This interview first appeared on Such Small Portions on the 25 February 2013. In response to this interview Jenny Kent of zerotolerance.org.uk threatened to picket my show and one of the Board of Directors of Edinburgh Fringe said on a public forum that she's 'not at all' happy with the show being part of the fringe. This is before the show has even been performed. You can see the exchange here. I offered funding for the picket but am still awaiting a reply.
You're waving goodbye to Sex Tourist - what's it like talking about the content of that show now? Does it look different now you have some distance on it?
Sex Tourist is the true story of what happened to me in Thailand last year. It was a dangerous, violent, seedy and depraved adventure in human desire and failure. I've never really talked about much else, in a performance context or otherwise. My biggest resource is my honesty and my failings as a person - not in a negative way, just a very human inability to always get things right. I try to keep no secrets. I'm only letting go of it because there's new stories, my life continues and there's new stuff to tell. There's a distinction between the show and the events it's based on.
I look at the show fondly, I'm proud of it and gave it my all, from both a performance and a promotional perspective, and it worked. I over-filled my room every night and got excellent reviews. When I look back on the events it was ultimately very dark and I was lucky to get away with my life and freedom. This isn't the first time I've been lucky in this area, it joins a long list of situations during which I could have easily been killed or incarcerated. I'd rather it not have happened, but it did and I haven't got time for regrets, I've got to get through today.
Comedy likes to think of itself as a very confrontational industry but it's oddly squeamish about sex most of the time. Why do you think this is?
Some comedy - a particular comedy - likes to think of itself as a confrontational industry, I'm sure, but is any industry confrontational? When you exist to generate revenue you usually avoid confrontation. I think what passes for 'confrontational' in our current cultural climate is more of an inoculation - a small amount of an acknowledged and accepted resistance to mainstream - represented - values and ways of being that actually serve to support that mainstream. Society actually makes room for a small amount of diluted subversion with which it protects itself from any real attack or confrontation.
On most levels sex is tackled - and I'm being generous with that word - based on historical myths that become contemporary belief. The object 'sex' can only be that what has been said about it and how that is repeated, it doesn't actually exist. Comedy, as a frame through which something can be viewed from any angle, and which could threaten to change the object itself, more often than not 'confronts' a myth and exposes a little of its falsity.
This is a straw man argument, though, and fails to acknowledge an activity as lived. It's dishonest and ineffective - it erodes the social role and function of comedy beyond what I'd call an 'identification giggle'. You can get those by pushing someone over. Unless as a performer - and an audience member - you're willing to go a step further and actively participate in the undoing of myth and participate in a process of honesty and awareness you risk being confined to baby-food culture; pre-digested content that has effectively already been chewed - sometimes digested - for you. It's passive, non-confrontational, bland and ultimately of little value, which of course the 'industry' loves and thrives on.
What is it like to be a comedian who is closely identified with prostitution and general debauchery? Do you wonder what it is going to feel like when you're, say, 50 to be known as that guy?
It's who I am. I'd be more concerned if I was closely identified with something else as then I'd be an actor, not a comedian. I've never written any 'material' down. I live, I tell the stories. I haven't set out to have that image it's just who I am. There's a element of permission here. I spent a lot of my life being told how to be, what to do, what not to do, what to think and what not to think, what is right and what is wrong, what is allowed and what isn't allowed. Nearly all of this has conflicted with my actual motivations and desires; most of what I've been told I should be has conflicted - frequently painfully - with who I am, and what I could be.
Once I began to accept myself, accept my difference and give myself permission to be that person I found a little - perhaps just a glimpse - of freedom, not much, but more than I had ever known, and I seized it with both hands, gripped it tight and treasured it. Just as that show questioned what a sex tourist was, it also questioned what prostitution is - for there are many types and manifestations of prostitution, very few of them fitting a generalized account perpetuated by an ignorant and ideologically bias media.
