Katherine Ryan performing earlier this month
“It didn’t open any doors for me, singing-wise. It definitely slammed every door.”
Katherine Ryan is reflecting on her recent stint on ITV’s The Masked Singer, which saw her making a move away from the stand-up performances and comedy acting she’s best known for, and stepping into the world of live singing.
And she did it all while dressed as a grandmotherly pigeon, who just happened to love all things hip-hop. Naturally.
“I think I might have ruined my chances of ever being in the West End,” she tells HuffPost UK of her appearance on the Bafta-nominated singing show. “If I ever had any chances at all.
“The judges kept saying, ‘well you’re obviously not a singer’, and I was like, ‘girl, I thought I was!’.”
Katherine admits that watching her short stint as Pigeon back was a “fun”, though somewhat “painful”, experience, “because my singing was so impacted by all the other factors”.
One of these “factors” was the fact she was around eight months pregnant with her daughter Fenna when filming on The Masked Singer took place.
She balks at the suggestion this is a sign of her resilience, insisting it’s more an example of her “massively inflated ego”.
Katherine Ryan after being unmasked on ITV's The Masked Singer
“My husband said to me, ‘why do you show up to a game of checkers playing chess?’,” she explains. “And that’s so perfectly put, because I do that all the time. I go, ‘I will not just stand still and sing my song. I need choreographed numbers, I need to do the whole Cheryl Cole video choreography, I need to do it all in a massive pigeon suit, while concealing a pregnancy’.”
“Here’s the thing,” the comedian continues. “Musical theatre was the first thing that I got into when I was a kid, and I’m a fan of The Masked Singer – I watch it with my kids, so I just really wanted to do it.
“And I never let pregnancy – or kids – sideline my desire to do something, I just bring them all along with me. So, I want to do a tour? I just bring the baby on tour. I want to do The Masked Singer? I just happen to be pregnant, and that’s OK, we just get a big costume and that’s it.”
Case in point – eight-week-old Fenna is asleep just next to Katherine for the duration of our video interview, and it quickly emerges that the newborn has a seriously enviable social calendar.
“We take her to restaurants, she’s been to the West End, she’s so great,” Katherine reveals. “We went to Jimmy Carr’s Christmas party with her when she was six days old, and she was great. She was a perfect guest! She’s been everywhere.
“She’s with us now, but I don’t think she’ll cry. She’s the best baby that I’ve had – she’s like an angel. Who knew? Third time’s a charm. I wanted more, but my husband is like ‘quit while we’re ahead, this one is so cool’.”
Of returning to work commitments so soon after giving birth, Katherine says: “I think every freelancer can agree that you just don’t know when a job is going to be your last job, so [you say yes to] everything that you’re offered. And plus, my job is so much fun that it’s difficult for me to say no.
Katherine’s pregnancy meant The Masked Singer’s team had extra factors to consider when it came to putting her outfit together, and the Canadian performer said she was “immediately drawn” to Pigeon as soon as she saw an initial sketch of the costume.
“I loved that she was a nana, I just love an old bird, and I feel like there aren’t enough older women on screen,” she says.
“And I loved her body shape! I liked that it wasn’t sexy or glamorous, because I think that an audience would guess that I would try to be really glamorous. But I also think that a nana can get away with a lot.
“The costume team are so amazing, they just ran with it and made this beautiful, beautiful costume. Luckily, they had experience [with expectant mothers] because Joss Stone was pregnant on the show, although I think she was less pregnant than I was. So, they made room for growth, as it were.”
As Pigeon, Katherine managed to pass by without anyone on the Masked Singer panel working out her identity
After singing and dancing while dressed as an oversized pigeon, it’s clear that Katherine has come a long way since her first UK television appearance just over a decade ago.
In that time, Katherine says she’s felt a positive shift in the UK comedy world.
“I didn’t even notice, at first, that the British comedy scene was so heavily populated by posh white men, of a certain age and a certain perspective,” she says of her early years doing stand-up in the UK. “That was very much something that went under the radar for me.
“I was the only woman – I knew that. But it didn’t occur to me to ask questions like, ‘OK, but we’re all white, and we’re all from socioeconomic backgrounds, and we’re all straight…?’. Those layers of diversity didn’t even occur to me at the beginning. And now I’m very happy to say that they do.”
