Nothing in the world like this Dame

'Questions please, possums!"

Dame Edna Everage, on her self-proclaimed "Royal Tour" of the United States, has called us to order.

Standing more than six feet tall, dressed in a red-sequined gown, her trademark rhinestone glasses, and regally purple wig, Dame Edna makes a stunning sight at a meeting with the press.

She wants to talk about her one-woman show, which is so hard to categorize that last year it received a special Tony Award on Broadway as simply "a Live Theatrical Event."

Dame Edna, we learn, was once an ordinary housewife in Melbourne, Australia, but has evolved into, according to her website, a "megastar, investigative journalist, social anthropologist, children's book illustrator, diseuse, chanteuse, swami, monstre sacre, polymath, adviser to British royalty, grief counselor, spin doctor, and icon. [She] is arguably the most popular and gifted woman in the world today."

Oh, and one more thing: She's a character dreamed up by Australian actor Barry Humphries.

Humphries is part of the long theatrical tradition of men taking on women's roles that harks back to Shakespeare and before; he's been playing the role of Edna on and off for more than 40 years.

Not that Dame Edna will ever admit to that. To her, Humphries is her incompetent and annoying manager who she's stuck with in a long-term contract.

No matter. Dame Edna has much more important work to do, bringing her wisdom and advice to her audiences, which she refers to affectionately as her "possums."

The grand Dame is known for dispensing wickedly funny, politically incorrect put-downs in her plummy Australian accent of any audience members foolish enough to accept her invitation to come up on stage. Her motto is "I'm sorry, but I care."

Her wit can also be dry as a bone and oh-so-subtle. "I've been doing some touring of the United States," she says, punching out her sentences, Julia Child fashion, "which is one of the best-kept secrets in the world. So few of us anywhere else know anything about it. Of course, it appears in the background of a lot of movies. It's usually on Page 7 of the Melbourne papers. ... And what I've discovered, I've liked."

Are there any special formalities required in addressing her, she is asked? "You don't need to observe any protocol with me, darlings." Pause for comic effect. "All you need to do is curtsy ... and that's about all, really.... Can you do a little bob?"

How did she gain her fame? "When I was very young, I had three small children, perhaps a little earlier than I should have," she explains. "Some friends of mine sent a photograph of me in a swimsuit to the Melbourne paper - it's called the 'Morning Murdoch.' This paper was running a competition called 'The Lovely Mother Contest.' And I won! I didn't even know I'd been entered by those gals!... The prize was a lovely semi-obstructed view of the stage at a production of 'My Fair Lady' [in London].... And I saw half of 'My Fair Lady.' I saw the Rex Harrison half...." She reminds us that the musical is a story of a little flower girl who becomes a duchess.

"It inspired me. I thought, 'I'm not just a housewife! There's more in life for me.' It was an epiphany. It was a road to Damascus experience."

The one-liners begin to roll as she comments on her famous friends around the world:

"Margaret Thatcher, I groomed her. She was bossy, rather provincial, dowdy-looking. I turned her into a beautifully dressed bossy individual."

"Barbara Bush sought my help, and I personally eased that woman out of polyester."

"I'm very, very proud of what I do," she says, adding with a delicious irony, "What you see is what you get. You get a very nice person on stage sharing their experience, hope, and strength with the little unfortunate possums in the audience."

And her insults? "It's a proven fact, of course, that intense embarrassment is very close to pleasure," she says. "People come out [from my show] grateful."

Dame Edna is in Boston (where Barry Humphries has been invited to speak at Harvard University) until March 18. 'The Royal Tour' then moves to Detroit (March 20-25); Chicago (March 2-April 8); Phoenix (April 17-29); Seattle (May 1-13); Los Angeles (May 15-27); Houston (June 5-10); and Denver (June 13-July 2).

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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