With pride, I bear the mark of a Dame Edna Everage fan—recurring flower burn. Repeatedly, my eyes have almost been poked out by one of the wacky widow’s flying gladiolus, but I was too busy laughing my guts out to be all that mortified, possums. By the time Edna has lovingly torpedoed the flora into the crowd for her finale, you’ve succumbed to her bracing mix of topical jokes, insult humor, saucy songs, and enforced audience participation. By melding all those titillating talents, Edna has carved out a unique niche, and not just on my face. The drag creation of Aussie actor Barry Humphries since 1956, she’s fused music hall showmanship with self-help expertise, while deftly spoofing the aspirations and biases of the endearingly crass.
I recently phone-interviewed the gammy gal, and in the tradition of Pee-wee Herman and Laura Bush, she stayed flawlessly in character, even claiming to be furious at her manager, Barry Humphries. I politely agreed with her until remembering the little diva is Barry Humphries.
“I’m a little husky,” Edna said from the road, sounding rather sexy. “I’ve spent half the night with little Rod Stewart.” Oh, it was strictly professional, Edna assured me—she and Rod were merely clinking sidecars and planning a gala concert appearance together at Royal Albert Hall. “I know little Rod from the auction world,” Edna informed me. “He’s always the underbidder. My hand shoots up for any Kahlos or De Lempickas. By the way, after my Broadway show, I’m doing a one-woman tribute called Edna Is Frida. My eyebrows are growing excitingly close together!” Hubba, hubba!
But now, of course, all excess facial and body hair has been blowtorched for Dame Edna: Back With a Vengeance, the follow-up to her Tony-winning Dame Edna: The Royal Tour, which comes to the Music Box starting November 5. The show is expectedly heavy on the interaction, with Edna giving marital advice to a couple chosen from the audience, to name just one segment that will have everyone but the sociopathic squirming and praying they don’t get picked.
“A lot of people think I’m a stand-up comedienne,” Edna told me with a mega-star’s concern. “But I’m a sit-down comedienne. Even when I’m standing up, inside I’m sitting down, and there are creases on the back of my frock to prove it!” She let out a mad shriek that proved she absolutely must be a titled person of distinction.
Well, her old producers can sit down; reportedly, Edna fell out with them, but she said that despite the gossip, neither she nor Humphries is producing this new Broadway production. “I’ve invested in it and that was all,” she insisted. “I’m not a businesswoman!” That’s possum-licious with me—as long as she makes it her business to keep mounting the stage to taunt and tantalize people (other people, that is) with love and lunacy. How does she choose her targets? “I immediately spot those poor husbands who’ve been dragged along by eager wives,” Edna revealed. “It’s sad to see a perfectly nice businessman uncomprehendingly blinking—almost in the manner of your president—while people around him are convulsing in fits of laughter. I zero in and if I can’t coax a little twinkle out of them by the end of the evening, I actually contemplate suicide!”
Thoughts of self-destruction from the world’s chirpiest harpy? Yes, it turns out Down Under’s beloved unofficial first lady has a dark side that makes Frida look festive. Her sparkly wit and even more blinding eye makeup happen to mask decades of interior horror. She’s painfully shy, in fact, and admits that facing an audience amounts to her own form of highly paid therapy. As a child, she said, she hid behind the curtains when relatives came around, “and my mother would say, ‘Edna, sing us that little song. Pretend to be the wireless.’ You’d hear my little ringing tones, but I didn’t want anyone to see me. If you told me then that there’d eventually be men who regarded me as one of the most unusual beauties in the world! That I’d have offers from people like Prince Rainier, Henry Kissinger, Billy Carter—remember him?—Barry Manilow, and Ellen DeGeneres!” (“Anyone straight?” I cracked, but she didn’t answer.)
“You know the French term jolie-laide?” she went on. “It has been applied to me. It’s kind of an ambiguous compliment, don’t you think, Michael?” Absolument, mon cher—it generally refers to people so unsettling-looking they’re strangely almost cute. (Jolie must mean never, as in never laide.) But I assured Edna it’s obviously the fender-sized glasses and perhaps the oncoming unibrow that have earned her that dubious description, not her pristinely delicate features and darling demeanor. After all, Barry Manilow doesn’t pop his cork for just any old broad he sees.
“In Australia, I have the Dame Edna Academy of Drama,” the dame continued, unfazed, “sometimes known by its acronym, the DEAD.” Hugh Jackman is a DEAD graduate, she boasted, as are other illustrious Aussies from Russell Crowe to Helen Reddy. Edna even remembers being the first one to sing the proto-feminist anthem “I Am Woman” and later telling Reddy she could do it better. (“That was typical of my generosity of spirit.”) But did Reddy sing it better? “Of course not!” exclaimed Edna. “And I’m still here, in the words of little Steve!”
And she’s still dexterously balancing both international stardom and inspirational motherhood, God bless her. How are the little Everages, pray tell? Well, Kenny, the suspected “homeopath,” has whipped up some stunning ensembles for Mama’s new show. (And he’s still interested in weatherman Sam Champion, by the way.) But is daughter Valmai—who lives near Fresno with her butch partner—a lesbian, per se? A hushed pause. “It’s not a word I use, Michael,” said Edna, sounding pained. “I think the world is getting divided into smaller and smaller groups of people. Soon there’ll be special nightclubs and newspapers for those who part their hair on the right. I’m for integration. That said, my daughter is radically dysfunctional. She’s suffering from post-adolescent anaclitic phallophobia. In layman’s terms, she’s a fruitcake!”
Again, I was too busy laughing to feel very burned. This routine was consistent with Edna’s rude cracks about Latins in Vanity Fair last year, and since the horrified deserve an explanation, all I can think of is (a) she’s supposed to be a bit of a cow, and (b) she’s a satirist and has no regard whatsoever for correctness. Like the old Vegas-style comics, Edna aims to mock stereotypes while campily embracing them. “Political correctness is the old Plymouth Rock rearing its ugly head,” she told me, sounding a little more like Barry. “It’s a life-denying tendency. We should be able to describe the world as it really is. You find that the politically correct people are not the creators. They don’t sing, dance, tell stories, or write columns in The Village Voice.” Well, maybe they do write columns in The Village Voice.
“I do this,” concluded Edna, I mean Barry, I mean Edna, “because my favorite country other than Australia needs laughter as it’s never needed it before—and vitamin E. I know you use it, Michael. Well, I’m the other vitamin E.” I was stunned that such a prestigious personage had researched my beauty regimen almost as vigorously as I’d investigated hers. (Her pores apparently crave bee pollen mixed with a dash of jalapeño.) The bitch does her homework! This startling revelation made up for all those years of gladiolus damage—which I used vitamin E on, by the way. She’s back with a vengeance all right.