She ditched a career in PR for the unstable world of stand-up comedy, but Joanne McNally is used to bumpy rides. She talks to Donal Lynch with searing honesty about why she needed to find her birth parents, but has only kept in touch with her father, her eating disorders and what not to say to an anorexia sufferer, the dark side of lip filler, and why she inevitably finds herself attracted to what she calls the ‘boy-dad’ type of guy
Joanne McNally has the aura of a teenager returning from a festival. She sits impishly amid a nest of bags. The pink hair is tied back. She's tired. A glass of wine would help. "This is how I live now, I'm like a hobo," she explains between sips. "I'm touring around - I'm going to Australia next - so there's no point in me taking out a lease. I stay with whoever will let me have their couch. Vogue and Spencer have been amazing."
That's Vogue Williams and Spencer Matthews, in whose London apartment Joanne has been staying while she tries to crack the UK comedy scene. "The place is gorgeous, it's in Battersea," she tells me. "They've been really sound to me. Spencer does a great Irish accent and Vogue is bulletproof; she doesn't give a shit what people say about her."
What's it like passing so much rippling beauty on the landing? "There's no sexual tension," she explains. "We don't have threesomes - can you imagine? I would probably just get crushed in the middle by their abs. The two of them would be going at it and I'd just be there in the corner, humping their dog."
She probably would be the kind of housemate you would bear. In an era when so many ambitious young media people have grudgingly accepted careers in PR, her movement has been the other way, out of a stultifying career in brand management into the rough-and-tumble of professional stand-up.
Over the last few years, her perfect Southside-girl self-deprecation and incredible openness marked her out as one of the most distinctive new comedy voices in this country. After replacing Jennifer Zamparelli on Republic of Telly for a stint, she went on to win rave reviews for her one-woman show about eating disorders, Bite Me. Last year, she delivered one of the funniest documentaries of the year, Baby Hater, on TV3, in which she explored the absurdity of society's expectation that a woman who was on her "13th bank card of the year" should still be eager for the ultimate responsibility of having a child.
Last year, she took her show, Wine Tamer, to Edinburgh; in April, she will bring another piece, Gleebag, to Vicar Street, for her first solo show there. "I might have to rename it for the UK, as they won't know what a geebag is ['gleebag' is a play on 'geebag', a Dublin term of abuse]. On the other hand, the word could be on the radio there," she explains. "I'm trying out a lot of material at the moment."
She has mined a lot of her life for her stand-up, including her adoption. She was born in Roscommon in the 1980s. Her parents were young - her biological father left as soon as he found out about the pregnancy. Growing up, she was preoccupied with the idea of not looking like anyone in her adoptive family. And it was this, in part, that led her to seek out her birth parents.
She met her birth mother, but they are not in touch now. She and her biological father, whom she met last year in Australia, hit it off, however. They look alike, which was a relief. She describes him as "a bit of a hippie". She says that in a situation like that there can be an expectation that the 'child' wants in some way to be cared for, when that was not the case. "I'd done my growing up, and my parents were great. I didn't really need anything from him."
She had a fairly middle-class upbringing in Killiney, marred only by the death of her adoptive father at 15, and an eating disorder - she can remember feeling bad about her body from the age of 11. "I'm 35 now, which isn't old, but when I was growing up, there weren't women of different sizes anywhere in media. It was all heroin chic skinniness. That was what I thought was cool."
She says she had anorexia and bulimia - "I had both, because I'm competitive" - and that her relationship with food fulfilled the same numbing function as drink or drugs. "The opposite of addiction is connection, and whatever you're addicted to is an effort to sort of soothe that feeling of not feeling fulfilled and whole. With bulimia, you are literally filling yourself and then purging your anxiety. My issues with food were like a tic. They felt so much a part of me, my relationship with myself, my relationship with other people. With food, there is also the aesthetic thing of getting used to your body looking a certain way."
Even while the eating disorder was causing private chaos, she presented a functional front to the world. After college - it took her seven years to do a three-year degree in UCD - she found work in a PR agency in Dublin.
Skinniness felt like a way to get ahead in the industry, and a way to make herself more attractive to men. In fact, she says it had the opposite effect: the eating disorder drove them away. "They tended to break up with me bang on the three-month mark. I'd never eat with them, I'd never go to dinner; I'd be gone first thing in the morning. I just binge-drank. I was starving, so I felt insane, too - I'm sure I was difficult to deal with. I was undernourished, and continually vomiting up every endorphin and electrolyte I had inside me. And still I felt like, 'I have the body I'm supposed to have, so why should anyone be allowed judge how I got it?'"
But those close to Joanne could see she had a problem. She says now the worst thing they could say was, "You look skinny", as this would only spur her on (a better tack with eating-disorder sufferers, she says, is to say "You look unwell"). The secrecy around the disorder led her at one point to store bags of vomit in her wardrobe - she could throw up without leaving the bedroom. She lost two teeth, and for a while, her periods stopped. Her doctor was warning her that she would soon do damage that she would not be able to reverse. She had little glimpses of how crazy it had all become, but still she continued. "My whole goal in life was to revert to my birth weight," she says, smiling. "Anorexia felt kind of chic, it's all about refusal; whereas when I was bulimic, the gross cousin of that, [I was] milling around, throwing everything up."