Katherine continues: “If you are watching telly now, and you notice a show that isn’t diverse, it jumps out to you as being weird. You go, ‘well, that’s not what the UK looks like to me, why is this show like that?’. I think even I have been taught a lesson through time in British comedy to see, ’oh, I thought that it was diverse because I was there! But no, it definitely still wasn’t diverse’.
“But now it is more diverse, and I am peaceful and positive about the fact that it will continue to get more diverse – more genders, more ethnicities, more socioeconomic backgrounds. And maybe I’m even missing something even now, like I was missing something 10 years ago, something else I’m not noticing. [Comedy is] all still pretty ableist, but even that is changing. So it’s moving in the right direction. Maybe not fast enough for some, but even in 10 years I’ve noticed such a change.”
Katherine on The Jonathan Ross Show in December 2022
She also feels that British comedy is now both more “welcoming” and “safer” for female performers than when she started out.
“You work on a show like Taskmaster and it’s all very welcoming and friendly,” she reveals. “And now, when you do gigs, you’re not the only woman on the bill, who has to get on a night bus. Now, we’re like a team. There’s safety in numbers. It can be very lonely when you feel like you’re the odd one out.”
Reflecting on her early years starting out on the comedy circuit, Katherine is insistent she doesn’t “really remember anything” in particular as being harder for her, although she acknowledges that as a young single parent, she had a very different time starting out to many of her peers.
“In retrospect it wasn’t difficult, but it was different,” she says. “I had to think more about how I could get to places, when I could take trains, who would look after Violet. There was a lot of extra calculating for someone else, that I don’t think a lot of other comedians had to think about.
“I didn’t stay out late. I would always just go home early and stay at a local hotel with Violet. At the Stratford festival, she would come with me, when I think she was three years old.
“And I’m friends with the guys, but there were women I knew and trusted, like Roisin Conaty and Sara Pascoe, who would watch her for 10 or 15 minutes while I was on stage. And I would have my friend Harriet Kemsley, who is a very talented comedian, open for me when I started touring, and she would watch Violet when I was on stage.”
“But I don’t think I’d be where I am today if I hadn’t been a single mum,” she’s quick to add. “I always had to account for someone else, but I think that not being the most important person in the room is really grounding and really humbling, so I wouldn’t say that it was hard.”
Katherine performing stand-up in 2012
Although the comedy world has changed en masse since Katherine’s early years on the scene, so, she notes, has her own approach to stand-up and the jokes she’s willing to tell on stage.
″I think we didn’t consider celebrities’ feelings as much as we do today,” She reflects. “There were a lot of jokes I made that I never meant to be nasty, but I think they might be considered nasty today.
“Your awareness changes and you evolve as a comedian as time goes on. I never wanted to hurt feelings. It’s not a funny joke if I’m the only one [laughing]. But if people are included in the joke, and they think it’s funny as well, that’s the only time the joke is funny. If the joke is on someone else, it’s not funny.”
Katherine reveals that she first began rethinking her one-liners about celebrities when they began being printed in the national press.
“I never imagined when I was telling jokes as a television fan, in the basement of a Wetherspoons, that celebrities would ever hear them,” she says. “And when you take a joke that’s said in a pub and you take it out of that context and print it in a national newspaper, it does seem really nasty.”
She recalls: “The first experience where that happened was with my jokes about Cheryl. I told those jokes as a fan, and some of them were quite cutting, but that was the style then.
“And when I saw them in black-and-white, in a printed newspaper, I thought, ‘[gasps] that is so mean. Why would I say that?’. But in the room, with my cheeky little smile, you could tell that I loved Cheryl and it wasn’t meant to be mean, it was meant to be comedy.”
Katherine on stage at Reading Festival in 2021
Katherine notes that she’s never met Cheryl, but did have a paranoid moment about the former Girls Aloud singer while making The Masked Singer.
“I sort of got nervous that Fawn might be Cheryl,” she reveals. “And I knew I’d be singing Fight For This Love, and so that was hard, to sing it on that night and think, ‘am I trying to patch things up with Cheryl, or am I butchering one of her songs right in front of her face?’.”
Still, while Katherine is yet to come face-to-face with Cheryl, that doesn’t mean she’s without her run-ins with celebrities she’s poked fun at in her act.
Back in 2019, Katherine made some jokes about Paul Hollywood while hosting the TV Choice Awards, around the time he was in a relationship with ex-girlfriend Summer Monteys-Fullam.
“Bake Off is back but I can’t talk about it because Paul Hollywood has asked me to sign an NDA. All I can tell is that I love his chunky nuts and his whopping loaf, he gives great penetration on the drizzle and he doesn’t shy away from giving his lady friends a sogging,” she was quoted as saying at the time.
