When Katherine Ryan was four years old, she came downstairs to find the dishwasher had been pushed against the door to the basement. Her mother Julie, “very cheerful, stunning, blonde and little, all done up for the day by 7am”, paused from making breakfast to explain, “Oh, your grandpa and your uncles were really drunk and violent last night, so I trapped them down there to cool off.”
When Katherine Ryan was 19, her friend Jessica didn’t show up at the bar where they both worked. Later, another girl called to say that Jessica had been murdered by her ex-boyfriend – stabbed 58 times, it later transpired – and, after finishing her shift, Ryan rushed home distraught. She expected a swarm of TV news cameras, that Jessica’s dramatic death would duly be made into a film. “But my mum was very relaxed about it. She said, ‘No, this happens a lot.’ I said, ‘Excuse me? What?’ And my mum said, ‘Yes, sometimes if you leave them, they’ll kill you.’”
In her stand-up show Glitter Room, which ran for six weeks in the West End and became a Netflix comedy special, Ryan has a brutal gag. “I feel like men are nature’s guns,” she says. “You’re statistically more likely to be killed by the one in your house.” It gets a big yet nervous laugh.
Ryan, 37, is from Sarnia, a petrochemical town in Ontario, Canada. But both her life story, full of steely, glamorous women swerving their abusive, feckless menfolk, and her big-haired, surgically enhanced stage persona, have a country and western air.
“I feel like men are nature’s guns,” she says. “You’re statistically more likely to be killed by the one in your house.”
As does her vision of material success. We meet at her shiny, new-build mansion at the end of the Northern Line, all electric gates, dark wood floors, vast sofas and scented candles, with a life-size cardboard Katherine in the hallway and plans for a swimming pool. She moved here a year ago so her daughter, Violet, 11, could start at her new private girls’ school and own a horse. But also because Canadians favor space and modernity: “If something gets to be 20 years old, we knock it down and build a new one.” Ryan’s family thought her grade II listed church conversion in Crouch End hilariously small, while she found it “impossible to keep clean”.
Ryan appears at the door surrounded by a gaggle of tiny dogs who cavort, tussle and hump while Ryan cries, “Stop it, Megan!” or, “Calm down, Cardi!” to no avail. She is, as ever, groomed to perfection, buying a special lamp to do her own Shellac manicures during lockdown, and has preternaturally pore-less skin. On stage or male-dominated panel shows such as 8 Out of 10 Cats, Ryan is ballsy, physical, filthy and loud. In the new Netflix sitcom The Duchess, which she also wrote, she plays a caustic, foul-mouthed single mother. Yet in person she is quiet, decorous, polite, even prim. She says drily, “I’m a top at work and a bottom at home.”
So how does such fiery feminist comedy issue from such a conventionally feminine figure? Ryan says she grew up desperate to escape the fate of her womenfolk, who were tethered from the age of 20 by the expectations of family. “I always knew they were too smart for what was going on around them, and not happy.” She recalls her maternal grandmother, Dorothy, who wore red leather gloves, drove a Cadillac, taught her poker, gin rummy and backgammon. But she was ground down by an abusive, philandering, alcoholic husband who also “discarded and diminished” Ryan’s mother, his only daughter.
She says drily, “I’m a top at work and a bottom at home.”
Dorothy died when Ryan was 15, outlived by her grandfather, “like they all do, because these guys aren’t home wringing their hands, thinking about you f***ing the secretary. They’re out drinking, and somehow it doesn’t kill them. My grandma worried herself to death.” Dorothy’s death was the catalyst for Ryan’s mother to leave her own miserable marriage. Ryan’s father, who owns an engineering company, “married my mum because she was hot. He never liked her. He didn’t want a woman who was provocative and outspoken the way my mother was. He is old-school Irish. He wanted a wife like the one he has now, who gets great joy from looking after him.”
Ryan’s mother, Julie, was a bombshell with a quick tongue who taught her three daughters (Katherine being the eldest) how to navigate a male world. “She thought, ‘To get ahead in the bank [where she worked], I must never be alone in the vault with any of my managers. At the Christmas party, it’s up to me to avoid my boss putting his tongue down my throat. I’m going to act like a man.’ ” Julie, whose own mother had tied a string around her waist to remind her not to eat, taught her daughters to deploy their looks as weapons. Her middle sister is a beauty salon “aesthetician”; the younger one performs in a sexy dance troupe called Army of Sass.
