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Dame Edna returns triumphantly - at the Music Box Theatre -
with the Ednaettes and TestEdnarones.
[Photo: David Allen]

There is nothing like a dame, goes that familiar refrain from Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific, and there's nothing like Dame Edna Everage. There'll be no caterlillies on Broadway, but the gladiolas are certainly in bloom again at the Music Box. Dame Edna has always promises: "I will not disappoint." And in Dame Edna: Back with a Vengeance, her return to Broadway, the wisteria-haired Aussie expatriate doesn't break that promise.

No one expected Dame's 1999 Broadway outing The Royal Tour to become such a smash but, before even the first preview, the buzz was huge. Suddenly, the Dame was not only the sleeper of the season -- running close to 400 performances -- but also she became literally a household word. Her name was on the lips of just about everyone -- no matter their age or lifestyle.

So with her return in Back with a Vengeance, Dame Edna is as well known as the recent political candidates. Now, one can only wonder, if Arnold succeeds in getting Federal law changed so that foreign-borns can run for president, if Dame Edna might have those bejeweled spectacles set on the White House. If so, with First Son "Kenny" in residence, one might expect a really extreme makeover.

The Dame has come a long way, baby, from the days of appearances on Roseanne, the Tonight Show and her TV specials. A visit to her website offers clues to the fact that she could be the hardest working woman in show business. Besides her many other traits, she's best known for keeping Broadway and international audiences in convulsions.

Between shows, during a late night supper at Sardi's, there were moments of true confessions and humble soul-searching, but very little humility. That was not totally unexpected. One has come not to expect a lot of humility from this Dame.

"I have a simple message," she claims, "laughter. It's a magic tonic and the best weapon against world tension ever invented. I'm fortunate to do a job that makes me happy and gives people pleasure, because, when you laugh, you use muscles that you don't use in any other way. Laughter is good for you. Audiences can't help laughing when they see me and I'm not embarrassed by that. It's rather sexy. My husband used to laugh. On our honeymoon, he never stopped laughing."

It was always the Dame's dream to be a Broadway star, and it came true four years ago. The show appealed to all age groups and lifestyles.

Dame Edna on the grand staircase --

-- not at her Australian estate,
but at the Music Box Theatre

Following The Royal Tour run, Dame Edna was buried beneath an avalanche of awards, including a 2002 Drama Desk Award and the Tony Award for a Live Theatrical Event.

But, according to the Dame, when she left town, a deep depression settled over the theater community. "I got that information straight from psychiatrists. They called it EDS or Edna Deprivation Syndrome. And Broadway hasn't echoed with real laughter since then. So, to show how caring and compassionate I am, I'm back not only because I want to be back but also because of the pleadings of doctors and countless patients."

She admits, it's her brand of tough love, "but I have a joyous heart and my motto is ëI'm sorry, but I care.' I have so many lovely commodities, that I live to give them away to my grateful patrons. Or patients, as I call them. Did you know your doctor will prescribe tickets for my show as part of your therapy? At every performance, there are busloads of poor, depressed darlings in need of my therapy. And I zero in on them. If I can't coax a little twinkle out of them by the end, I actually contemplate suicide!"

She reports that no sooner than she sets foot onstage, audiences - "even hard bitten old Broadway theatergoers -- rise to their feet. Except for one man the other night. Sadly, he only had one leg, but he rose to his foot."

"My best memory of Barry," says Jim Dale, "was when, as Fagin,
he opened a box of jewels, decked them about himself, then took
out a pair of Dame Edna's jeweled spectacles and played Fagin as
the Dame for a few minutes. He had the audience in convulsions!"

Dame Edna says it's exciting to be conquering American audiences. Her "possums" may arrive agitated, but they leave happy -- more often than not, with a gladiola in hand. The tradition of the Dame's second act finale began quite by accident. She always thought gladiolas brought luck, so she would have a vase of them onstage.

"At one performance," recalls Dame Edna, "I noticed a woman in the front row staring at the gladies. I became quite cross; so much so that I pulled them out and flung them at her. I said, 'You might as well have them, since you prefer looking at them instead of me.' She proceeded to share them with the entire row, and when I did my last song, several women raised their gladies and began waving them in time with the music. It was poetic, funny and weirdly symbolic -- like an ancient rite. So, from then on, that how I've ended my shows."

For this visit, Florida's Hurricane Charley presented a challenge in the gladiola department. "Charley really decimated their gladiola crop," reports the Dame, "so, since I give out about a thousand gladies every show, I'm having them flown in from my gladie farm in Australia." It may be hinting at winter here but, Down Under, summer is in full swing.

