Eddie Izzard: coming out as transgender the greatest gift to myself


Q. Did you hear the one about the transgender stand-up comic who became a highly sought after dramatic actor in Hollywood and then became an ultra-marathon runner and politician?

A. This is not a joke. This is the life of Eddie Izzard.

Eddie is returning to New Zealand with his new show Wunderbar this week but during the course of our interview we don’t talk about the show at all. Just like his stand-up shows we have taken a tangent.

I’ve asked him a question about where he gets his energy and determination from. He seems to be scrolling through his phone.

“I’ve just been told about someone called Professor Carol Dweck​ who talks about… Something… Where has she gone… Hang on… “

“I’m going to read it to you because I was reading it just yesterday.”

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There are three qualities to each of Eddie’s answers during our conversation. Honesty, humour and a well-researched thoughtfulness that smacks of wisdom.

It’s the same in his comedy. One of his stand-up routines is a seven-minute riff on grammatical tenses in Latin, set in ancient Rome. It’s a riot.

“She’s a professor of psychology at Stanford University and she talks about mindsets,” he says. “Some people have a fixed mindset and some people have a growth mindset. I seem to have accidentally developed a growth mindset.”

According to Dweck, a fixed mindset is one that believes intelligence is static and a growth mindset represents a person who believes intelligence can be developed.

People with a growth mindset lead lives with a desire to learn. They embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks, see effort as the path to mastery and consequently enjoy ever-higher levels of achievement and a greater sense of free will.

Yup. That sounds like Eddie.

“I think my dad had something that was quite determined and I think I had the same determination gene –or at the very least I was happy to take big risks. You get gamblers who risk and you get entrepreneurs who risk. I’m entrepreneurial with confidence.

“I build up a certain amount of confidence, and I take it and I put it into something else which is sideways from it and then your confidence grows exponentially.”

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This does explain a lot about Eddie. While many actors struggle to shake off the comedian label, Eddie has forged a very successful career in film.

His dramatic work has earned him a Tony nomination and he is frequently sought after by Hollywood’s finest directors.

“I was initially doing sketch comedy and then I was doing street performing – and I was a crap street performer.

“Then I became a quite good street performer.

“Then I got in to stand up and I was not a good stand up and then I got better and now people saying I’m good.

“Then I got in to drama and people said ‘you’re no good at that’ and now I’m doing some good stuff.”

It’s the confidence entrepreneur in action, embracing challenge.

He’s been performing in French since the nineties, but in the last few years he has started performing full shows in French, German, Spanish, and is dabbling in Arabic and Russian.

In 2016 he ran 27 marathons in 27 days (with no significant prior running experience) both to raise money for Sport Relief and to honour one of his heroes, Nelson Mandela.

These achievements seem to be utterly superfluous to a successful career in entertainment.

“I see these pictures in my mind and I just want to act on them.”

“I think actually, in the end, it all comes down to coming out as transgender in 1985. Thirty-four years ago. That is my greatest gift to myself. It was such a leap.”

Dweck says people with a growth mindset enjoy a greater sense of free will and Eddie admits he could have gone down a different path.

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“I really did think I could have knocked on every door in the world and I could go ‘Ding Dong. Hello I’m doing a survey for a friend of mine (it’s not me you understand it’s a friend of mine) who’s transgender. He’s a transvestite and he’s thinking about coming out but he fancies women so he could lie about it for the rest of his life and just carry on and keep it in the closet – what do you think he should do?'”

“And I assumed that everyone in the world would say something like ‘Well I think he should lie about it and just carry on as everyone has done for hundreds and thousands of years.'”

Eddie’s comedy never significantly referenced the fact that he wore women’s clothes. He didn’t do it for the performance. It wasn’t shtick and it never felt like it to the audience. It was just something Eddie did. He normalised transgender to a certain generation.

“I knew when I came out that I didn’t want to be the person marching up and down say ‘Transgender – vote for us’. I couldn’t make that the thing. I instinctively felt the best way to make people look at transgender or transvestite in a different way was just by living a life and trying to do something positive.

“Then people will say ‘Oh I like what they do. Oh they happen to be transgender … That’s ah … oh that’s cool. I better re-look at that.”

Far from being a punchline, the life of Eddie Izzard is a persuasive advertisement for Dweck’s growth mindset. His life choices and achievements are inspirational to many people around the world.

“These are positive things. Improvising in French, improvising in German now Spanish too and heading towards Arabic and Russian. Running marathons. Politics. All of these things I think are good, positive ‘One Life Live It Well’ things.”

His positivity and energy are contagious, something he’ll be utilising in his next career pivot. After this world tour he will try his hand at politics again, something he’s been dabbling in for 10 years. The confidence entrepreneur. Embracing challenge.

“I think this is the century where we either blow ourselves off the planet, we wipe ourselves out, we poison ourselves to death or we make it a fairer world for 7.5 billion people.

“I think those are the choices and I think in the next 80 years we’re going to do one or the other. It’s got to be ‘try and make it a fair world for 7.5 billion people’. It’s up to us.”

If anyone can convince us the seemingly impossible can be done, it would be Eddie Izzard.