There is nothing like a dame, goes that familiar refrain from Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific, and certainly there's nothing like this dame: Dame Edna Everage, the wisteria-haired Aussie expatriate who claims to be British royalty. In appearances in venues around the globe, Dame Edna has always promised: "I will not disappoint." In her Broadway debut, Dame Edna: The Royal Tour, at the intimate Booth Theater, she never breaks that promise.

Dame Edna is a housewife, mother, TV star, therapist, role model, advice counselor, lyricist, dancer and chanteuse: A megastar. It's been said, by Dame Edna herself, that she is the most gifted female icon in the world.

On the basis of the Dame's two-hour comedy with music, this legend in her own time (or mind) has audiences believing whatever she wants them to. After being outdone by royalty-wannabe Camila Parker Bowles and literally sneaking into town with little fanfare, The Royal Tour is turning into the sleeper of the season. Dame Edna is the hardest working woman on Broadway as she convulses her fans "with that magic tonic, laughter." Between shows, during a late night supper at Sardi's, there were moments of true confessions and humble soul-searching (but very little humility).

Dame Edna keeps busy shopping for gladioli, jeweled eyewear (she was Elton John's mentor) and glamorous footwear and unpacking her glitzy gowns in her own unique (questionable?) taste (designed by her "son" Kenny, with rhinestones "hand-sewn by Australian nuns"). She also discreetly gathers local gossip on such icons as Sam Champion, James Levine and recent New York transplant Hillary Clinton.

She agreed to give aspiring actors some advice: "Possums, dress as if every day is a special occasion. I hate this American obsession with head rags and torn dungarees. Like me, you can relax in designer outfits. Of course, I'm not only pretty but also rich."

The Dame entrusts her performance make-up "to no one but moi! I pamper my skin with my own line of beauty products created from flowers and animal by-products."

Half the show is scripted. There are many departures, depending on which gender issues Dame Edna decides to tackle and where in the audience her eyes fall. "The audience comes to experience my originality and freshness, so I don't over-rehearse. I want to be spontaneous, in-your-face."

You'll be surprised to hear she suffers pre-performance jitters. "Even a tough old trouper like me gets butterflies in the tummy, but I put on my glasses and I'm ready to expose myself."

She has "fits of depression" when audience members feel she's a little too in-their-face with her "gentle probing" [Contrary to rumors, there are no audience plants]. "I've been known to say such constructive things as, 'That's a nice outfit. I used to make my own clothes, too!' And the dear didn't return for Act Two. Some people aren't ready for the truth!" The Dame has a knack for embarrassing late-comers, admonishing, "I came all the way from Australia and I got here on time."

Dame Edna feels her audiences "are needy and I'm here to help the darlings. I cut through the nonsense and tell it like it is. I pretend they're as intelligent as I am. Afterward, they bask in newfound self-confidence. My only consideration is for my less fortunate peers. It's tough love! I have a joyous heart and my motto is 'I'm sorry, but I care.' I have so many lovely commodities, that I live to give them away to my grateful patrons. Or patients, as I call them. Did you know your doctor will prescribe tickets for my show as part of your therapy?" She also boasts of magnetic healing powers. "As the audiences depart, the ushers find neck braces, canes, walkers and prosthetics. All for a one-price-includes-all ticket!"

How did a star of this magnitude come to be? Dame Edna's "seeds of stardom" were planted in the 50s in Melbourne, which led to one-woman shows and TV in England with Barry Humphries (who has claimed to be Dame Edna's alter ego). In the 70s, her career blossomed via such shows as Housewife, Superstar and A Night with Dame Edna. There are no records on the bestowing of her royal title.

Behind every great man, there's a woman. And behind the Dame, there's a man: Barry Humphries. An Australian actor/writer, he created the character for a 50s revue. "She wasn't intended to have legs," he says. "but did. When I went to England to pursue acting, Edna followed." There he starred in the musicals Oliver! (with Phil Collins as the Artful Dodger) and Maggie May. He reprised his Fagin on Broadway and in London. His 1993 autobiography discusses his creation of Dame Edna. Humphries holds his homeland's highest honor, the Order of Australia. He's married to Lizzie Spender, daughter of British poet Sir Stephen Spender, and has four children.

"A distinguished career," says Dame Edna, "but regarding his claims, well, can you believe anything a man ever says?"


Key Subjects: 
Dame Edna, Barry Humphries
Ellis Nassour
Writer Bio: 
Ellis Nassour contributes entertainment features here and abroad. He is the author of "Rock Opera: the Creation of Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline," and an associate editor and a contributing writer (film, music, theater) to Oxford University Press' American National Biography (1999).
For more about Dame Edna, please see Rita Faye Smith's 2003 profile of Dame Edna in the Periodica Features section.
October 1999