A typical day, describes Dame Edna, is one of shopping for jeweled eyewear [she claims to be Elton John's mentor - and she's one superstar he hasn't accused of lip syncing] [even if the Dame did commit that unpardonable crime, what are the bets EJ would mess with her?], glamorous footwear and unpacking her glitzy gowns.

"My shoes are made for me," Dame Edna says. "I know little Manolo, but his [Blahnik's] shoes are a little too unsubstantial for me. I'm on my feet pacing around on that stage, and those little Manolos would just snap and disintegrate. Same with little Jimmy [Choo] and Ferragamo. They all wanted to make shoes for me, but I've had to say no."

Before arriving in each city for her sit-downs, the Dame also stays busy gathering gossip on local icons.

She explains that she feels her audiences are needy. "I'm here to help the darlings. I cut through the nonsense and tell it like it is. I pretend they're as intelligent as I am. As a result, afterward they bask in newfound self-confidence. My only consideration is for my less fortunate peers."

And though Dame Edna doesn't offer a sure-fire guarantee, she says her gladiolas have healing properties. "If an audience member has a body part that's giving them trouble ó even if it's someone else's body part ó "all they need do is strap the gladie to the affected area. Overnight, enzymes will leech into their organs and amazing things will happen."

Dame Edna as healer? She boasts that "as audiences depart, the ushers have been known to find neck braces, canes, walkers and prosthetics. All for a one-price-includes-all ticket!"

Back with a Vengeance is set in "an all-new theatrical infrastructure." Adds Dame Edna, "I'll glow from the stage in never-before-seen gowns, sing, dance, give psychic readings to astonished audience members, offer marriage counseling and perhaps even heal."

It would be hard to imagine a Dame Edna show without her inviting selected audience members on stage and offering fashion advice. "I've been known to say such constructive things as ëThat's a nice outfit. I used to make my own clothes, too!' And the poor dear I addressed didn't return for Act Two. Some people just are not ready for the truth! I dress my possums up in more glamorous clothes than they ever dreamt of owning. I want my audiences to dress as if every day is a special occasion. I hate this American obsession with head rags and torn dungarees. Like me, you can relax in designer outfits. Of course, I'm not only pretty, but also rich."

These little admonitions don't always go over well with those who've paid Broadway prices to see the legendary star. "When audience members feel I'm a little too in-their-face with my gentle probing," says Dame Edna, "I have fits of depression."

If Dame Edna is to be believed ó and why the heck shouldn't she?, her lavish, unique [substitute "questionable" here] outfits are designed by her "son" Kenny -- with rhinestones "hand-sewn by Australian nuns."

On more than one occasion, it's been said ó usually by the Dame herself ó that she's the most gifted female icon in the world. She's offered these descriptive words to define herself: incomparable international housewife, doting mother, TV celeb, therapist, guru, role model, advice counselor, lyricist, dancer and chanteuse. In other words, she is everywoman to every man and woman: a megastar. And, if you've ever sat in her presence, you know that she has audiences believing whatever she wants them to.

Returning with Dame Edna are gorgeous Ednaettes, "my scrumptious girl dancers in stunning costumes that the men folk will appreciate ó if they can take their eyes off me." There's something new, "a dishy duo of boy dancers, the equally gorgeous TestEdnarones." Sharing stage time with the Dame is Wayne Barker on keyboards.

She reveals that half the show is scripted. In the other half, depending on which gender issues Dame Edna decides to tackle and where in the audience her eyes fall, there are many departures. "The audience comes to experience my originality and freshness, so I don't over-rehearse. I want to be spontaneous."

In that regard, if your seats are in the first ten rows of the Music Box, you do not - I repeat, do not - want to be late. Her raison is: "I came all the way from Australia and I got here on time."

However, there was a huge surprise in the conversation - a sort of intimate confession; the sort you would never expect to hear uttered by the Great Dame: she suffers pre-performance jitters. "Even a tough old trouper like me gets butterflies in the tummy. When audiences see me, I seem to be full of energy and confidence, but before I go out I'm shaking and sick with nerves; then I put on my glasses and I'm ready to expose myself."

She arrives at the theater early, "because, when it comes to make-up, I entrust my transformations to no one but moi! I actually have to tone myself down when I make myself up. But I don't believe in surgery. Do you know what I call crow's feet? The dried-up beds of old smiles. I won't have them injected with poison! I pamper my skin with my own line of beauty products ó created from flowers and animal by-products."

