Comedian KATHERINE RYAN escaped an abusive relationship and found her voice as a stand-up. But accusations about her daughter were an even tougher challenge
If ever someone was top of their game it’s Katherine Ryan. Happily married to her high-school boyfriend Bobby Koostra, three months ago they had a baby boy Fred, a much longed-for brother for Katherine’s 12-year-old daughter Violet. The family live in a mansion in the North London suburbs complete with swimming pool and fields nearby for Violet’s pony. Meanwhile, apparently undaunted by her newborn’s demands, Katherine, 38, seems to be everywhere – appearing on endless panel shows such as 8 Out of 10 Cats and QI, filming a stand-up show for Amazon Prime, Backstage with Katherine Ryan, and about to embark on a nationwide tour.
It’s quite a trajectory for someone who, just a few years ago, found themselves at rock bottom. Then Katherine was a struggling single mother, with a track record in ‘diabolical’ boyfriends, so poor that she survived on a diet of Rice Krispies with milk snaffled from the offices where she temped and very far from friends and family in her native Canada. The lowest point came one night when, having just come off stage at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the child protection services called to announce they were investigating allegations made about her and Violet, then four.
‘I’d made bad choices for myself, there had been a few volatile men in my life,’ Katherine says. ‘But I was confident of one truth: Violet was impeccably looked after, protected and loved. We were closer than close. But now I genuinely did not know if my daughter could be taken away from me. I spent the whole night before their visit crying.’ Fortunately, the child protection officers who visited the pair at home concurred that Violet was not in danger but then shocked Katherine by saying she was the person they were really concerned about, as they strongly suspected she’d been reported to them by someone ‘who wanted vindictively to hurt me. They told me this happens a lot; people who want revenge threaten the thing you cherish most,’ she says softly, but radiating a cold fury. For legal reasons, much as she would like to, she can’t name the person she’s sure was responsible. ‘But I’ve always known who it was. It was definitely done maliciously because it was the thing that would hurt me most. I felt so vulnerable. It was really scary.’
Even though the authorities made it clear they were certain Violet was adored and cared for, a petrified Katherine still had to undergo two more official interviews. ‘As intrusive as it was, they were very good at doing their job and I was happy to see that,’ she says.
The incident wasn’t just terrifying, it was also life-changing in helping Katherine make the first steps to this new, happier phase of her life. ‘When the [investigation] was over, I realised that the worst that could happen had happened, but I’d got through it and actually I was really tough. Nothing else could rile me that much again. I became an absolute dragon after that. No men. No thanks. I’d had a few dodgy years and when they were over I was just so grateful I hadn’t had children with any of those horrible men. It sounds really cheesy but I feel like I made a conscious choice to be grateful. And if you have gratitude then more comes into your life to be grateful for.’
Make-up-free and in sweats, in person Katherine is very different to her ultra-glam public persona (she makes no secret of her boob job and admits to having had Botox and fillers). She’s also far milder and less abrasive than her no-holds-barred stage presence might make you suspect.
‘I’m really quiet,’ she says. ‘People think that I stomp around eviscerating anyone who gets in my way, but it takes all my energy to do that on stage. The rest of the time I’m pretty subdued.’
Now Katherine has written a book outlining how it’s possible to be both a loud-mouthed, sassy comedian in public and a reasonable, pleasant person in private. It’s called The Audacity because, she says, ‘Too often the word “audacity” is used in a negative way to imply that any self-confidence or self-assurance is rude. But I won’t accept that: I’ve just been an audacious little person my whole life.’
Hailing from the industrial city of Sarnia in southwest Ontario, Katherine’s mother acrimoniously divorced her Irish father when Katherine was 15. Katherine recalls watching both her mother and grandmother being limited and constrained by their situations.
‘I was acutely aware they were not personalities who should have remained in that small town, to have traditional families where they stayed home. It made them resentful. I thought, “If this makes them unhappy, why do they wake up and choose this every day?” But they were really encouraging of me so I never felt like things would be tougher or I was any less because I was a woman. I just wasn’t afraid to go for anything, be it entering dancing competitions or speaking up when I had an opinion. I always just got stuck in.’
Eager to broaden her horizons, in 2008 she moved to the UK with Violet’s father, a Canadian (whom she won’t name), who was an aspiring comedian. The idea was he’d make his name while she supported them selling advertising space. But she also did the odd stand-up gig, where it was quickly clear that she – not he – had star quality. They split when Violet was just two. ‘He was a lovely person but he was wrong for me from the start,’ Katherine says.
While the relationship was in its death throes, Katherine – to her shame – started seeing another man whom again she won’t name, simply referring to him as The Overlap. He was serially unfaithful, often regaling Katherine with details of these liaisons. He took nude photos and videos of Katherine without her consent. He would berate her for the fact that – even though she barely had enough money to make ends meet – she didn’t have regular manicures and pedicures or wear sexy underwear. She even discovered his computer was packed with files of explicit shots of his ex-girlfriends – which she deleted – as well as Excel spreadsheets listing the hundreds of women he’d slept with.