'That guy'? Do I wonder what it's going to be like to be me when I'm 50? No. I'm long past seeking approval. Like I said previously, I have permission to be me. If I take personal responsibility for my actions, if I respect other people's rights and don't set out to intentionally harm or damage anyone then I'll be happy to continue being me, becoming me, in whatever form that takes. Such fantastical concerns as 'future opinions' could only serve to limit me and occur a sort of self-surveillance which would only negatively affect the present, which is all there is anyway, and even that intangible and fleeting. Why suffocate and restrict something that's always already diminishing? The trick is surely to embrace now, magnify and celebrate, not attempt some arrogant and narcissistic, fear based and ego-laden megalomaniacal control on a future that doesn't exist.
This year's show: why Chinese prostitutes?
I live in Soho, a one-minute walk from Chinatown, so context, really. I got in with the Chinese prostitute scene which is flourishing around here and met some of the most amazing people I've ever met. I am humbled in the presence of prostitutes and the Chinese ones have the added attraction of a Communist education, a class, gender and race struggle to which I am both sympathetic and attracted to. These are strong, motivated people, myth-shattering independent women who have taken responsibility in frequently dire personal circumstances.
I've become good friends with some and my life would be less without them. You build relationships with prostitutes, they get to know you and you get to know them. A lot of the ones I was once having sex with are now people I have lunch with, discuss business with and care deeply for. It's like the inverse of the usual situation: get to know, lunch, lovers - it's the other way round with a prostitute - lovers, lunch, get to know. And neither version is the right or wrong way, just different. In my experience Oriental people have a tendency to be more honest around sex, which unsurprisingly I find attractive.
You say you've spent £150,000 on them in 18 months. What are the maths here? How much does a Chinese prostitute actually cost?
I was spending between £50 and £200 a time and sometimes four a day. There you go. It was actually a little more than £150,000.
Do you find it strange there aren't any vocal sex-positive sex workers in the UK?
There are, depending on what you mean by vocal. I had loads come and see the show and they loved it. They were pleased with my honesty and what one called a 'refreshing representation of what actually happens'. I was contacted by several during the Edinburgh Fringe run, and met up for drinks and lunch, etc. You can understand in a culture such as ours where they are demonized, misrepresented, appropriated to serve other agendas - basically misunderstood - it isn't in a prostitute's interest to expose themselves and their trade. People don't like to admit it happens, that it's a huge business and that their friends and family use the service. It holds society up for what it is, highlights the whole notion of wage labour, the body and work, the financial exchange for a person's time, energy and physicality.
People don't want to see the world for what it is; they spend their lives pretending things are otherwise. Prostitution cracks the veneer, its actuality threatens to break the artificial limits our lives already, silently, secretly, and shamefully transcend, but people want to brush such confessions into the corner, under the carpet. Culture - our lives - from this angle are a host of dirty little secrets, shrink-wrapped and glossed over with a sort of sickly artificial honey.
Congratulations on getting clean. How has rehab been? What's actually involved? Will this feature in the show?
There's been some misunderstanding here. Although I have had the pleasure of going to rehab several times, I actually just relapsed, ended up using a few bags of heroin and a handful of benzodiazepines a day and woke up in Bangkok. I booked myself into a hotel in Patong and brought myself down by extracting codeine from over-the-counter medication and a few diazepam. In rehab you're forced to look at the real conditions of your addiction, of your existence, rather than the stock of artificial rationalizations, justifications, blame, self-pity and fear you run on while using. One to one therapy, group therapy, life stories, and honesty. It's a difficult and beautiful thing.
This wasn't rehab, this was a withdrawal, a detox. This was a terrible decision, made while out of my head, that more by luck and the help of some amazing Thai women than any real effort from me, happened to work. It won't feature in the show as that timeline is already set. I did however write a novel in the form of a daily diary of my three weeks out there which I'll type up soon and somehow make public.
You can see the last performance of Sex Tourist at The Comedy Cafe, Shoreditch on 9th May and 'Enter The Dragon: How I spent £150,000 on Chinese Prostitutes in 18 months' at The Edinburgh Fringe.