Luisa Omielan was never a dog person. She didn’t enjoy canine company or want one for herself. But less than a week after she buried her mum Helena, who had died from stage 4 stomach cancer, she found herself on the doorstep of a stranger’s home in north London picking up a Bernese Mountain dog.
The 36-year-old comedian wasn’t even meant to be there. A puppy she’d originally earmarked elsewhere had fallen through, so she thought the plan was off. That was until she serendipitously stumbled across an internet advert for a second one – a strange coincidence given the rarity of the breed in the UK.
Not only was the puppy available at short notice, but – the advert informed her –was of Polish descent, like herself. “How many Polish Bernese mountain dogs do you hear of?” she asks rhetorically.
Promising herself she would just go and take a look, the next thing Omielan knew, she was driving the four and a half hours back home to Birmingham with a puppy on the seat next to her. The pair have been inseparable ever since.
Most days Bernie – whose full name is Bearnaise ’Kapusta Pekińska’ Sauce (combining Omielan’s love of steak and the Polish term for a fat cabbage) – comes along to whatever Omielan is doing: they have been to the cinema together, to photoshoots, to MAC to have their makeup done, swimming and hiking. Bernie has even been on her most recent tour ‘Politics for Bitches’.
The show, which debuted at the Edinburgh fringe this year and has dates up and down the country (tickets available until February 2019) sees 14-month-old Bernie make a stage debut as Omielan speaks candidly about her mother’s death: watching her mum die from starvation alongside her five siblings, in what she describes as the most “horrific, brutal and cruel” thing she’s ever seen.
Fans of her comedy (previous shows include ‘What Would Beyonce Do?’ and ‘Am I Right Ladies?’) might see a shift between the older material and the stuff she performs today. It’s clear that her mother’s cancer treatment and her death last July just seven weeks after the diagnosis, had an entirely life-altering affect on Omielan – in the months after, Luisa herself was diagnosed with PTSD.
Despite never wanting a dog in the first place, Omielan credits Bernie for helping her survive the grief – “she saved my life single handedly, without a doubt she saved my life” – and for giving her the confidence to return to work, something she could never have imagined when her mother died.
“I didn’t dream of being up on stage. My mum made me promise I’d do my tour but I wanted nothing to do with it,” she says. She also started having panic attacks and bouts of anxiety, particularly in large crowds or on public transport.
In fact, Bernie has had such a profound effect on Omielan’s mental health that she is considered a therapy dog by Luisa’s GP – who provided her with a letter that means she can take Bernie into public spaces, like hotels, when touring.
“For a good 10 months I couldn’t go out without her. It gave me something to focus on. If i just kept looking at Bernie I could get through the day,” she says.
She realised just how healing Bernie could be was during a show in Bath – the first time she’d been back on stage after her mum’s death. “I was still trying to do my old material and I just wanted the ground to swallow me up and go home,” she says. “Bernie heard my voice from the dressing room and started scratching the door, so we let her on stage. I started talking about my mum, and Bernie. I got a standing ovation.”
Fans even offered to donate money, so Omielan decided to set up her own charity, Helena’s Hospice, to provide small comforts to those with terminal illnesses. Whether it’s a neck pillow, bath oils, a coffee machine or a massage. Anything to avoid the same death that she watched her mother endure.
Although Bernie hasn’t always been so well behaved. During a show in Glasgow she did a poo in the middle of the stage and fans had to crowdsurf a poo bag to the front for Omielan to sort out the dirty protest. And she says that despite being an emotional support, Bernie isn’t compassionate when it comes to tears.
“She is bloody useless in a drama, if I’m crying she’ll just bark at me to take her on a walk. When my mum died, I didn’t have a chance to stay in bed all day cause this bitch would wake me up at six.”
Nonetheless, having her has been healing in a way Omielan would never have imagined. “I just associate her with love. She’s so happy and sweet and kind and annoying and stubborn and useless but she’s my girl. If she wasn’t here I don’t like to think where I’d be.”
Everything now revolves around the dog, she says. “I’ve got to buy a car and I’m looking at people carriers. What cool, single, 30-year-old woman without children do you know who has got a people carrier?”