Former escort Sophie Willan on her life coaching Fringe show

A social worker once labelled six-year-old Sophie Willan 'rebellious, disruptive and rude'.

Sophie Willan refuses to be boxed in by labels
Sophie Willan refuses to be boxed in by labels

Willan, whose early life was spent in and out of care, reclaimed this description of herself in her critically acclaimed and very funny show On Record.

Her new show, Branded, is a continuation of her life story, and also reveals that between the ages of 19 and 22, she earned her living as an escort.

“I just really wanted to talk about marginal people and how we brand people and put them into boxes,” says Willan. “I think whatever you are branded there are only two ways you can interpret it, usually you are a victim or you are a hero – it ends up being a single narrative.”

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    Willan, from Bolton, wants to challenge expectations and labels – whether it is being northern, female, working class, or a former sex worker. In particular, Branded hinges on an experience she had at the Fringe.

    “We were in Edinburgh, I had come up with a feminist theatre group and I told one of them about the escort work.

    “She said, ‘Don’t you think it’s a very unfeminist thing to do? Don’t you think you are contributing to the patriarchy and male oppression?’”

    It has taken her until now to be able to talk about it – but Willan always wanted to look more closely at that experience of being judged and labelled.

    “I just felt embarrassed. I hadn’t processed it properly myself. I’m a lot more confident as a person and I trust myself more. She came from a good background where she had a bedroom and went on holiday. I thought she was a better person than me.”

    Willan makes the story a launchpad for an examination of class, privilege and economic freedom. Her aim is to challenge perceptions and to make us question the way we label other people.

    “I didn’t want to make a whole show about it. This is just part of a larger story, a bigger conversation.

    “If you make it the whole thing it puts too much importance on sex work. For me it was a means to an end. I never saw it as a career.

    “With sex work we tend to glorify it or demonise it. But we need to stop doing that with marginalised groups of people.”

    One of the things Willan loves about putting her life on stage is when audience members say how much they enjoy the opportunity to laugh about lives like their own.

    For health reasons, outings with her mum or with her step-dad can be stressful. But they can also be hilarious.

    “I talk about my mum, who is a heroin addict, looking like Iggy Pop, and about living with my step-dad who has multiple personalities. It’s important to me to introduce them to the world from an affectionate point of view.

    “I have had care leavers come up to me after a show and say, ‘Thanks for talking about that. It was like you were talking about my mum. Nobody sees her like I see her.’”

    Willan’s unconventional, eventful and deprived childhood has given her a lot of access to therapy, psychology and counselling – and she has benefited a great deal from that.

    “I think I have come out from it as a whole, rounded person and I think I am emotionally intelligent.”

    She now spends a lot of time mentoring other care leavers. In June this year she launched Tales of the Weird, the Wild and the Wonderful, an anthology of eight stories written by care leavers. The young people she works with always get free tickets to her shows.

    “I also offer life coaching sessions. Helping them think about where they want to live and what they want to do.

    “Working with care leavers is something I have built up over time. It’s good because I have been through that experience. And because I am a high-achieving care leaver the idea of giving something back is quite important.”

    Willan’s own mentors in the arts are Lem Siss, a Manchester poet who is also a care leaver, and Louise Wallwein, another care leaver who is a playwright and poet.

    Although her shows have an exuberant anarchic energy, they are carefully crafted. “I think it is stand-up comedy because the jokes are written like stand-up but the structure of the show is quite theatrical. If I set something up there is always a call-back – it never just disappears.”

    In previews, working out her script, she often threw in some random beat boxing. She says she might also throw in a bit of a tit wobble – just to annoy people who think she shouldn’t. “I had a promoter say I shouldn’t do that because it puts women in comedy back 20 years. It is amazing the amount of white privileged men who think, ‘I’m going to tell you what you should be doing.’”

    It’s not a good idea to tell Sophie Willan what she can and can’t do or to try to limit her ambition.

    She remembers entering the BBC New Comedy award and being told, in reverential tones, that if she did well she might end up writing a joke for Miles Jupp. “I said, me and Miles Jupp have nothing in common.”

    In future she’d love to write a sitcom or something for children. And she’s newly enthusiastic about politics after seeing the way young people got behind Jeremy Corbyn in the last election. “I found Glastonbury really inspiring. It was like Woodstock but better. It felt really positive.”

    She’s nervous about talking about escorting on stage – but she’s pretty sure she can find a way to make people laugh about it.

    “I’m quite a wild personality and as a performer I jump around a lot. And I’ll be making them laugh. If I can write a bit that can make myself laugh I know that will be a fun thing to do.”