Sophie Willan: look at the sunny side

Think there’s nothing funny about heroin addiction and sex work? Then you hadn’t reckoned with Boltonian comedian Sophie Willan

Hero image

Comedian Sophie Willan didn’t have the easiest start in life. Her mother was addicted to heroin and at the age of six Willan was taken into foster care. By her early twenties she had experienced homelessness and worked in the sex industry but, rather than allow her past to hold her back, she has found a way to laugh about her experiences.

You’re either doing Ted Talks about why sex work is empowering or you are a victim of society

“I think I’m a naturally funny person. I’m not being big headed, but I am. And I’m from Bolton, so it’s a win-win for me,” she says. “When you grow up in that environment it is normalised. I have a joke: my mum’s a drug addict but we’re relieved she picked drugs because she was a terrible mother.

“She once tried to boil me an egg and it was a disaster. She just stood staring at the pan for 20 minutes and said: ‘How do you know if it’s cooked? It looks the fucking same!’ To me that is normal and brings other people into your world and shows them the funny side of what they would consider to be quite serious issues.

“It’s not as bad as it looks on paper, I suppose. The whole point of why I started doing these campaigns is to humanise welfare recipients and people with mental illness through my own personal experiences and through the people that I know and love, and who are very loveable.”

Willan didn’t set out to become a comedian. She initially pursued acting, and in 2014 decided to build a multi-platform artistic project in response to the growing demonisation of welfare recipients. In 2015 she secured £100,000 in funding to work on Stories of Care, which allowed care leavers and those still in the system to collaborate on a writing project that culminated in a children’s book offering inspiration to children in care.

As Willan worked on Stories of Care she started to chronicle her own experiences and wrote her 2016 stand-up show On Record. The show explored Willan’s experiences of getting her records back from social services and criticises the negative language surrounding social services and mental health. Her new show, Branded, continues the conversation about language, with a focus on labelling.

“I talk about the labels I get as northern, female, working class,” she says. “These are suddenly in fashion now – they’re part of my brand – but a few years ago it wasn’t fashionable at all. There’s a whole conversation about how being working class has become slightly in vogue, but very much in a misappropriated way. Then I talk about being a working-class person and how people love the identity but not necessarily the personality that comes with it.

“Then the conversation goes on to welfare showbiz, so I talk about Iain Duncan Smith. He came up with the bedroom tax and then introduced a point scoring system for disability. Then I do some jokes around that with my mum being a drug addict. I say: ‘How did she prove she wasn’t fit for work? Did she go into the job centre with a spoon?’”

Although Willan describes her stand-up as “quite silly”, it is politically driven. Since her debut she has won a Herald Angel Award and a nomination for the Edinburgh Comedy Award, but amid the hype Willan’s passion remains – she wants to support care leavers and make sure her work reaches them.

“I’m now getting a lot of Radio 4s, who terrify me. They come with their cagoules,” she jokes. “But what I also do is subsidise a number of tickets at each venue for young people who have left care. I work with a women’s group in Manchester who are recovering drug addicts with children in care. I try and target people who have been homeless. I target a lot of groups – young homeless people all get free tickets. That’s why doing an interview with Big Issue North is really important – to try and reach those audiences. I don’t want to preach to a leftie choir. I want to make sure that the people who have the lived experience get to see the work.”

Willan hasn’t seen her mother for a few years but says her decision to write her into her stand-up comes from affection.

“I think she’d be very happy about the way she is expressed in the show. It’s really positive and full of love. And it’s also something I have to do.

“One thing about growing up in care is that you are told by society that you shouldn’t love your parents who fucked you up, but the thing is you know them as human beings who deserve to be loved as well. Heroin addicts get demonised a lot – we’re always blaming. But for me the blaming and shaming is something I really wanted to tackle.

“From the crash in 2008 it suddenly became people on benefits’ fault that we were trillions of pounds in debt. It became a blaming and shaming world, with programmes like Benefits Street and Bring Back The Borstal. I just found myself getting angrier and angrier and I wanted to redress that balance.”

In her early twenties Willan worked in the sex industry until, in her words, she’d earned enough money so that she didn’t have to anymore.

“I talk about why you might go into that as a job in your early twenties and about how again you either become victim, demon or hero. You’re either doing Ted Talks or writing letters in the Guardian about why sex work is sexually empowering, or you are a victim of society. I talk about why for me that was never the case either way. I talk about the positives of it – how economically empowering it is. I’m not saying sex work is great, I’m not saying it’s bad – I’m giving a nuanced perspective, I hope. And there’s a lot of jokes, because there are a lot of jokes in that industry.”

Willan is about to embark on a 33-date tour. Once it wraps up she is planning to work on a new show.

“My first show was a set up with my background. The second show jumps on to political topics like feminism, class, sex work, and of course personal experience is more interesting than standing on stage reading a textbook
to people. My next show is going to be about feminism for the working class. It’s about how certain women in the world have used humour and excess to fight the patriarchy and how do you do it accidentally. You do it without knowing it.”

Sophie Willan’s tour includes dates in Lancaster, Bradford, Selby, Kendal, Salford, Barnsley and Halifax (

Photo: Steve Ullathorne

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to Sophie Willan: look at the sunny side

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.