Shelley Bridgman has been married for 40 years, has two grown up daughters and a grandchild.
In February 2011, I wrote a blog which started:
“I was in the Apple Store in Regent Street last week and bumped into the multi-talented comic Shelley Cooper, who has almost finished writing her autobiography – now THAT should be a cracking read.”
Well, now she is Shelley Bridgman and she has published the book. It is called Stand-Up For Yourself with the subtitle… and become the hero or shero you were born to be.
“People tell me it’s an inspiring story,” Shelley told me yesterday at the Soho Theatre. “It’s about overcoming crap and then sorting your life out.”
“And it is crying out to be a movie,” I said.
“Of course,” laughed Shelley.
“Who would play you?” I asked.
“You and I talked about you writing your autobiography years ago,” I said.
“Well,” said Shelley, “I wanted to write it, but I didn’t quite know how to do it. I had this voice ringing in my ears saying: Who are you to write an autobiography?”
“So why write it?”
“I think it was having so much rubbish written about me. I got fed up with it. In the end, for the book, I broke my life down into eight sections and, at the end of each one, I have an imaginary conversation with a different hero. People like Groucho Marx, Spike Milligan, Joan Rivers, Oscar Wilde, even Oprah Winfrey because she does an amazing chat show. And my grandmother pops up as a hero.”
Shelley is now in the final year of a doctorate in psychotherapy.
“When I got my masters degree in psychotherapy,” Shelley told me, “I was talking to this professor and he said Why don’t you do a doctorate? and my response was: Because I’m not academic…
“I mean, I left school at 15 without a single O level. I was born in a prefab. I had humble beginnings and then went downhill.
“This professor looked me in the eye and said: Fucking get over it. You just got a masters degree. Do a doctorate. That inspired me.”
Shelley became a stand-up comic around the turn of the century.
“That,” she says, “was as a result of winning a speech competition and the judge saying: That was funny. You should do stand-up.”
“So how,” I asked, “did you get from being a stand-up comic to being a psychotherapist?”
“I was doing that before. I ran a travel business, then I became a counsellor to make sense of my own madness, really, and got more serious about it.”
“Are you using the name Shelley Bridgman for everything now?” I asked. “No longer Shelley Cooper for comedy?”
“As you know,” Shelley said, “my real name is Bridgman, but I was angry with my dad for a long time, so I rejected the family name. About three years ago, I wasn’t doing very much stand-up as Shelley Cooper, so I thought This is a good time to change it. Cooper was my mum’s maiden name. In fact, it was Fenimore Cooper but they dropped the Fenimore because they thought it was a bit pretentious.”
“You are related,” I said, “to the bloke who wrote The Last of The Mohicans.”
“Yes,” said Shelley, “But I think it’s a bit distant.”
“And you’ve done at least one autobiographical comedy show.”
“The first one I ever did was called Growing Pains. You made an interesting comment when I did my second show Shelley Cooper Rewrites History. I always remember because it resonated a lot with me. You wrote: Shelley has still to find her own post-transsexual voice.”
“Oh God, did I?” I said.
“I thought it was valid,” said Shelley. “What happened was I had allowed people to tell me what I should be talking about on stage and it wasn’t really my voice. Everyone else thought it was interesting, but I was bored to hell with it.”
“And you were talking about…?”
“The fact I’m a trans-gender woman. And I didn’t really want to talk about that. I do accept that – especially when I do 20-minute comedy sets in a rough club – I have to nail it and move on… so I still deal with it… but I don’t talk about it any more because I’m not interested.”
I prefer to think of Shelley not as trans-gender person but as trans-genre person. The blurb on her book cover reads:
Shelley Bridgman is an award-winning stand-up comic, actor, scriptwriter, professional speaker and a leading psychotherapist – but it wasn’t always this way.
First she survived the hedonistic sixties with the inevitable round of clubbing, fashion and drugs; then she made the most of the seventies, travelling to over sixty countries whilst running a travel business – but it was the eighties that tested her to her limits. Battling depression, bankruptcy, addiction and suicide attempts, Shelley found the strength to confront her need to change gender and achieve harmony with herself.
A unique story told with delightfully dry humour about identity, self-discovery, acceptance and courage. It is also testament to a profoundly touching love story that has lasted over forty years.
“I spent a year writing the book,” Shelley told me yesterday, “and 18 months letting go of it. It was being edited but there comes a point where you have to say: Enough! Get it proof-read and get the damn thing out!
“A lot of the painful stuff I talk about, I’ve already dealt with. One of the challenges with writing my story is the first half is pretty miserable and the second half is very positive and, if it’s too linear, the reader is gonna think: When are we going to get to something a bit uplifting?”
“You’re still doing stand-up comedy,” I said.
“I won that Silver Stand-Up award at the Leicester Comedy Festival in 2012,” said Shelley. “It was for old fogeys.”
The award was for best stand-up comedian over the age of 55.
“What I’ve done in the last two years,” she told me, “is to take a step back. I was enjoying doing proper comedy clubs like The King’s Head, but getting sick to death of doing rooms above a pub with a load of drunks on a Friday night. So I decided I wanted to do more political humour, which is what I’m doing now. I’m writing a show at the moment and I’m compering a show out in Bucks, because it gives me the chance to say what I want on stage.
“I watch one or two people who talk about being political comics but there’s no such thing anymore because people, by and large, don’t want to hear it. I thought: Make a statement. Say what you really think – without being a left wing ranter because that’s just easy. Calling George Osborne a C U Next Tuesday might be true, but it’s hardly cutting-edge rapier wit. I thought: For God’s sake do what YOU want to do now and start to enjoy it again.
“The show I enjoyed performing most was Britishness in 2007/2008. I filled up the room every night at the Edinburgh Fringe and went to New York and Rome with it. That was really fun and that was the thing which sparked me into thinking: Oh screw it! Just do what you want to do.”
“Which now is?” I asked.
“I’ve just started doing a podcast interviewing comics – The Comedy Studio. It’s part of my dastardly plan to show people I’m capable of interviewing. I’d like to do a chat show on the radio, but it’s got to have an angle. I think the art of interviewing has died, because most – though not all – chat shows now are about the hosts. The reason Michael Parkinson was good in his early days was because he knew when to shut up – having asked a question that made the guest really think – rather than ask: Do you like coffee of tea?”
“Well,” I said, “Parkinson was an experienced journalist, whereas almost all the chat show people now are stars who have been given a chat show because they are popular.”
“I’m not a journalist,” said Shelley, “but I’m a psychotherapist, so I’m used to teasing out things from people with questions. I wanna be given a chance because I think I can do it and that’s really what I’m aiming at. I’m still enjoying stand-up comedy, but not seven nights a week.”