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Kathy Najimy on feminist comedy and skirt-lifting

Arts & Culture

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The title of Kathy Najimy’s upcoming one-woman Adelaide Cabaret Festival show might sound like a not-so-subtle come-on, but the story behind Lift Up Your Skirt is a little more involved.

“I’d been doing this thing for years where I’d just lift up my shirt,” Najimy says.

“If I was playing a game and won, I’d lift up my shirt and run through the house. Or if I was trying to punctuate something; in fact at a march in Washington about six or seven years ago, at the end of my speech, I lifted up my shirt and then realised it was on CNN, which was pretty hilarious.”

The 57-year-old actress and comedian recently realised, reflecting on her life, that although she’d constantly been lifting up her shirt, she’d never lifted up her skirt.

“It’s called Lift Up Your Skirt because it’s about examining things that are, not necessarily serious or intense, but those things I’ve managed to avoid. The whole principle of that was interesting to me. People taking what they think is worthy about themselves and magnifying it; whether they think they’re funny or pretty or smart, and in that magnifying action, what they’re ignoring.”

While Australian audiences know Najimy best from her film and television roles, including parts in Veronica’s Closet, Sister Act and Hocus Pocus, she had her first major breakthrough with an Off-Broadway hit, The Kathy and Mo Show, a double comedy act with Mo Gaffney. Billed as a “feminist comedy” at Najimy and Gaffney’s insistence, it spawned two HBO specials.

“It’s interesting, because people say, ‘Oh my gosh, feminist and comedy are an oxymoron’, like ‘cuddly’ and ‘tarantula’. But the women I grew up with in the business were hilarious, and Mo Gaffney is hilarious.”

In Lift Up Your Skirt, Najimy pays tribute to one of her favourite female comedians, Bette Midler. Najimy has idolised Midler for most of her life and followed her around America in the late 1970s, sneaking backstage at her concerts. In 1993, the pair worked together alongside Sarah Jessica Parker in Disney’s Hocus Pocus.

“It wasn’t really about what she was performing, it was how she did it. It was the spirit of her defining herself as different from everyone else and that being okay. So I really took from her her courage and her willingness to build a path that was unique to her. I don’t really act like her or perform like her at all. I was more inspired by how she paved her own way.”

Najimy found her own career path, building herself into one of Hollywood’s most enduringly successful and unique comedic actresses. Even those who aren’t intimately familiar with her career immediately recognise her face. In recent years, she’s moved into some behind-the-scenes roles, directing, writing and producing, and now she’s returning to the stage.

Lift Up Your Skirt, although intended to be a raucous comedy, deals with some of the broader political themes her work with Gaffney touched on.

It’s much easier to talk about political things when you’re in character as a 75-year-old woman from Long Island.

Australian audiences will be the first in the world to see the new show, which is still a work-in-progress. Najimy says she’s still unsure as to why she’s been booked as the headliner for Adelaide Cabaret Festival as she doesn’t really sing, and the show is mostly stand-up and character-based pieces, with very little music.

“I’m toying around with which pieces I’ll put in. I might do one particular piece, especially since you don’t have marriage equality. It’s a character from The Kathy and Mo Show, and it’s her take on it. And it’s much easier to talk about political things when you’re in character as a 75-year-old woman from Long Island. It’s a little more palatable than me doing a key-note speech about it. And a lot funnier.”

Najimy has long been outspoken on issues of sexism, racism, homophobia, animal rights, body image and human rights. She made headlines in 2006 when she criticised Heidi Klum for using the term “plus-sized” in a derogatory way. In the same year, she threw her support behind pro-choice lobbyists when she signed a petition declaring that she’d had an abortion in 1975. Being at the centre of the entertainment industry for so many years, she’s seen the way that Hollywood has failed to promote women.

“It’s not just about how women aren’t hired, and chosen to create and act, but also when they do get hired, in what capacity they’re used. John Goodman; great actor; he will play anything from the love interest to the dad, to the villain, to the musician, to the killer, and very little is made of his weight, whereas similar woman are always the best friend or the nagging mum or the horny girl in the club. We know that women of all sizes are all different things.”

Although her career has been touched by much of that which Najimy fights against, she considers herself lucky to have not been “aged out”, as she says happens to so many actresses working in Hollywood.

“I think I’ve had a long career because I don’t care that much. Acting isn’t my life and being famous doesn’t hold much weight to me. I’ve been able to try to make a living and choose projects that are interesting to me. I’ve always been in that position, but as you grow older you don’t want to be in situations that aren’t interesting to you; life is too short.”

Kathy Najimy: Lift Up Your Skirt is at Festival Theatre on June 19 as part of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, which runs from June 6-21.

This article was first published on The Daily Review.

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