Joanne McNally: ‘I’m freezing everything. My face. My eggs’

Comedian Joanne McNally: 'I think women don’t see themselves represented in live comedy as much, especially in Ireland'
The Irish comedian on her upcoming tour, relationships, the UK comedy scene and her experience with an eating disorder

Joanne McNally is in Battersea, in the basement of the London home of her friend and podcast co-host, Irish model and television presenter Vogue Williams. To be specific, she’s sitting in her friend’s massive walk-in wardrobe where it is difficult not to be distracted by all the designer dresses and shoes. “Ha, ha, yeah, it’s amazing isn’t it?” McNally says laughing, all messy high bun and dimples, moving the laptop camera over rails of covetable clothes. She contrasts this luxurious pad with her own London flatshare where “I can flush the toilet from my bed”.

A few years ago the comedian was living between Dublin and London, doing the working men’s clubs, barely scraping a living and staying in hostels. Back then, Williams invited McNally to move into the home she shares with her husband, entrepreneur and Made in Chelsea star Spencer Matthews. McNally is in a much better place now career-wise but she still spends a lot of time in the house even when the celebrity couple, who have two small children, are away. “They’re like family to me,” she says.

After several years of graft, hustle and craft-honing, this gloriously gobby Dubliner is on the cusp of something truly groundbreaking. We’re speaking because later this month she’s appearing in the Dublin Fringe Festival for five sold-out nights. But over several months next year, she is going where no other Irish funny woman has gone before, doing 20 nights of her show The Prosecco Express in Dublin venue Vicar Street. Having followed her career over the past several years and been entertained by her razor-sharp, outrageously funny and often brutal banter in much smaller venues such as Whelan’s, I’m thrilled for the woman in the posh wardrobe. “I mean, 20 dates in Vicar Street, Joanne,” I exclaim. “Fifteen of which are already sold out?” In contrast to my excitement, McNally, is sanguine.

Comedian Joanne McNally
Comedian Joanne McNally

“I think I was always working towards being a big comic, I always wanted to do big rooms,” she says. “And still, it’s kind of surprising and strange. But then why is it strange? I knew it was going to happen. This is what I was working towards . . . I don’t want to do that whole ‘I can’t believe it’s happening to me’ thing. Because strategically, that is where I was headed and now it’s happening.”

It’s interesting that she talks about strategy given that she arrived relatively late and almost by accident on to the Irish comedy scene. She was in her early 30s and working in public relations when in 2014 her friend, director Una McKevitt, asked her to join the cast of Singlehood, a show where young people talked about the highs and lows of being single. She was the breakout star, going on to write and perform Separated At Birth with fellow comic PJ Gallagher where the pair explored their shared experience of being adopted. She appeared on Republic of Telly and in 2017 performed her one-woman show Bite Me, creating poignant, gutsy and hilarious art from her severe eating disorder and subsequent recovery.

Her Gleebag show was a Vicar Street sell-out and she’s more than done her time on the Edinburgh comedy circuit. Now, having moved to London she’s a lively presence on a string of high-profile British comedy television programmes, often appearing on the Jonathan Ross chat show. Ross is a big Joanne McNally fan.

Selling out multiple nights in Vicar Street is an achievement usually associated with giants of the Irish comedy scene such as Dara O’Briain, Tommy Tiernan and Des Bishop – the latter once did 41 shows there in a year. So how does it feel? “I don’t mean to sound arrogant but I am ready for this, ability wise,” she says. “I think it can sometimes happen that a comedian’s profile gets very big before they’ve honed their stand-up. And that’s unfortunate because you can sell all the tickets you want, but if you are not ready to do a show and perform you will lose the audience. The timing has worked out for me. I am ready for the big shows and confident I can deliver. Yeah, that’s how I feel.”

There were all these rules, before my time: women couldn’t be too sexy on stage. But I genuinely feel that is all gone

The Vicar Street story is, I suggest, perhaps more “surprising and strange” because she is a woman. It’s true there is no shortage of Irish female comedy talent – Eleanor Tiernan, Deirdre O’Kane, Alison Spittle, Emma Doran and more – and yet it is also true that comedy here and elsewhere has for decades been dominated by men.

“It comes down to economy of scale, there are way more male comics . . . so that’s working against us,” McNally says thoughtfully. Also, the idiotic notion that “women aren’t funny” still abounds. “I mean, I have women coming up to me, women never men, because I don’t think they’d have the balls, but I still have women coming up to me saying ‘I don’t usually find women funny’ which is mad.”

She doesn’t think 20 shows in Vicar Street would have been an option for a woman in comedy 10 years ago, but says thankfully the industry has changed. “There were all these rules, before my time: women couldn’t be too sexy on stage because you could never look like a sexual threat to a woman in the audience. You never wanted them to think that their boyfriend would want to ride you. But I genuinely feel that is all gone.” She points to performers such as Katherine Ryan, “a glamazon”, and Amy Schumer, “all legs” .

