'I grew up in a time when you were made to feel ashamed of being foreign' | Shaparak Khorsandi interview

'I grew up in a time when you were made to feel ashamed of being foreign'

Shaparak Khorsandi interview

Shaparak Khorsandi unveils her new show, It Was The 1990s!, next week. Here she speaks about how she fully embraced the ladette culture of the era, how times have changed for young women now  – and why she dropped 'Shappi' to revert to her full name.

What can we expect from the new show?

It came about when I realised my son’s generation regards the 1990s the way my generation regards the 1960s. It’s a show that massively talks about the ‘ladette’ culture, which was women supposedly taking their power back by drinking the boys under the table and all that mayhem of emulating the worst of laddish behaviour. 

I talk about how and why I threw myself into that wholeheartedly in the 1990s, which is also when I started stand-up comedy. That was part of my need for freedom and the comedy circuit seemed like the most punk place to be. It’s very different to the way it is now. 

What are your abiding memories of the decade?

Back then it was about hedonism and escapism, and in the show I talk about all the harm I need to undo. You didn’t just go out for a drink hoping you’d meet someone you fancied, you drank and drank until you fancied someone. 

It’s also about how back then I went to university with people who’d say ‘I’ve only got £200 to last me until Monday’ when I was a cleaner on Saturdays and Sundays to pay for my beer. 

You really see the class difference, like I had one friend who said of her parents ‘They want me to have a work ethic so they’ve said to me if I get a job they’ll match my hourly rate pound for pound’. 

Before I went to university in the 1990s I had never come across private school kids before. That’s why Jarvis Cocker became my absolute hero with Common People because that song for me expressed how I was feeling in this brand new adult world I was navigating. Then I come to 2021 and how I’ve changed from the 23-year-old me.

How have you changed since then?

I’m not quite the socialist she was. I’m looking back at how my politics have changed and how my outlook has also changed. And you have to shelve the ‘ladette’ behaviour if you want to live for longer. 

I look at Emma Watson now. She’s the sort of leading light of young feminism and when I look at her I go ‘Oh my God, you look so clean’. She looks like she goes to bed at a sensible time, whereas in the 1990s I don’t remember ever deliberately going to bed. It Was The 1990s! offers me the chance to look at how young people look after themselves now compared to then.

Do you have any examples of that?

Self-care in the 1990s was about having a Berocca. If I’d said to my friends in the 1990s after a one-night stand where the bloke thought my name was Jackie that I was going to take some time out, do some breathing exercises and meditation, become vegetarian and work on my boundaries they would have thought I’d joined a cult. Self-care was what people in cults did.

Along with Common People, what would be on your ultimate 1990s playlist?

Alanis Morissette’s You Oughta Know because it was the first time I’d really heard an angry female voice in a pop song. Also Chumbawamba’s Thubthumping, the Prodigy and all the songs that talked about chaos and mayhem. Then Eminem. Weirdly I was really connected to Eminem.

This is your first tour since 2017. How does it feel to be heading back on the road?

I was diagnosed with ADHD in lockdown and I got proper help with it. What I’m finding is that it’s changed the way I do comedy. People ask, ‘Are you worried it’s going to affect how you are on stage?’ and I’m like: ‘No, it’s made me better. It’s made me a better writer and a better performer, having pills that help me to focus.’ 

There was always a lot of anxiety around tours and there was always a lot of ‘I’ll just do it in the moment and hopefully it’ll work’. This is the first time I’ll be doing a show whilst looking after my ADHD and creatively it’s been a game-changer. In all sorts of ways it’s been a game-changer. I’d say this is the first time doing a tour where I’m absolutely sure that I’m going to have a lot of fun and no anxiety.  It’s a real privilege to have a clear head. 

I feel my brain works for comedy much better than before. I feel like I’m starting my career from scratch whilst also having 20 years’ experience behind me, if that makes sense.

Did you manage to keep busy after Covid struck?

I was writing my book Kissing Emma when I should have been educating my children, so their careers and dreams are going to have to happen a year later than planned. I’m a single mum with two kids so there wasn’t a moment of boredom in lockdown and I’ve got two dogs so there was a lot of mopping of floors.

 I didn’t have the sort of lockdown where people were looking for boxsets to binge on. I wish I’d had time to watch telly but I was writing and putting this show together. Lockdown also made me very nostalgic about my youth.  The loss of freedom took me right back to the age where I felt the most free, which was in the 1990s where every night was spent rushing out with nothing but a tenner in  my pocket, spare knickers in my handbag and hope in my heart. 

It made me think about those years a lot and what a blur they were, yet actually stepping back into that era during lockdown it was interesting just how much I inhabited twentysomething me again.

What’s your idea of a great night out now compared to then?

A nice chilled festival somewhere, where someone hands me something nice to eat and we watch a band that we love. I still like a party but not to detriment of my physical and mental health. 

Do you think audiences are craving the live experience after all the lockdowns and restrictions?

I do, yes. I’ve been to theatre shows and given them standing ovations at really poignant moments when really, I should have been sat down.

What’s the one thing you couldn’t be on tour without?

If I don’t have my little wheelie case, or my R2-D2 unit as I call it, I feel like I’m going to lose my balance. I tour so much and if anybody offers to help me with my suitcase I go ‘No you can’t because if you do I’ll fall over’. If I’m not hearing the whirl of suitcase wheels behind me I’m not on tour.

You now go by your full name of Shaparak rather than Shappi. Why is that?

The first thing I did in the 1990s was start A-level college and I went ‘Right, no-one’s allowed to call me Shaparak anymore, I’m Shappi’. 

If you had a foreign name you were expected to make it as easy as possible for everyone by either shortening or changing it. That doesn’t exist for young people anymore. 

I changed it back in spring this year. I was very invested in the football and Raheem Sterling comes from Brent, near where I grew up, and Bukayo Saka went to school in Greenford. I went to a school down the road in Hanwell and we used to play sports against his school. 
These are the sort of boys I’d have gone to school with and I was impressed that they spoke so proudly of the backgrounds they came from, how they were from poor and immigrant families and how they had elevated themselves without changing their names. It wasn’t Ray Sterling and Bob Saka. I thought ‘Wow, back then life would have been so different for them’. 

How did that influence your decision to revert to Shaparak?

It made me think: ‘Why am I Shappi? I’m almost 50 years old, for God’s sake. Why have I got the name of a puppy?’ I watched ‘Dirty Dancing’ again and you know where she says at the beginning ‘That was the summer of 1963 when everybody called me Baby and it didn’t occur to me to mind’? 

I just thought that it really should occur to me to mind that on all the posters and TV shows and books and everything I’m billed as Shappi,  but that’s not my name. The only reason I got rid of it was because I grew up in a time when you were made to feel a bit ashamed of being foreign and making life difficult for everyone because you had a three-syllable name that was unfamiliar. I’ve changed it back because I don’t think we live in that world any more.

Shaparak Khorsandi: It Was The 90s! is at the Soho Theatre in London from Monday until December 23, then on a UK tour from January 21. Shaparak Khorsandi tour dates.

Published: 10 Dec 2021

What do you think?

Live comedy picks

We see you are using AdBlocker software. Chortle relies on advertisers to fund this website so it’s free for you, so we would ask that you disable it for this site. Our ads are non-intrusive and relevant. Help keep Chortle viable.