Katherine Ryan on learning from her mistakes, finding self-love Netflix’s The Duchess

Here, Katherine discusses and asks the big questions: why she doesn’t “mind making a certain demographic of man angry,” (YAS!), why she’s unafraid of cancel culture, why society doesn’t want to see complicated females win on screen.

And why she is glad she went through a “trash phase,” so she could find self-love. Buckle up and prepare to meet one of the most refreshing and unapologetic humans you could ever wish to come into contact with…

It’s the day before Katherine Ryan – the stand-up comedian slash speaker of truths – is about to launch her debut scripted comedy show, The Duchess onNetflix and she’s numb.

“I am numb in the face, not even for like fun reasons,” she jokes in a back of her car post dentist appointment. It’s this exact relaxed approach to life that has enabled Katherine to remain at the top of her game for over a decade.

And now The Duchess is set to make her an international star with the story of a single mother – also called Katherine – who navigates the tricky world of fertility in your thirties, having a washed-up pop star for a baby daddy and the animalistic behaviour of the fellow mothers at the school gates. In the process, it finally calls BS on the idea of a single mother being, “messy,” it’s funny AF and sorry not sorry in its approach. And don’t we need more honest story telling like this in our lives? Hell. Yes.

How did it feel pivoting from standup comedy to creating your own show because there’s a whole new vulnerability in putting yourself out there in a new way, isn’t there?

It’s always a little bit odd to know that it’s impossible to please everyone. So, every time you release something new, it is exposing and you risk making loads of people angry when you’re me. I don’t mind making a certain demographic of man angry, but I don’t want to hurt people at the end of the day. I’ve already seen people just say, ‘what’s world’s smallest pussy mean?’

And they’re ready to jump on something. However, I take the approach that I was in control of writing it and making it, but I’m not in control of whether or not people like it. So, I just let it be and hope people like you and I find it.

Comedy always pushes the boundaries and teeters on the edge of what is controversial or isn’t. Living in a society where cancel culture is so prominent, does that worry you?

No, I don’t worry about that at all, because I think that if I was tiptoeing around because of a trend or a movement, like cancel culture and it is a trend because I see the little girls doing it. They’re so eager to cancel someone, to expose someone that’s all the little girls are about and that’s how I know it is infantile trends – my daughter and her friends, I mean! Instead I want my work to be authentic. I feel like as a comedian for the last decade and a bit, I do understand how to play with perspectives and to demonstrate an ironic perspective. It doesn’t mean that it’s my perspective. I think I’m always trying to empower people.

I do challenge elements of culture, and sometimes I’ll get that wrong and I will be misinterpreted. But I think that I’ve always been given the grace to have a conversation about that.

I give other people the same grace, too. So, I don’t think I worry about cancel culture. If I did then my work would no longer be authentic. If you are worried about cancel culture, then you need to think about what you’re saying. I mean, these people who peddle around actual hate speech and they say, ‘well, it’s free speech, I have a right to opinion.’ Free speech means that the government won’t detain you for your opinion – it doesn’t remove accountability. I think accountability is a really important part of society.

Speaking of authenticity, The Duchess is a very authentic representation of what it’s like to be a woman in your 30s. What did you draw on personally from your own experience to channel into this and how cathartic was it?

I think the most important thing for me to channel was that unique mother/daughter relationship that is the central relationship in my life. It was really important that the character didn’t put too much emphasis on romance and her boyfriends, it’s an afterthought. She’s really career-focused, she cares about her child and that’s pretty much it. Also, from my personal experiences, the women I know aren’t catty with each other, yet I see women on screen being quite catty and I wanted to illustrate a lot of female friendships, but also when the ex gets a new wife, that’s fine with Katherine too.

There doesn’t always have to be animosity between girlfriends, ex-girlfriends, wives and ex-wives. I was always trying to play with animosity and put it where we don’t expect to see it rather than where we expect to stereotypically see it. So, I put it at the school gates where actually in my experience, all the mums are prim and proper and being very much on their best behaviour.

I just thought let’s put the animosity there. It’s about time. The fashion element was really important to me because it is an extension of her status and her togetherness, because the single moms that I know aren’t failures, they aren’t messy. I keep seeing single mothers especially portrayed as a mess. I thought this woman is not a mess.

The Duchess calls BS on many of the stereotypes society pushes on women, what stereotypes have frustrated you in your own life?

Well, the main one is when you have a child and people assume that you aren’t in your position by choice, that you have been discarded and you don’t have options. But I’ve always had options, especially when it came to career movements and men, that’s why I wanted Katherine to have all these options and to have a boyfriend whose like, “Please let’s just get married” because stereotypically men are the ones on screen who aren’t really committing in a relationship and who are behaving badly. I wanted to challenge the stereotype of the woman at home, just wringing her hands saying, “oh, I hope someone chooses me.”

