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A Bonza Sheila
12 / 07 / 2012
A Bonza Sheila is a regular interview section paying tribute to a good woman. Our inaugural inductee is comedian and author Nelly Thomas.
1. Congratulations on writing your first book, What Women Want, just published by Random House. What inspired you to tackle this age-old question?
I was listening to the radio one day and heard the presenter say – somewhat dismissively and as though it was a bad thing – that modern women “want it all” and I thought, “yes, if by that you mean kids and a job”. I mean really, is that too much to ask? It got me thinking about what we do want, and in the book I try to work it out. One thing is for sure, it’s probably quite different to what our mums wanted.
2. You’ve had lots of jobs – Factory Hand, Weighbridge Officer, Tenancy Worker, Research Officer, just to name a few. What led you into comedy (and your breakthrough win in Triple J’s 2003 Raw Comedy competition)?
It was an accident. I was mentoring a young woman through the YWCA (troubled yoof, you know the drill) and she was very creative. She suggested (ok, hassled) me to go to a writer’s forum at the Melbourne Fringe Festival in 2002 which, it turns out, was actually a stand-up comedy forum. I was talked into staying, did a terrible routine about Big Brother and pubes, got spotted by a talent agent, won Raw Comedy and haven’t been off stage since.
3. You wrote the No Means No Show (with Royal Women’s Hospital and CASA House), a sex-education program run in schools with teenagers, as well as producing/hosting ‘The Talk’, a sexual health and ethics DVD for teenagers/parents/carers. What drove you into embarking on this area of work?
A couple of things. One, I was asked to by the pioneering women’s health visionary Meg Gulbin who, at the time, was working in health promotion at the Royal Women’s Hospital. Two, I love working with adolescents, I am a feminist and therefore young women’s health is a passion of mine. One of the most important areas of health for young women is their physical and – just as importantly – emotional health around sex and sexuality. I call it “safe and happy rooting”.
A pregnant Nelly Thomas, 2012
4. Clearly you’ve found a successful formula combining comedy with serious social issues (sex education and domestic violence prevention). The Age described you as one of Australia’s “most innovative thinkers”. What it is about combining comedy with serious social issues that resonates with audiences?
Often when well meaning, passionate activists and health workers tackle big issues they do so in a way that is alienating. Take sexual health – they’re often of the “sex will kill you and you’ll get raped and die” school, or they bore you to death with stats and academic jargon. Either way you end up dead – which isn’t a great way to promote sexual health. I try to give these and other issues the respect they deserve, but entertain in the process.
5. You’re currently undertaking post-graduate studies in psychology at Melbourne University. What’s the motivation behind this next potential career shift?
No career shift, I just like to learn (as corny as that sounds). One motivation is learning more about how the brain works which will compliment my work with adolescents, but mostly I’m just interested. I’m a bit mental myself so maybe it’s narcissism!
6. In your book you nominate work/life balance as one of things women want. You say you haven’t achieved it, but given all the work you do, combined with raising a daughter (and one child on the way), you’ve clearly found some success in juggling all these roles. Can you offer any pearls of wisdom in how you achieve some balance?
Get everything done by 9am – all your housework, cooking and cleaning – that way you can start drinking with the girls on The Circle. The rest of the day just flies by when you’re drunk.
7. You describe being the Under 13s WA Regional State BMX champion and the birth of your daughter as your ‘proudest achievements’. Any tips for raising a feminist?
Let her be too big for her boots – it’s annoying at the age of four, but it will be helpful when she’s eighteen. We need to raise strong, resilient young women who question what they’re told – even what you tell them (bummer).
8. If you were Prime Minister for a day, list two things you would do/change/implement?
1. I would take away the vote from everyone except me and my friends.
2. See above.
9. If you could talk to your 20 year old self, what advice would you give?
Judge people on what they do, not what they say. Doesn’t matter if someone writes you a nice poem or has the right politics or is really, really sure they’ll be better next time, watch how they treat you and others. And stop giving a shit about what everyone else thinks – you can’t please everyone.
10. If you could host a dinner party with three women from history (alive or deceased), who would they be?
- Gertrude Stein
- Maya Angelou
- Kim Kardashian (just to keep it grounded)
NB: I was going to add my literary hero Emily Bronte, but decided she’d be a downer. I may now refer to her as “Deputy Downer”.
11. Nominate a woman who inspires you and why.
Any woman who knows who she is, is unapologetic about it and at the same time manages to be kind to people. It’s a beautiful thing when you see someone who takes no shit, but is respectful and kind – the sort of woman you want to be on your team and at your table at the pub.
12. Describe one of the most difficult things you’ve faced and what helped you get through it.
I have had two miscarriages and both were devastating and confusing – are they a real death, where’s the ritual to mark the passing, was it my fault, I’m pro-choice – was it even a baby? I got through it by (eventually) acknowledging to myself that politics, confusion and other people’s responses (or lack thereof) were not the most important thing. I felt like two babies had died so I mourned them properly and healed. I honoured the loss.
Nelly Thomas, thank you for sharing your insight and wisdom… and for being our first ‘Bonza Sheila’.
Any feedback on Sheilas articles and content is always welcome. Please direct all feedback to Sheilas editor Sarah Capper at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Nelly Thomas is one of Australia’s most gifted comedians. She’s also a sex educator (developing high school program the ‘No Means No Show’, and DVD ‘The Talk’), mother, partner, and part of the self-declared ‘Loony Lefty Feminista’. The Age newspaper listed Nelly as one of Australia’s “most innovative thinkers”.
- Nelly’s just written a memoir/manifesto entitled What Women Want, published by Random House.
- With her permission, we included an excerpt from the book here, which we encourage you to buy by visiting Nelly’s website or follow her on Twitter: @msnellythomas