This week Dame Edna will regale her fans (her beloved “possums”) in Seattle for one last time. The deliciously imperious, violet-coiffed grand dame of Melbourne, Australia (and her male alter ego, comic actor Barry Humphries) turned 80 last year. And while the Dame aux Gladioli is as feisty, gaudy and crowd-pleasing as ever, this rhinestone-studded oracle swears her globe-trotting Glorious Goodbye tour is a last showbiz hurrah.
And what a run she’s had! Since Humphries introduced the then-dowdy Edna Everage about 60 years ago, she’s risen from obscure homemaker to “gigastar,” hosted TV talk shows and had a Melbourne street named for her.
Arguably the world’s most famous drag character, at the Moore she’ll likely flash her gams, deftly diss hypocrites and celeb culture, and luxuriate in her unique fabulousness.
Here are some excerpts of my recent chat with the ever-droll Edna, who spoke in her inimitable falsetto from her home in Australia.
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Misha Berson: How are you, Dame Edna?
Dame Edna: Hello, hello, hello! Is that little Misha? You just spoke to Barry Humphries, didn’t you? He calls himself my manager, Misha. You know, in this business you meet these awful showbiz types. They used to be called mountebanks.
MB: You and Mr. Humphries are coming to Seattle with the Glorious Goodbye show, which you’ve toured abroad since 2012.
DE: Yes, it’s subtitled “Eat, Pray, Laugh.” I’ve been on an ashram, you know, a kind of trailer park with a soul, and so I’ve brought all this spirituality into it. I want my audiences to feel better after they’ve seen me.
I am going to enjoy this little tour of America, which goes through April … Goodness knows how I’m going to do it, because I’m approaching 60 — unfortunately, from the wrong direction.
Seattle is the first stop [in the U.S., after an Escondido, Calif., preview], at the Moore Theatre. When I was there last [in 2006], just between you and me, it was a bit rough. A little bit decayed. Not to mention rat-infested. But I believe they’ve fixed it up.
MB: What were your other impressions of Seattle?
DE: Someone threw a fish at me, which was a bit rude. And I did the spooky underground ghost tour of Seattle. I also found some very good used bookstores. I’m a bit of a book collector.
MB: Anything you’re looking forward to this time?
DE: I like ferries, and I want to go with you on a little ferry ride, Misha, if the weather is hospitable. To those islands! I don’t mind a bit of rain, as long as it doesn’t rain on the stage at the Moore. You know the rats used to have little umbrellas there! But I do hear the theater’s been refurbished beautifully, especially for me.
MB: What will you do when you retire from the spotlight?
DE: Well, I have many, many charities that I’m not involved in. I started Friends of the Prostate. It’s international now, and I’m persuading the prime minister of Australia to have World Prostate Day, so very nice ladies will stand on street corners showing these miniature prostates. It’s about awareness, dear!
I’ll be devoting a lot of time to writing more books. You know, I go into used bookstores and buy my own books, because we give them away don’t we — sometimes out of sheer desperation? Then you get a letter from your publisher: Would you like to buy 500,000 books? At a discount?
MB: We notice you’re on Twitter and Facebook these days.
DE: Misha, you’re talking to one of the most self-effacing giga-stars on the planet. I’ve never looked at my Facebook page or my website, because I’m fundamentally an amateur. I do it for fun. I hate it when theater people go on about professionalism — aren’t they boring? I try to be as unprofessional as possible. And I’m a little bit politically incorrect. I don’t think that worries Seattle. Oddly enough, it does New York.
MB: What happened there?
DE: Years ago Graydon Carter, then a thin editor for Vanity Fair, now the size of Marlon Brando, said, “Would you write an ‘agony’ [advice] column for the magazine?” I said “Yes, I am on the planet to help others.”
It was a great success until someone wrote to ask, “I want to learn a foreign language and I’m thinking of Spanish. Is this a good idea?” I said, “Why learn Spanish, who would you talk to? A leaf-blower man? A kitchen cleaner?” I said, “If you’re an American and you want to learn another language, learn English.”
MB: What was the response?
DE: Now you and I understand a phenomenon called literary satire, in which you say the opposite of what you mean, in order to make a point … But they canceled my column and that was the end of me! And you know very well I didn’t mean anything against leaf-blowers. I was talking about the fact that in the USA you have an underclass, you’ve got people who do the dirty work and they’re generally Hispanic or black. America is a democracy, so you never, ever say you’ve got a slave class. And I did, using literary satire.
MB: So you don’t worry about giving offense, in print or onstage? Even when you make fun of your audience volunteers?
DE: No one volunteers, I conscript them! … I look into the audience and I try to empower certain people. If I see a particularly shy person I single them out in a loving way. And I put them through a certain, well, some would say ordeal. And they come out liberated.
MB: You were friends, I hear, with the late comedian Joan Rivers.
DE: Joan long ago said to me, “Do a show in America.” I said, “They won’t get the point! I’m too cerebral.” She said, “Go to San Francisco.” Do you know two weeks there became four months, four months became Broadway, Broadway became a Tony Award? And every time I’m on a stage, I thank Joan. She’s missed because she was really a very lovely woman. She wasn’t like she presented herself, whereas I’m exactly how I present myself.
But you know, Joan always had an entourage. I don’t travel with an entourage, just a gynecologist. Out of consideration for my audience, before every performance I have an exploratory (vaginal exam). I think it gives me a more alert expression.