I just love being a woman, says Gyles Brandreth as he embarks on a gender-bending journey in search of his feminine side
The importance of being ladylike: Gyles as the redoubtable Lady Bracknell
Let’s face it: I enjoy being a girl. I am half-way through a two-month stint of living, breathing, eating, sleeping and dressing like a woman.
I am on a gender-bending journey in search of my feminine side. And, amazingly, my wife is backing me all the way. She seems to think I will be a better man once I have been a woman for a while.
Rest assured, there is nothing kinky going on here. This isn’t cross-dressing for kicks. This is work.
I earn some of my living as an actor and I have been cast in a new musical production of Oscar Wilde’s classic comedy, The Importance Of Being Earnest. My role Lady Bracknell, a part that has been played with distinction by a long list of classy leading ladies — Dames Edith Evans, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith among them.
It’s a daunting task, especially as the play’s director — who is accustomed to working with theatrical heavyweights at the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company — has made it clear to me that he isn’t looking for a pantomime dame.
‘I don’t want a man in drag,’ he insists. ‘I want a real woman — a wife and mother of a certain age. If you’re going to play the part properly, you’ve got to live the part to the full.’ Well, I am giving it a go and Michle, my long-suffering wife of 38 years, is acting as my mentor.
Augusta Bracknell is a strong-willed woman in her early 60s. She is imperious and grand, conscious of her position and her appearance. The play is a period piece and my wife is an historian by training, so she has suggested I model my ‘look’ on the Queen’s grandmother, the late Queen Mary, the indomitable wife of George V for whom the fashion clock didn’t move in half a century.
Having settled on my ‘look’, my wife said: ‘You must start with the shoes.’ She claims that women spend so much time in shoe shops — and so much money on footwear — because feet are what she calls ‘fundamental’. ‘You are what you stand in,’ she claims.
I am now standing in a pair of rather elegant high heels — size 9. Finding them wasn’t easy and trying them on was a nightmare. I was like one of the Ugly Sisters trying to force my clodhoppers into Cinderella’s dainty glass slipper.
My wife advised me to break myself in to my new heels gently. Of course, I was so excited to find a pair that fitted, I paid no attention and, on the first day of rehearsals, wore the shoes for eight hours on the trot.
On the next day I could barely stand up. My calves were in agony and my back in torment. I decided to start listening (that’s something women do quite naturally, it seems; we men find it more of a challenge) and eased my way in to the heels gradually, as my wife had advised, taking them off at regular intervals and increasing my tolerance to them day by day.
Heel-walking takes practice. At first, I tottered about like a new-born giraffe, but within a week I had gained my balance and (dare I say it) a bit of poise. You can’t stride in heels or strut, but you can move about pretty niftily all the same. I am running up and down stairs in mine — and dancing, too.
Drag act: Actor Gyles Brandreth before and after his incredible transformation to the opposite sex
I completely understand how undervalued Ginger Rogers felt. As she said: ‘I did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards in high heels.’
Iam enjoying life in high heels. They give you confidence as well as added height. Thanks to them, I feel I am up there with supermodels ElleMacpherson and Naomi Campbell.
If you are a bloke, the downside is that not everyone understands why you are wearing them.
The postman rang the doorbell the other day. There was a package to be signed for and, as I was doing the signing, the postman was studying my heels. Even with Christmas coming, I am not sure the postman will be ringing twice.
“My wife is teaching me how to walk like a woman, sit like a woman, eat like a woman and sleep like a woman…”
In heels, you stand taller — and straighter, too. For Lady Bracknell, good posture is essential.
Womenof her generation were taught to walk properly, with a 3ft long wooden ruler tucked under their arms and behind their back, and a book balancedon their head.
To help me maintain my posture, and to give me a more womanly figure, I am wearing acorset. It is what Queen Mary would have done. She was born in 1867, before the invention of the brassire. Her undergarments would have included a slip or a chemise (what we chaps call a ‘vest’) and a corset laced up tight. It takes pounds off your tummy and forces your shouldersback and your chest out.