At high school, Ryan alternated between cool years and outcast years. During one latter phase, a band of Sarnia mean girls produced a newspaper ridiculing classmates, with Ryan on the front beside a photograph of a camel. The caption read: “Thank God for make-up.” It was fair, Ryan shrugs: she did have a long face and a finger-wide gap in her teeth. Her concerned headmaster called her in to see if she was upset, but Ryan’s superpower is rock-solid self-esteem. Usefully for a comedian, she cares little for what strangers think: she’s never nervous before going on stage, nor intimidated by hecklers or online trolls.
Nonetheless, she set out to “improve” her body. Studying city planning in Toronto, a course she took mainly to escape Sarnia, she “waitressed my butt off” to pay for breast enlargements. The early Noughties female template was Jessica Simpson, so Ryan dyed her hair white-blonde and spray-tanned her pale Celtic skin. “I looked cute!” Given the restaurant she worked at was Hooters – where nubile waitresses dress in teeny orange shorts and must hula-hoop when not serving customers – her new boobs must have been an asset. No, says, Ryan indignantly, the Hooters aesthetic is more ass than tits, and besides, she was Miss Hooters Toronto before her boob job.
Ryan’s superpower is rock-solid self-esteem. Usefully for a comedian, she cares little for what strangers think.
Indeed, Ryan won’t hear a bad word against Hooters, where she still eats on Mother’s Day when in Canada. “It’s just about being innocent, subservient, sweet, attractive and fertile-looking. But I liken it to cheerleading, because it isn’t overtly sexual. And the men there were pretty respectful: they were just there to watch sports on TV, drink beer and eat burgers. At that time, I really thought that you would have the best life if you were agreeable and pretty. I just wanted to be independent. Besides, say what you want about Hooters, I had drinks on that table within 90 seconds. I can wait 20 minutes in Britain for the bill, which is an absolute outrage.”
Her only handicap as a Hooters waitress was her subversive mind. She was constantly curious, disruptive, and was admonished for chalking on the specials board, “Club sandwiches not seals”. The manager would scream at her, “Why do you have to be so weird? Not everybody gets it!” And she thought, “Oh, he’s right. I am really weird.” But when the Hooters annual bikini contest came around, Ryan volunteered to compere. “This man usually did it who had a too tight necktie and he’d ask the girls the stupidest questions like, ‘What sort of wing sauce would you be?’ ” Up on stage for once in a glamorous gown rather than a swimsuit, Ryan asked the girls, “Where do we keep the bin bags?”, to reveal which girls mucked in to clear up at the end of the night, and bantered with the crowd during outfit changes.
She loved it, but realizing she couldn’t inflict her “weirdness” on Hooters, started attending amateur night at a nearby comedy club. Her first material echoed what she saw won laughs: the “My wife’s a bitch”/“My girlfriend won’t have sex with me” male comic misogyny. But gradually she fell in with the gay and women comics who constituted the Canadian alternative scene, and began dating a stand-up whom Ryan followed to London when he decided to try his luck on the British circuit.
The plan was her boyfriend would seek fame while Ryan – who sold subscriptions to business magazines – paid the bills. “Every once in a while I’d do stand-up for fun, earning $25 or getting paid in drinks, but I was definitely an accessory to his trajectory.” Then, aged 24, the month after she’d been diagnosed with lupus and been told she’d have fertility problems, Ryan found herself pregnant.
By the time their daughter, Violet, was born, the relationship was crumbling. Realizing she’d need work she could fit around her baby, she decided to take her comedy career seriously. She won small parts on the Channel 4 show Campus and BBC Two’s Episodes. “I could stretch money very far. I knew every dime coming in and out of that house. I became a forensic accountant. Starbucks was an unimaginable luxury. I was poor but my daughter was never poor. It was when I had nothing that I realized I had everything.”
The early Noughties female template was Jessica Simpson, so Ryan dyed her hair white-blonde and spray-tanned her pale Celtic skin.
The couple finally split when Violet was two. Her former partner’s career didn’t flourish, but Ryan’s slowly grew and she fell in with young British comics starting at the same time, including Joe Lycett, Josh Widdicombe and Sara Pascoe. She’d write material while pushing the pram; she took Violet to gigs, leaving her asleep backstage, minded by a friendly support act or stage manager. “She would just sit there and watch. She was quiet. She was great company. She was perfect.”
It was precarious and hard, but if she failed at comedy she’d just try something else: “I knew I have graft.” Then, when Violet was three, Ryan was invited – a rare female comic – onto the TV panel show 8 Out of 10 Cats. This led to her first UK tour of small arts centers and theaters. She was providing for Violet, had her little flat. They were a team. It was, she says, the favorite time of her life.
