in love or was I just choosing people who wouldn’t get in the way of me pursuing what I wanted to do with my life?” she ponders. “In some ways I created my unluckiness.”
Her exes may have all been given different names in the show and the book, but they know who they are, she agrees, chuckling. Their reactions have been mixed.
The gifts they gave to her didn’t get her out of debt – it was a voiceover job which put her account back in the black. She now uses the items as props in her show.
The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale first premiered in Toronto and was later staged at the Camden People’s Theatre in London in 2018. There were more dates set until the pandemic struck, but she is hoping to take it nationwide in the near future.
Perhaps the most ironic conclusion of her story is that she fell in love in lockdown, through the dating app Hinge, with a Mancunian artist who now lives in London.
“It’s been such a dream. We are having the best time. We had a couple of virtual dates and then went for a walk along the South Bank which lasted eight hours, because we couldn’t stop anywhere because of Covid!”
And her attitude to relationships has shifted.
“I’ve spent the majority of my romantic life in a mode of ‘First I need a total buy-in from you, then I’ll decide if I like you back’.”
But now, she says: “After a rejection, my ego smarts for a couple of hours but I’m coming out unscathed and I’m glad I’m not lying or pretending or trying to convince them to like me.”