Comedian Deborah Frances-White On Why We’re All Guilty Feminists | Vogue Australia
Deborah Frances-White is already my favourite ever interviewee – and that’s before she wooes me with gemstones. “I give everyone who comes on my show a piece of suffragette jewellery”, explains the Brisbane-born comedian, as she hands me a jeweled Edwardian clip. “I call it ‘suffra-bling’” she quips, offering up her own, impressive collection for examination. “One of the things the suffragettes did is to damage coins” she says, showing me one of the shillings jostling away on a long gold neck chain, across which is determinedly carved, ‘Votes for Women.’ We’ve come a long way since then. And yet – as Frances-White’s work well illustrates – we could all do with some suffra-bling, right now.
You might have not yet heard of Frances-White, but I’ll bet that you’ll have at least one friend hooked on her podcast, The Guilty Feminist. Co-created in 2015 with Danish comedian Sofie Hagen (who has since left) the podcast is a weekly, live panel discussion with Frances-White and guest comedians, or celebrities. At the time of writing, the podcast has been downloaded over 12 million times and has received 1,562 iTunes reviews (by way of comparison, Serial has had 898.) Celebrity guests have included Fleabag actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Hollywood actresses Gemma Arterton and Clemence Poesy. And in case you’re wondering, they all made overtures to her.
The genius of The Guilty Feminist lies in its premise: that many C21st women feel like they are failing at feminism. Each episode is recorded live and opens with a short segment of stand-up in the form of humorous admissions from Frances-White and her guests (including rising comic stars Sara Pascoe and Susan Wokoma) which supposedly compromise feminist credentials. For instance, “I’m a guilty feminist, but if I had to choose between editing the lost works of Virginia Woolf, or going to bed with Jon Hamm, I would choose Jon – and make him read aloud from the text.” It’s very clever; a neat precis of where we are right now with gender politics (frequent answer: between a rock and a hard place.) “That bit at the top is the show in a nutshell. It’s about living with your paradoxes and understanding that even though you are not 100% the evolution of what you could be, that doesn’t stop you being a little bit powerful today and a little bit more feminist tomorrow.”
I tell her that I am a guilty feminist because I actually – deep breath – quite like being called ‘sweetheart’ by men. Frances-White’s favourite episode is Nice Girls Don’t, with Australian comedian Celia Pacquola and Melbourne-based Cal Wilson, where the women reveal instances where they have felt unsafe. During the episode, Frances-White regales a journey in an Uber, where she had to ‘talk’ her way into safety. “You always see actresses high-kicking their way out of those situations. But I can’t do Kung Fu. I have to use conversation.” She pauses. “That episode is uncompromisingly funny, but revelatory.” You could say that is true of all of her work.
Frances-White receives hundreds of missives each week from women (and men) telling her that she has transformed their understanding of feminism. “They’ll say, ‘I didn’t know I could be a feminist, I thought I had to be a better person in order to be one.” Diversity and inclusion are paramount tenets to her activism. “We look out of the white, male window a fuck load”, she said on a recent podcast. Today, she says, “As a white woman with a platform, what you have to think is, who can I give a voice to? You” she says, meaning specifically me, “are a middle-class, white, blonde woman, who has a membership at Soho House.” To illustrate her point further, we are now eating rare tuna on rye. “You are included about as much as a woman can be included. The question is, how much can you include other women who aren’t as included as you?”
Frances-White’s comedy is an easy listen, but it is about as far from trivial as possible: the podcast regularly covers sexual assault, mental health issues and identity politics, whilst her BBC radio show, Roll The Dice, is some of the most powerfully gripping radio I’ve ever heard. Frances-White mines a rich array of life experiences which includes finding her birth family (she was adopted at 10 days old), escaping from the Jehovah’s Witness ‘cult’ and marrying her husband for a Visa (“we were dating and he didn’t want me marrying anyone else.”) No-one is more surprised than her, that her marriage to producer Tom Salinskiy (who works with her on the podcast) turned out to be “a love match”.
It’s all told with typical comic levity. As a teenage witness, Frances-White went door-knocking with the uber-tanned popstar, Peter Andre – then known as ‘Brother Peter’ – and, improbably, upon moving to London aged 18, Michael Jackson. Yup, the Michael Jackson. Frances-White left the church in her early twenties, in order to attend Oxford University, where she studied English and is now an atheist. Whilst open about her own experience of a “patriarchal” and “psychologically damaging” religion, she’s careful when discussing the faith of her friends and family still in Australia, as it’s not her place to tell their tale.
