It’s seriously been worth the weight

Actor Jessica Pidsley has tapped into her past as an overweight teenager to write her debut stand-up comedy show. She spoke to Sheena Grant

Her name may have been on an elite list of young actors tipped as tomorrow’s stars of the big screen but the accolade certainly hasn’t gone to Jessica Pidsley’s head.

“I’m just looking forward to when tomorrow becomes today,” she quips, with the self-deprecating humour that peppers her conversation and is undoubtedly a hang-over from her past.

As a teenager she ballooned to a dress size 24 before going on a diet and dropping to a size 14 in the space of a year.

Jessica, a RADA graduate who grew up near Newmarket and cut her acting teeth in Suffolk Young People’s Theatre, is now a size 12 but weight issues are never far from her mind.

This is someone whose online biography begins with the starter facts: “I weigh less now than I did when I was 13 years old” and “I used to crunch up prawn cocktail crisps in their bag and eat them with a spoon, like cereal.”

Jessica, 28, whose debut stand-up comedy show, called I can make you thin(K), opened in London earlier this month, developed humour as an early defence mechanism and when she lost all that weight, the humour stayed, a situation she describes as “the best of both worlds”.

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But beneath the laughter there have been some horribly painful moments, such as the time she was mistaken for a boy and asked to leave the women’s changing rooms in a central London fashion chain.

“I was 15 and back then you couldn’t get clothes for teenagers my size,” she says. “I could only wear sports clothes and elasticated things and clothes that were not very feminine, not just because they were the only things that fitted but also because I wanted to cover up.

“I went into Topshop at Oxford Circus with my cousin and was waiting for her in the changing rooms while she tried something on. The shop assistant kept poking her head around the corner and she eventually came up to me and said: ‘I don’t think you are meant to be in here’.

“There were lots of other female friends and relations waiting for people trying things on there but she didn’t say anything to them. Anyway, I went out and started thinking about it and realised it must have been because she thought I was a boy.

“My method in those days was always to laugh things off. I went home and drafted a letter of complaint to the company but I never sent it because it was actually something that was deeply painful to me.”

Despite the hurt of that episode, on its own it didn’t prove the catalyst that made her decide to do something about her body shape.

“It wasn’t just that,” she says. It was an accumulation of a few years of feeling like I couldn’t wear nice clothes. Also, I was big into acting and I felt like it was restricting me. Costume fittings were a nightmare in am dram. I always referred to the bit of material they had to let in at the back of costumes for me

as the Pidsley Panel. I used to joke about it.”

Her comedy show has been two years in the writing and as well as including a lot of personal material about her own experiences, it taps into how we as a society think about weight issues and body image, aiming to give a few perceptive insights that might just, well, make you think.

“I wanted to combine my experiences of losing weight with my journey to keep that weight off and also to explore what it is that triggers so much of people’s battles with themselves,” she says. “I’m starting a mini “learning to love yourself” revolution that isn’t about being perfect, but is about being you, with all the wobbly, unflattering bits included.”

Her own weight issues began as a schoolgirl, when her parents ran a hotel just outside Newmarket, in which the family lived.

“We had walk-in fridges,” she says. “Food was everywhere. There were catering packs of crips around the place and I don’t suppose I was really that educated about what is good for you and what wasn’t. I ate a lot of convenience foods and a lot of Burger King.

“My parents cooked for people for a living and I did not want them to do that for me because it felt like I was another customer so going to Burger King was a treat. Both my parents were big too and I assumed that was the way it was.”

Jessica graduated from RADA in 2009 and has since won the Spotlight Showcase Highly Commended Prize as well as being selected as one of Screen International Magazine’s Stars of Tomorrow in 2010 (previous recipients of the title have included Robert Pattinson, Emily Blunt, Carey Mulligan and Gemma Arterton). She started doing stand-up while still a student.

“I like to think of myself as a creative being but you can’t really write that on a business card,” she says. “I am an actor first and foremost but acting and stand-up often go hand in hand. A lot of actors do stand-up comedy and vice versa, so I’m in good company.”

The stand-up show, which opened on February 1 with a five-day run in Islington, was written between acting jobs, which have included playing Passepartout in a stage production of Around the World in 80 Days and appearing in the World Premier of The French Detective and the Blue Dog, playing a knife thrower and juggler. She also appeared in We’re Going on a Bear Hunt on a UK Tour and her film and television roles include Ollie Kepler’s Expanding Purple World and This September, a film for TV with Charles Dance and Eileen Atkins. On radio she has been in an improvised play for BBC Radio 4 called “A Time to Dance”.

