Before Gaga, before Madonna, before even Cher, there was another female defining the term Megastar known by a single epithet: Edna.
Short of sight, wisteria of hair, bespangled of frock and instantly recognisable the world over, Dame Edna Everage came to prominence six decades ago, in 1955 to be precise, as Mrs Norm Everage, the very epitome of your average Australian housewife. Duckling into swan, she quickly sprouted rather more exotic plumage and spread sequin-encrusted wings to envelop popular culture, acquiring a television show along the way – and a ‘Dame’ for good measure – but never losing that Australian twang.
Today, Mrs Norm Everage is forgotten by all except Dame Edna herself – ‘I’m proud to be just a housewife’ she states, even as she dons another priceless, rhinestone-encrusted gown (with matching specs) to upbraid politicians, Hollywood film stars and crowned heads live on air with more moxie than the most hard-nosed of pop culture pundits. Dame Edna is respected, revered and feared by the glitterati, perhaps because there’s a sense that, if anyone can get to the bottom of what this mad fad of ‘celebrity’ is really about, it’s Dame Edna.
With the help of her gynaecologist, and despite the hindrance of her ever-extended family, Dame Edna is still going strong in 2011. Here, the dame of one name gives her views on privacy, politics, publishing and her resolute – and continual – refusal to peak.
You grew up in rural Australia, first came to the stage sixty years ago, and today occupy a truly iconic position in popular culture. My first question is: how did Dame Edna come to be?
Well, I can’t believe the story you’ve told me. To think I’ve lived through all these years and in a way I have yet to peak. As a matter of fact, my gynaecologist told me I might be peaking at any moment! I see it as a sort of miracle.
I’m curious as to how you classify yourself?
I’m a housewife.
But a housewife who has acted, presented television programmes, counselled world leaders, released records and written books.
I’m proud to just be a housewife. When I have to fill in those little landing cards, I just say ‘Housewife’. Spiritually, I always wear an apron and Marigolds. And I think that’s why I’m adored by so many women. I don’t pretend to be something that I’m not. I’m approachable with a capital ‘A’.
Speaking of approachability, do you feel your public and personal lives are intrinsically linked, or do you like to keep a separation between the two?
When I see things like The Osbournes, I think – and I’ve told Sharon this – that people watch with morbid curiosity. I of course am an intensely private person. There’s a lot of things in my personal life that no magazine, however important – even little Ponysteps – will ever learn.
That said, many of your friends and family have made appearances in your shows.
I have, as a gesture of charity to my penniless dependents, incorporated some of them into my show. I thought particularly with Valmai – my bulimic, dysfunctional daughter – that this might help her. It didn’t: it made it worse. The shoplifting escalated, the promiscuity with members of her own sex intensified. She’s a big, big disappointment to me. My son Kenny, on the other hand, is wonderful – he designs all of my dresses. In fact, I can exclusively reveal to Ponysteps that very soon Kenny is going to be signed up, to Christian Dior!
I don’t pretend to
be something to be something I am not.
with a capital ‘A’.
I can’t think of anyone more suited! After all, Dior used to create gowns for the Duchess of Windsor and Marlene Dietrich, those iconic stars. And I think today your style has become iconic in a similar way.
Well, I’ve been called an icon and, you know, I was in Greece on holiday and I saw some icons. They’re women mostly, with yellow, cracked faces clutching little undernourished babies. Horrible really. I don’t want to be an icon. I want to be a role model. Whatever I’ve created in the sense of style, I’ve done instinctively. I’ve never tried to set new boundaries, to be cutting edge, I just am. I’ve been very lucky.
You’ve created your own style certainly – and then you collaborated with M.A.C…
..to bring that style to the masses.
I’ve known the Lauder family for a long, long time. And M.A.C. is their subsidiary, a very successful one. I don’t know where the name comes from – do you think it’s short for maquillage? Anyway, they approached me to be the face of M.A.C. The girl they’d had before was… who was she now? Hugh Grant’s ex-girlfriend, now she’s scraping the bottom of the barrel with Shane Warne… Elizabeth Hurley! Well, beautiful though Elizabeth is, her shelf life was over. So I took over.
Of course sales skyrocketed! Women were queuing to buy M.A.C. products! I had special ones made – my most famous, I think, was ‘Kanga-Rouge’. They all had a bit of an Australian touch to them. I still of course use M.A.C. cosmetics – not that I have to buy them!
Kenny creates your stage costumes; does he dress you off-stage also?
Kenny mostly. He’s such a wonderful son to me. I’ve told him, if he wants to get married it’s okay by me. The other night he said something very sweet, he sat on the edge of my bed and said ‘You’re my girlfriend, Mum.’
