After her mother’s death, the personal became political for Luisa Omielan. Now the comedian is tackling social issues in her first TV series.
Highbrow concepts and dick jokes. That’s how comedian Luisa Omielan sums up Politics For Bitches, her long-awaited BBC series that she says is for anyone “who finds politics really boring but doesn’t understand why they still have to live with their mum in their 30s”. Over four episodes, Omielan, 36, looks at issues such as social mobility, gender inequality and public spending in her trademark no-nonsense style. Tackling such serious topics, though, is a change in direction for a stand-up best known for What Would Beyoncé Do?!, Omielan’s uninhibited show about body confidence set to a Beyoncé soundtrack.
WWBD became a huge word-of-mouth hit, and five years after the first performance aired on BBC Three in 2017. It should have been the prize that made years of relentless touring worth it, but Omielan couldn’t watch. “It was the same day I found out my mum had stage four stomach and bowel cancer,” she says. “Mum wanted to watch it but I just couldn’t. I just didn’t care.”
Her mum, Helena, had endured failed GP assessments and six weeks of waiting for a colonoscopy – which never happened – before finally being diagnosed in an A&E ward. Omielan immediately scrapped all work commitments, but despite her and her family’s efforts to get the best treatment, just seven weeks later her mum died. It was, according to Omielan, who documented much of it on social media, “the most undignified, painful, slow, cruel death imaginable”.
Three months later when Omielan next appeared on stage, all she felt able to talk about was her mum’s death. So that’s what she did. As well as unedited raw pain, Omielan angrily vented her incomprehension about the cuts to public services. It was a world away from Beyoncé and thigh gaps, but she was overwhelmed by the audience’s positive response.
“The personal is political,” says the feminist rallying cry from the Sixties to recognise the importance of discussing experience as a form of political action. This is doubly true for Omielan, who was unashamedly apolitical until her mum’s experience led her to create a stand-up show called Politics For Bitches. One year after her mother’s death, Omielan took the show to Edinburgh where one critic called it “one of the most powerful and provocative hours on the Fringe”.
Adapting Politics For Bitches for the BBC has seen Omielan combine stand-up with her own investigations into Britain’s governing systems and structures. Just as comedian Hannah Gadsby uses tragedy to puncture comedy in the Netflix show Nanette, it’s a powerful fusion of laughter with considered social question. She has also just been named as one of Bafta’s Breakthrough Brits to watch. Stylist spoke to Omielan to find out about her transformation into a political animal.
Congratulations on being named one of Bafta’s Breakthrough Brits.
Thank you. I cried my eyes out. I’ve always been anti-industry and done my own thing. I’ve never won awards or all that nonsense. I used to care, but in the last couple of years I stopped caring and now I’ve got this recognition.
Is ‘breakthrough’ a bit misleading given you’ve been working for over a decade?
I love it because lots of people still don’t know me. If you do panel shows you can get famous fast, but that’s never what I’ve wanted. It’s really nice to get this for my body of work, rather than for just being a face on TV.
You landed your first TV series in the same year your mum died. Were there times when you didn’t think it would ever happen?
I never wanted to do comedy again after Mum died, I just wanted to be put to bed. But she had made me promise her I would. My first tour date was in Bath three months after she died. It was the first time I got dressed, the first time I put make-up on. I felt so vulnerable. I tried to do my thigh gap joke but I didn’t know what I was doing. It was unbearable to watch and unbearable to do.
How did you overcome that?
I heard my puppy Bernie barking off stage. I had bought her just after Mum died. I hate dogs but when Mum was ill I found it comforting to look at animals, so I got one. When I was dying on stage I brought my puppy out and told the story about why I’d got her, and about Mum. I got an ovation, and people came up afterwards asking how they could help and saying, “You’re not on your own.” I was like, ‘Wow – I want to do that again.’
Did it help you to know you were able to make people feel something?
No, that was a by-product. It just confirmed what I’ve always known: that comedy saves me and always Luisa Omielan’s four-part series Politics For Bitches is available on iPlayer now. She is touring the UK until February 2019; iloveluisa.com has. It’s actually quite selfish. It was the same with What Would Beyoncé Do?! about my body image and being on antidepressants. It was a love story to myself saying, “You’re OK, everything’s going to be OK. You deserve to be happy.”
