The funny thing about true love is that even cynical comedians are not immune. Katherine Ryan tells Sophie Heawood about the joke date that changed her life.
‘I always loved him,’ says the comedian Katherine Ryan, sitting in her North London kitchen, gazing out over the seemingly endless garden, remembering her high-school boyfriend Bobby Kootstra, who she dated when she was 16. ‘And I kept every letter we ever wrote each other,’ she adds wistfully, as a bundle of tiny fluffy dogs jump on to her lap and the smell of a Diptyque scented candle fills the air of her Hollywood Hills-style modern house.
An awful lot has happened in the two decades since the 37-year-old broke up with Koostra, her first love, in a small Canadian town and moved to the UK to build her comedy career. She recently bought this huge house after making her name delivering sarcastic put-downs on British TV and radio panel shows such as Eight Out of Ten Cats, Just a Minute and QI. Her other career highlights include hosting Have I Got News For You, touring as a stand-up comedian and writing and starring in the critically acclaimed Netflix series The Duchess.
She also had a daughter, Violet, now 11, in a relationship that didn’t last, and turned her single status into part of her comedy act. (‘I love men,’ said Katherine, in her deceptively sweet and generous voice during her previous Netflix stand-up special Glitter Room, ‘but I feel that they are like dolphins – in that they should be enjoyed on holiday.’) Which is why I’m sitting across from her just waiting for the punchline about her high-school boyfriend, because Katherine is brutally funny and a killer joke about her childhood romance has to be coming. Yet there is no punchline because the truth is more dramatic – reader, she recently went back to Canada, found her old sweetheart and married him. In fact, he quit his job to work with her and they live here in the English ’burbs together with her daughter, in what appears to be marital bliss. But how?
‘Well, I’m on a WhatsApp group with all my best girlfriends that I went to high school with, we stay in touch,’ she explains. ‘A lot of them are married to their high-school boyfriends – it’s that kind of town. They got married when they were, like, 20, and a lot of them probably want out but they’re hanging in there! Though Bobby and I did it the smart way, took 20 years off. Anyway, they were saying to me, “Oh, Bobby looks good – have you seen his Instagram?” And I looked at his Instagram a few times, and I thought, “He really does look cute.”’
He was divorced with no children, so they started to follow one another on the social media app, and some months later, when Katherine was back in Canada to film the genealogy show Who Do You Think You Are?, she asked her followers to recommend a place for a drink that night. ‘Even though we still hadn’t spoken by this point, something in me knew he would answer. Which he did – he suggested a pub, and I was like, “Oh well, we can’t actually go there but my sister and I are at this other pub, you should join us for a drink.” And then he walked into the pub and I was, like…’ she sighs blissfully. ‘I just always loved him. It sounds so silly.’ She says he had done a lot of growing up since his more annoying youthful ways, while she had been in the public eye and had plastic surgery on her face and breasts – leading her to joke recently that he ‘might not even realise I’m his high-school girlfriend’.
In the pub, the pair of them decided they should spend the night together ‘because we both thought it would make our friends laugh if we had sex. Just for one night. Let’s have a one night stand, it’ll be funny!’ she recalls. Even though, deep down, ‘I just knew right away that I loved him and I wanted to marry him. I never even considered marrying anyone else.’
Nine months after that one-night stand, they were married in a civil ceremony in Denmark because it was ‘cheaper and easier’ there. It’s an astonishing enough story, but if you’re familiar with Katherine’s comedy, you’ll know that she pegs herself as a sassy, tough character with no time for such sentimentality, which is what makes it all the more surprising. (She tells me, for example, in reference to her plastic surgery, that she decided to buy this expensive house ‘after my friends told me “look, you might as well invest in property – you work really hard and you’re going to be working until you die under the knife”.’ )
In her new sitcom The Duchess, she plays a glamorous single mother, also called Katherine, who is deliciously mean to her rather useless ex and the mums at the school gate, and not exactly loving towards the new man in her life either. So I wonder if her fans are surprised by the romantic turn her real life has taken.
‘Well, I felt worried for a while that I was letting these single mothers down because I do believe that you can go it alone. I believe that life is streamlined when it’s just you and your daughter – in my experience – or just with no other adult in the house. You wholly depend on yourself so you’re never disappointed. I believe in everything that I said about that in the past – and then it was actually disappointing that I loved him.’
