Interview with Amy Lame
You want to go to a party? Who’s gonna be there? Morrissey… maybe. Amy Lamé is having a birthday shindig, and we are all – along with the quiffed-up sultan of dour, Morrissey – invited. While jelly and custard may be in questionable supply, the night promises nostalgia, observation, music and merriment as Amy sets her (birthday) cards on fat, faith, sexual identity and more out on the table. If Morrissey doesn’t show, It shouldn’t matter – Amy Lamé is a comedic performer, writer, former mayoress of Camden and starlet, and that’s more than enough character for any invite list…
Are you in Manchester at the moment?
Yeah, it’s tonight’s stop for the stage show.
And is it raining, as it customarily does in Manchester?
Actually yeah, it’s a little bit drizzly but I kinda like it that way – it all adds to the atmosphere! I wouldn’t want to be listening to Morrissey with the sun shining; it just seems unnatural, really.
You’re bringing the show to Norwich next month, which we’re really excited about –
- Yeah, me too!
Well I’ve got good news for you, because today Norwich has been named the 6th Best City Destination in the UK, did you know?
I didn’t know! Well, all the more reason to go then, haha. I’m sure there’s celebrations, ticker-tape parades – I can imagine.
Amy, you’ve got me preoccupied with birthdays at the moment – I’m someone who suffers from birthday blues, but I wondered what your own relationship with your birthday was like?
Yeah, when is your birthday?
July, OK right, well part of the whole reason that the show came about is because I do believe I have the worst birthday in the entire world, out of any day of the year. It’s the 3rd of January, which means everyone’s skint, everyone’s breaking into not eating, drinking or smoking, none of your friends want to celebrate, it’s usually the first day back to work or school… and my whole life I feel that I’ve squished my friends and family in to being happy and jolly on a day that they’d much rather spend in a duvet. I do like playing on this idea of forced fun really; that was my natural obsession, which is why I chose to do such a forced thing, you know? And with The Smiths having a song called ‘Unhappy Birthday’, it all just came together on my 40th birthday; I’d had this idea for a show and I invited my friend, who’s also a performer, to my birthday and we had lots of fun – we shook hands and did lots of air kissing, and that person was Scottee, who said he would pitch it. Now we’re a year and a half down the line and it’s a reality, baby!
Do you think it’s brought you peace with your own birthday?
Has it? I think it’s brought into sharp relief just how much I forced people to enjoy my birthday, hahaha. I think I should try for something a bit more low-key! It is good because it’s like having my own birthday party every night of the show, so that’s a bonus! Although people haven’t been bringing me presents, can I just say?! When I come to Norwich, can I ask everyone for presents? Flowers, wine, diamonds, anything…
Most performers usually say, ‘oh, just bring yourselves…’, but I like the fact you’re being direct –
- Yes, it’s my party! Bring presents! I want presents, I want cards, I want drinks bought for me in the bar – I want to send a very clear message to the people of Norwich.
So you’ve invited Morrissey to your own Unhappy Birthday, and it reminded me of a situation where I was once invited to this strange guy’s party, and he’d invited Dido through MySpace, just because he could, and he was sure she’d be there. Social networks like that break down the boundaries between people and celebs, but do you think those boundaries need to be kept further apart?
Well I think it’s a really interesting question, because of course with social media, we’re all so much closer to celebrities and it’s a tough one, you know, because everyone in showbiz generally, wants to be liked and breaking down those boundaries, I think, is a good thing. But I’m under no disillusion, you know, Morrissey has been invited to my party, to every single show and that’s been a formal thing that I’ve done.
I’m sitting at my desk and it’s rolled past lunchtime, so I’m fantasising about lunch at the moment, and it made me think; I read a quote of yours that said “food is my joy and my nemesis”, and I’ve been really enjoying your food writing articles – does writing about food exorcise that demon, or invigorate it?
Well I’m really obsessed by food, so I don’t think it’s exorcised it at all – it’s just made me more interested! It’s one of those things, you know, if you are fat you need to deal with that; there’s a lot of baggage that comes with that, but also a lot of joy. It’s a tough one, but I’m much more into the kinda like ‘health at every size’, kind of thing, so I don’t really worry too much about being fat, but I do worry because I do have a natural predilection for sweet things, so I’m just narrowly avoiding becoming borderline diabetic, so…
You’re flirting with it –
- Yeah, flirting with diabetes, haha!
I was talking to my Mum about going out for dinner the other day, and she was saying that she never went out for dinner when she was younger, but then you never had sushi in the 60s in Liverpool… do you think our interest has piqued because we’re blessed with variety nowadays?
