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January 2022 / People / by Liz Skone James

Exclusive Interview: Deborah Frances-White

Ahead of her live tour, Deborah Frances-White tells us why humour is such an important tool in initiating change, and why, for her, moving to London felt like stepping into Narnia.

Photography by Charlotte Ellis | Set Design by Lydia Cooper | Styling by Sarah Ann Murray | Hair by Jay Zhang | Make up by Anna Gibson

Deborah answers my call sounding flustered and asks if she can get back to me. Ten minutes later the phone rings. “So sorry about that; my ring tone is now Another One Bites the Dust,” she jokes. “I am doing a big old fundraising show tonight, and one of the guests just called and I picked up the phone and said: ‘Don’t say it, don’t say! If you don’t say it, it’s not true’. It is just one of those times…” she sighs. It is mid-December, and with Omicron case numbers soaring in London, it seems nothing is guaranteed.

The stand-up comedian is keeping everything crossed that the situation will be slightly more predictable when the tour – based on her award-winning podcast, The Guilty Feminist – goes on the road in March. “The 2022 tour is so exciting because back in – now, when was it? 2019, God, that long ago… May 2019, we toured the UK with this huge, big live show and it was such a celebration,” she tells me. “It was like feminist Christmas. It was just so wonderful, and I had the best time. We would pitch up in different cities around the UK and it was just this glorious event where everybody came out together. It felt like an army, but really positive.”

This year’s tour will see Deborah appearing in 18 venues around the UK, as well as six in Australia and three in New Zealand. It opens in Brighton on 5 March and concludes back in London on 1 October at the Eventim Apollo. Though the schedule is known, the contents of each show remain under wraps. “We don’t tend to release our bills beforehand – we let the audience find out who is coming on the night,” Deborah explains. Regardless of who the guests are, though, fans will know what to expect.

Funny, frank and refreshingly honest, Deborah’s award-winning podcast, The Guilty Feminist has breathed new life into conversations about feminism, amassing more than 90 million downloads since its launch six years ago and gaining a dedicated global following. Part comedy, part deep-dive discussion and part activism, each episode begins with short stories starting with the words “I am a feminist, but…”, with Deborah or one of her special guests admitting to moments where they have done or thought something that they believe a true feminist wouldn’t. “We have a pool of comedians who we work with. So, we work with Jessica Fostekew, Sara Pascoe, Susan Wokoma, Felicity Ward… Lots of people. But then we have guests. The big guests we have had, special guests, include Emma Thompson, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Adjoa Andoh – from Bridgerton, Nicola Coughlan from Bridgerton as well. This week we have got Sandi Toksvig, but we have also got Self Esteem on the bill – pop sensation of 2021. So, we really mix it up. We have pop stars, scientists, very important and famous feminists.”

Deborah wears, left: Dress (daskafashion.com); earrings and bracelet (kirstielemarque.com); and necklaces (astleyclarke.com). Boots, Deborah’s own.  Right: velvet tuxedo jacket (reiss.com); trousers (viviennewestwood.com); gold charm bracelet (kirstielemarque.com); gold hand palmier chain bracelet (theofennell.com); and rose quartz necklace (samanthasiu.com). Vintage bracelet and rings, and dress bra, Deborah’s own 

Recalling how it came to be, Deborah says: “It was the end of 2015. The world felt like it was shifting. There was this new movement of contemporary feminism and I wanted to be part of it, but I felt like I wasn’t good enough,” she explains. “I would see these brilliant, very strident feminists, who seemed very sure, in the media and I used to think, ‘Well, I am a feminist, but…’ I remember that one of the first ones I did was ‘I am a feminist, but this one time I went on a women’s rights march, and I popped into a department store to use the loo, and then I got distracted trying out face cream, and when I came out the march was gone,’” she recounts. “And I remember thinking that if I admitted this on a podcast, I would be kicked out of the feminist club. But, on the contrary, I realised that hundreds of thousands of women have these moments, these hypocrisies and insecurities… So, I thought, let’s put them on the table and laugh at them. Because they don’t matter. If it does matter, if you realise that it is something that is holding you back, that it is an unfeminist act, then I would still suggest we get it out. We put it on the table and look at it. Denial, or avoidance, is the maintenance of any problem.”

As the name suggests, for Deborah, feeling guilty is a big part of the problem. “Women are trained to feel guilty about everything,” she proposes. “If they are a mother and they are with their kids, they feel guilty that they are not doing more for their career. And if they are working, they feel guilty that they are not with their kids. If you are a woman and you are a CEO, are you a good enough daughter and friend? You know, all of that. And I think feminism for women just becomes another thing to feel guilty about,” Deborah expands. “A friend of mine, who works in the City – in a big investment bank – said she noticed that her female colleagues would put together a project, or a big presentation, and if it was 92 per cent there, what they would focus on was the eight per cent that they didn’t get. But she noticed that men would do a project, and there would be 75 per cent of it there, and they would go: ‘There was nothing there before, and look, now there is this. Look what I did!’ And that is all sorts of social conditioning: this isn’t about men are this and women are this. We are conditioned to feel this way. So, I am training myself and other women to look at what is there. How much of that march did you attend? Because if you went on half of it, next time you might stay longer, and the next time you might get to the end. What if you don’t though? Just show up and be counted. Who cares? Join halfway through. There are all sorts of reasons why you might not be there for the whole thing…”

It is such an important message that I wonder if Deborah ever worries that the comedy trivialises it. “The thing with comedy is that it disarms people, so I would say, on the contrary, comedy makes your message accessible, sticky, easily repeatable, and it makes people take their armour off,” she tells me, confidently. “When you are trying to get a new idea through, or an idea that somebody disagrees with, if you present it as a fact and that person has already decided that they don’t agree with that, they immediately put their armour on and say that you are wrong. But if you present it as a joke, and their body recognises a truth that makes them involuntarily laugh, then immediately their armour is down, and then it makes it easier to get in. So, I think comedy is the most disarming way of making people recognise where they have blind spots, in such a way so that it does not feel like an attack. It feels like an invitation to initiate change.”