So why did a woman who, by then, was performing every night to packed venues not show him the door? ‘I really loved him,’ Katherine shrugs. ‘I felt alone and vulnerable and I subscribed to this idea of better the devil you know. The more he hurt me, the more I was determined to make our relationship work so I wouldn’t be humiliated any more. I couldn’t bring myself to cash in my chips when everything was bad and ruining what I’d invested to date. I was already worried about being alone in the future and because I was a single mother I felt like damaged goods. When you’re full of shame you attract people who make you feel more shame.’
At first Katherine confided in her family about her relationship, but she stopped when The Overlap called her a c*** in front of her father and sister (her sister responded by spitting in his face). ‘After that, I didn’t tell anyone, because my family had held me in very high estimation. They thought I was clever and bright, and the more things started to crumble over here, I was always thinking, “Oh s***. How have you got yourself into this situation?” I didn’t want to let everyone down.’ Sometimes she considered throwing in the towel. ‘But I was very lucky I had my daughter, because I had to build a life for her. If I hadn’t I might have just done what was most comfortable and gone home. But I was so angry my life was going the wrong way I felt I had to persist because everyone expected so much of me.’
Gradually, things started to turn a corner. Even though she was still with the horrible Overlap, her stand-up career flourished and she began working more and more on television. ‘It actually was really great that I was in a bad relationship, because he was quite controlling and domineering and I knew that that wasn’t the life for me, so the more that I was humiliated and quieted at home, the stronger my voice became on stage and I became this persona that worked.’
With the help of a therapist, she garnered the courage to leave her boyfriend. ‘I caught him cheating a few more times and then I went on a [work] trip and when I came back I just made the decision: “That’s it. We’re going to move on.” I never contacted him again.’ Having blocked every form of contact, she’s never heard from him since. ‘You can just get rid of people and never think about them or reach out to them ever again. It’s like they’re dead. They’re living on another planet,’ she shrugs coolly.
For the next few years Katherine became a poster girl for single motherhood. Her stage show Glitter Room celebrated her independent status, with quips such as ‘I love men, but I feel they are like dolphins in that they are best enjoyed while on holiday.’
‘I envisaged this life where I just grew into an eccentric older woman with lots of tiny dogs and I was genuinely fine with it. I thought, “Why have I wasted all this time trying to fit into a partnership? It’s not for everyone. She still wanted more children, so much so she began investigating sperm donors, intending to become a single mother of two. But then she got back together with Bobby, 38, to whom she’d lost her virginity at the age of 16 but subsequently broken up with after a drunken row at the school leavers’ prom. They’d lost touch but became friends on social media where she learned Bobby, a retired professional American football player, was now divorced with no children. Two years ago, when she was working in Toronto, they met for a drink and ended up spending the night together. Within a few weeks he visited her in London. Soon after he quit his sales job and, eight months later, they married in Copenhagen (‘It was cheaper and easier’). ‘It’s so clichéd to say but I wasn’t looking for anyone any more, which is how I found him. I was so secure, I didn’t carry around any shame any more and so I no longer attracted narcissistic psychopaths.’
Immediately, they started trying for children but in February 2020, she had a miscarriage at ten weeks. Katherine was open about the couple’s heartbreak, but when she lost a second baby last summer, she kept her loss private. ‘The first time I felt people could find comfort from hearing me talk about it, the second time I really couldn’t see any positives,’ she says. ‘I definitely thought, “I don’t know if I can have any more children because I don’t know how many more times I can have this happen to me.”’ But soon she became pregnant again and this time everything went to plan. Fred was born just a couple of weeks after Katherine revealed to the world she was pregnant. ‘I didn’t want to tempt fate by telling anyone.’
She also worried people would assume she’d be cancelling her upcoming national tour Missus, about her new incarnation as a smug married. Sure enough, when news got out she was bombarded with anxious messages from fans. ‘They wouldn’t have said that if I was Fred’s dad,’ she says. In fact, just ten days after Fred’s birth Katherine was back at work presenting the new ITV2 dating show Ready To Mingle, with Bobby taking the role of stay-at-home father (although Katherine is breastfeeding, meaning it’s hard for her to sleep more than two hours straight at night). ‘I’m Fred’s dad really and work is a lot easier than being home,’ she jokes.
She and Bobby would like more kids, though they worry about how they would divide attention between tiny children. ‘It’s all right ignoring Violet, she’s 12 – she wants to be ignored–but how do you do it with a baby and a toddler?’ she frets.
Would the couple be so happy if – like many of their friends – they’d got engaged at 16 and never left Sarnia? ‘No, we’d be divorced for sure! But this way it’s perfect. Bobby’s already divorced, and I love divorced men – they’ve learned a lesson, they’ve been humbled! After a decade I might have something different to say about being married to him, but so far, so good. He’s the perfect man.’
Interview: Julia Llewellyn Smith
Katherine’s book The Audacity will be published on 30 September by Blink Publishing, price £20. Read an exclusive extract here