Well I think people’s interest in food has piqued, but at the same time, people’s quality of eating has gone down at the same time. I think for people who have the spare cash, their eating has got better, but I think with the economic crisis as it is, people on lower incomes are being forced to eat cheaper and cheaper, which isn’t always the healthy option, you know. I think what’s happening is that we’re getting more and more fat people in society and more brow-beating and more bullying of fat people, which worries me. It used to be that fat people had all the power, you know, we were fat because we were rich and could afford to be! Nowadays it seems to be people who are on the lower socio-economic scale who are suffering the worst from the issues around obesity and the government and the media are brow-beating them for their size. I think there should be a massive working class fat uprising! We can sit on David Cameron and smother him to death!
It is difficult though – I keep chastising myself for buying a Cheese and Onion Slice for lunch because it’s so not healthy, but it’s only £1.25!
Yeah, exactly; I think that’s one of the issues around when the whole pasty-gate happened that people overlooked, you know, they weren’t interested in talking about the pasty tax being a class issue, or a socio-economic issue. I mean, why aren’t they taxing, I don’t know – they don’t have foie gras pasties, do they? I’d like it to hit rich people in their pockets as well! In answer to your question though, I guess there’s a lot of choice, but with that choice should come education to make the right choice, and that’s just not happening.
You’ve been on plenty of food programmes, but I don’t know what the Amy Lamé signature dish was, and what occasion does it provide for?
Ooooh, well now you’re talking my language! Hahaha! Well you know, I grew up in America, in New Jersey in a family that’s half-Irish and half-Italian, so if we weren’t eating pasta, we were eating potatoes and if we weren’t eating potatoes, we were eating pasta, which has obviously given me the beautiful figure that I have today, hahaha! But I’d say my signature dish is something that my mom always made, it’s like the ultimate comfort dish, you know – in the States they’d call it Eggplant Parmesan, but over here you’d call it Aubergine Parmesan. Layers of grilled aubergine with cheese and my homemade tomato sauce, lots more cheese on top so it’s got crunchy and burnt bits round the edges, and you know, it’s even better the day after the day after, so I have to make sure I make enough of it to feed people for a couple of days, but I’m so greedy – my eyes are always bigger than my stomach!
But you think, ‘it’s just aubergine…’, don’t you?
Yeah, it’s just aubergine – let’s just ignore the cheese. So yeah, I think that would be my signature dish and I always do it whenever I have special people come round for dinner, or when I’m feeling a little bit, like, homesick – I always make that.
I read a quote from you that said, “in America everyone has to be a winner, but in England you can be a loser and everyone loves you more”, which is so truly funny and a real Morrissey-esque mentality, but when you were in America, did you feel like there was somewhere else that would suit your personality better?
Well I was never an Anglophile, you know, it’s a curious word that – Anglophile. People ask me that a lot but I was much more interested in France and I was obsessed, like I studied French in high school and spent a summer doing an exchange trip and stuff, but I grew up in such a small town – I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Jersey Shore on TV, or any of those programmes like Sopranos, but that’s exactly where I grew up, in New Jersey. It’s a very insular kind of place; if your family’s from Liverpool, you’ll kind of understand that mentality! The only thing I can compare it to is that being from New Jersey’s sorta like being from a combination of Liverpool and Essex! You get the girls with the big hair and the fingernails, high heels and fake tan, but you also get a very tribal, instinctive, almost inwardly-looking society, you know, that protects its own and looks after its own. You feel very much a part of it growing up there, and it’s scary to leave it, so when I discovered that there was this other world out there, and I’d spent the time in France and I’d discovered The Smiths and Morrissey, the music meant so much to me that I decided my life’s ambition would be to get to the Hacienda in Manchester, you know! I had no idea that if I had just turned up they wouldn’t have let me in, haha! Not just for my age but probably also for what I was wearing, haha! So yeah, the music spoke to me when I discovered The Smiths in 1987, which sadly I discovered them just a few weeks before they split up, which is a very Morrissey moment! I don’t know, I’ve always had this affinity with the North, in some way; only after living here for 20 years, and I became a citizen 7 years ago, I feel like I’m only fully understanding the mentality here and why… it’s all kind of fitting together. I’m really immersing myself in all my Morrissey obsessions; spending a year and a half making this show has really unpicked a lot of the psychology of the people here, of society and my own, and how that fits together.
Us northerners can seem to say, ‘it’s grim up north’, with an absolute smile on our faces…
Yeah, and I’m shacked up with a northerner as well, you know, my partner’s from Accrington, so I feel like I’ve got first-hand experience! I jumped in at the deep end with that one!
