‘All I wanted was to find out my birth mother was Twink or Linda Martin’

Comedian Joanne McNally was born to perform but it took an eating disorder to kickstart her career

Joanne McNally: “Even if I got my own Netflix special, and the only day I could film it was Christmas Day – it’d be ‘Go f**k yourself, Joanne. Come home’.”

Joanne McNally: “Even if I got my own Netflix special, and the only day I could film it was Christmas Day – it’d be ‘Go f**k yourself, Joanne. Come home’.”

 

If you were to take a stab at Joanne McNally’s most abiding childhood Christmas memory, you might imagine an idyllic morning, surrounded by empty wrapping paper; perhaps a festive day out that she has never forgotten, or maybe discovering that ‘Rudolph’ has nibbled the carrot she left out for him the night before. Considering her amusingly skewed take on life, however, the Dublin comic is not so easily sussed.

“When I was a child, my dad had to have open heart surgery,” she explains when we meet in a city centre bar. “The doctors weren’t going to let him out, but he got out on Christmas Eve and it was really heavily snowing; like,’80s snow, where no one understood climate change and no one was freaking out. We lived on the top of a hill in a little cul-de-sac, and we couldn’t get the car up – so all the kids had to pull him out onto a sleigh in his dressing gown, this big wound on his heart. Bleeding out onto the snow, with an IV in his arm,” she jokes. “So that was fun.”

These days, Christmas in the McNally household is a little less dramatic. Her dad sadly passed away when she was a teenager, but he remains a part of the day, nevertheless.

“There’s loads of booze and huge amounts of food,” she nods enthusiastically. “We usually go out to visit Dad’s grave and then my brother and his kids and wife come up. We have cosmos – I know, so weird. My mum gets a notion about drinks – I think she watched ‘Sex and the City’ once, or something. But she makes it in a huge jug, which kind of takes away from the chicness of us all – this big jug of cosmopolitan in the fridge. We play games, charades, stuff like that. As little telly as we can – I hate telly on Christmas Day, I find it really depressing. Christmas is such a cool, exciting time that Christmas Day can be an anti-climax because you’re just waiting for it to be done, locked in the house with your family. So we try to make it as fun as we can.”

One thing’s for sure: despite her high-flying touring schedule and increasingly busy career, there’s no question that she’ll spend Christmas at the family home in Killiney, south Dublin.

I’m very immature, but it works for me – it means I can still do student gigs, basically

“Jesus, I’d be killed if I didn’t,” she says, laughing. “Even if I got my own Netflix special, and the only day I could film it was Christmas Day – it’d be ‘Go f**k yourself, Joanne. Come home’.”

McNally jokes about the Netflix special, but there’s no doubt that 2019 has been a successful year for her. The 36-year-old now splits her time between Dublin and London, where she has been making inroads on the UK’s comedy circuit. For someone who only started doing stand-up five years ago, things are going well, she agrees.

“I do kind of feel like I’m only coming into my stride now, which is very late,” she says. “I’m very immature, but it works for me – it means I can still do student gigs, basically. But it’s a weird job. I’m not saving lives in an emergency room, or fighting in Syria – but you have to get used to being on your own a lot.”

McNally spent most of her 20s working in public relations before her battle with anorexia and bulimia came to a head and she was forced to seek treatment. Her experience formed the basis of a stand-up show called Bite Me.

I lied about having an eating disorder for so long – so when I did crack, I couldn’t stop talking about it

“It’s such a huge part of my story, because if I hadn’t had it, I wouldn’t have had to change my whole career,” she shrugs. “But I lied about having an eating disorder for so long – so when I did crack, I couldn’t stop talking about it. If someone asked me in the street how I was, I’d say ‘I’m bulimic’. It was like I was on confessional steroids. It’s part of the treatment, but I think that’s why I’m so open, now, about it. After that, I started writing Bite Me. I’ve always been fairly open and I think people appreciate it. Other people say ‘Too much information’. I wrote a magazine column once about having a tampon stuck inside me – as you do – and someone got really angry about it. Like, just don’t read it, then!”

McNally, who was adopted as a child (she co-wrote a show with PJ Gallagher called Separated at Birth about their shared experience) has always had a performer’s spirit. She chuckles as she recalls telling her classmates that her birth parents had died in a plane crash. “I wanted to make it as dramatic as possible – to the point where my teacher said to my mother ‘Will you tell her to stop, she’s terrifying the children!’,” she laughs. “I was telling absolute massive lies, but I remember the buzz of it. That was basically my first solo show, in the playground.”

My mother’s a nurse from this conservative family in Cork who are all professionals. Acting was something you starved to death by doing

Surprisingly, a drama course was not on the cards after leaving school. “She’ll kill me, but my mum was like ‘No. Not happening’,” she says, laughing. “My family aren’t performers. All I wanted was to find out my birth mother was Twink or Linda Martin, and to be in the Billie Barries. It’s all I wanted. My mother’s a nurse from this conservative family in Cork who are all professionals. Acting was something you starved to death by doing – she imagined I’d be in the underbelly of the Gaiety for the rest of my life, begging for lines from people. So I really wanted to do drama, but she was like, ‘Nah’.”

Luckily, things have worked out well – and like all Irish mammies, seeing her daughter on The Late Late Show finally brought closure. “When it became clear that this could become a paying job, she kind of started getting behind it,” she adds. “Then again, only recently I came in from something and she said ‘Would you not consider going back and doing nursing?’”

With numerous successful Edinburgh shows under her belt and her recent tour dates going down well in the UK, she would like to do more TV work along the lines of her Baby Hater documentary for RTÉ, which aired last year. She has been commissioned to write the pilot for a sitcom by a UK production company and is currently fine-tuning her forthcoming Prosecco Express tour, which kicks off in Belfast in January.

“I’m not married, I’ve no kids, no house, I don’t own anything – but everyone else is getting married and having kids,” she explains. “So it’s about me basically drinking Prosecco at everyone else’s milestones, and what that means: ‘Should I get married? Who do I get buried with if I don’t? Who’ll watch me die if I don’t have a child? Are they good enough reasons to have a child?’ All those things. It was originally supposed to be about identity and belonging, and all that jazz – and then again, I just went back to relationships: love, marriage, babies. Look, there’s no life lessons in it,” she shrugs, smiling. “It’s just . . . fun.”

The best and worst things about Christmas, according to Joanne McNally

“The best is just the general cosiness of it. I love Dublin at Christmas, the Christmas lights on Grafton Street. I love the pubs, that everyone’s out; just the atmosphere. There’s a really lovely sense of community about it, or something, we’re all experiencing the same thing. I love Christmas movies. It’s just a feeling.

The worst? I don’t like the booze and the excess. I remember one year, the first Christmas I wasn’t studying or doing exams, I’d say I started drinking on December 1st and I didn’t stop. By the time Christmas Day came around, I looked like I’d eaten myself. I was twice the size, nothing fitted, I was in the worst form ever and ruined everyone’s Christmas because I was so narky. I remember thinking ‘I’ll never do that again’.”