From bulimia to trolling, being labelled a “feminazi” to being sectioned, with comedian Juliette Burton, nothing is off the table. Seriously, nothing.
As her show, Look At Me, hits London, she told us about the process of creating it, about breaking down barriers with comedy, and about that Protein World ad.
Firstly, tell us a bit about the show?
‘Look At Me’ is a docu-comedy – a documentary mixed with comedy – all about whether what we appear to be is who we actually are.
Last year I experimented with prosthetic make up to change the way I looked in lots of dramatic ways, so I spent a day as a 90 year old lady, a day as a man, a day wearing the hijab, a day dressing like a glamour girl, and a day revisiting my obese self: I used to be a size 20 and a size 4 due to my struggle with eating disorders – anorexia, bulimia and compulsive overeating disorder.
I use filmed footage of this to tell the story on stage – full of humour and honesty. Comedy can be really powerful to break down barriers, and honesty is important to be real with audiences: on stage with me, what you see is what you get.
Recently I’ve worked on new material for the summer of performances. This new version was tried out for the first time in Brighton in May and it turned out to be an award-winning performance! So I’m very excited to see what the London audiences feel about it.
How did you prepare for the show?
I spent months interviewing people of various appearances: models, octogenarians, facially disfigured people, physically disabled people, people with hidden illnesses like cystic fibrosis and cancer, Muslim women, performers, heads of businesses, transgender people, and more, all about their relationship with their bodies and what they felt beauty was.
They also appear throughout the show to give it a universal perspective; it’s not just my point of view coming across.
I worked with the Muslim Women’s Association of Edinburgh, Changing Faces – the facial disfigurement charity – the transgender group Seahorses, and the eating disorder charity Beat to ensure the show was as informed and aware as possible. I wanted to make sure the humour was never at the expense of any group – offending people isn’t really my thing. I would rather treat people with the respect we all deserve.
In terms of preparation at each show – I rehearse, I rewrite, I test out material at my regular monthly night at The Canvas – London’s only Happy Café – near Brick Lane to ensure I keep up to scratch and game-ready.
I do have a pre-show ritual, like most performers do. I talk about that in the show so if anyone wants to find out my tricks to get me from offstage to onstage, do come along!
You’ve been in the press recently about your response to the now infamous Protein World ad. Tell us about that?
If anyone wants to know exactly the facts of what happened, I would encourage them to read this article.
I signed a petition about that ad: adverts like this exacerbate a feeling of not being “good enough” in young people and I’d like to see this advertising technique change. Yes, we’re surrounded by it, and it’s a daily irritant, but this particular advert was particularly aggressive in its design and its placement.
It was the shocking, disrespectful, response I received from the company and the CEO online that got me so intensely involved in the story. The company asked me: “Why make your insecurities our problem (winky face)” and also accused the UK of being a “nation of sympathisers for fatties”.
They might be in denial of the part advertising plays in low self-esteem in young people: 11 to 17 year old girls want to be thinner; some die from eating disorders chasing this unattainable dream of a “perfect” self. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
They are also misinformed about me and my stance – I’m no longer insecure; I’ve posed naked for Cosmopolitan magazine, I perform shows I’ve written to help people laugh and break down the barriers to understanding mental health and body image issues.
I thought I would be safe to explain my history and experience of eating disorders, mental health issues and my message of humour, strength and hope to the company and offer to meet with them to discuss things openly and honestly in more detail. Instead the CEO began responding to others defending me by mocking my mental health conditions.
I was particularly shocked at: “So she does have a mental health problem” which was followed by three emojis – laughing face, “ok” hand and alien face. If a picture speaks a thousand words, then these pictures say this man thinks it’s ok to laugh at the crazy weirdo.
This man and his company continued retweeting trolls accusing me of being a “feminazi”, a “crazy harpy, and the feminist equivilant of ISIS – although I never once made this a feminist issue, both men and women are affected by the media and body image. A lot of people attacked my mental health conditions saying I had an unreliable brain, I should get off my ass or get some meds, that I should besectioned.
Again, these tweeters are misinformed: I was sectioned already in 2002. Been there, done that, and they don’t give out t-shirts.
As a dear friend of mine says: other people’s ignorance is not and never will be my problem. I hope my speaking out will gradually turn other people’s ignorance into compassion and understanding. And if they think I can’t be a strong woman with a strong voice because of my mental health problems, well then: watch me.
What do you think about the response to your comments?
I guess we can all become vitriolic or abusive when we’re scared. Sometimes people are scared of change and of people who speak out for change. Instead of being self-aware and honest about what threatens them, it’s easier to tell other people to shut up.
Just because something has been the accepted normality for so long doesn’t make it right. I hope future generations grow up with different wallpaper of advertising surrounding them that doesn’t talk down to them or bully them, or maybe even helps them laugh, feel or think rather than just feel not good enough.
I was truly shocked by how many people were so willing to be so rude about my mental health history. In my life I’m surrounded myself with people who believe in accepting everyone no matter what they look like or their backgrounds. I guess I created a utopian bubble, which was popped during this experience. I’m grateful to have woken up to the reality of how far we have yet to go in breaking mental health stigma.
Do you think people in the public eye have a responsibility to speak out on the topic of body image, or mental health?
I think men and women in all industries have an opportunity to have a voice on topics they feel passionate about; whether that is body image, mental health, sexism, disability equality, gender issues, ageism, racism or any other.
It is important and a pleasure to use a public profile to spread that message to a wider audience, and it is vitally important to add a positive message than to use that position to harm others. It’d be so wonderful if we could build each other up instead of knocking each other down.
But thanks to social media, you don’t have to be in the pubic eye to have a strong, clear, public voice any more. We can connect and share new ideas and support the ideas of others all online.
I don’t think only women do this; men do it brilliantly too. It isn’t a responsibility, but anyone can make the choice to be more open and honest about their own mental health experiences; talk about it but also to listen openly, without judgement.
What would you say to people out there who want to pursue a job onstage but have low self confidence?
We all at some point have lacked confidence and a lot of us do every day. Confidence can be learned, confidence can be a choice, confidence can also be faked. Self-worth can’t.
Any young man or woman out there deserves a real self-worth and that doesn’t depend on changing fashions or changing bodies. Self-worth is what we all need and that can’t be faked or sold to us. You are capable of whatever you put your mind to.
The most confident people out there may well have days when they struggle with self-doubt but they keep going. So most of all, whatever you want to achieve and whoever you are; be true to yourself, follow your bliss and never give up.
Juliette is performing Look At Me at the Leicester Square Theatre tonight and tomorrow, 18 June. Click here for tickets.