Dame Edna's new-found success in America led to many media opportunities, including an appearance on the 2001 Oscar telecast. That year she also had a recurring role in 2001 as Clare Otoms on TV's Ally McBeal, portrayed Mrs. Crummles/Mr. Leadville in 2002's Nicholas Nickleby. In last year's mega box office hit Finding Nemo, she was the voice of Bruce the shark hit. The Dame became so popular that Vanity Fair signed her as an advice columnsist. That gig ended shortly after a controversial putdown to a reader who asked the Dame if she should learn Spanish.

Selma Hayek responded in rage for the Hispanic community and the Dame actually received death threats. The magazine saw fit to publish a full-page apology. The rift between Ms. Hayek and the Dame has, if one read a recent put-down of the actress, not healed. Says the Dame, "If you have to explain satire to someone, you might as well give up." Dame Edna claims Hayek's "denunciation" was due to "professional jealousy" because the role of painter Frida Kahlo, whom
Hayek portrayed onscreen - winning an Oscar nomination, had originally been offered to her. "I even began letting my eyebrows grow excitingly close together!" In the end, she didn't think the film was the right career move.

In the storm of her politically incorrect response, the Dame returned to her "private estate" in Australia to review the state of the world and spin it from her unique point of view. There she evidently did nothing to heal her estrangement with daughter Valmai. [There's a third child, Bruce, but, until this show, she's never mentioned him - primarily because of his wife, Joyleen, who, in the Dame's restrained view, "is a human monster. She comes to New York and gets the best tables in restaurants, pretending to be me."]

So, how did a star of this magnitude come to be? There is a darker side to the Dame Edna we now know from her sparkly wit and blinding eye makeup and dazzling sequins and jewels. Her delightful, outgoing, helpful and sensitive exterior masks decades of interior horror. Interesting, and who would expect this?, Dame Edna is painfully shy. "Facing an audience amounts to my own form of highly paid therapy. As a child, I hid behind the curtains when relatives came around. Mother would say, 'Edna, sing us that little song. Pretend to be the wireless.'" That pretend helped create the extraordinary persona we have come to know.

Her "seeds of stardom" were planted in the 50s in Melbourne, when Dame Edna's one-woman shows and TV appearances earned here a huge following. In her late teens, she arrived in Britain. In the 70s, her career really blossomed via such shows as Housewife, Superstar and A Night with Dame Edna. However, it has been difficult locating any official records indicating the bestowing of a royal title. Perhaps it was gained through marriage.

Behind every great woman, they say [don't they?] that there's a man. And claiming to be "behind" the Dame, there's satirist, performer, writer, novelist, landscape painter, composer John Barry Humphries - a claim that has led to much friction.

Dame Edna has become a show business force to be
reckoned with. Of Humphries' claims to have
created her persona, the Dame admonishes,
"Can you believe anything a man ever says?"

There are some things we know about Humphries. Research reveals that his parents bought him everything he wanted, but that his father spent little time with him. Thus, he spent hours playing dress-ups in the back garden. "I would disguise myself as different characters," Humphries has stated. "I had a whole box of dressing up clothes - red Indian costume, sailor suit, Chinese costume. I was very spoiled in that way. I found that entertaining people gave me a great feeling of release. Making people laugh was a good way of befriending them. People couldn't hit you, could they, if they were laughing?"

At Melbourne University, it is known that Humphries studied law, philosophy and fine arts. After writing and performing songs and sketches in university revues, he was a charter member of the Melbourne Theatre Company. In 1955, Humphries claims to have created "my most famous character": Edna Everage in a sketch titled Olympic Hostess.

In his 1992 autobiography, More Please, Humphries relates that he created a character similar to Edna in the back of a bus while touring in Australia in the classics. At that time, before title, Edna was a caricature of Australian suburban complacency and insularity. The evolution to the internationally celebrated housewife/megastar Dame Edna, he has said, took four decades.

Arriving in the U.K. at age 20, he began his stage career in Call Me Madman. Humphries got his first break on the West End in the role of undertaker Mr Sowerberry for the original 1960 production of Lionel Bart's Oliver! opposite Clive Revill as Fagin, Georgia Brown as Nancy and Davy Jones. In 1963, he reprised the role when the production came to Broadway, where it won, among others, the Tony Award for Best Musical. Interestingly, that show had sets and costumes designed by Sean Kenny. Any relation? Could this be the Dame's beloved "Kenny"?