Something every mother dreams of hearing from her son!
I think I’m blessed! Sometimes I wear my stage clothes to official functions. The Queen has often said to me ‘Oh, where did you get that Edna?’ I’ll let you into a little secret: some of her better dresses have been designed by Kenny. She said ‘Can’t I mention it Edna?’ And I said ‘No, we don’t want the publicity.’
A wise decision.
I’m interested in your closeness to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Do you anticipate having a similarly intimate relationship with the Duchess of Cambridge?
I do hope so. But there’s a big age gap and… I don’t know how to put this tactfully. I don’t know her well enough to know how interesting she is. Do you follow me? I am sure she’s fascinating, but I don’t know her well enough.
Now the Queen and I, we think alike. She respects me, because I respect her privacy. Some of the things she’s told me – like her worries about Prince Phillip’s infidelities – I’ve never repeated. Not to mention some of her other little problems… the breath problem – not her breath you understand, it’s other people’s. I wouldn’t repeat that!
I’m interested in your relationship with these powerful political figures.
Mr Cameron – I rather like him, you know. These gentlemen – you notice how quickly they go grey and bald? They know things that would scare you and I to death. They know about nuclear power stations melting down, which we never even read about. Look at poor old Rupert Murdoch. He used to look so young and handsome: now he looks like a little old man. He looks about eighty! That’s an example of what power can do.
I will never misuse the power I’ve got – and I do have extreme power. Talking of Rupert, I had him sobbing on the phone to me the other night. He said ‘They don’t like me, do they Edna?’ I said ‘No. They’re pleased that you’ve had a bit of a comeuppance.’ People are very vindictive – but I think he’ll weather the storm. After all, he is an Australian.
I was also wondering…
Oh! Did you hear that? That little click on the line? That was Rupert! He gets lonely. He just likes to have a bit of a listen in.
I don’t think there’s necessarily anything sinister about that!
There’s nothing sinister about it! ‘Hello darling!’ He’s still there! Can you hear him breathing? It’s wonderful to have friends! I have friends all over the world you know and now I have a new audience of young people, pretty cool people. People who are fit, who can lift up a heavy periodical, like Ponysteps. That’s a terribly good name – incomprehensible to most people…
I think that’s part of the appeal…
Mystique! That’s the word you were groping for dear! Part of the mystique!
Dame Edna, I’m curious – If you hadn’t come to fame so early in your life, what you would be doing today?
I might have just settled for marriage and family. But I would recommend that everyone who reads this interview remembers the advice I’ve given for years: put your family last. They’ll never thank you, and they hold you back.
People said to me ‘If you’re off pursuing a career expressing what Mother Nature gave you, your family might become dysfunctional’. Well, mine were dysfunctional anyway, so my absence didn’t affect them. A shrink I know said ‘Your daughter Valmai was trouble in the womb.’ That’s a funny thing for a gynaecologist to say, isn’t it?
You have been elevated seamlessly, from superstar, to megastar, to gigastar. I’m curious – what is next for Dame Edna Everage?
Well, there’s another fragrance that I have created. A lot of women find that men’s attentions are very unwelcome – if they’ve got anything in the way of looks, their lives are made a misery. So I’ve made a fragrance. It’s called ‘Madge’, and it’s designed to put men off. Rather like my old New Zealand bridesmaid. It smells perfectly okay, but it has an ingredient, a repellant.
Is that specific to men or does it repel everybody?
I think it’s mostly men, who are the only people who are likely to give women any problems. Well, there are ‘troubled women’. You know what I mean don’t you?
I’m also thinking of really downsizing. I’ve made some money but most of it goes to my charities, the Friends of the Prostate, and of the Deviated Septum. Although I can reveal that I have made a big purchase recently: I bought News International! And it was a bargain!
It’s wonderful to keep it in Australian hands…
Absolutely! So you’ll be noticing my influence in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post… not to mention Fox!
I can’t think of any better canvas for Dame Edna!
It’s all onwards an upwards for me! And the fact a young man like you should give me a call as I sit here, in a lovely brunch coat and mules – they’re made of the feathers of an extinct Australian bird… well, it wasn’t extinct until my mules were made. But nature has conspired to make me a happy woman! And never forget, you can only be happy if you make up your mind to be. And you can do that before you get out of bed!
All clothes and jewellery Dame Edna's own.
Hair and Make up Wendy Brown
Photographic Assistance Phil Taylor and Rob Jarvis
Hair and Make up Assistance Alice Moore
Retouching Hen House
Special thanks to Claire Nightingale at PBJ management, Nicola Pedingham, Rosco Brady, Bhavna Patel and The Bentley Hotel, London