So, being on stage is like self-care?
Exactly. People come up and say, “You’re amazing”, and I love it. I hope it’s something I get to do forever. If I can do stand-up three months after my mum died, there’s nothing I can’t do stand-up about.
You were very angry when you first got on stage after her death…
I was. NHS care is still what makes me the angriest. My mum went to the doctor 12 times and saw someone different every time, so we had to say everything again. After Mum died, I wrote a letter to the government. The letter I got back said, “We’re sorry to hear about your mum’s death but did she pay enough tax before she died? Here’s a tax return form.”
Is that why you began tackling politics?
I didn’t go into it consciously, I just did it because it felt better to talk about how Mum died. Before this I thought politicians were paid to sort the country out. I didn’t care because you think, ‘It’s not my job to worry about that stuff.’ But then I found that the services we pay our taxes for aren’t there, so what are we paying for?
You cover housing, equality and social mobility in your series. Did you learn a lot?
My friend told me no one else would go on TV and say, “I’m really stupid about this stuff.” But if nobody has ever told you, how can you expect to know? There’s so much pompousness if you don’t know, but in school we don’t get taught about the EU, we get taught about Henry VIII. I tried to watch Question Time but I couldn’t understand it. In my show if I use any word that’s even slightly unusual I break it down so there isn’t any part where someone would think, ‘I was enjoying it, but then she lost me at that word.’
Did you get the feeling that people you met were also angry and fired up?
Very much so. People said, “I’m so glad you’re saying this publicly.” I’ve had a lot of letters saying they’ve learnt more about politics in one episode than in a whole lifetime. I think the BBC want me to do more but I’m like, “Guys, no”. It was long enough doing these four episodes. Someone else can do it. I really don’t want to be the political commentator. I’m like Madonna. This is my weird album.
You’re very honest when talking about money, why is that?
It’s the inequality. My first tour I generated £12,000 on ticket sales but I only made £800. I just think that’s wrong, but you can’t really argue with these comedy systems. That’s why I do my own thing and book my own venues. When I do a show I tell my agent to find out how much a man is on and make sure I’m on the same, if not more. I know men won’t be doing it for the first offer they made.
How does sexism manifest itself in the comedy industry?
I know if I was a man who spoke to men in the way that I speak to women, I would be everywhere by now. I feel like it’s a different set of rules [for them]. There’s so much sexism in everyday life though; I just bought my first house in Birmingham and a window salesman came over and said, “It would be wonderful if your partner was around to make the decision.” And I was like, “There is no partner, and I won’t be buying windows from you.”
What do you think of Louis CK’s return to comedy after only nine months in exile?
He was always going to come back. These are powerful men with powerful teams who kept things hidden for a long time. What would be nice to see is more support for women. Like when Seann Walsh was kept in Strictly by the judges and Vick Hope was sent home even though she danced better. They want the figures, they want the scandal, so can we say they’re supporting #MeToo? Which one is it, money or principal? It’s always money.
You went to Bali after performing at Edinburgh, how was that?
Terrible. I stayed in these sh*tty places. I went to meet this healer; he was high and 10 minutes late. Then he told me I had an attitude problem so I thought, ‘You can go f*ck yourself’. I was meant to be there two weeks but after a week and a half I wanted to come home. I took out more of a loan and stayed somewhere that was £180 a night for the last few nights. I’ll work and pay it off. Then I tried magic mushrooms and had a whale of a time. I thought, ‘I’ve been living my life wrong, I need to be vegan.’
So, are you vegan now?
No. I had a Pizza Hut last night. I felt awful afterwards.
What’s next for you?
I want to do What Would Beyoncé Do?! The movie. And I’ve got a dark sitcom idea, which is basically Sex And The City on antidepressants. I don’t watch comedy, I like serial killer stuff. I didn’t like Killing Eve because it was too funny. I wanted it to be darker.
Photography: Phil Fisk