Main content

What we learned from Eddie Izzard’s Believe Me

In his own compelling and completely idiosyncratic way, Eddie Izzard has opened up about his life and experiences in his revealing memoir, Believe Me. It’s a moving, emotional and frequently hilarious journey. But what did we learn about the comedian/endurance runner/fashion icon from his autobiography? Here are a few of the more surprising moments…

Listen to all episodes of Eddie Izzard's Believe Me

Nettles Are Not His Friend

Eddie’s earliest memories are happy ones, growing up in Northern Ireland and being very much an auxiliary member, rather than the leader, of his local gang. Partaking in a whole host of scrapes and adventures, the greatest problems he faced in those days were horticultural ones. “Death by stinging nettles was our fear.” His distaste and distrust of the plant continues to this day. “They’re bastards. Stinging nettles are the Nazi’s of the weed world.”

A dress felt like something I would have liked to have worn. I knew something was different right then.

But everything in Eddie’s life was about to change forever.

His Childhood Ended Abruptly

His family suddenly relocated from Northern Ireland to Wales. Eddie wasn’t told why, but he was happy with the move as he fixated on their new house which had an internal door running straight from the garage to the kitchen. Just like in America. Or so he’d been told. In fact, the house didn’t even have a garage. The real reason for the move soon became apparent. His mother was ill and wanted to be close to her family. “Mummy is yellow. She’s always yellow these days. I think she has some kind of yellow illness.”

His mother died when he was six. “Me, Mark and Daddy just cried for between half an hour and a lifetime."

Garters Were His Gateway Clothing Item

Eddie was four or five when he first expressed an interest in wearing a dress. “A dress felt like something I would have liked to have worn. I knew something was different right then.” His dad later told him that around this time he used to help his mother with her stockings. “I remember being fascinated by the garter straps and adjusting them.”

Eddie feels that he must have had these feelings before his mum died and they weren’t ignited because he lost her. “Why do I want to self-identify as both boy and girl? I still haven’t figured it all out.”

Eddie Izzard in Cabaret at Ronnie Scott's (2005)

Eddie Is An Invention

Many years later, visiting old family friends in Sweden and watching their home movies of Eddie as a child with his mum, he discovered he was always ‘Edward’ to her. “It might seem a small thing but it was quite incredible to find out what she called me as a child. It was a piece of the puzzle of my fractured childhood that I’d never had.” It was after her death that he started referring to himself as ‘Eddie’.

I’ve always looked at things and done things slightly differently from other people.

He believes he started performing in an attempt to somehow bring his mum back. “But she has never come back. I keep trying though. Just in case.”

Crying Is Bad

Perhaps understandably, Eddie was a crier from a young age until he reached 11. Then, during a fight at boarding school, he realised that crying would always lose you the argument. And so he stopped. “Remove crying from your emotional colour palette. Don’t ever cry again.”

And Eddie didn’t cry again until he was 19 and he found, in his words, that he was “emotionally dead”. He needed to reconnect with his feelings or be permanently scarred.

It Was a Fan Who Diagnosed Him

It wasn’t until Eddie was in his 30’s that a fan at the end of a gig suggested that he might be dyslexic, telling him: “you talk about things in a dyslexic way”. Eddie believes that his dyslexia has helped him be more creative.

“I’ve always looked at things and done things slightly differently from other people.”

Eddie Izzard outside the BBC Radio 2 studios (2017)

I-Spy Is a Nightmare For Dyslexics

Eddie didn’t realise he was dyslexic. It was not a common diagnosis in the 1960s. All he knew was that he spelled cat with a ‘K’ and ceiling with an ’S’. Which would make games of I-Spy on long car journeys incredibly frustrating for the other competitors.

“When it was my turn to pick the thing that people had to guess it would take forever.”

Wearing Make-Up In Public For The First Time Wasn’t Fun

Eddie came out as transgender in the mid 1980s, the bravest thing he feels he has ever done. He was keen to separate his performing life from his sexuality as he didn’t want to be considered a ‘drag’ performer. He joined a support group and finally decided to go out for the first time in a dress, high heels and make up. All was fine until he changed back into his street clothes and was confronted by a group of teenage girls who harassed him. Finally he turned and said “You want to know why I’m wearing a dress? I’ll tell you why…” At which point they fled.

The confidence that it has given me, coming out in 1985, is immense – but it was a very hard journey. Very hard.

“If you confront aggression, sometimes you can shut it down. It’s not a perfect science but it’s better than being scared.”

Once You’ve Done 10 Marathons, You’re Fine

Eddie really shouldn’t have been running any marathons at all. He wasn’t particularly fit and wasn’t any sort of endurance runner. Plus he planned to run about 1100 miles around the UK, followed by an ice cream van while waving flags. As he surmises, people must have thought he as bonkers. “Good bonkers”, as he clarifies. But after starting to train he felt it took around 10 marathons to get in the right state to run multiple ones. “After about the tenth marathon your mind and body synch up and you become match fit.”

Believing that 80% of marathon running is mental, he surmised that it’s your brain and your determination that will decide what you can and can’t do.

Eddie running 1166 brutal miles around the UK for Sport Relief (2010)

He Likes To Impress Himself

Eddie has always felt slightly outside and separate from his friends and comedy colleagues. His childhood experiences, his dyslexia and his sexuality have branded him as ‘different’ which he feels drives him to undertake immense challenges - marathons, foreign language gigs, acting roles - anything that will make him say, “I really don’t know how I did that?” He tries to impress himself and prove his worth to others.

And he has had to persist through a number of tough times. It took ten gruelling years for him to get his comedy career off the ground. But he finally realised his dreams. “I can still hang in there and come through.”

More from BBC Radio 4...