But of course you’ve got an intensely strong relationship with London as well – being mayoress of Camden for a year was fantastic – did you take any lessons from first ladies, or PM’s wives, or were you rewriting the rulebook?
Well I feel like this is a role I’ve been preparing for my entire life, you know, standing around in high heels, wearing heavy costume jewellery and hair extensions – it completely comes naturally to me, hahaha! I finished my stint as mayoress last year and so it was a year’s appointment and I should say that it was completely voluntary and civic; the mayor was a friend of mine, an elected official, and he asked me to become his mayoress. As a mayor you can have whoever you like as mayoress, sometimes they choose their daughters, or their son or partner, or whatever, but we just decided to think out the box a bit! We had a blast, it was great, and we were able to really celebrate the music heritage of Camden, of the borough, because so many great bands have come out of there.
That’s more glamorous a district than, say, Great Yarmouth – I saw the other day that some woman in a quilted sweater had been made mayoress of Great Yarmouth, or something…
Ooh, I love a quilted sweater.
Yeah, they kind of fall under the same remit as the animal fleeces that you see around…
Oh, I’ll have to check the charity shops down there! I’m sure there’ll be a plethora of quilted sweaters from when the old ladies have popped their clogs, hahaha!
A couple of weeks ago, North Carolina took America back a couple of steps, and then Obama dragged the country hurtling back with his positive support of gay marriage. I wondered how you felt having your relationship decisions in the hands of the government?
Well I think over here we take for granted in the UK that our society here is so advanced when it comes to equality for LGBT people and it just brings it into sharp relief what happened in North Carolina, or what’s happening in the Middle East with gay men being hung. I think what Obama did was amazing ‘cause he’s the first president to personally acknowledge that gay marriage should happen. That was really important and also because with the elections coming up, he’s polarised himself in a very positive way, I think, because it makes Mitt Romney look like the mental case that he is! Also the other thing that’s amazing is that Obama’s re-election fund just went up about 3million dollars overnight, because all the rich gays said, ‘right, he’s come out and said it and we respect you for that!’ Some people are commenting that he only did it for the money, but actually I really think that his heart is in the right place.
He’s just the coolest, isn’t he? The fact that he sung Sweet Home Chicago is just brilliant too…
Oh, I know, and I think he looks like a butch lesbian anyway, so I love him even more for that!
Now Amy, when I think of you, the words fingers and pies jump immediately to mind –
- Do they?! Haha… That’s nice.
Haha, yes, because you have your fingers in so many pies and you’re devoted to them as well, like Duckie you’ve put on for like, seventeen years now. Is each aspect of your career like a baby of yours? Are you devoted to each one for the foreseeable future?
Yeah, well Duckie’s definitely my baby, but it’s a teenager now! I’m definitely addicted to experience, for better or worse, so I kinda like get interested in stuff, then immediately want to do it, so I guess with that whole fingers in pies thing, some things work and some things don’t, but yeah, I just love experience. Obviously Duckie’s one thing that did work and I’m still there every Saturday night hosting, and I really love it and there’s nowhere else I’d rather be on a Saturday. Every show is different and we’ve got a great bunch of people who keep coming back; we always say ‘well you know, as soon as people stop getting interested, we’ll close it’, but people just keep coming back. People ask me to do this or that, or write this, or go on this trip for us and I don’t know, I just take life as it comes and take nothing for granted – just live it.
We usually ask everyone at the end of the interview, when you come to Norwich, what do you want from us as a crowd, but you’ve already stated that you want presents and cards...! What else could make your experience perfect when you come?
I have played Norwich before, about 19 years ago, so it’s the longest comeback in showbiz! It’s what you’re waiting for in Norwich obviously, haha! When I did my first ever show, ‘Gay Man Trapped in a Lesbian’s Body’, I was invited to play it at the UEA and I remember it very clearly. So 19 years later, and hey, here I am! What’s also interesting is the guy that runs the Arts Centre is a massive Morrissey fan and I found out that there’s this whole Morrissey sub-culture in Norwich that I never knew about! But I’m really disappointed actually because I wanted to go to Delia Smith’s restaurant, and it’s closed! We arrive on the Thursday to do the get-in and Friday night is the show, and Delia’s restaurant is closed on Thursdays, so I want Delia to bring me one of these famous pies that they serve at Norwich football ground. I want a whole tray of them delivered to the dressing room door, please.
Amy Lamé brings her Unhappy Birthday to the Norwich Arts Centre on June 29th. For tickets, go to www.ueaticketbookings.co.uk. Read the uncut version of this interview at Outlineonline.co.uk