The 1990s were a different time all together – I mean, they weren’t that different, but that’s the sort of thing people say, isn’t it, when they’re about to say something dodgy?!
Well, in 1990, Graham Norton – gay icon, beloved chat show host, radio show host, and host of the Eurovision Song Contest – had a standup drag routine called ‘Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s Farewell Tour’ that he took to the Edinburgh fringe and built a reputation from which that veered towards the superstar you recognise today.
“It was me dressed up … and sort of doing Mother Teresa as an Irish housewife” Graham told The Guardian in 2005. I guess one question for modern sensibilities might be “well, how dressed up? Was there, say, any face paint involved?”
I’ve had a good root around the internet and I can find no mention of the act being performed in brown face, in case you’re worried. “Tea towel-clad” is the best description of his ‘Mother Teresa’ costume I could find. I’m unsure where that stands on the ‘offensive’ spectrum. Norton’s version also had an Irish accent if that helps…
Nevertheless, Norton’s drag act is surrounded by intriguing tales.
In 1990, Norton performed his MT drag act at the ever-progressive Dublin Project Arts Centre on Essex Street, Temple Bar. The day after his performance, and this is a sign of how different things were, a Catholic priest from the neighbourhood insisted the venue undergo an exorcism for fear that Graham had left evil gay spirits in there. I shit you not.
Clearly that priest didn’t think Mother Teresa’s spirit was strong enough to counteract the spirit of gayness – and in a sense he was right. Look at where the gay community is today and look at where Mother Teresa is. Need I say more?
Talking to The Hindustan Times in 2012 in one of my favourite interviews of all time (which you can read here), Norton exclaims that “Mother Teresa was certainly pivotal to my success”. (My favourite bit of the interview are the exit lines from the writer: He is known for his camp demeanour, innuendo-laden dialogues and flamboyant presentation style.
He is openly gay.)
It is unclear just how pivotal to Norton’s success Mother Teresa actually was, but she studied English at Dublin and was a bit of a hero over there, what with all the religious business and the charity stuff.
Further oddity arose around the act in 1992: performing at the Pleasance theatre as part of the fringe that year, Norton made the Scottish press as Scottish Television’s religious affairs department mistook Norton for an actual representative of the actual Mother Teresa.
What they must’ve thought was, Mother Teresa – being the megalomaniac that she was – always insisted that all of her people dress like her, even when they are performing comedy at a comedy festival, and change her accent to Irish.
Unfortunately, no footage of Graham Norton performing as Mother Teresa exists (not on YouTube anyway), and neither do any pictures. So I have taken the liberty of knocking up some shots of what it would have probably looked like…
I for one would very much like to see Graham back at the fringe dragged up as Mother Teresa – as long as there is no sign of any identity which isn’t his own of course. So not in drag or as Mother Teresa. Ah, forget it!