When it comes to initiating change, plans are afoot for a new The Guilty Feminist format this year. “We are starting forums,” Deborah reveals. “We are going to have a panel, and with the audience, we are going to try to solve a problem. Because so many brilliant people come and sit in our audience who know things that we don’t know. So, we are going to present ourselves a problem. It is very easy to bring a hammer and knock down what is there, but what do we want to build instead? Feminism is about the kind of world that we do want. How do we want it to look? If we are not happy with something, what would we like it to be like? So, we want to do forums looking at different areas of the world and our lives, and the way power structures work, and to just try to rethink them. What would we like, hypothetically? Because that is the beginning of real-world change. So, we want the audience to get involved in that, and we want to assemble really interesting, different panels, and we want to try and solve problems together.”

Deborah wears, left: coat (hobbs.com); gold camisole (zara.com); black trousers (viviennewestwood.com); boots (katmaconie.com); glasses (dolcegabbana.com); diamond heart necklace, red enamel strawberry necklace, and gold charm bracelet (kirstielemarque.com); and gold hand palmier chain bracelet (theofennell.com). Vintage bracelet, Deborah’s own. Right: bespoke jacket (gormleyandgamble.com); trousers and corset (vivienne westwood.com); heels (katmaconie.com); and pavé diamond egg necklace (kirstielemarque.com). Long gold vintage necklaces, Deborah’s own 

From episode one, the podcast has been recorded in front of a live audience, a detail that is very important to Deborah. “Honestly, it is everything to me,” she reveals. “The show was never not live. I think that is a big part of the success of it. Because the listeners at home do not just hear me and a comedian, or somebody in the public eye talking about it, they hear the audience – laughing, or gasping, or you know, responding, and asking questions. And that is important, because if you are listening at home, you think, no, it is not just me who thinks this. And it’s not just me and a couple of comedians, there’s an army of women and people of minority genders who feel like me. And that makes you feel really empowered to speak out.”

Indeed, there is only one thing that has prevented Deborah and her guests from performing in front of a live audience: the pandemic. “I wish somebody had told me at the start not to take live shows for granted, that they might disappear for a while,” she tells me. “I never thought there would be a day when the theatres would be locked. So, I will never not be grateful for being able to be in a room with The Guilty Feminist listeners. Getting back in front of them felt like a piece of me that I thought had died had come back to life. It felt like, in terms of stand-up comedy, I had stopped believing in my own talent and suddenly it was instant and back and glorious, and just incredible.”

Talk of live performance brings us back to the upcoming tour – I wonder how it differs from the podcast. “The live show is more like feminist variety,” Deborah explains. “You have comics, musicians, conversation with local feminists. I sometimes say that the only thing we lack is a feminist magician, and that we need to find one who will cut a man in half and leave him there… That is a joke! We love men; please come men,” she laughs. “No, lots of men do come to the show. It has got that feel and flavour of joy, kindness, liberation and lots of laughter. While anger is a great motivator, joy is what will draw people to the movement. And joy, and happiness, and comedy and fun and laughter, those things will make the movement resilient. So, those things are not to be underestimated!”

The previous tour saw some unforgettable moments for Deborah, so she is understandably excited about this one. Top of the highlights list? Probably performing at The Royal Albert Hall, she says. “The first ever woman I saw doing stand-up live was Victoria Wood at the Royal Albert Hall, and I was a student, and I remember thinking, if I ever make it – I wasn’t doing stand-up or comedy of any sort at the time, I think I was doing improvisation – this is where I will be. And, lo and behold, 2019, I was there. So, yeah, that was pretty special.” 

The Capital holds a special place in Deborah’s heart, and performing here will always be a treat, regardless of the venue. “I love London!” she exclaims. “I grew up in Australia and I used to read books about London all the time. I just desperately wanted to live here. I came here in the ’90s, and honestly it was like stepping off the plane into Narnia, because it was this place I had read about all my childhood, and suddenly it was real. It has just been my spiritual home ever since I first read a book set in London. I just love the atmosphere, I love the buildings, I love the buzz of the city. I love how many shows and art exhibitions and events there are on every night. Every single night in this city there is something else wonderful happening.”

It is a wonder that Deborah has the time to enjoy any of it though – aside from the tour and the podcast, it sounds like she is going to have a very busy year. “I have written a play which is being produced. I can’t really tell you any details about it, but I am very excited. I have also got some TV projects in the works,” she begins to list what 2022 holds for her. “I am an Amnesty International ambassador and I am the creative director of The Secret Policeman’s Tour, which is a live version of The Secret Policeman’s Ball, and we are building that again. I am working with Choose Love, who work in solidarity with refugees…”

Days off sound rare, but should she get a day to herself, I wonder how Deborah might choose to spend it. “I think I might meet a friend for brunch in Kettner’s in the West End, before going to the National Portrait Gallery,” she muses. “And then I think I might go over to Vivienne Westwood on Conduit Street. Maybe get my hair done at FOUR London. And then come back to north London, because I live in Camden Town, and wander up Parkway and go and have coffee at the Coffee Jar. Walk up to Primrose Hill, right up to the top, and watch the sun go down on the top. And then I might go for supper at Greenberry in Primrose Hill and finish off at Blues Kitchen, that would be fun.” 

To book tickets to the podcast recordings, or any of the live tour dates, see guiltyfeminist.com