By her own admission, Dame Edna Everage is probably the most popular and gifted woman in the world!
Her Facebook page explains that she is a housewife, investigative journalist, social anthropologist, talk show host, swami, children’s book illustrator, spin doctor, Megastar, and Icon. Along with Olivia Newton-John, Kylie Minogue and Nicole Kidman, she is one of a remarkable succession of female stars to emerge from Australia.
Her success Down Under was repeated in London with stage shows including "Housewife, Superstar", "A Night with Dame Edna" and countless command performances for the royal family. Her recent Broadway show, "Dame Edna: The Royal Tour" received the Tony Award for Live Theatrical Event and was met with unanimous critical acclaim.
Television credits include the now legendary UK special, “A Night on Mt. Edna” and two series of her own innovative chat show, “The Dame Edna Experience”, with special guests Cher, Robin Williams, Roseanne Barr, Sean Connery and Mel Gibson.
Her books include Dame Edna’s Coffee Table Book, Dame Edna’s Bedside Companion and her seminal autobiography, My Gorgeous Life, which is currently being adapting for the stage and screen.
Possibly Jewish, Dame Edna is a widow, with three grown children. She spends her time visiting world leaders and jet-setting between her homes in Los Angeles, London, Sydney, Switzerland and Martha’s Vineyard. She is the Founder and Governor of Friends of the Prostate and the creator of The World Prostate Olympics.
But who is she really?
Dame Edna Everage is a character created and performed by Australian comedian Barry Humphries, famous for her lilac-coloured or "wisteria hue" hair and cat eye glasses or "face furniture", her favourite flower, the gladiolus ("gladdies") and her boisterous greeting: "Hello, Possums!"
As Dame Edna, Humphries has written several books including an autobiography, My Gorgeous Life, appeared in several films and hosted several television shows (on which Humphries has also appeared as himself and other alter-egos).
Humphries has regularly updated Edna, originally a drab Melbourne housewife satirising Australian suburbia; then he caused the Edna character to adopt an increasingly outlandish wardrobe after performances in London in the 1960s through which his Edna character grew in stature and popularity. Following film appearances and an elevation to damehood in the 1970s, the character evolved to "Housewife and Superstar", then "Megastar" and finally "Gigastar". Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Dame Edna became increasingly well-known and popular in North America after multiple stage and television appearances.
Edna describes her chat-shows as "an intimate conversation between two friends, one of whom is a lot more interesting than the other". The character has been used to satirise the cult of celebrity, class snobbery, and prudishness and is often used by Humphries to poke fun at the political leaders and fashions of the times. Her larger-than-life persona and scathing commentary on society and celebrity, as well as her habit of treating celebrities like ordinary people (on her TV shows) and ordinary people like celebrities (in her stage shows) have become signatures.
Although Humphries freely states that Edna is a character he plays, Edna refers to Humphries as her "entrepreneur" or manager. Humphries and his staff of assistants and writers only refer to Edna as "she" and "her", never mixing the character with Humphries himself. It is this precision and richness of identity which gives Dame Edna her unique force as a character.
While Dame Edna is a fictitious character, so complete is her identity as an individual that Macmillan published My Gorgeous Life, Edna's "autobiography" (written by Humphries but credited to Edna herself), on its non-fiction list. Humphries has also written an "Unauthorised Biography" of his life as Edna's manager: Handling Edna, published in 2010.
According to My Gorgeous Life, and statements Edna has made over the years, she was born Edna May Beazley in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, with a sibling who would give birth to Barry McKenzie. Everage spends her time visiting world leaders and jet-setting between her homes in Los Angeles, London, Sydney, Switzerland and Martha's Vineyard.
She is a friend and confidante of Queen Elizabeth II and has advised prime ministers and presidents. Edna once took an on-air phone call from President Ronald Reagan to assure him that he was, indeed, still the president; and at recent stageshows the character has claimed to be giving former Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, elocution lessons.
How it all began
It all began when Barry Humphries was invited to join the fledgling Union Theatre Repertory Company in 1955 and toured Victorian country towns performing Twelfth Night, directed by Ray Lawler.
On tour, Humphries invented Edna gradually as part of the entertainment for the actors during commutes between country towns. Humphries gradually developed a falsetto impersonation of a Melbourne housewife, imitating the Country Women's Association representatives who welcomed the troupe in each town.
At Lawler's suggestion, Mrs Everage (later named Edna after Humphries' nanny) made her first appearance in a Melbourne University's UTRC revue at the end of 1955, as the city prepared for the 1956 Olympic Games. The sketch involved a houseproud "average housewife" offering her Moonee Ponds home as an Olympic billet, spruiking her home as possessing "burgundy wall-to-wall carpets, lamington cakes and reindeers frosted on glass dining-room doors".
