CANADIAN comedian Katherine Ryan doesn’t want to be anyone’s role model but she would settle for a bit of infamy, writes Brian Donaldson
With Katherine Ryan’s new touring show, Glam Role Model, audiences can be assured that they’ll encounter a comedian who enjoys a healthy debate.
While many stand-ups appear to arrive on stage armed with all the solutions to every problem in the world ever, the UK-based, Canadian comic and actor is a different breed altogether.
“I’m not preachy in any way. I don’t even pretend to have all the answers and I make a lot of mistakes myself,” she insists, before getting into the meat of her show, the cultural status of the glamour model in Britain. “Back home we didn’t have glamour models; we had porno magazines and we had mainstream actresses and presenters. Here, that line is so blurred and glamour models are put in such positions where they are sold as personalities but their entire personality is just about getting naked or being drunk in the Big Brother house.”
As someone who, aged 18, worked in the Toronto branch of Hooters (a restaurant chain known for its scantily clad waitresses), Ryan recognises that there are different career paths out there for people. “I was a product of the society that said women are for decoration but I do think girls should be able to do whatever they want. Yet, across the world there are girls who just can’t; some can’t even go to school in Nigeria without being abducted. Here, you actually have a choice to put your tits away. And, well, maybe you should.”
Unquenchable thirst for the minutest information on celebs
As well as tackling the public’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for the minutest information on celebs such as Harry Styles, “Cheryl” and Cara Delevingne, Glam Role Model has her discussing motherhood (Violet is her five-year–old daughter, or “flatmate”), the real difference between Miley and Beyoncé, and some frank material about sex and body politics.
The relentless pursuit of celebrityhood which arrived with the explosion of reality TV and the new kind of talent show carries its own inevitable dark side, a side-effect to fame which Ryan has been determined to protect herself from. “People don’t realise that putting yourself out there, whether it’s as the most popular girl at school or the weirdo (and I have been both), makes you very vulnerable and more likely that people will attack you in some way. I’m so lucky because I actually take comfort in people not liking me; I think it’s lovely that we all like different things. When people come after me on Twitter, well, it’s fine: why would I expect everyone to like me? I do think it’s a bit weird that you would go out of your way to tell me how much you don’t like me, though.”
Ryan sticks to a sound philosophy
It’s not just ordinary people hiding behind an anonymous username who can go on the attack. Ryan has been in the UK long enough to have lived through one or two media storms, when comedians have said things deemed offensive by columnists looking for something (anything) to beat their next looming deadline. While some comics may take a step back and a deep breath before writing their next potentially contentious gag, Ryan sticks to a sound philosophy. “If you can sleep at night and stand by everything you said, I don’t think you should have to censor yourself because of something that’s going on in the media. More and more in my comedy career, I do celebrity stuff or talk about the news and I don’t think I’d say anything that I wouldn’t say to a celebrity’s face. A lot of the times when you’re talking about an event or a celebrity, you’re not being cheap in terms of a person; you’re talking about a greater theme.”
Ryan always had an exhibitionist streak. Born and raised in the wonderfully named Canadian city of Sarnia, her mum took her daughter to pageants. But little Katherine took some unconscious pleasure in pulling the rug from under feet of the event organisers. “In the talent round, I’d tend to do this weird thing that nobody understood. I’d always want to sing a man’s song or do a funny sketch.”
The time she dressed her little sister up as Hitler
Then there was the time she dressed her little sister up as Hitler. “It was for a school history project I was doing on the war. She was four years old and giving out these facts and I thought this made it show that I realised it was a very serious project. But the school counsellors were called in and asked what was going on. I always had this different way of presenting information, I guess.”
Fairly early on, Ryan knew she wanted to do something in the world of entertainment but most jobbing stand-ups probably don’t have stints at Hooters or visits to the Playboy Mansion on their CVs. “A friend invited me to go there when I was doing the Comedy Store in LA,” she recalls. “I was never a Playmate and never got my kit off, I just went to a couple of parties. It’s the best place to be if you’re rich and beautiful, for a weekend; you couldn’t do it any longer than that or you’d die. But that same girl brought my little sister the next year and my other little sister the year after, so we have Facebook albums of all these Playboy pictures. Everyone in the town is like, ‘what’s going on?’ My mum is the only female in the family who hasn’t been.”
In terms of stand-up comedy, Toronto is like Edinburgh in August compared to her home town (“Sarnia doesn’t really do comedy: they’ll ship a comic in once a year”), so she knew that a move to the UK and its burgeoning stand-up environment was required for her to progress that career. And within about five minutes of landing at Heathrow she was already making waves, coming runner-up in the Amused Moose comedy competition and winning the Funny Women prize in 2008 with an inviting mix of spiky social commentary and silly songs. Ryan’s flair for a dramatic image continued in 2011 with her first Edinburgh Fringe publicity shot showing her as a heavily pregnant beauty queen, while few who saw it will forget her turn on Let’s Dance for Comic Relief as Nicki Minaj.
She seems pretty content with her level of celebrity
Her stage success (she has three Edinburgh Fringe shows under her belt now) has led to other opportunities, with TV roles in Channel 4 university comedy, Campus, and Matt LeBlanc’s BBC vehicle, Episodes. Ryan has also become a regular presence on all those game shows that have been criticised for rarely featuring women, but she seems pretty content with her level of celebrity. “Mathematically it would seem harder to get success because everybody has the opportunity and access now, and so fame actually becomes less likely. Not too long ago it was just Coronation Street and Hollyoaks on TV and three channels and only a few people were famous. Fame doesn’t really work out for many people. It’s nicer to just think that we are all contributing.”
• Katherine Ryan: Glam Role Model, Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, 28 November; Oran Mor, Glasgow, 29 November; The Stand, Edinburgh, 30 November