The phrase ‘I don’t know how she does it’ has been overused when it comes to successful women down the years.
The answer is almost always: family wealth and domestic help. Nevertheless, I feel that it might need to be dusted off for Sara Pascoe, 42, because I really don’t know how shedoes it.
It is true – the comedian, author, host of The Great British Sewing Bee, presenter of Last Woman on Earth and ubiquitous panel-show presence is looking a little frazzled when we meet at the offices of her publisher, the impressively highbrow Faber.
I can’t picture Sally Rooney or Rachel Cusk turning up for an interview in a SuperTed T-shirt.
But I can’t help thinking that she didn’t have to turn up at all. Pascoe is seven months pregnant, with the remains of a chest infection plus a poorly 17-month-old at home – and in case you haven’t spent much time around 17-month-olds recently, they are nightmares.
‘I didn’t know how terrible having a toddler would be!’ she says.
‘I hope it doesn’t get harder than this. No sense of safety, terrible instincts, destructive, loud, so messy. And there is no respite.’
It doesn’t help that her husband, fellow comedian Steen Raskopoulos, 36, is 10,000 miles away in his home country Australia, filming a remake of The Office.
He scored the ‘Tim’ role – ‘He’s living his dream! I’m soooo happy for him!’ – so there was no question of saying no, even if it meant him spending four-and-a-half months Down Under. But what’s a little extra childcare when you have stand-up dates, TV appearances and – oh yes – a debut novel to promote?
It’s called Weirdo, and Pascoe wrote it mostly in between scenes on the set of The Great British Sewing Bee.
‘I had to fly Steen’s mum over, that’s how bad things got,’ she says. Oh, and how’s that going? ‘Nothing you can print!’
So, frankly, I’m impressed that Pascoe can string a sentence together – let alone a fair few funny, intelligent ones.
But if you’re familiar with her stand-up (and I can recommend the routine about men paying the bill on dates), or her impressively brainy nonfiction books – Animal, a science-infused memoir that inspired the BBC2 special Sara Pascoe vs Monogamy, and The Sunday Times bestseller Sex Power Money – you’ll know that the blonde from Essex is not someone to be underestimated.
It turns out that writing a novel was an ambition long before she took her first steps as a comedian.
Pascoe still has all her teenage diaries and in one of them she vowed to spend her 40s as a novelist before – you have been warned – turning to politics in her 50s. But as she makes clear, this wasn’t so much entitlement as naivety.
Pascoe grew up in Romford, Essex, with her mum, Gail, and two younger sisters. Her father Derek moved to Australia when she was seven to pursue a musical career and the family was often short of money and what a sociologist might call ‘cultural capital’.
Nevertheless, Pascoe hoovered up every book she could lay her hands on and always had bulletproof confidence in her own intelligence. It is hard, she says, to overstate quite how pretentious she used to be.
‘I hadn’t met anyone who had read as many books as me,’ she says.
‘I got such pleasure from reading. Most people think of reading as a chore. They think: aren’t you good for not watching Netflix. But you’re lucky if your brain enjoys reading like that.’
When she went on to study English at Sussex – the first person in her family to go to university – she realised she was better-read than her privately educated peers too.
‘They had grown up around Radio 4 so they knew how all these names were pronounced, but they’d never actually read anything.’
Did she feel any need to dispel any Essex girl stereotypes? ‘Oh no. I thought I was fascinating.’
But while she has been critical of certain aspects of Essex culture in the past, she is happy that it kept her grounded.
‘What I love about Essex is that no one ever thinks that anyone else is cleverer than them. They’re, like, “I don’t give a sh*t who Albert Camus is.” There’s such a value placed on common sense and practicality. It’s quite refreshing.’
There’s a lot of Essex in Weirdo and also a lot of Camus – the French existentialist philosopher whom she obsessed over in her early 20s.
Our extremely unreliable narrator is Sophie, who works in a pub in Essex after a spell as a tour guide in London (much like Pascoe).
Fond of a drink, she is a disaster when it comes to money and even worse when it comes to men.
One moment, Sophie is pondering the nature of existence, the next she is experiencing sex so bad, I worry that anyone who reads the book will never have intercourse again.
Pascoe clearly had a blast writing it. ‘It felt like infant school again. It was really fun!’ And the birth of her son Theodore didn’t deter her.
‘A thing that I had learnt from stand-up and from my previous books was that even if you just do 40 minutes a day, it will eventually get done.’
For all Pascoe’s jokes about the pressures of parenthood, it is not something that she takes for granted.
Both of her children were conceived via IVF. She has spoken openly about her struggles to conceive after she met Raskopoulos in her late 30s and her pain at seeing friends do so easily.
She also saw a therapist specialising in baby loss after she suffered a miscarriage. By 2020, she and Raskopoulos had resigned themselves to having no children but then, when all their work was cancelled during the pandemic, they decided to try IVF. And it worked.
Twice over: the second pregnancy came from a frozen embryo from the first round. ‘My mum calls me a medical miracle,’ she says. ‘I’m aware of how lucky I am. But still complaining all the time…’
Pascoe posted regular updates on Instagram about her infertility and describes herself as ‘evangelical’ about IVF. ‘When we went through it, I felt really empowered. It didn’t feel like we were desperate, sad people. I’ve never been embarrassed about anything – but I definitely didn’t feel embarrassed about being infertile or going through IVF.
‘I felt privileged to be able to afford it and to have a husband who wanted to have biological children.’
She now receives messages regularly from people who are going through similar experiences, which she welcomes.
