Lou Sanders admits that she is not good with dates, but she can remember the precise moment when she decided that she had to stop drinking. It was December 2016 and she was getting ready to perform at the Altitude Comedy Festival in Mayrhofen in Austria.
“That was the last straw. I was abusing everyone and people were looking at me being an obstreperous, absolute pig.” This was offstage. She did not perform and flew home unpaid and in disgrace. “I’d worked so hard in comedy I realised I couldn’t destroy it all.”
On January 1 2017 she gave up alcohol and has stuck to her New Year’s resolution ever since, crediting The Easy Way to Stop Drinking by Allen Carr (not the comedian) for helping her see the light. In the process she has turned her career and life around. Her latest show Shame Pig, which comes to Soho Theatre this month, is the ultimate public confession, dealing with her chaotic past and putting it very much behind her. It is also extremely funny.
“It’s about owning your shame,” says Sanders in the cafe at Pinewood Studios, where she is filming her appearance in the forthcoming series of Taskmaster. “I think I was damaged. I reached a few rock bottoms but now I feel happy and grounded and immensely grateful. If you tell someone your secrets you don’t feel so bad. We are all human. We’ve all done despicable things. If you haven’t been amassing embarrassment you’ve been not taking enough risks in life.”
Sanders, who is vague about her age — Google suggests she is 33 — has amassed her fair share of embarrassment. She recounts a number of eye-popping incidents during her performances, such as lobbing bottles or being so drunk at a gig in Wales that she pulled another performer’s trousers down. The audience thought she was playing a character. Surely nobody could genuinely behave as badly as that?
Some who have enjoyed Shame Pig have assumed that it is fictional. Sanders is quick to point out that she doesn’t have that vivid an imagination. “In fact, I left some stuff out. Surely everyone has had drama in their lives.” But maybe not as extreme as some of the alcohol-fuelled sexual encounters she catalogues in the show? She pauses for a perfectly timed comic beat. “Maybe.”
When she looks back on things that she did offstage she acknowledges that things could have been a lot worse. “I’m lucky to be alive. There are definitely a couple of times when I could have died. I used to drink and drive a lot and one time I was jumping from one boat to another in Kingston and nearly went through the propeller. I had to have my stomach pumped after drinking a litre and a bit of vodka in 50 minutes.”
She doesn’t know why she drank so heavily. “I think I was just born a legend,” she quips, before becoming more serious. “I think I was just unhappy. And I think I have a button, I just like to do things you are not supposed to do and see what happens. There is something in me that always wants to press the button. Sleep with the people you are not supposed to sleep with, say the things you are not supposed to say. It’s the way my brain is wired but I’ve finally ironed it out a lot.”
Her childhood, growing up in the seaside town of Broadstairs, was not the most conventional. There are echoes of another former wild child of Thanet, Tracey Emin. Sanders was drinking by the time she was 13 and seriously at it by the time she was 15. In her late teens things were already spiralling out of control. The problem was that she was not prepared to admit it.
“When I was 17 I went to Gibraltar for the sole reason that I was told vodka was £1.50 a bottle. I got a job in a bar called Bianca’s. People were saying I was an alcoholic and I’d say I wasn’t, I was just a young person experiencing life. But in hindsight they were right.”
She drank her way through college — where, she adds, there was “free cocaine” too — and then after various jobs became a stand-up, making her debut inebriated on the top deck of a number 73 bus in front of other passengers. Long unstructured days, the post-gig adrenaline rush, free wine in the dressing room — Sanders took full advantage. “I was bingeing but still quite high-functioning.” She turned up for gigs, did lengthy Edinburgh runs. Friends could see that she had huge potential. If only she could harness it.
Shame Pig marks that moment. Television offers are now coming in and she is becoming increasingly well known. So how does it feel to be moving into the mainstream? “I always thought I was mainstream,” she sniggers, well aware that this is not strictly true. A previous Edinburgh show was called Excuse Me You’re Sitting on My Penis Again, and mainstream comedians don’t cram Mentos and Diet Coke into their mouth in front of an audience just to see what will happen.
Sobriety is definitely preferable. “The benefits keep on coming. My memory was shocking and it is still not good, but it is getting better. I feel like the fog is clearing. It’s nice to wake up and not have a sense of horror about what I might have done.”
Nowadays the only thing she is hooked on is the online version of the children’s game Boggle, which she plays regularly with her Gospel Oak flatmate, fellow comedian Luke McQueen. “The other day I woke Luke up at 7am as it was his turn.” She is still annoying people with her latest addiction, but in a much less obstreperous way.
Lou Sanders: Shame Pig is at Soho Theatre, April 11, 12 & 17 (020 7478 0100, sohotheatre.com). Taskmaster returns to Dave in May.