‘One of my coping mechanisms was to create a fantasy life, pretending to be an Edwardian aristocrat’


Tom Allen, born in London in 1983, is a stand-up comedian and TV presenter. His comedy career began in 2005 when he was crowned the winner of the talent shows So You Think You’re Funny and the BBC New Comedy Award. Since then he has presented The Apprentice: You’re Fired!, Cooking With the Stars and The Great British Bake Off: An Extra Slice. His documentary My Big Gay Wedding is available on BBC iPlayer.

A friend took this photo from me before the start of the summer holidays. I was 16 and standing in front of the sixth form center with an expression that summed up what I was like at the time: sentimental, but also quite precocious and pretentious.

As a teenager I felt very unusual. I buried the fact that I was gay deep in my psyche, and as a result, I felt uncomfortable in the world. My school experience had been openly homophobic. There was pain and longing in my life, which is all very normal when you’re a teenager, especially when it comes to liking people. The difference was that my friends, most of whom were girls, could talk about it together and possibly tell the person, and maybe it would develop into a relationship. The idea that I could express my feelings to another man – while I was at a secondary school in Bromley – was absolutely unthinkable. I had to ignore it.

One of my coping mechanisms was to create a fantasy life, which largely involved pretending to be an Edwardian aristocrat, John Gielgud, or someone out of a Virginia Woolf novel. That’s possibly what I was trying to emulate in that photo, especially with the hand in the pocket. I also wanted to be Noël Coward. Sometimes I got teased at school for losing my hair, so I did it with Brylcreem pulled back because that’s what Coward did.

The way I styled myself had a feeling of disobedience about it. Even though my father, who was a bus driver, took great pride in his appearance, sometimes I would get dressed and he would say, “No, no, don’t go over the top.” For many parents, it’s important that your child looks and acts a certain way to fit in, and I certainly didn’t do that. It was the late 1990s, an era when young people wore tracksuits and were as scruffy and belligerent as the Gallaghers. I countered that by being smart and being a favorite of the teachers. I saw working hard and excelling as a bit of rebelliousness.

The music room was also a saving grace for me. It was a way to interact with the other gay teens who were too afraid to come out. There we were able to express ourselves in ways that the rest of the school might not understand, such as with niche jokes about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals. I also liked to be funny, but my mawkishness was a bit overbearing. I was far from the class clown, which in my eyes conjured up the image of someone who was a bit jocular. I was never a fan of small talk. I was much more of a fan of non-focused chatting.

While I had nice friends, the homophobia I witnessed at school and in the world in general was so insidious that I absolutely hated myself. Those views seemed to go unchallenged, and it all added to this feeling of disgust. All cultural touchstones on homosexuality were shrouded in tragedy and shame. There was never a happy story about an openly gay character.

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In my early twenties, I started to think that hating myself wouldn’t be better. So I started telling people. Coming out became the defining moment of my life and showed that I had started on the path to self-acceptance. I allowed myself to find a partner and imagine a life where I could be gay and okay.

Of course, internalized homophobia crept in – for a while I thought no one would find me attractive if I was flamboyant. But there were people around me who encouraged that in me; friends who would find fantastic outfits and recommend me to buy new, eccentric clothes. Ultimately, I felt like I was myself. But I still hadn’t told my father. He was the last person to find out, when I was 24. Because he was born in the 1940s and was part of the silent generation, I had assumed that there was no room for emotion, that he wouldn’t be able to connect with what I was thinking. said. When I called him, he was crying. He was so sad that his son was in a situation where he felt like he couldn’t tell him the truth.

It was around the same time I started doing comedy. I was working at the National Youth Theater and my friends Sam and Charlie suggested I try standup as a challenge. First I won So You Think You’re Funny on the outskirts of Edinburgh, and then the BBC New Comedy Award. That was a real “aha” moment; I realized that being on stage was something I could do. Then I started getting booked up for clubs.

I haven’t felt completely at home in comedy for a long time. I always liked Victoria Wood growing up, but when I did shows all I saw was a lot of straight guys making jokes. I didn’t joke – I never really knew what a joke was, or where I fit in. There weren’t many slightly insecure 22 year olds at the track doing bits about their mother’s hostess car.

I found performing at the Edinburgh festival particularly challenging. I would do my show and then go back to where I was staying and hide until I had to do it all over again. It felt a bit like my teenage years: I retreated to the music room. Over time I met other comedians such as Suzie Ruffle, Amy Annette, Nish Kumar, Stu Goldsmith, Josh Widdicombe, James Acaster, Joel Dommett and Rose Matafeo, who invited me to live with them in Edinburgh. Having them around made me feel more confident as a person, which led to me being much more confident on stage.

However, it took approx It took me 13 years to find my way. That must have been quite alarming for my parents, who had no idea how to make a career in TV and showbiz. At first I wore suits – neutral suits, because I was scared. I quickly realized I could be a bit more exuberant and added scarves, brooches and colour. I also shaved my head. I was 24 and starting to feel self-conscious about withdrawing. My father was bald, so I always looked forward to the time when I would have to shave it off. Then it came. It was done. A critic who reviewed my Edinburgh show said my baldness made me look alien. I interpreted that as an alien – which I kind of was. At first I took it to heart, but I learned to embrace it.

I’ve come a long way since that photo was taken. I’m still a bit “Edwardian starched collars” both aesthetically and emotionally. But I now feel a lot of generosity and warmth towards the former version of myself. When I was a teenager, I thought I was disgusting, ugly, and disgusting. Now I look back and realize: God, I was doing well.

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