Rosie Jones on comedy, coming out and being unapologetically herself

BY DANIELLE MUSTARDE

Just before this issue went to print, Rosie Jones performed to a “cosy” audience of 9,000 at Wembley Stadium. Not bad, considering the 28-year-old comedian was still contemplating how to put together her first full-length set this time last year. 

Yorkshire-born Jones studied English at university before moving to London aged 21 to pursue a career in television. “Once I graduated, I was like, ‘Great! I can read and write! Shit. Now what?’ I’d always loved TV and so I applied for a diversity traineeship at Channel 4, which I got. After that, I quickly found that I loved comedy and working on panel shows in particular.”

Fast forward a little and after working behind-the-scenes for five years, Rosie began to feel something crucial was missing. “I liked my job, but I was like, ‘Hmm, what’s that feeling? Oh – I’m not fulfilled because I’m not writing’. Not writing made me sad so I decided to do a comedy writing course at the National Film and Television School. I realised then, ‘Hey, I’m alright at this!’ and so I started writing jokes for the panel shows I was working on. A little after that, Jimmy Carr used one of my jokes on 8 Out Of 10 Cats. It was so good but at the same time it felt like, ‘Wait. He’s getting my laughs!”

What was stopping her getting those laughs herself? “I’d always told myself, ’In another lifetime I would have loved to be a comedian but, because I have cerebral palsy, no one would understand me’. I talk too slow, people would get to the punchline before I did. It took a few friends saying, ‘But… we understand you! It just takes a little tuning in’.”

Those words from friends, coupled with seeing comedian Tig Notaro’s Netflix special, Tig, for the first time, became something of a turning point. “In the documentary, Tig talks about having cancer. She does a routine where at the beginning of her set, she takes her top off. She’s had a double mastectomy, and you can really feel the audience go, ‘Ohhh’. But because she owns it, after five minutes everyone forgets that she’s topless. 

“I thought, if I too get on stage and I’m unapologetic, they’ll get used to my disability too. As well, Tig’s style is deliberately slow and drawn out, and yet people cling onto every word. I thought, ‘If she can do that on purpose, even though I can’t help how slowly I speak, I’m going to make the decision to control it. A lot of comedians are allowed to waffle in a way that I can’t – I just needed to make sure every word counted.”

The first time Rosie ever performed to an audience was on a quiet Sunday night in Dalston, north London. “There were about 10 people in the audience – nine of whom were comedians. It was such a dead room but as soon as I got up there it was love at first line. I knew I had something I could build on. It really was like, ‘Oh, this is what I’m meant to do!’

“For two years after that I was still working full-time in TV but I was also gigging every night. It was exhausting but eventually it built and built until, last year, I was able to leave my job and I’ve been working in comedy full-time ever since – which is still crazy!” That and starring opposite Liz Carr in Silent Witness and writing two sitcoms and doing charity gigs for Red Nose Day at Wembley? “It’s all a bit mental but hey, I’m never bored!”

During birth, Rosie’s shoulder got stuck. “Well, it was the 80s,” she jests. (Hello, shoulder pads). As a result, she didn’t breathe for 15 minutes, which led to her developing cerebral palsy. Her most recent show, 15 Minutes, explores who she might have been if that first quarter of an hour of her life had gone differently. Who might able-bodied Rosie have been? “The secret is, I’m a knob-head, but because I’m disabled I get away with it,” Rosie grins cheekily. She does this a lot.

“15 Minutes explores how my life would be different if I hadn’t been born with cerebral palsy, because I feel it’s like the butterfly effect. Those 15 minutes were such a short amount of time but they changed my whole life. Without it, I wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t be me. I actually don’t think I’d be a comedian because my disability knocks my confidence and, when you start life with a shit hand, it makes you a bit fearless and you think, ‘Actually I’ve got nothing to lose – I’ve got everything to gain’. If you gave me a pill now that would make me able-bodied, I wouldn’t take it because I’m me. I’m Rosie and I’m proud to be disabled and a woman because those labels have really made me who I am.” 

Why then, Rosie wondered – success glittering at her feet – did she still feel a “sinking feeling” whenever anyone asked her about her love life? “It took time for me to find humour in my sexuality. I’ve been disabled for 28 years. I know the ins and outs of where the line is and what to joke about. For a few years, my sexuality felt like this fragile thing. When I first started performing I made jokes about men rather than women, but it would make me sad because people were laughing at something that isn’t true.” 

It was as she was writing her first hour-long show for Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2017 that she realised she wanted to write a show that she could be proud of. “I wanted to say, ‘This is me, this is what I want to talk about’. But at that time, I wasn’t out to a lot of my friends, or any my family, which is odd because I wasn’t ever worried about their reaction. I just didn’t want them to worry about me. I wanted to tell people when I got a girlfriend like, ‘Yeah this is me, but don’t worry I’ve found someone who cares about me,’ but that never happened. I’m a sad and lonely lady,” she laughs. “Of course, when I did come out, everyone was amazing. The only person who ever had a problem with it was me. For years I thought, ‘I can’t be disabled and gay, I must choose!’ But of course no one gave a shit and now when I go on stage, I can be completely myself.”

The knock on effect of being completely herself? Rosie has become a role model for other LGBTQI people with disabilities. “I did a show the other week and a girl in a wheelchair came up to me afterwards with another girl and said, ‘Thank you so much, this is my girlfriend and she gets mistaken for my sister, friend, carer, you name it – to the outside eye, she can’t be my girlfriend’. It made me think, this is why I talk about being gay on stage because no one ever said to me, ‘It doesn’t matter whether you’re disabled, or gay – just be you’. I hope that people see me and see that I’m happy and proud and that they can be like, ‘You know what, I’m going to be myself too’.”

Who was the Rosie for her when she was growing up? Did she see anyone like her on TV? “I didn’t and at first that got me down, but it also made me think, ‘I can change this’. That’s what really started me on my journey to where I am today. I thought if I work behind the camera I’ll be able to change what happens in front of the camera.”

One place that she did find positive role models was during the coverage of the 2012 London Paralympics. “That was a major turning point. It made people go, ‘Wait a minute, they’re disabled and they’re amazing and they’re doing things that I couldn’t do’. I think we started to see then that disability doesn’t always have to be a disadvantage.”

Sexuality, however, was a whole other journey. “Growing up I found it hard to come to terms with my sexuality. I loved The L Word and Lip Service but there was no-one like me in them.” Does she feel that’s something that’s changing on our screens? “I don’t know, but I’ve decided to lead by example instead. It doesn’t matter what you look like, what you sound like, what you wear, just be who you are. I never want to feel like I’m speaking for all disabled people or all femme gay girls. I’m just saying, ‘This is me and I’m unapologetic about it’. Now you go and be who you want to be.”

This interview first appeared in the April 2019 issue of DIVA – grab your digital copy right here!

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