“Before there was a trend with female comics to play down their feminine side. Now, I’m a bit of a tomboy anyway, so I was never going to be rocking up with the legs on display. And anyway my knees have little faces on them, so I try to cover them at all times.”

McNally on the Republic of Telly

Comments like this make it a joy to interview McNally. Every so often she’ll say something unexpected like this perfect description of many women’s knees – oh, alright, my knees – that the conversation is interrupted by snorting – mine – and cackling – hers. Joanne McNally, I’m happy to report, is a woman who has a healthy appreciation for her own gags.

When we stop giggling about knees with faces she says she feels “very lucky” to be doing comedy now. “Back in the day, well before I was in comedy, it was such a masculine industry and the women in it had to project a masculine role.” She says a more inclusive cultural landscape means there are “massive opportunities” now, and as much as people said she wouldn’t get work because she’s a woman, there are definitely jobs she gets “because I am a woman . . . and I like to think I deliver when I’m there”.

McNally signed with a UK talent agency four years ago and is now looked after by people who have an impressive record in taking once-unknown comic talent such as Michael McIntyre and Alan Carr and developing them into huge stars. When she first joined the agency she was still living in Dublin. She shudders thinking about the “slog” of the commute to London, doing open spots at various clubs and The Gong Show, where if they’re not entertained, audiences can order fledgling comics off the stage. “It was properly traumatising,” she says.

She’s typically honest about this time, about the self-doubt and very real fear that her comedy ambitions might not be realised. “There were some very ropey moments where I honestly was like, what am I going to do? I was thinking about getting out of comedy and doing nursing or psychology.” Gradually, she landed more paid work, moved over to London and built up her profile.

Then the pandemic hit.

With live shows gone, she began podcasting which she describes as “a turning point”. She did one with Muireann O’Connell called Let’s Solve Nothing which was well received. After that, she teamed up with Williams. “Not to blow smoke up her ass but Vogue has been instrumental in me getting on over here. She is very kind. She’s the one who suggested the podcast.”

‘I am ready for the big shows’
‘I am ready for the big shows’

Conveniently, McNally’s therapist had just ghosted her, providing the duo with a memorable podcast name. The timing was good. McNally couldn’t do gigs but My Therapist Ghosted Me took off like a rocket – it’s a hugely entertaining listen, like eavesdropping on two of your funniest, don’t-give-a-feck friends. Now things are opening up again she feels people are “thirsty to go out”. Thirsty for her Fringe show and for 20 nights of McNally’s Prosecco Express. I’d bet a crate of the fizzy stuff that there are a few more nights added by the time she takes to the Vicar Street stage next February.

Joanne McNally was born in Roscommon and adopted into a family in Killiney on the southside of Dublin. She was a raucous, sometimes disruptive teenager, and after transition year she left school, “by mutual agreement”, completing her Leaving Cert in the Institute. She went on to study sociology at University College Dublin. The subject fascinated her and she came first in her year on graduation. She was offered a chance to do a doctorate but the academic route did not appeal. She had little confidence, she says, but harboured dreams of acting or writing. She went into PR instead.

I was working and living my life, just with a severe mental illness

The first time I came across McNally was in 2013. I was a judge on Vodafone’s World of Difference programme, a competition where young people with drive, passion and ideas were awarded a year’s salary to work with the charity of their choice. I remember McNally’s interview because she stood out as a charming, authentic, hyperintelligent ball of energy. There was no doubt in the judge’s minds that she should be one of the winners and that she would go on to great things.

None of us judges knew that the woman sitting in front of us was in a private kind of hell, experiencing her own severe mental health issues in relation to an eating disorder. “The reason I did the World of Difference thing was because I thought it would cure me,” she says. “I was so unwell. But I was working and living my life, just with a severe mental illness.” She left her job in PR to join the charity, in search of work that felt more worthy and less stressful. “I thought, yes, this will fix it . . . but sure I went properly off the rails then, because I had all this time. The PR job had kept me busy enough so I was functioning but when that pressure was taken off . . .”

At her lowest point, she was sleeping in the office of the charity. “I was very unwell and living with two other people at the time.” She couldn’t hide her eating disorder anymore. “The cat was wildly out of the bag at that stage and I felt so guilty and so ashamed, I didn’t want to be at home anymore.”

She remembers it as a “very dark” time.

“I was thinking, I’ll just be deranged here on my own . . . at some point you learn how to live with your addiction without wrecking anyone else’s head.” Her mother had by this point staged an intervention, telling her she couldn’t be in the family home until she sought help. McNally snuck back there when her mother was away. She binged on all the food for the family’s Easter celebration and then on the way to the shops to replace the food, she collapsed. It was her rock bottom and led to her seeking help and accessing treatment for both anorexia and bulimia, illnesses from which it is notoriously difficult to recover.

I ask if she thinks her adoption, or questions about her identity, contributed to her mental health difficulties. A few years ago she traced her birth family and is in contact with her father who is in Australia.