Eventually, her mother told her that unless she got professional help, she had to get out of the house. By then, Joanne was working with a mental-health charity in Dublin, and decided she would just secretly live at the office. "I was quite defiant," she says. "I didn't want to really grow up. I am quite childish in some ways, and I think keeping my body very tiny was part of keeping myself young. If you're a grown woman and reducing yourself to the size of a child, that is very telling. You're rejecting your own adulthood."
Belatedly, she did decide to try counselling. It would be many sessions before Joanne was prepared to admit she had a problem, however. "The first counsellor said to me, 'Why do you want to be so thin?' and I was thinking, 'Who is this one? It's thin, it's like being rich, everyone wants it'. Both she and all of the other counsellors I dealt with said that the food was a symptom of a greater problem, to do with self-worth. By then, I didn't know anything about food any more - what was a normal portion size, what was a normal weight. I was so stuck in the destructive routines that made me feel safe."
It was only when she accepted that she had an eating disorder that she felt able to enrol in the outpatients programme at St Vincent's Hospital. But while she had agreed to go, she secretly felt recovery meant getting fat, and she was still prepared to avoid this imagined end at all costs. In one incident, during her time in recovery, she was arrested for shoplifting food. The guards could hardly believe that she would have risked stealing a croissant.
She was arrested, but got off with what she calls "a sergeant's warning" and thereafter she began making baby steps in the right direction. "For ages, I could never feel satiated because it would send me into a spiral," she says. "Or if people said to me, 'You look great' it would make me want to choke myself because I would feel like they meant, 'You look fat'. Recovery came very slowly."
She began doing comedy while she was still attending an outpatients clinic, attending open-mic nights at clubs in Dublin. She says the idea that sexism impedes women getting ahead in comedy did not apply in her case - early on in her career, she noticed she had been put as equal top billing on a comedy poster ahead of men who had served their time.
"I'd been doing it for five minutes then, but I was a novelty," she says. "There was something about comedy that really felt fulfilling to me right from the start, though. I don't really believe in fate, but I think that if I'd had to have kept going in PR, I probably wouldn't have recovered. I started getting some momentum and I got signed in the UK. Things went from there."
While her career has flourished, her romantic life is still a bit hit and miss. "I fall in love like that," she says snapping her fingers. "It's probably because of deep-rooted psychological issues. When I was younger, I went for lads who wore Lynx and worked in construction; men with vans, that kind of stuff. My dad died when I was 15, and it's meant I always go for older men. I basically want a boyfriend-dad. A boy-dad. But then I find something like that, and I like it for a while, and then I think they're too clingy, and I want to move on."
She's tried online dating recently. "I signed up to a celebrity dating site - the one Amy Schumer met her fella on - and it was fascinating, but it was all investment bankers with yachts, whereas I'm just a knacker with a blue tick on her Instagram. Vogue was like, 'Why don't we set you up with Joey Essex [from TOWIE]?' and I was like, 'Are you on drugs?'" She recently broke up with a guy. "He's dead to me now," she laughs.
She can't imagine getting the same fulfilment from marriage and kids as she does from comedy. "I'm sort of at a point in my life where I have to be quite selfish and focused on myself, but I wonder if that is going to start becoming boring and, when it does, will I regret living like this? I'm still about four years away from logistically being able to have a baby [naturally]. With medical help, I could probably get pregnant at 45, but then I'd have a 10-year-old at 55, which would be exhausting. It's so unfair that men can just bang it out on their deathbeds."
She makes good money from corporate gigs, but tells me that she still has no mortgage, and, as her mother reminded her recently, no pension. "I said to her, 'You're my pension, just stop wearing your seatbelt so much'." There is no money in the clubs here and she is "not as mainstream as the TV channels might prefer" - another reason for the move to London.
It sounds like a tough enough path - so few make it - but she doesn't cry often: "I'm on too much medication for that. I try, but it doesn't work. Being on the road is really lonely, especially after the last break-up. The only thing that kept me going was reading Lily Allen's book [My Thoughts Exactly]."
She says she has a continual feeling of "being about to expire" and being "on the back foot, age-wise" because of her late start in comedy. She has regular chemical peels, but has thus far eschewed having any bigger 'work' done. "I know lips are so in now and I am really susceptible to marketing and advertising, so I have this feeling of, 'Fuck, my lips aren't big enough'. All the young ones now look like they came out of a Japanese vending machine. I think lips are so big because they know men look at women's lips and think, 'I wonder what they'd look like wrapped around my...' You're basically turning your face into a glory hole."
That will, presumably, always be the dream, but in the meantime, the ferocious slog of career and recovery continues. The solitary train trips to far-flung English towns sound daunting but you feel she can handle them. She has a kind of Artful Dodger winningness to her and ambition gleaming in her eyes.
Her career continues to climb - the day after we speak, the TV rights to her documentary, Baby Hater, are sold in nine countries. She's still wary of food - she won't eat pizza, for example - but now photoshoots don't send her into a tailspin of starving herself any more. "I think the biggest difference with me now is really that I listen to people," she explains. "You could tell me you think I've gone mad now and I'd give that a hearing. I'm quite suggestible. You might be right."
Joanne McNally brings her show, 'Gleebag', to Vicar Street on April 23. Tickets from ticketmaster.ie
Bodywhys, the Eating Disorders Association of Ireland, is the national voluntary organisation supporting people affected by eating disorders. Tel: (1890) 200-444, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or see bodywhys.ie
Photography by Kip Carroll
Styling by Chloe Brennan