Francesca Martinez: at ease with her ‘wobbliness’

Don’t call it cerebral palsy, says the comedian, who is hell-bent on shaking things up

Francesca Martinez: ‘Happiness lies in accepting who you are.’ Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Francesca Martinez: ‘Happiness lies in accepting who you are.’ Photograph: Aidan Crawley

 

After the hot chocolate that comedian Francesca Martinez has ordered is placed in front of her, she asks for a straw. The waiter can’t quite disguise his surprise. You can see it flicker across his face. Why a straw? It’s not a cold drink. She’s not a child. He brings the straw and puts it down with an awkward half-flourish.

Martinez has asked for a straw to drink her hot chocolate through because she can’t hold the cup properly in her hand. She was born with cerebral palsy, two words she cannot abide.

“I think what we label things is very political, and names of disabilities are very scary-sounding, and make people very nervous,” she says. She prefers the gentler, less forthright description of “wobbly” instead. “It was really hard for me to accept myself while I had labels plastered on me – really negative and terrifying.”

Martinez was born in London in 1978. Her mother is half English and half Swedish, and her father is Spanish. Her parents were just 19 and 21 when they had her.

“When I was born, they didn’t know what I had,” she says. “I wasn’t diagnosed until I was two. It allowed my parents to accept me fully as I was, and bond with me – they didn’t have any label imposed on me from the medical world. And despite their age, they were very together.”

Martinez uses “wobbliness” as part of her comedy routine, which challenges stereotypes around disability. “Pity is something I’ve fought so hard against all my life, and if I make people laugh, then they forget the disability. It’s amazing how universal humour is. But I have noticed that it is very hard to shock audiences in Australia, and very easy to shock them in the US.”

Grange Hill Her career started when she had a part in the British school drama Grange Hill. Her most high-profile television role to date was when she appeared in Extras, when Ricky Gervais was “the biggest comedy star in the world”.

In 2008, Martinez made international headlines when she was asked to be a torch bearer in London for the Beijing Olympics relay. “I was slightly flabbergasted when I was asked. I thought: I can barely walk, how am I going to walk with fire?” she recalls. “A few months after I was asked, and I had said yes, the violence in Tibet escalated, and there was some pressure put on torch bearers to withdraw.”

Channel 4 then contacted all the torch bearers and asked them to come on air to discuss their participation.

“I went into the studio and realised that I couldn’t say I support the Tibetan cause and still sit there as a torchbearer. Jon Snow was interviewing me, and I thought: if I pull out now, it will highlight this issue and hopefully get some media attention. It became the top news story of the day. I think that any power we have is the power to make choices, and I couldn’t have lived with myself if I had done it.”

Martinez has now written a memoir, What the **** is Normal?! The flyleaf blurbs are testimonials from her many famous admirers and supporters, including Jonathan Ross, Jo Brand, Emma Freud and Steve Coogan.

 

Gay audience

“I’ve tried very hard to make it a universal book,” she says. “I have a big gay audience, and I think they relate to being reduced to a label too. It’s for wobbly people, parents of disabled kids, teenagers going through body issues.

“Beauty is used as a weapon against women, and it’s something I have to fight very hard against. I really want to empower people to change how they view themselves. I don’t get how we equate physical perfection with happiness. Happiness lies in accepting who you are.”

She would like to write some more books, possibly a novel. “I’d also really love to write my own sitcom, and that’s something I’ve been developing for a few years. I’ve pitched it in Britain, Australia and the US, but I haven’t tried Ireland yet, so maybe I’ll try that next. I have a great life. I talk for a living, and I get paid for it.”

What the **** is Normal?! is published by Virgin Books

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