You were like, ‘Dammit, there are good men out there after all!’ ‘Yeah,’ she laughs, ‘well, I know there are good men because a lot of them are my friends from stand-up, like Romesh [Ranganathan] and Geoff [Norcott]. And I’m such good friends with so many female stand-ups who are married to formidable husbands – but I just thought for me it wasn’t the right path. And then I was really annoyed. I was looking for reasons not to marry Bobby. I thought, “Oh, I can’t do this, this is not who I am.” I did the thing that I guess Katherine does in The Duchess – although I’d already written The Duchess – where I had walls up, and I decided it was going to go badly because it always goes badly, and what you seek, you shall find.’
I’m intrigued to know more about these walls – was her love life previously very chaotic? She says absolutely not, the opposite of chaotic, but it was not pleasant either. ‘My entire 20s I was trying to figure out what my place in the world would be, how I could be of most value, how I could have the nicest life. I saw that pretty women, soft women, kind women, were rewarded. I tried to be simple and quiet and agreeable. I was super, super, super monogamous, like committed. I would double down when things got bad. I would dig my heels in harder and be like, “I’ll fix it, I can fix it!”’
This surprises me, too, from one so bold, but she has Irish roots and says this is an Irish thing, before admitting that things used to get worse than she is comfortable talking about. ‘You would not believe what I would put up with, and I can never discuss it because I don’t want to call the demon into the room. I was a different person. I was vulnerable, I would bend over backwards to please these fools who had no business being with me in the first place. It was ridiculous what I would tolerate.’
After her daughter was born, she told herself that things had to change. ‘I just went, hang on, because what was good enough for me was not good enough for her. It did still take me a while. I wasn’t an overnight success. It’s hilarious to me the type of utter wastemen that I still allowed into my life. I didn’t… value myself. I think I had a lot of shame.’
One of the main differences with Bobby, though, was that he wasn’t jealous of her daughter, even though Violet wasn’t initially thrilled to have someone else enter their two-person family setup. They get on brilliantly now. ‘I think it was seeing him as an asset to Violet that made me really realise he was right. So many men, you would not believe, they’re jealous of children – it’s pathetic. I think men are even jealous of their own children.
‘But with Bobby, I’m terrible at athletics and it turns out my daughter’s really good and Bobby’s an athlete, too. He plays all these sports with her and his energy is different to mine: he’s brave and calm and dependable. I think as she enters this teenage phase of life, I can see her going to him for things she won’t go to me for. He just feels like home to me. He feels like family. If that’s not too gross.’
So it was only natural that they’d try for another baby together, and the couple were excited when she got pregnant, but were then ‘absolutely gobsmacked at a routine ten-week scan when they said, “Oh, the foetus stopped growing yesterday, it has no heartbeat.” I was like, “What?!” I did not know that the baby could just stop growing and that your body would never tell you.’
She was told to carry on with her life while waiting to miscarry, so she performed a stand-up show that night. I am stunned.
‘Because this is, you know, working women. I didn’t have time to have a miscarriage. I went straight from the scan to the stage. I was just in shock, I think. I have this stage persona which is a little bit of escapism, it’s like a safe place. And then I would cry about it when I was alone, then pull myself together and do the next work thing, but I was slowly being traumatised by the fact that… I hate to say it, it’s triggering language, but I was walking around pregnant with a dead baby. I started to feel so embarrassed and incapable that my body couldn’t even have a miscarriage properly, that it was holding on. It was terrible. It took five weeks to expel it.’
Interestingly, she then suggests that her character in The Duchess, who also spends the series trying to get pregnant with a second child, might be missing the point. ‘I think she doesn’t even want a second child. I think she just wants to do her daughter’s childhood all over again.’
At this point the famous Bobby walks in – all muscles and a grin and carrying equipment out to the garden. The couple’s faces light up when they see each other. ‘And then rugged handsome Bobby comes in with a leaf blower,’ she laughs. ‘You know the last time a journalist came here, Violet happened to come downstairs with a hamster in a handbag. I mean, of course she had a hamster in a handbag. And then she was telling the journalist how we were apparently going to build a swimming pool in the garden.’
A discussion follows about which of them will go to collect Violet from school, each keen to do it and save the other the trip.
‘See how amenable we are,’ she says. ‘We never fight!’
As for her next project, there will be a new live tour in 2021 – Missus, centred on her and Bobby’s unlikely love story – which includes three nights at the London Palladium. But first, she’s busy turning all of those teenage love notes that said ‘I love you’, ‘I love you, too’ into a collage for their first anniversary, which is traditionally celebrated with paper.
‘I’m going to make something cool,’ she says. ‘I don’t know why I kept them for so long. We were just kids and they were so silly but I treasure them.’
The Duchess is available now on Netflix. To buy tickets for Missus, go to livenation.co.uk