“I’m joking, these are famous Bake Off innuendos, and I’m way too old to date Paul.”
“It was a bit soon for the type of joke, it was a bit of risky joke,” she admits. “But I had to tell it because he’s such a big celebrity and he was up for many awards, and that’s what you do at an awards show, so I sort of felt like it was worth the calculated risk.”
Two years on from her TV Choice Awards jokes, the comic’s time on the celebrity version of Great British Bake Off got off to a bit of an uncomfortable start.
Katherine Ryan on the celebrity version of Bake Off in 2021
“When I saw him on Bake Off he said, ‘you know, I don’t really like jokes about myself, and that was a tough time for me’,” she recalls. “And I was like, ‘oh god…’.
“I was glad he confronted me about it, because he did it in a really nice way, and if someone says to me, ‘that’s not my sense of humour, I don’t like jokes being told about me’, then I will never tell jokes about them again, and that’s fair enough. But it was a bit of a hot moment… and I thought, ‘I’m definitely not going to win Bake Off now’.”
Still, while she names Paul as the “only person who told me that he didn’t like jokes”, Katherine has crossed paths with some other very A-list subjects of her comedy.
“I’ve told jokes about Lena Dunham and Taylor Swift, both of whom I have met,” she says.
Of her meeting with the Grammy-winning singer, Katherine recalls: “I thought, ‘well, I won’t mention it to Taylor Swift, and she won’t remember me’ – but she did remember me! And she has a really good sense of humour about herself.
“She said, ‘oh, I saw your special. I know your jokes about me and don’t worry, I had a laugh, I thought it was really funny’. And that’s the intention when you do a joke like that! [You hope] that the celebrity is famous enough, and assured in their own skin enough, that they go, ‘I know you’re just taking the mick and you didn’t mean any harm’.”
Katherine claims her willingness to embrace the changes the comedy world has undergone comes from her own natural curiosity about different viewpoints.
Katherine Ryan at the National Comedy Awards in February 2023
“I’m that right age where I’m a bit of an old straight white man myself,” she jokes. “But I’m lucky that I’m malleable, and I listen when people tell me something’s wrong.
“I’m curious about other people’s stories, I don’t think that you’re getting the best of comedy if you’re just hearing one perspective. I want to hear from many, many perspectives, that’s what excites me about comedy.”
And she certainly doesn’t agree with certain critics from within the comedy world, who have opined that so-called cancel culture means they “can’t say anything” in their acts in 2023.
“I think there’s lots that you can say!” Katherine counters. “Maybe you can’t say the same things that you were once saying, or maybe you can’t articulate yourself in the same way that you used to, but rather than push against that and get angry, I’m always grateful for that. Who isn’t grateful for evolution?”
“Maybe those people haven’t considered all these other stories being told, and ways of doing comedy, because they’re stuck in ways that it used to work in the 90s, you know?” she suggests. “Nothing stays the same, everything changes and I think you can still say a whole lot! You just have to be considerate.
“And comedy has always been about risks… if you want to tell a joke, and you believe it’s funny that badly, then you have to accept the risk that someone might get offended by it. So, you’d better really believe that joke and really think it’s funny if you’re going to hurt someone, because maybe it’s not worth telling.”
It’s not just Katherine’s personal approach to comedy that’s seen a big change in the past few years, though. She’s also become much more prolific in her native Canada thanks to the prominence of streaming, after years of flying under the radar.
Katherine says she's now being recognised in her native Canada thanks to the rise of streaming services
“I’m a waitress in Canada!” she jokes. “Before streaming services, I wasn’t famous at all in Canada, and I would go home and visit my mum, and people wouldn’t really take notice at all. And now that’s changed a little bit, and I do get recognised if I go to the shops now in Canada. I tour a little bit in the US and Canada, and people buy tickets – but not as many tickets.”
And if you were a little worried about Katherine losing out on her anonymity on her home turf – don’t be.
“To be honest with you, I never want to be anonymous. It’s wonderful being a celebrity!” she enthuses. “People are happy to see you – even if they don’t mean it, they get a picture with you, and they post it, and then call you a twat later on. In the moment they’re really nice to me.
“People send you gifts and free things and invite you to premieres. I love being a celebrity! I became a celebrity on purpose. And if anyone goes, ‘oh no… I miss my private life…’, they’re lying.”
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