'By the way,' Sue Perkins says, apropos of nothing at all during
our interview, 'do you feel randier the older you get? My sex drive
is rocketing, the closer towards 40 I get.' She grins to herself.
'Self-acceptance is great for the libido.'
Perkins' fans may well do a double take in disbelief at the
revelation. This is far from the comic persona we are used to from
Perkins - the bespectacled, shuffling, cerebral funny-woman,
constantly puffing on Marlboro Lights.
For years we've seen the mercurial, relentlessly self-mocking
comedienne tie herself up in knots, affable but ill-at-ease, and,
above all, as publicly sexless as the Catholic nuns who educated
But when we meet in the sweltering heat of a North London bar, the
comic, writer and erstwhile star of Light Lunch, Mel & Sue,
stand-up and countless radio and television comedy shows is
positively radiant - and she no longer smokes. Can it be so? At 38,
she looks… happy
This seasoned serenity has whetted Perkins' appetite in more
ways than one. Her most recent television escapade, The Supersizers
Go… sees Perkins, accompanied by The Times' restaurant reviewer
Giles Coren, munch her way through several centuries' worth of
food. The duo visit six different eras in Britain's history, acting
out the social customs of the day, donning the period dress, and
feasting on such culinary concoctions as sheep's head decorated
with offal, eel pie, Angel Delight and salmon poached in
But tickling her taste buds has not always piqued Perkins'
fancy. 'I think I didn't like food for a while. It was something I
had to eat, in order to stay alive. You know, when you don't feel
great about yourself, your relationship with food does go awry.
When I don't feel very happy, I just get so skinny. 'Supersizers
has given me love handles. It's warped my physique into something I
don't recognise. After the Victorian episode, particularly, I had a
massive tyre from all the Victoria sponges I ate. I ate probably
6000 calories a day, for ten days. 'Now, I love food. I love the
creativity and expression that goes into it.'
Eighteen months ago, Perkins traded the manic bustle of London
for a bucolic existence in Cornwall with artist girlfriend Kate.
'We met walking our dogs on the heath. We've been together four
years, and I'll tell you, I'm boxing above my weight there. She's
gorgeous'. Kate also happens to be gastronomically gifted. 'When
she makes my tea, it's like Christmas - I love it.'
The move to Cornwall was spurred by Perkins' desire for a change
of pace. 'I wanted to try an alternative way of living. I had led a
very interior, adrenalised life in London.' And although the move
south-westwards coincided with a shift in Perkins' attitude to her
work, it neither signified her retirement from comedy nor a
complacency about work coming to her easily. 'It would be foolhardy
for me to be confident about work. I'm in an industry where most
people are unemployed at any given time, and I'm very lucky not to
be one of them - at the moment. I've just developed a healthier
attitude towards work. I love mine. It's the most interesting job
in the world, and the people are the most hilarious and
'And I go home (a five-hour commute) and it stops - I don't take
it with me. I enter this parallel life where everything is open,
farmers mow the fields, you wave at your neighbours, you walk the
dogs and you think about writing a novel - but you never do because
you're so utterly paranoid it might not be a work of genius.
Instead, it will be something despicably shoddy and mediocre. It's
going to be chick-lit, whatever you try to do!'
In a competitive industry, where artists often fear being
usurped by up-and-coming talent, Perkins has a refreshingly
accepting approach. 'I think young talent should come up. I'm
delighted that they do. You're only really paranoid about
young people if you think that your own age is a problem, or if
you're dealing with your advancing years in a negative way.'
Is the comedy industry that generous, though, particularly with
women? 'You have to make your own luck with comedy. Do I sit at
home and worry? I know now that however awful, galling and dreadful
it all is, I can just get it out there. If work isn't coming in
from the outside, stop moaning about it and make some.'
As well as self-generated work, Perkins peddles her wit on a
variety of TV and radio comedy shows. Here, she has learned to
adopt a less self-punishing attitude. 'I've learnt, literally in
the last three weeks, the key to my performing personality. If I
feel confident - and that's not often - it's like I'm flying. But
if I feel I'm working with people who don't think I'm good, if I've
had a bad day, or there are lots of shouty people there who just
want to take pot shots and talk over you, then my confidence -
which isn't that strong, it's not that big a reserve - gets
whittled down quickly. Then I become silent and I can't make jokes.
I'll put my hand up - there are so many panel shows [when asked,
she doesn't want to name names] where I've got some bad vibe off
somebody and just clammed up, because I feel ashamed to be there.
You know, usually I'm the only pair of tits in the room.
'Of late, I've gone, "You know what? I don't have to do it." If
it's going to make me feel horrible inside, and I'm not going to
keep my end up and be a good female presence on that show, then let
somebody else do it who's better than me, or who can really stand
up to be counted in a slightly more hostile environment. I'm not
very competitive. I don't want anyone to feel bad, or unable to
speak or to have their moment. But most of the time, most people I
know are lovely, and very supportive.