Wearing a corset is tiring and, I mustsay, having boobs is disconcerting. Why anyone would ever, ever, EVER dream of having theirs enlarged I do not know. Even my modest, low-slungones — made of foam and sewn into a body stocking — keep getting in theway.
(And, while we are discussing these rather personal matters, let me confess that I prefer going to the loo as a fella. What with my bloomers, skirts and petticoats every ‘comfort break’ is anything but. And I am wearing stockings, not tights. No wonder at the theatre there are always queues outside the Ladies.)
Role model: Queen Mary, in 1942, is an inspiration for Gyles
Having sorted out my appearance and my posture, my wife is now working on the rest of the basics.
She is teaching me how to walk like a woman — with lighter steps and head held high (looking forward, not down at the ground); to sit like a woman — knees together please; to eat like a woman — with smaller mouthfuls and less noise; to sleep like a woman . .. yes, the snoring has to stop. (Cut out the booze, lose a stone and sleep on your side. It’s easily done when you know how.)
Twenty-fourhours a day, I am trying to be like a woman — and it’s not merely a matter of moisturising (morning and night) and walking the walk. I am having to talk like a woman — which is completely different from the waymen speak. On the whole, women don’t bark or boom or interrupt. As a rule, men do all three.
Men think they’ve got a right to be heard and what they’ve got to say is worth hearing.
They talk over one another and they talk loudly and insistently — and, in my case, non-stop. If I want to get in touch with my inner woman, that’s got to change, according to Mrs Brandreth.
I have got to start gabbing less and listening more. Women listen. It seems they are quite interested in what the other person has to say.
And because women are better listeners than men, they are more observant, too. On the whole, men don’t see what’s in front of them because they can’t be bothered.
Now I have spent a month trying to look at the world through a woman’s eyes, I am finding it does make a difference. Yesterday, I opened the fridge and I actually found what I was looking for.
Famously, women can do two things at once, while men can’t. I reckon the answer is simply the habit of generations.
Traditionally, all a bloke has had to remember is to go to work, while his poor partner has had to remember to go to work and feed the children and collect the laundry and buy and sign and post the mother-in-law’s birthday card.
In fact, anyone can learn to do more than one thing at a time — with concentration and effort.
Incredibly, I can now sing and dance and plan the shopping for tonight’s supper all at the same time. The feminisation of Brandreth really is beginning to take effect.
Of course, there are disadvantages. I find I can no longer park the car.
Oops. How did that slip out Just a joke, ladies.
Aboveall, I am discovering that the essence of being a woman is being aware of others. (Oh, yes, it’s high time Jeremy Clarkson got out of his machoposturing and into his twin-set and pearls.)
Idon’t believe women are naturally more intuitive or sensitive than men.They just seem that way because they look and they listen more carefully than men do and consequently they see more and hear better.
I want to cross the male-female divideand step inside the mind of a woman because it’s an interesting place, and full of surprises. But I only want visiting rights, though, I don’t plan to live there permanently.
In good company: Gyles isn”t the only man to suffer for his art – Robin Williams dressed as a woman in the 1993 film Mrs Doubtfire (left) while Dustin Hoffman became a leading lady in the 1982 film Tootsie (right)
WhenI was MP for Chester, a middle-aged constituent came to visit me accompanied by his elderly mum. He was dressed as a woman and wanted ‘gender realignment’ on the NHS.
Withhis mum’s support, I helped him obtain the treatment and, as a result, Igained a reputation as the ‘Sex-change Jim’ll-Fix-It of Westminster’ and my constituency waiting room was regularly filled with blokes in floral frocks and bad blonde wigs wanting my help.
Iam enjoying my winter-break inside a woman’s world. It’s quite an education. I recommend it, but be warned, it’s not an enterprise to be undertaken lightly. I’m off to pluck my eyebrows now. And, I can tell you, lads, it hurts.
GylesBrandreth is appearing in The Importance Of Being Earnest: The Musical at the Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, West London until December 30. (020 8237 1111)