I DIDN’T FEEL EMBARRASSED ABOUT BEING INFERTILE OR GOING THROUGH IVF. I FELT PRIVILEGED
‘Everything else that people message me about annoys me apart from fertility stuff. I am happy to talk to people about it because that’s what people did for me.’
And she is especially grateful that the pandemic prompted them to try.
‘When you’re infertile, you can sometimes think it’s a sign that maybe you wouldn’t be good parents. “Our lives are good in other ways… Maybe we don’t need to?” But I’m glad we had the push. I have children that I wouldn’t have had.’
For all the trials of parenthood, she has found it a relief to shift her focus on to someone else.
‘I think it’s almost a universal thing. They call it the generativity stage in psychology. Something happens when you need to do things for other people.
‘You genuinely want to make someone else’s dinner, even clean up their mess. There is sometimes a kind of pleasure in toil and drudgery if you’re doing it for someone else.’
She has reassessed both of her parents in the light of becoming a mother herself – her mother had her when she was 19, and their experiences have been almost incomparable in terms of finance, security, experience, you name it. ‘There’s some retrospective forgiveness that happens. You look back and think, wow, you weren’t a terrible person. That’s just parenting.’
She sees her father in a new light, too. ‘My dad is one of the most interesting people in my life, so when I do see him I always feel lucky.’
She went to great efforts to repair their relationship in her early 20s, including flying to Australia to see him (Sophie makes a similar trip in Weirdo). In her teenage years, she says, she carried around a lot of rejection. But now that she is pursuing a creative career of her own, she feels she can understand him better.
‘My dad would have been miserable if he was stuck with family life. So he went to make jazz. He now plays his saxophone for nine or ten hours every day. That’s what he wanted to do – and that’s what he does. I now respect and understand that. And I realise it was a huge influence on me going into a creative field.’
I expect parenthood will make it into Pascoe’s comedy before long, like almost every other aspect of her life has – notably the breakdown of her previous relationship with fellow comedian John Robins, which both of them turned into shows (Pascoe’s LadsLadsLads was filmed as a BBC special).
Netflix or novel?
Bluey or Peppa?
He won’t watch anything except Paddington
Early bird or night owl?
I’m a night owl whose son gets up at 5am
Dog or cat?
Dog. But both
Cocktail or mocktail?
Cocktail. When I’m not pregnant
Barbie or Oppenheimer?
I am so disengaged from culture. I’m sorry, but obviously Barbie
Starter or dessert?
Live music or live comedy?
Comedy. I don’t like music. I just don’t like the sound of it. It’s noisy. I don’t trust it. David Mitchell doesn’t like music either
She hasn’t seen Robins’s show, which won the 2017 Edinburgh comedy award, but she is fine with it – whatever he said. ‘A stand-up understands that what you’re saying isn’t the truth, it’s a version of the truth that you’ve made funnier by lying a bit,’ she says.
Such is the pact that comedians make. ‘Comedy is a very unethical place. It’s sort of what you signed up for. You can always say it’s a joke.’
She proves even-handed about the state of comedy in general, scorning the popular idea that you can’t say anything any more. ‘It’s the exact opposite, actually,’ she says.
‘Lots of successful comedians are successful because they’ve said horrible things about trans people. You can get a Netflix special for doing that now. You say some outrageous, nasty, non-empathetic things. You create a furore. Then you say: “I’m just speaking my mind!” Some people disagree with you and you say: “I’m being shut down!” It’s a phenomenon.’
When I ask about the allegations that her fellow comedian, Katherine Ryan, has made about a prominent ‘sexual predator’ working in entertainment, Pascoe adds that there is more than one such figure.
But she says they are not thriving. They are all ‘terrified. It’s a matter of time,’ she says.
‘They haven’t been named outright yet because no one wants it to happen like that. It’s not good for the victims and survivors or for the industry. But they’re not thriving. They’re scared.’
Nevertheless, she stresses that the vast majority of people working in comedy are decent people – even going to some lengths to defend Jimmy Carr, whose comedy she clearly has ‘issues’ with (he was condemned last year for making a racist joke about gypsies on his Netflix special His Dark Material).
‘He is a fascinating person,’ she says. ‘You won’t find a female comedian who doesn’t have an example of Jimmy helping them. There are people who do lip service and people who actually help.’
It was Carr, she says, who encouraged her to interview sex workers while she was researching material on sex as opposed to simply talking on their behalf. ‘
He said: “Use your platform for good.” No one would ever think that’s what Jimmy Carr is talking about backstage at 8 Out of 10 Cats. But then again, there’s no comedian – and certainly no male comedian – where I’d say: “They’re absolutely a good guy and I agree with all their comedy.’’’
Pascoe says she is content with her level of success. ‘Mostly strangers don’t want to talk to me. And if they do, it’s to chat about Sewing Bee.’ And she thinks that contentment comes from her success being hard-earned. She is grateful now that she went through her phases of precociousness and pretension, rejection and insecurity, and pushed through them.
‘If you go through something terrible and you get over it, you think, “Well, nothing can be worse than that.” It gives you a fearlessness. It’s scary when you’ve never been hurt and it’s all to come.’
She is mindful of how different this will be for her own children. ‘I’m not a multimillionaire but I’m the kind of rich that most families would be happy with.’
She has resolved not to hand money down to her children, though, as she doesn’t want to ‘kick the ladder away. The safety of money is huge – no one should go hungry,’ she says.
‘But the bit of you that is able to grow – the bit that asks: “What do I want? What do I make for myself? What do I want my life to be?” – that’s where happiness comes from.’
- Pascoe’s debut novel, Weirdo, will be published by Faber on 14 September, £14.99*