'All of that's been a very important lesson over the last few
years. With it comes an acceptance that there are people who can do
certain things a lot better than I can. Maybe that's something to
do with being 300 miles away in Cornwall. You can't control
everything, so why bother? Actually, it's quite nice to say no, and
I can list five people who would be funnier. It's quite a relief to
not feel you have to be the best, or pretend to be the best.'
For Perkins, Supersizers has also been professionally
liberating. 'My sexuality is never mentioned. I just am a lesbian.
I'm not trying to run away from it. There are a couple of
suggestive things I do with donuts…'
The TV show has also illuminated how difficult life would have
been for women - particularly lesbians - in days gone by. 'Had I
been alive during most of the chunks of history we covered, I would
have killed myself. Because I would have been sexless, in a tower,
eating biscuits. Or cockerel's testicles.
'People probably think this is a bit cod, but we did try and
experience as much as we could - really live it. And sometimes it
just felt impossibly lonely. Giles would go, "I'm off to sleep with
whores, drink loads of whisky and talk about politics at the club,"
and I'd be stuck at home in a corset. It would have been impossibly
difficult for somebody who was gay. Until the Victorians or the
Edwardians; then you can start to have a bit of fun. Regency, I
found a really hard week. Because all I had to do was try and find
a man, and I couldn't. It's an acting job - I had to find a
husband, and Giles had to play a fop.'
Ironically, Perkins did find herself attracted on some levels to
a man - Giles. 'I cop a feel of Giles whenever I can! It's like,
oh, the buns on him! I do snog him a little bit on the show.
Because, why wouldn't you? He's got that dirty thing going on and
it's lovely. Maybe you know you've reached the ultimate lesbian
state when you can quite happily think, "Oh, I'd just so like a
piece of you" (about a man). He's lovely. I love him very much.
He's very similar to me in a way - he has his mad moments. And he's
incredibly pretty, in a sort of dirty, pitiless-wolfish way.
'It was nice to have a quite flirtatious, really sweet on-screen
relationship with him, yet for both of us to be comfortable with
the fact that he's a heterosexual male with a girlfriend he's
really happy with, and I'm a lesbian with a partner. He's very
respectful of my sexuality. It's in the room, but it's not an
elephant. It's just part of the atmosphere, not a thing between us,
or something with which I define myself. That is real progress. I'm
happy to tell anyone I'm gay, and everyone knows. But I don't do
programmes that go, "I'm a gay." I do programmes that go, "I'm in a
corset. And I'm eating a raw hare's gall bladder by the Thames,
pretending I'm in 1660. Who'd like a slice?"'
But sanity about her sexuality has not always prevailed. Nine
years ago, when Perkins came out publicly, she was waging a very
damaging war against herself. 'At the time, I didn't like myself
very much, so I thought, "It's very hard to offer this up to the
general public when they might not like me, either." Now, it seems
a ridiculous thing to say, very self-defeating.
'When I came out, what I didn't want to do was present lesbians
with a fractured sense of self. You want to give them a slice of
something pure and good about being gay. You want to say, "I'm
delighted." Thing is, I am delighted. But maybe then I didn't look
as if I was.
'I don't want lesbians to think I've let them down. At the same
time, why would anyone want me to represent them?
'In a way, my battle with being gay was more a battle with
myself. I think it was seen as, "Oh, I've got a problem with
telling people." But I just had a problem with myself. Every part
of me - not just the gay part. Also the way I looked, spoke,
dressed and interacted with people... whether I was stupid or
whether people disliked me. I had a raft of issues, and that was
just another one.'
Demons, eh. They never go away. 'No, they don't. But you can
have demons and be happy. One has to go to some dark places. That's
not to say there won't be more. I have patches that are perennially
dark… I probably sound really up myself! I'm just the same as
everybody else. Most of the time I tit about and laugh, play and
have quite a sunshiny outlook on things. But when I don't, I've
learnt to speak about it. I come from a family that's fairly
Catholic, and very loving, but at the same time, it's "No-one wants
to see it leaking out, Susan. No-one wants to see the emotion
pouring out of you. Just try and give us a cupful every other
Easter Sunday. Let it demurely sink."
'But it's OK for me now to say, "I'm having a shit day. I feel
mad, or silly." And usually I get back, "Well, you are mad." And
then I just laugh. "Oh yeah, that's fine! I forget that's my
personality. Oh, that's good. Let's go and have some cake."'
Perkins jokes about lesbians' hostility towards her. 'I'll read
the next DIVA, and it'll go, "We did a survey: Did everyone hate
Sue?, and 95% of people did." And in response to "Do I look like a
dog?" which was the lead, 100% said yes. And you can see her little
saggy old tits poking out of that f**king bloody pair of
Actually, Sue, you look great. You're remarkably pert. Not that
I've been looking…
'Right, can you put that in the article? Can we put less of the
soul-searching and can we put in that you've said that my boobs
look perky, without a bra, aged 38?'
She leans back, clearly comfortable in her own skin. 'I've got
an all-right pair of hooters. I don't mind them. I don't go to bed
cosseting them,' she adds hastily, just in case lesbians think
she's up herself. Then she leans into my tape recorder and
whispers, 'Mention my hooters. Mention my hooters.'
This article first appeared in DIVA magazine, July