About Time You Met: Helen DuffBy Megan Weal
Helen Duff is a comedian who’s doing something special. Her new show “Vanity Bites Back” is targeting the stigma around mental illness, more specifically eating disorders. She’s brave, fresh and empowering. And she’ll leave you wanting more.
Where did your interest in mental health as a medium come from?
I wouldn’t call it an interest so much as a compulsion – it concerns me that it’s not more widely spoken about because the desire to “keep calm and cover up” is half the problem. Thanks to snappy status updates and carefully tailored tweets, it’s easy to get wrapped up in a self-reflexive bubble, convinced that everyone else is having the most improbably perfect time. Vanity Bites Back digs beneath the surface and exposes the mixed up, murky bits.
How do you think your personal experiences help with your comedy?
My experience gives me the freedom to fly off on unexpected and baffling tangents that are, worryingly, always rooted in truth!
And where did you find the strength to take these experiences and work them into such a public form?
I studied clowning in France under a terrific, slightly tyrannical teacher called Phillipe Gaulier. I survived being called as boring as a fart on a plastic bag daily (!) and still wanted to get on stage and play. That gave me the confidence to celebrate what was unique to me as a means of connecting to audiences on a very human level.
What do you believe the common societal stigma towards mental illness is at the moment?
Mental illness can be difficult to deal with because you can’t just pop a plaster over it. Sufferers become very good at hiding their symptoms and undervaluing their struggle in order to avoid awkward conversations with well meaning friends and family who feel compelled to “fix” them. This can isolate the sufferer and end up leaving everyone frustrated and confused. There’s no perfect solution, but I know that compassion and understanding were instrumental in helping me to find a greater sense of self worth.
How do you believe comedy helps to challenge these stigmas?
It’s been a brilliant way for me broach subjects that I’d otherwise have been far too afraid to admit experiencing. Comedy gives me the freedom to play with my audience rather than “at” them; they laugh, we make a little crew, and everybody’s more invested in the show’s unpredictable journey.
Why is it so important to put these issues into the spotlight?
I’m not making the show because these are “important” issues; I’m making it because this is something I’ve been through and it shaped who I am today. I chose to use clown because it’s founded upon admitting your imperfection to the audience and building a very honest relationship with them as a result. So, on one level Vanity Bites Back is a show about anorexia, because that’s something I’ve struggled with. It’s also a show about being alive and truthful in the moment and making the show new each night.
Is there any ever concern that the comedy will mask the seriousness of mental illness and devalue it to the public?
Come and see the show – the comedy only enhances the value of everything running underneath.
Is there a worry that this has already happened and mental illness isn’t regarded as seriously as it should be?
Not for me – I don’t think there’s ever a point where what’s gone before should stifle what’s happening now. You can’t make work that’s truthful and engaging if you’re always looking over your shoulder. I try to keep connected to my own experience both in the past and present and play from there.
Have you ever worried that part of your set may go too far when dealing with such a sensitive topic?
I’ve worried that it wouldn’t go far enough! This is a huge topic that affects everybody differently and to begin with I felt a great pressure to make the definitive clown-cookery-show-about-anorexia. Then I read that tag-line back and realised I had more than enough on my plate already!
If there was one thing that you wanted people to take from your set, what would it be?
Celebrate your imperfections with as much energy and invention as you invest in beating yourself up about them; it’s remarkable how much more fun life can be.
What’s been the most rewarding part of performing this set?
Audiences have responded with an astonishing level of honesty and generosity – both during and after the show. Initially, I was afraid of allowing myself to be seen in such a vulnerable way. Now I know it’s one of the most powerful gifts you can give; letting other people see you just as you are.
“Vanity Bites Back” is showing at Vault Festival from 28th Jan – 1st February, tickets available at http://www.vaultfestival.com/