At first she wore the default female comic uniform of leggings and Dr Martens. But, at the same time as she shifted to a cartoonish version of her grandmother and mother’s hyper-feminine style, her material grew more overtly feminist. On stage, Ryan wears wigs so her hair is big enough to be seen in the cheap seats, cocktail frocks with cinched waists and killer heels. “I was told at the beginning of my career not to dress like that, because it’s distracting for the men and women will hate you. I thought, ‘I don’t hate women who are glamorous. I ask them where they got their shirt.’ ” Men, she says, find her sexually confusing: they cannot process why they find such an aggressive female performer so physically attractive.
As she stalks the stage, you can understand why she is described as the “millennial Joan Rivers”. Both share a taste for fashion and plastic surgery. Ryan, who is breezy about her use of fillers and Botox, says she’d consider a facelift. “I like the game of it. It’s drag. And I do want to look beautiful, although Russell Brand would say I subscribe to the patriarchy.” But Rivers, no feminist, wouldn’t have found savage humor in murdered women, nor mocked the resultant male audience discomfort. Perhaps, to make men feel safer, Ryan jokes, she should dress as their mother, serve sandwiches or perform on her knees. While Rivers, who said of her husband’s suicide that it was her fault “because we were making love and I took the bag off my head”, brimmed with self-loathing, Ryan clearly does not.
She is someone who strives to do her best at everything, whether waitressing, comedy, dressing up or even an interview. Puzzling what to serve me at our 11am meeting, she had bought a lovely cake which she brings out with tea on feminist-themed china and, although dairy-free herself, “milk from a cow”. (Later, after offering a bottle of water for my journey, she drives me to the Tube.)
She applied similar diligence to motherhood, breastfeeding Violet until she was two and a half (“If you watch a sex scene in Campus I have one enormous boob and one small boob, because I forgot my pump”), teaching her sign language before she could speak (“She could do ‘careful’, ‘thank you’, ‘hot’, ‘cold’, ‘help’. I had so few friends – no one else my age had a baby – so I really wanted to communicate with her”) and, most extraordinarily, potty training her at ten months. “No one believes me,” she says. “But as soon as she started on solids I could tell by the look on her face if she needed the loo. Then we just graduated to wees. It gave her a lot of power and control. I wouldn’t want someone changing my nappy.”
Her only handicap as a Hooters waitress was her subversive mind. She was constantly curious, disruptive, and was admonished for chalking on the specials board, “Club sandwiches not seals.”
A central theme of The Duchess is the animosity between the Ryan-based character and her ex, a washed-up boy band singer. But she has always striven to keep the relationship with Violet’s father (whom she does not name) civil and respectful. “I think I’ll get some Fathers4Justice fans, because I’m very pro-parental rights in The Duchess.” Rather, she has drawn on her own parents’ toxic divorce: “I really wished they’d been nicer about one another, but they were arch-enemies from the moment they split. My dad’s pride was really hurt. My mum had all this resentment. They didn’t have one good word. Apart from my little sister’s wedding, they haven’t been in the same room, and even then they didn’t speak.”
She admits, however, that like many single mothers of only children, “We were too close.” Violet shared her bed and adult confidences, and Ryan admits she was perhaps overprotective. “This is why she doesn’t get on in state school,” says Ryan. “Because she doesn’t have siblings, she doesn’t know that low-level, fun bullying. I am always calm and quiet, and she never saw me argue with a partner. So when people are aggressive, she’s really confused. She’s like, ‘What is that?’ ”
Relying on Violet for love, Ryan admits, “set myself up for a bad transition, because I have empty nest syndrome now”. But Glitter Room was a celebration of single motherhood: the joy of owning silly toy dogs men would never let you buy, decorating her flat with flowery, sparkly wallpaper her horrified Polish builder thought would deter any man from living there, rather than having dutiful, dull marital sex. She dated, but always kept men at arm’s length, never letting them in her house.
Yet now on the wall of her huge kitchen is a blown-up photograph of Ryan at a register office in a mint-green gown. On one side, wearing a bemused, stoical expression is her new husband, Bobby Kootstra; on the other is Violet, in leggings, T-shirt and sliders (she refused to dress up), her face a ball of incredulous fury. This is the couple’s civil partnership last year in Copenhagen. “Just after it was taken, Violet had an absolute meltdown. I knew she’d have a moment of loss of power.”