He appeared in numerous West End shows, including the composer's Maggie May, and stage and radio productions by Spike Milligan, namely The Bed Sitting Room. In 1967 he starred as Fagin in the West End revival of Oliver!, which featured a young Phil Collins as The Artful Dodger. That year, his friendship with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore led to his first film role, as Envy in Bedzalled starring Cook, Moore and Eleanor Bron, directed by Stanley Donen. In 1977, he appeared in The Bliss of Mrs. Blossom, which starred Shirley MacLaine.

In 1997, Humphries reprised the role of Fagin in Cameron Mackintosh's long-running 1994 London Palladium revival, directed by Sam Mendes. The originating Fagin was Jonathan Pryce, with Jim Dale later taking on the role.

Dale, who returned to see Humphries in the show, says that he was priceless. "My best memory of Barry was when he opened a box of jewels, decked them about himself, then took out a pair of Dame Edna's jeweled spectacles and played Fagin as Dame Edna for a few minutes. He had the audience in convulsions."

Humphries has become known as an outstanding landscape artist. He says he became an avid fan of painting in his late teens, when he found nude female models at art school.

After he had achieved a modicum of success, Humphries discovered he had a demon. He has readily admitted that alcohol contributed to the breakup of his first two marriages. Good news, though. He hasn't picked up a drink since the 70s. But he has been on the marriage-go-round four times. Current wife Lizzie Spender, daughter of British poet Sir Stephen Spender and an actress, playwright and cookbook author, is nearly 20 years his junior. Humphries has four children.

Many reports have it that Humphries found his true calling with one-man satirical revues. It is in one of those, in the 50s, that he performed as a character named Edna Everage, which has led to all sorts of humors and innuendoes.

Back home, Down Under, Humphries holds his homeland's highest honor, the Order of Australia. "A distinguished career, yes" says Dame Edna, "but regarding his claims of creating me, well, can you believe anything a man ever says?"

Whatever the situation, whomever can be believed, one thing is for certain: Dame Edna Everage has become a show business force to be reckoned with.

Many of her most ardent followers didn't just jump aboard the Dame Edna bandwagon. They were loyal minions long before The Royal Tour - all the way back to those 80s TV specials, such as The Dame Edna Experience [available from Amazon.com].

In a precursor to her Broadway experiences, the Dame didn't tolerate boring "guests." She strived for "stimulating" ones - American-born Aussie Mel Gibson, Robin Williams, Burt Reynolds - not to mention Cher and Bea Arthur. The Dame takes credit for giving "lovely boy" Russell Crowe help in his early days.

The shows were also costume extravaganzas. One memorable outfit was adorned with a stuffed lizard which, on command, stuck out its forked tongue.

Dame Edna knows how to leave TV hosts and guests speechless. Last year, appearing with Sharon Osbourne, Dame Edna entered just after Osborne had somehow talked Victor Webster [Sex and the City, and star of Mutant X] into removing his clothing and jumping into a bed. The Dame sat next to Osbourne and Webster and presented them with a purse made of kangaroo scrotum. Osbourne's new mantra became "Beware of strange Australians bearing gifts."

Tom Cruise is one of the Dame's favorites - or, at least, he was until he and Nicole split. "Nicole's an old friend of mine," said Dame Edna, "so I had to take sides, one woman to another. And Nicole is an Australia girl."

Their friendship aside, after their joint appearance on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Kidman will probably make it her business never to be caught on the same couch as Dame Edna. Kidman was wrapped in affectionate embraces by the Dame, who explained how she was the actress' mentor.

"When little Nicole was an acting student," said Dame Edna, "I coached her. I taught her everything she knows. I would have taught her singing to, but somehow she managed on her own."

As Dame Edna went on and on, Kidman stared in disbelief with her jaw dropping almost to the floor. As the Dame went on and on in intimate detail, Kidman "tucked her hands into a most unlady-like part of the anatomy." As Dame Edna admonished her behavior, Kidman turned beet red and Leno and the audience were ROTFWL.

Dame Edna's good at that. It's her special calling. So, if the Dame wiggles her bejeweled finger at you and says, "Come up here, dearie," kick, scream, run, feign a fainting spell or do whatever you have to do to avoid going onstage.

DAME EDNA...with a healing gladiola...and onThe Sharon Osbourne Show,
with the host and guest Victor Webster. Osbourne's new mantra became
"Beware of strange Australians bearing gifts"...


Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

He can be reached at [email protected]

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