Comedian Jo Brand Talks Sexism, The Downside To Fame And Locking Horns With Bullies

'He whispered in my ear: "I always knew you weren’t funny, but I never realised what a C-word you were".'

Jo Brand is funny, frank and the kind of feminist you’d want to be friends with.

The stand-up comedian, author and actress is well-known for her pro-women stance, which has led to her being labelled “man-hating” and heckled by low-lives on multiple occasions throughout her career.

But the reality is that Brand doesn’t hate men, she’s just sick of the patriarchal undertones in society.

Jo Brand
Jo Brand

The 59-year-old, who is married to Bernie Bourke with two children, is thick-skinned (perhaps as a result of working as a psychiatric nurse for 10 years) and often able to find the funny side when she’s insulted, however that’s not to say tackling the male-dominated industry of comedy has been easy.

She’s faced bullying from men (including being called a c*** while presenting at an awards ceremony) and has been heavily scrutinised by the media at certain points in her life. “For years, people assumed I was gay,” she told The Huffington Post UK. “So when I got married they were shocked and made a big deal about it.”

But Brand has continued to rise above the powers that try to push her back, she’s conquered the world of comedy and is now helping to inspire and empower fellow women by talking at this year’s Women of the World Festival (7-12 March).

Building on the excitement of International Women’s Day (8 March), we spoke to Brand for our new interview series ‘Fierce’ about how society views ambitious women, dealing with fame and why you should never feel alienated by bullies.

Who inspires you and why?

The women who just get on with it, however terrible their lives are - whether they’re single mothers or struggling with a violent partner or they haven’t got enough money. I think a lot of women are incredibly tough and they’re just really admirable. Especially the way that, given what they’ve got, they just manage to carry on.

What was the last thing you did that made you proud?

I received an award called the Third Sector award in 2014, which is a charity award voted for by the heads of charities. They consider which ‘celebrity’ - in inverted commas - has contributed the most to charity. What’s so great about it is that there was was a shortlist of five people including Angelina Jolie - and it’s not that often I beat her at anything!

The award was for those who had contributed to charity. Usually, what people in the public eye do is pick two charities and just exclusively work for them. But that means you have to turn people down all the time, so I try and do something for everyone that asks me, at least once.

Having done a normal job for 10 years, as a psychiatric nurse dealing with emergencies, I know what terrible, hopeless lives some people have. So in many ways, it’s great to be able to wield the financial power that I can, and do gigs, fundraisers or give money. I feel lucky I can help out.

How do you think society views ambitious and successful women?

They tend to think they’re a bit weird and they probably think there’s something wrong with them.

There’s still this underlying image of women that they should fulfil a certain role. It’s no accident that a lot of men who are a bit misogynistic tend to say things like ‘get back to the kitchen’ or ‘why aren’t you at home looking after the kids’.

I think people tend to believe that women who are successful are probably neglecting their children, possibly a bit hard-nosed and that they don’t really support other women very much - that they’re men-haters and ball-breakers.

I’ve certainly been on the receiving end of those ‘compliments’ for most of my career.

Does success have a downside? If so, what is it?

For me, I suppose it’s been an invasion of privacy at certain points in my life. On the whole, you can have a private life and be famous. But when milestones happen in your life like having children or getting married, privacy goes out of the window.

For a long time, people assumed I was gay, so when I got married the press were all a bit shocked and made a big deal of it - and ditto when I had children. I felt very much under the microscope with paps outside the house taking pictures of me getting the baby out of the car, it was excruciating. I remember getting her out of the car seat and thinking ‘oh God I’m going to drop her and they’re going to take a picture’. I was so nervous. Those sorts of things are really hard.

What motivates you to get out of bed in the morning and keep pushing forward?

I suppose it’s a combination of things: my family, obviously. I like to think that if I stayed in bed, the whole operation would fall apart. (It probably wouldn’t, but that’s my fantasy).

Also work motivates me. I love what I do and I’m a positive person, I’ve always liked what I’ve done as a job - however grim it was.

How do you practise self-care and why is it important?

I think the truth of it is that I don’t, really. I try to and I know what I should be doing, but whether I’m actually doing that is doubtful and certainly not consistent.

I did a big walk last year and I’ve tried to keep the walking up since then to get some exercise. I tried to eat better too, but when you’re on tour you literally just eat some hideous pork pie on the motorway on the way to a show. It’s a really unhealthy lifestyle: you’re up late, drinking loads of coffee to stay awake, drinking loads of alcohol because you’re socialising with people.

When I had kids, I felt like I had an even better reason to try and be a bit more healthy. So I have tried to be. I gave up smoking, I gave up drinking, I’m trying to give up food now... [Laughs]

What’s your biggest regret? And what did you learn from it?

Not keeping in touch with good friends. I’ve lost a few friends in the last few years, mainly from cancer. For example, there was an amazing stand-up comic called Linda Smith who I lost touch with when I had kids because I was so busy and knackered all the time. I do really regret that.

I think it’s so easy when you have children just to turn your focus inward on your family and because, when they’re young, you don’t sleep very much, you’re walking around like a zombie most of the time anyway.

It’s a really important part of my life to have good friends, you have to work quite hard to keep the relationships going but it’s worth it.

What’s the one thing you would change or do in 2017 to push women forward?

I think I’d concentrate on young women - particularly girls at school - and I would try and build into school curriculums much more education about relationships and how girls (and boys) can handle them: stuff about consent and that sort of thing.

I’ve been reading research from Refuge and the NSPCC that says there are a huge number of teenage girls (aged 13-18) who have experienced violence in relationships. Surely that’s the time to get to them, educate them and not let them grow up to become women who marry abusers and then force their children to grow up in that environment.

If you had one piece of advice for other women, what would it be?

I know there are certain men that hate women or don’t like women, and in order to make women feel small, they tend to isolate them when they bully them. And women are often humiliated by it and feel they can’t do anything about it.

So my advice to women would be: there’s always support around for those sorts of things and if you feel you’re isolated in any way, or being bullied, you must talk to someone about it. There’s something people do to you when they bully you that makes you feel like you’re on your own. But don’t keep things inside, it’s really damaging if you do.

I once did a huge awards ceremony (this is just a tiny example) and, at the end, the head of company that had won the overall award came up to collect it. The company had won lots of awards that evening, so I’d slightly teased them about it. Anyway, the man came up and, as I gave him the award, he whispered in my ear: “I always knew you weren’t funny, but I never realised what a C-word you were.” Of course, nobody else heard it.

It was such a bully thing to do and I don’t think he would have done it if I was a bloke. So I told the audience what he’d said and it made a huge difference because it made me feel less isolated. It’s funny because even then I felt terrible, like I was really going to embarrass him. But then I thought, ‘well why should I care? He started it’.

A few people that worked for his company came up to me afterwards and said he was really difficult to work with and that he was horrible to women, so it made me glad I said something.

Jo Brand is taking part in WOW Views on the News, 12 March at Southbank Centre, which is part of Women of the World Festival from 7-12 March 2017, supported by Bloomberg. For more info, visit their website: #WOWLDN @WOWTweetUK

Fierce is our new regular feature on The Huffington Post UK, asking trailblazing women what drives them. We’ll be speaking to a range of women including those who’ve found success in male-dominated industries, created a service to help other women and are using their position to empower others.