Given so much of her material ridicules Canada (in particular, meatheaded, backwater Sarnia) and the misery of matrimony, Katherine Ryan is amused to find herself married to a Canadian… from Sarnia. Indeed, she lost her virginity, aged 16, to Bobby, now 37, who then dumped her for a girl involved in the camel newspaper affair (“He really broke my heart”). But while in Toronto to film Who Do You Think You Are? she heard he was in town and arranged to meet up, deciding after just a few drinks to have a nostalgic one-night stand. Things moved swiftly – the civil partnership was for visa reasons – but after living and working abroad for so long, Ryan says Bobby “feels like home”.
He wanders into the kitchen, unassuming and friendly. “I don’t know why we get on, but we just do,” she says. “I do really actually love him. I had no idea that married women loved their husbands before.” Unlike big-egoed fellow comics she’s dated, Bobby looks after her needs: he cooks, chops wood, “does things outside”, plays volleyball with Violet (who has got over herself and now thinks the ghastly register office photo very funny). “I knew that Bobby would be a real asset to us both,” she says, as if assessing a new staff member. “He’s really tidy. He’s this calm, steady presence as Violet enters this new phase of her life.”
Before they were reunited, Ryan was planning a second baby alone, partly to placate Violet, who craved a sibling. She’d had her fertility assessed, even bought sperm on the internet, but didn’t use it. “I was on this preparedness kick,” she says. But such matters, she’s found, cannot be planned: she suffered a miscarriage. Still “pregnant with a dead baby”, as she puts it, Ryan with customary steeliness performed several gigs, crying in the breaks. “These people had plans to go out. It’s not their fault I had a miscarriage. Besides, I actually felt happy for an hour. I kind of forgot.”
These included co-hosting the NME awards at which, “angry and in a terrible headspace” about losing the baby, she had an infamous run-in with the rapper Slowthai. There were calls for him to be “canceled” for his lecherous remarks. But, she says, “I was genuinely afraid for that young man waking up the next day with all that visceral hatred, when he didn’t hurt anyone.”
Ryan tasted that herself when in 2013 on Mock the Week, she joked that instead of testing products on animals, cosmetic companies were now using Filipino children. That she was satirizing corporate hypocrisy did not stop accusations of racism and endless death threats. By delicious coincidence, her youngest sister had just got engaged to a Filipino chef. Last month, she revealed on her podcast Telling Everybody Everything that she has boycotted Mock the Week since 2015 because her appearances were used to deflect criticisms of the show’s diversity problem. “I wasn’t allowed to do the stand-up round, apart from once. They always made me sit in the same chair. We’d always be on the right, in the middle. In case what? One of us menstruated?”
Now Ryan finds material she performed just a few years ago is judged by extreme new purity standards: she used to be introduced on stage as a “powerful black woman” because she thought it funny when this palest of Irish girls appeared. She impersonated Beyoncé, “because she’s one of the most famous woman in the world”, but is now accused of speaking in a “blaccent”. Her joke about the Kardashians being so tough they “either destroy men or turn them into women” is judged by some as transphobic.
“I understand that, but I can explain it. I can say, ‘Well, you know my body of work, and in context I wouldn’t tell disparaging transphobic jokes. Of all the Kardashians I do look the most like the dad. They call her ‘Dad’. She calls herself ‘Dad’. People go, ‘What’s so wrong with looking like a trans woman?’ Nothing. She’s the oldest and she’s had the least amount of work done.”
Ryan says she’s not afraid of cancel culture because she’s not trying to be a professional irritant. “I genuinely don’t want to cause harm. So I do think about the target of jokes and I am very calculated in what I’m trying to say.”
Like her friend, the working-class Tory comic Geoff Norcott, her politics are a mix. “I’m left-wing about a lot of things. I believe in socialized education and healthcare. I’m not far left about everything. I love having different voices. That’s what we need. That’s why cancel culture is dangerous. I love talking about ideas and I love a debate and I love when someone disagrees with me. Because that’s why I am here. That’s how I’ve grown. I’m a very different person from the Hooters waitress.”
She never forgets her prime purpose is to make people laugh – “Then I try to Trojan-horse my own themes in if I can.” Friends’ husbands ask why her act is “so man-hating”. She rolls her eyes and recalls her friend Jessica (“Her killer is out now”) and her own mother. “I hate wasted potential,” she says. “I just think it’s the saddest thing. I’d rather die on a thousand stages.”
The Duchess is available on Netflix