“I don’t know,” she says. “I was very professionally unfulfilled, but then lots of people are and they don’t end up on a psychiatric ward . . . I’m quite ambitious and I got waylaid into a really unhealthy way of achieving success. Being the thinnest person in the room was my idea of success, waking up lighter than the day before was progress. And now, thank god, I put all that ambition and drive into my job.”

She found lockdown difficult and developed an anxiety disorder which she deals with by burning sage – a spiritual practice known as sage-ing – and listening to ocean sounds on Spotify. “It’s better than Xanax and gin,” she says.

“I’m spiritual but in an ‘Urban Outfitters, can you get it down Oxford Circus?’ kind of way.” She is more accepting of her body now. “It took a very long time, but I am happy with where I am. I don’t think I don’t deserve to leave the house because I put on three pounds. That’s not how I think anymore.”

McNally in Whelan’s, Dublin. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
McNally in Whelan’s, Dublin. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Recently, she was accidentally CCd on an email between two English production companies where she was described as having “a lovely, working-class, Irish authenticity”. She found this hilarious because as Irish fans know this self-deprecating southside woman is “annoyingly, audibly posh . . . just without the money.” The British see her as a mouthy, down-to-Earth Irish woman. She thinks comedians, even unknown ones, get more time and have more opportunities in the UK, compared with Ireland. “I don’t mean any shade to Ireland, but getting a break like I did on Jonathan Ross just wouldn’t happen at home.”

We talk about her new show which she says is really “the Prosecco Express Reimagined” because she’s toured a form of it before. The press release says it’s about “a woman, in her 30s, spending weekends celebrating other people’s milestones”. If there is an overall theme, she says, it’s just “being a 38-year-old woman”.

When I express surprise that she is 38 – she looks younger – she says, “I’ve a very good doctor.” McNally is upfront about cosmetic treatments, including Botox. “I don’t really hide anything in my life so it would be very weird if I drew a veil over Botox . . . anyway it’s obvious I’ve had it, my face doesn’t move! I had really bad lines and I’m in a business where keeping your face fresh is part of the job. People say, you don’t know what the long-term effects of Botox are and I say, I do – it’s riding men half your age.”

Apart from the riding, there is a lot going on. She’s just been booked to do Live at the Apollo, a BBC television show she used to watch before she ever got into comedy. It will air in December. She’s working on a sitcom idea with the BBC too, “which I’m going to park for a while to do this tour. Because I want to make the show as good as it can be.” The tour takes her all over Ireland and the UK including three nights at the London Palladium.

During lockdown I realised I didn’t want to be one of those people who puts everything into their career and then wakes up at 55 with no kids and no partner

After the tour, the plan is to take some time out and come back in a couple of years “with a bang” for another tour that will hopefully see her headline her dream venue where that previously mentioned television show is being filmed, The Apollo Theatre in London. “And I want to write a book,” she says.

She is famously funny about dating but when I ask about that she grows more serious saying her job makes relationships difficult, because she is never in one place for long. She was seeing someone until recently. It ended amicably but now she’s going back on the dating apps. “Before, I was like, ‘I’m not that bothered’ but during lockdown I realised I didn’t want to be one of those people who puts everything into their career and then has that thing where you wake up at 55 with no kids and no partner. I don’t want that for myself. So I will try to put in a bit of time.”

She says lockdown gave her time to reflect. She realised she’d become so obsessed with her career that she had “nothing else” in her life. “And I realised I want more, actually . . . it’s not like I’m yearning for a baby right now but like most women my age, I don’t want the option gone.” So is the woman who once made a documentary called Baby Hater planning to freeze her eggs? “Oh yeah, I’m freezing everything. My face. My eggs. We need Botox for the womb.” And she laughs, long and hard.

Is she nervous or stressed about the upcoming tour, the biggest she’s ever done?

“Not at all. I live for the gigs, it’s my favourite thing,” she says. “I can’t wait.”

McNally says she doesn’t understand why the tickets are selling so well – “I haven’t analysed it in any massive way” – but as we chat, it’s clear she has a deep understanding of her core audience and an appreciation of her appeal.

“I do think that women don’t see themselves represented in live comedy as much, especially in Ireland,” she says. “And I also think it’s maybe because I am so average. I’m a normal 30-something woman and I love Zara and white wine and there are just so many women who are similar to that and they want to come and hear jokes about themselves and about me . . . maybe it’s just a community of women who didn’t see themselves on stage before.”

She grins when she talks about the women who follow her on Instagram, joining in with all the high-octane Joanne McNally camaraderie, banter and craic. “They DM me and they are so f**king funny, I can’t even tell you,” she says. “And that’s the vibe of the show really. Funny women, drinking wine and making each other laugh.”

The Dublin Fringe Festival runs from September 11th to 26th. Joanne McNally’s Prosecco Express Reimagined Dublin dates are from February through to June 2022. For more see joannemcnally.com

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