The style of the show is billed as self-help comedy and is interspersed with visual projections of Jessica’s younger, larger self, including “embarrassing school photos” and pre-recorded sketches.

Jessica says the title was inspired by the celebrity hypnotist Paul McKenna, who has written a book called I can make you thin.

“I have used a lot of self help myself,” she says. “In fact, I am a self-help junkie. I used to work in the book store Waterstones and there was a damaged copy of Paul McKenna’s book Change your life in seven days. It transformed the way I look at things. I have always been fascinated by the power of the mind.

“I lost four-and-a-half stone when I was 15 and have spent the last 13 years learning to maintain my weight loss and actually like my body. What I talk about in the show are the factors that create our body dissatisfaction.

“Apparently, 98% of people are generally not happy with their bodies. It is kind of alarming so I wanted to do something using comedy because that is something I love to do. I have teamed up with a company called Super Mega Action Plus, who do interactive projection and film work. The whole show has interactive projections and embarrassing old school photos and filmed sketches with me as well.

“It charts my journey through growing up, being part of a large family and looking back at school and coming to the conclusion that I wanted to lose the weight and how I went about that and how spent last 13 years maintaining the weight loss and getting to a place where I can accept my body more than I could.”

The show starts from a place understanding and in no way uses comedy to make fun of anyone. The idea is more to use comedy to reveal some fundamental truths about our society and the inflences that cause us all to be so self-critical.

“Because I have been there and have been bigger my attitude is not to poke fun at all,” says Jessica. “It comes from a place of understanding and compassion. It is not a show about eating disorders and obesity, as such. The focus is really on people that you look at and wouldn’t necessarily think they were particularly overweight - it is about how people feel and respond to themselves. Comedy is the perfect way to do it because the times when you think most are the times you are laughing about something.

“Really, for me, losing the weight is simple (although I know that’s not the case for everyone) but if your brain stays fat your body image is not going to change. It is about empowering people to start learning to love themselves and to help people feel at bit less alone. It doesn’t solve everything, it is not a quick fix but it gets people laughing and thinking about things through comedy.

“The response so far has been amazing. I did some previews in London last August and after the run in early February I have another from April 12 to 15 at the Canal Cafe in London, which is where I did original preview. I’m also taking the show to the Brighton Fringe from May 5 to 24 and to Edinburgh in August.”

The show is split into different areas, beginning with Jessica and her relationship to her past before branching out and looking at other pressures we are all under, such as the images and attitudes that prevail in celebrity magazines and the use of airbrushing in fashion photography.

“It starts off with me and goes into what we are up against and some of the factors that contribute to us feeling dissatisfied with our bodies and looks at what we can do about it,” says Jessica.

“There is this negative inner voice and the way we think affects the way we feel and the way we look as well. In the last year of two I have started to be on own side a bit more. Learning to love yourself is not the same as loving yourself. It’s often thought we should be 100% happy with ourselves or need to fix ourselves - the idea that if we could only lose weight we would be happy.

“Since I started doing the show I’ve lost another stone because I am practising what I preach on stage. If you are stressed your body is normally the first thing I take it out on. When I do the show I end up wanting to do nicer things for myself. There was no quick fix to the way I look now - it’s been over a decade of educating myself, doing self-help and exploring the emotional issues around it,

“For instance, I realised there were lots of things about being thin that I was terrified of. I would have to change my lifestyle radically; I might not be funny anymore. Getting to the emotional root of what purpose being bigger was serving for me was huge.

“For a lot of people losing weight is a matter of simple maths - eat less and exercise more - but I’ve always been rubbish at maths and for me it was more complex than that.”

Jessica says she doesn’t ever really wish she’d never been big because it’s made her who she is: warm, funny and engaging, something that reviewers have picked up on in many of her dramatic roles and something those who chose her as one of the future stars of the big screen noticed too.

One critic described her professional debut in Around the world in 80 days as “terrifically warm and funny”, adding she was a comic actor to watch.

That may be what others have noticed but what does the slimmed down version of her larger self hope the future holds?

“A UK tour for the show, definitely,” she says, “and I would like to travel with the show internationally and raise my profile so I can go on to do fantastic acting projects.

“I’d like to be part of a new comedy. I’d like to be a national treasure really.”

n To find out more about Jessica Pidsley and I can make you thin(K), visit