At this time the character was billed as "Mrs Norm Everage" (Humphries describing this name as "Everage as in 'average', husband Norm as in 'normal'") and had none of the characteristic flamboyant wardrobe of later years.
And so it was on December 13, 1955 that a Melbourne theatre audience first clapped eyes on Edna Everage who would over time transform herself into the globe-straddling, guffaw-inducing, gut-wrenching monster from Moonee Ponds. Fellow expat Clive James would eventually sum up this glorious and ghastly creation by describing her alter ego Barry Humphries:
"The Devil gets into him, and he seems to welcome the invasion. Certainly Edna welcomes the invasion. She would, being a witch."
When she made her stage debut – over 60 years ago, at the Union Theatre of Melbourne University where Humphries was a student – she was Mrs Norman Everage, of Humoresque Street, Moonee Ponds.
Humphries' mother was a major inspiration for Edna, although he denied it when she was alive to protect her feelings. Her first monologue in 1955 was about her lovely home, reflecting young Barry’s own site visits accompanying his builder father. Originally she was a "mousy" character and too quiet to please the raucous crowd at the Establishment Club in London.
According to one author, Edna came into her own during the 1980s when the policies of Thatcherism—and what he described as the "vindictive style of the times" — allowed Dame Edna to sharpen her observations accordingly. Lahr wrote that Edna took Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's "seemingly hypocritical motto" of "caring and compassion" for others and turned it on its head, Edna became the voice of Humphries' outrage.
By the 1980s, Dame Edna had evolved from a drab housewife from Melbourne’s working class suburb of Moonee Ponds to an international star who hosted her own talk show.
Celebrities including Sean Connery, Chubby Checker, Charlton Heston, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Mel Gibson and Dusty Springfield appeared on The Dame Edna Experience.
She became known for her glasses, her lilac curls, her ‘Hello possums!’ greeting and her ‘gladdies’ – the bunch of gladioli that she threw to the audience at the end of her live shows.
Humphries’s characters have been such a hit in Britain that he was made a CBE in 2007 for services to entertainment. In the U.S., he won the Tony award for best special theatrical event in 2000 for Dame Edna: The Royal Tour.
On 7 March 2007 Melbourne renamed a city street in her honour: Dame Edna Place, formerly Brown Alley off Little Collins Street, was officially opened by the Lord Mayor of Melbourne, John So. Dame Edna Place is opposite Royal Arcade and The Causeway, between the major roads, Elizabeth Street and Swanston Street; it was, until its renaming, a service alley for adjoining buildings. Dame Edna was not at the renaming ceremony but was represented by ten look-alike Dames. Everage Street in suburban Moonee Ponds has also been named in her honour.
In 1982, Dame Edna's alter-ego Barry Humphries was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (OAM) for "services to the theatre" and on 16 June 2007 he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for services to entertainment.
In MAC Cosmetics 2008 Winter Line-Up, a Dame Edna collection of cosmetics were released including eye shadow, lipstick, powder, and nail polish.
A bronze statue was unveiled at Melbourne Docklands in January 2009. It is located by the Yarra river near Harbour Town which also includes statues of singer John Farnham, Dame Nellie Melba, and Graham Kennedy.
Dame Edna is certainly no stranger to controversy. A search of the internet is rife with her somewhat satirically acidic comments.
In 2003 Vanity Fair magazine invited Dame Edna to write a satirical advice column. She created a storm of controversy with a piece published in the February 2003 issue. Replying to a reader who asked if she should learn Spanish, she wrote:
"Forget Spanish. There's nothing in that language worth reading except Don Quixote, and a quick listen to the CD of Man of La Mancha will take care of that ... Who speaks it that you are really desperate to talk to? The help? Your leaf blower?"
Some members of the Hispanic community read this reply as a racist remark and complaints flooded in to the magazine. Actress Salma Hayek responded angrily, penning a furious letter in which she denounced Dame Edna. After Vanity Fair received death threats, the magazine published a full-page apology to the Hispanic community.
Humphries commented later:
"If you have to explain satire to someone, you might as well give up".
When Dame Edna was questioned about the controversy on the eve of her 2003 Australian tour, she retorted that Hayek's denunciation was due to "professional jealousy", and that Hayek was envious because the role of painter Frida Kahlo (for which Hayek received an Oscar nomination) had originally been offered to Edna:
When I was offered the part of Frida I turned it down, and she was the second choice. I said 'I'm not playing the role of a woman with a moustache and a monobrow, and I'm not having same-sex relations on the screen' ... I'm not racist. I love all races, particularly white people. You know, I even like Roman Catholics
Dame Edna retires
In March 2012 Humphries announced that the character would be retired at the end of the current stage tour; however, as of 2013 he has decided to bring her back.
Video: Dame Edna Everage gives her usual cheek to Michael Parkinson on his chatshow. Free clip from the popular british talk show Parkinson.