Celya AB: 'I’m not always nice about the British. But it’s always with love'

Brexit changed things massively for the Paris-raised, London-based comedian: she talks to Jay Richardson about fetishing diversity, Brummie humour and performing in her adopted language

“I’m so bad at knowing how I’m perceived. Every time I read something about me, the word that comes up a lot is ‘magnetic’,” Celya AB innocently ventures. “I don’t know what it means. I had to Google ‘magnetic celebrities’ to see what I found ‘magnetic’ about them. But I can’t figure out what it is.”

One could dismiss this as faux-ingénue shtick from the 25-year-old Parisian sat opposite me in a cafe, having heard her lucidly share her passion for architecture, music, film, photography and Edinburgh. But as a gifted observational comedian, winner of best newcomer at this year’s Chortle Awards and a recent tour support for such venerated artists as the surreally inventive US comic Maria Bamford and literate singer-songwriter St Vincent, the Fringe debutante stand-up with the nom de guerre plays with stereotypes, defying her easy categorisation as exotic flavour of the month.

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Her show recounts a genuine conversation she had with a television producer “fetishising” her diversity, telling her that as a French bisexual Muslim she had “it all” for the show he was making. Except, raised non-religious by her French-Algerian family, AB doesn’t feel comfortable calling herself Muslim. In her show, she opts for a cynical punchline. But in reality, she was torn about denying a spot to a comedian of faith, and the experience made her “insecure” about “box ticking”. She tries not to care if she suspects another comedian is prospering from affirmative action, “as we all have our different pathways”. But she notes that when she began performing in 2017, “there was a bit of time where I would hear, ‘Oh, she’s a bit brown’.”

On stage, she ostensibly adopts the high-status persona of a Gallic sophisticate, pointing out the foibles of her adopted home from the classic observational perspective of a foreigner, although with nuance, easy familiarity and a significant amount of silliness.

“It’s quite sharp,” she smiles. “I’m not always nice about the British. But it’s never malicious – it’s always with a lot of love.” She strives to resist caricature. As a socially anxious teenager with few friends, she was heavily overweight before losing seven stone aged 18. Raised in the poorer, banlieue suburbs of Paris, she doesn’t “come from a lot of money… I’m not who you think of when you internet search ‘Parisian’… One of my frustrations with the stereotypes is that they’re rich and white, when France has such a rich history.”

Indeed, while she enthuses about Paris’s emerging, immigrant-led stand-up scene and can’t wait to perform there, AB grew up “obsessed” with British comedy and was delighted when family connections meant she could move to Birmingham. “A lot of my Frenchness has been diluted living in a city people think of as a shithole,” she smirks. If pushed, she considers herself a British comic. And though she now lives in London, she admires Brummies’ “lack of ego” and relates to their “love of surreal humour, which has definitely influenced me”.

She describes her introductory Fringe show, Swimming, as “a fish-out-of-water story, but in the sense that Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is a fish-out-of-water story. Looking back, I’ve realised that my whole life I wanted to fit in. But I’ve ended up making myself more of an outsider.”

Celya AB PIC: Rachel SherlockCelya AB PIC: Rachel Sherlock
Celya AB PIC: Rachel Sherlock

Prior to lockdown, the show discussed her instructor boyfriend teaching her to swim. But they split at the start of the year, “so it went from being a love story to one that passes the Bechdel Test!” she laughs. One romance endures, though. AB reveals how, eight years after arriving in the UK, she was finally given permission to stay in February.

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Brexit affected me massively,” she recalls. “I was scared I would have to leave. It also affected the way people saw me. At the time, I’d thought Britain was super-welcoming, but then all of a sudden, people were making jokes like ‘Why don’t you go back to your country?’. One thing I’ve learnt is not to make myself the joke. I don’t like jokes that suggest I’m going to be deported. There’s a real darkness to Britishness that I try to expose. But I have to walk a fine line and sugarcoat it. Usually, I’ll try to kill with kindness. By saying all the things that people hate about Britain, I like.”

Describing herself as “in love with the music of words, how you construct a joke”, AB reckons she’s earnt kudos for the accuracy of her Anglo observations, to the extent that she’s written for topical Radio 4 satire The News Quiz. Yet it’s seldom acknowledged that she’s performing in her second language, which is the “highest compliment”.

“I’ve put one line about it in the show,” she discloses. “To remind everyone that it is actually kind of impressive when you think about it.”

Celya AB, Pleasance Courtyard, 7.15pm, until 28 August