Being a Jehovah’s Witness meant that Frances-White had no typical rites-of-passage. Everything like drinking and dating was contraband. “I had no experiences that normal teenagers would have. When I went to Oxford, I had only very recently been in a cult, so I was very much finding my own self. It took me a long time to talk to people about it. I needed to be far enough away from it so that it became an interesting relic from my past and not something that would be branded on me forever.” She says the experience colours and informs everything she does. “Being a Jehovah’s Witness denies a person from being themselves.” On one extraordinary episode in the first series ofRoll The Dice, called Saving Brother Ryan, Frances-White travelled to Canada to try and help a 23-year-old witness named Ryan, who had contacted her, against church rules, after listening to her podcast. To help him escape the church elders, she pretends to be Ryan’s aunt. Another episode sees her travel to Australia to track down her birth family. On finding them – latterly, in New Zealand – her birth sister, Mel, offers her one of her eggs, after Frances-White reveals that she and Salinskiy have undergone several failed IVF attempts. “I didn’t come to find you, to steal your eggs!” panics Frances-White, torn between the ethics and the ease. Her sister’s egg donation didn’t work, “but it was an amazing process to go through with Mel.” She’s sanguine now about not having children. “Sometimes I think I still want kids, but mostly I don’t. I love the freedom to travel the world with shows.”
In Frances-White’s world, truth really is stranger than fiction. But surprisingly, she isn’t in any way overwrought, or angsty, in the way that comedians often are. “As Nora Ephron always said, ‘everything is copy’. Anything bad that happens is copy” she says, simply. Predictably, she’s hilarious – “I’m not very interesting” she demurs when we first meet, before shouting, “Hold on, that’s terribly unfeminist of me; I am incredibly interesting” – with the conversation sliding easily into the ridiculous. “I’m wearing a sandwich hem” she says, as she sits down. (She’s also wearing a string of pearls and some gold sandals.) “A sandwich hem?” I reply, perplexed. Turns out she means an asymmetric hem, but I tell her that I think that that is a much better name for it. “What about if you could actually store sandwiches in the hem?” I posit. “Well that would be even better” she says, with satisfaction.
Prior to the podcast, Frances-White was a regular on the stand-up scene. Though based in the UK, she toured with The Melbourne International Comedy Roadshow, did three Melbourne International Comedy Festivals and The Adelaide Fringe Festival. She was lured into podcasting by the lack of ‘scheduling’. “We don’t have to pad and we don’t have to cut. We can say exactly what we want to say.” Podcasts are hot right now, I say (disclaimer: I co-host my own weekly news and pop-culture show in the UK, called The High Low.) She agrees, citing the American podcast Two Dope Queens by the former The Daily Show correspondent Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson, as a favourite. What would your tips be? “Find the thing you want to say, that no-one else is saying. Make sure you get your episodes regularly. Film them in an advance if you have to, so that you have 8-10 episodes in the can. And start around 25 minutes; you can extend it to longer if it finds itself an audience.”
Alongside The Guilty Podcast and Roll The Dice, Frances-White has a comedy panel show – also recorded live, Global Pillage involves two teams of comedians taking on the audience, on subjects including cultural idioms and language. She’s been working so hard that she’s losing her voice and during our two and a half hour lunch, she downs a succession of drinks including something called a ‘Botanical’ smoothie, a Diet Coke and hot water and lemon, to try and recover it. Still, she’s thinking of launching a new project: a live event called Dangerous Space. The idea is that it would be the opposite of a ‘safe space’, where guests would discuss “the things we are scared to discuss on Twitter, because we would get eaten alive. The deal is: no recording.”
Frances-White also runs an improvisation company with her husband called The Spontaneity Shop, which teaches improv workshops and delivers lectures to corporations including investment banks, on how to be more inclusive of women. Her 2015 TED talk, Charisma vs. Stage Fright, is a riveting look at language – both verbal and body. She cites Michelle Obama as someone naturally charismatic (“she isn’t apologetic in both the way she talks and how she occupies the stage”) and Donald Trump, unsurprisingly, as not. “His entire platform for running was one of exclusion: build a wall, keep them out.” Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton’s campaign, ‘She’s With Me’ was wrongly phrased, Frances-White explains, “because it put the onus on the electorate. The most successful ever campaign message was Obama’s Yes We Can, because it was one of inclusivity.”
In her late thirties, Frances-White acknowledges even she isn’t immune to age streotypes: “society gets a weird idea about women in comedy, before you factor in their age.” For many years, she avoided visiting Australia. She now visits twice a year and if she was to move back – no longer a distant possibility given the dismal politics in the UK, she says grimly – she would settle in Melbourne.
Her next visit back is in October, when The Guilty Feminist will be touring Australia and New Zealand. “It’s exciting, isn’t it?” she says, pleased. It really is. But can I be honest? I don’t think Deborah Frances-White has anything to feel guilty about.