I just wanted her to be stringing this guy along, this wet Evan. And also, the stereotype that women first and foremost have to be soft and likeable – this woman is not necessarily likeable – but I think you start to understand her position and her vulnerabilities and her unique worldview.

It does make people angry. I have found already that people are not happy that she wins. They’re all right to see a complicated female lead if that lead is being punished or if she’s losing or if she’s suffering. But they really hate that this woman keeps winning and she has vulnerabilities as you say, but they aren’t where we would expect to see them, and the truth is sometimes bad people win. I see it every day.

The subject of fertility is raised in the show and that is very rare to see on screen too. Why was that important to you?

It was so important because whether you want children or not, fertility becomes a theme for every woman in her thirties, whereas men don’t ever have to address it. We see Prime Ministers ,80-year-old billionaires and whomever have children all their lives. If the timeline were reversed, that would have been solved by now. I think egg freezing should be available on the NHS because it is an injustice that we’re expected to know exactly what we want and who we are and figure out what is a very serious step in your life in our twenties. Are you kidding?

And then by the time you’re 35 your geriatric and they’ll use that language to your face. It’s just another way that I think women are asked to be more serious and grow up more quickly and think about these things. Biology is a very serious game.

Comedy is still so male dominated, and you have really carved your own path. How have you navigated taking control of your own narrative?

I think I just had relentless positivity and the exuberance of youth on my side because when I decided to really carve out this career, I was in my twenties and I just felt like I could do anything. And I did have privilege – that’s the other conversation that we’re having now. I had mental health privilege, I was young, I was white and if it all fell apart, I did have parents that I could fall back on if it came to that.

A lot of people don’t have that, and I think that we’re so hesitant to recognise privilege in this society. People get so offended if you say that they’re privileged. They go, “no, I’m not, no, I had to work for this, I had to work for that.” Recognising the privileges that we all have can actually be very grounding and go, “okay, I have this, I have that, and the challenges are maybe this or that, but I never see barriers. I really just see opportunities.”

I just did it. I just thought I might as well try. Then if there have been challenges or barriers along the way, I just don’t remember them. I don’t think about them enough. Just put the blinkers on if you can and go for it. I think I also continued to build my authentic voice, even when people didn’t want to hear about it. I would talk about pop culture and the Kardashians and Cheryl Cole and people were like, “Katherine, you don’t want to do stand-up comedy about those things. Nobody cares about those things.” And I was just like, “we’ll see!”

Oh my God, you proved them wrong, babes!

Well, and it is also the acceptance that there’s nothing, there’s no piece of art, no project in the world that is for everyone. When I was working at Hooters, I would say things sometimes that would be provocative and sometimes say the wrong thing. I remember my boss screamed at me, actually screamed at me in the restaurant one day and said, “why do you have to be so weird? Not everybody gets it.” And I looked at him and sad “not everybody gets it, of course! So, what, good!” I still have his voice inside my head sometimes.

Does it still surprise you that everyday sexism that you saw come up against?

It definitely surprises me that it still persists. I was always listening to the women in my family. My grandmother, my mother, and I remember the sexism that they encountered, and I have always seen how much progress has been made. So again, I don’t really look to the barriers I look to how far we’ve come but we still have so far to go.

It is kind of ridiculous that we are expected to do all these extra things, like be funny, number one, but also be really nice all the time, don’t offend anybody ever, you have to be a nice girl and be really young so that we can put you on TV. Don’t you dare turn 40.

And that’s just in comedy. I would be in rooms where the bookers would say a woman was too old for our audience, but they would book a man who was older than she was. I wasn’t powerful back then at all so all I could do is sit and listen, but I didn’t forget – and I’ll be writing a book one day!

If you could sit the you down on a zoom call who was just about to break into comedy, what would you say to her?

I would say nothing because it would ruin her ambition. I would not tell her it’s all going to be okay. I would not prevent her from dating those losers. I would not prevent her from compromising herself and her morals. I think I needed to go through my trash phase of having really low self-worth and struggling a little bit and then learn from my mistakes.

I would hate to quench that thirsty little bitch. I would never tell her that it’s going to be okay. I’d be like, “listen, you need to panic. You are a single mom in a foreign country. What are you doing?” And then she would be like, “Oh my gosh, I know you’re right. What am I going to do?” I’d be like, “figure it out. Peace!”

Do you feel like, on that note that you have more self-worth and more self-love than you ever have before?

Definitely and that is why I always want to empower people with my work. I want to be funny, but I hope that people feel empowered because it actually protects you to believe in yourself. I think when you are shameful, as I was, I felt ashamed that I had not been able to fix my relationship that had ended. I subscribed to a lot of the stereotypes like,” Oh gosh, I’m a single mom.”

Whether I knew it or not, that was in my unconscious bias and I felt shame. Then I attracted people who treated me like I was worthless and that is what shame can do. So, if you feel worthy and you feel special and you feel empowered, then you’ll find that you have amazing friends who are respectful and job opportunities will be easier to achieve. Your self worth, is so important to the rest of your life.

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