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She has given voice to some of television’s most memorable characters, so it can be surprising to hear Magda Szubanski admit she only recently felt ready to truly share her own.
In the past few years, the beloved 59-year-old comedian and actor has publicly championed causes close to her heart and taken on social-media trolls with wit, intelligence and the occasional terse “F*ck you!”
“I am really polite most of the time,” she tells Stellar from her home in Melbourne. “But every now and then I crack it.” It was coming out in 2012, she reckons, that really emboldened her to start speaking her mind more freely. Before then, she often felt constrained by that familiar female fear she would be dismissed as angry, strident or shrill.
“I love people, but I am also much shyer than people think. In some ways it’s not easy for me to be famous, because I am quite vulnerable and sensitive. But I just feel so much freer since I came out. And I am lucky that I live in a time where I could do that.
“The sense of freedom I have felt since is just incredible and then I gained confidence through the various things I have taken on – and writing my memoir.” That book, titled Reckoning, “really changed things enormously for me because I think that was the first time people started to glimpse any intelligence.
In the UK, if you’re a comedian people assume you’re clever, but here people think if you do that you are stupid.”
Stupid is certainly not a word that springs to mind if you spend any time in the company of the multitalented performer.
A voracious reader, Szubanski has up to 10 books on her bedside table at any one time. Her conversation, too, is peppered with eclectic cultural references – a passage from the Bible, a Polish folk story and even a quote from her favourite film, Frozen 2.
Although she’s recently been recovering from a bout of shingles, Szubanski’s time in lockdown has been far from idle. She has been trying her hand at photography on her daily walks and cooking up a storm in the kitchen. She also boasts that she has built the Taj Mahal out of Lego – no mean feat when you consider that required her to assemble nearly 6000 blocks.
She has also been busily scribbling away on her children’s book series about a showbiz horse whose fame is on the wane. The second instalment, Timmy The Ticked-Off Pony: Bite Me, was just released, but the pandemic has also afforded her the time to pen four more stories. Timmy had his genesis when a close friend told Szubanski that she reminded her of a Shetland pony when she was angry.
Szubanski insists she does not actually get angry all that often, laughing as she admits she is more likely to become cranky about small frustrations than sweat the big stuff. She’s also given up taking to heart any of the vitriol that’s aimed at her on Twitter. But that doesn’t mean she simply lets the bullies off the hook.
“I’ve never agreed with [ignoring trolls],” she says, adding that she chooses a different tack: she fights back.
“I’ve got three-and-a-half decades of fame under the belt, as it were. And it’s easier for me to take this type of stuff on, although I am not saying it’s completely easy, because it’s never pleasant.”
In August, Szubanski came under fire for taking part in a Victorian Government ad campaign promoting COVID-19 awareness and safety. The actor, who appeared in the ad as her Kath & Kim character Sharon Strzelecki, volunteered her services and wrote her own scripts, believing it was her civic duty. She says it was disappointing that her involvement became politicised because she would have done the same thing for the Federal Government.
The ad also put her in the crosshairs of Pete Evans and his fellow COVID-19 sceptics, who claimed the ads were using celebrities to “brainwash children”.
Szubanski says she felt fat shamed by Evans and had no hesitation about calling him out on that. “This idea that he is a representative of health and that someone who looks like me can’t give a health message about what to do in a pandemic is such nonsense,” she scoffs.
“The thing that’s going to get people killed in this is not social distancing. [It won’t be] being fat. Being fat is not contagious. Maybe it will kill me, who knows! But it’s certainly not going to kill you if I am fat. And you know what? A lot of healthcare workers and doctors are also overweight and it’s really insulting to them.”
And if keyboard warriors want to resort to name-calling about her weight, she says, “I am no longer stung by that. But I won’t let them use it as a weapon to push fat people, or anyone really, out of the conversation. And, as a fat person, you’re not supposed to ever fight back. You’re supposed to just cop it because you’re fat and you brought that on yourself. I thought, ‘Well, f*ck that!’”
Given her popularity, it is little wonder that Szubanski has been courted to trade in show business for politics. But she laughs that she is not built for politics because, as a lifelong comedian, she’d be too tempted to act up for a laugh. “And it’s all wheels and deals, and I am no good at that. Nor am I remotely interested,” she adds.
Performing for the cameras in character has also become uninspiring for Szubanski. While she hasn’t officially retired from acting, she isn’t actively chasing roles either, preferring to devote her energy to writing and the various causes she champions. She says there was far more creative freedom in characters like Timmy The Ticked Off Pony than there ever was doing any of her many TV roles.
“When I do the characters, even with all the great wigs and costumes and stuff, you feel limited by your age, your height, your gender and all that,” she says. “Whereas when I write these characters, I can explore all this other stuff.”
Interestingly, Szubanski says she doesn’t feel creatively stifled by the new age of political correctness and cancel culture. Like many comics of her generation, she has some regrets about performances she’s done in the past but that doesn’t mean she thinks there should be a rush to censor or remove them altogether from TV history.
“We all did blackface, not with the intention of ridiculing black people, but certainly without the understanding of how it would feel to be on the receiving end of seeing that,” she explains.
“We grew up with Benny Hill and comedians saying stuff like: ‘Take my wife, please!’ And it was just a yawn and a bit of a bore. But there’s a lot of anger and righteous people around now and that’s always a buzz killer. And that’s very different to being sensitive and respectful of political correctness to someone screaming at you from their moral high ground.
“I am always a bit anxious about things that want to erase everything and start with cultural year zero. Some things just die a natural death because they were so terrible. I am careful of the idea of rewriting history or erasing history. There’s a danger in that, because then we learn the wrong lessons from history.”
Timmy The Ticked Off Pony: Bite Me by Magda Szubanski (Scholastic, $16.99) is out now.