Destiny's Child: An interview with Luisa Omielan

Luisa Omielan comes back to the Fringe with a book and two dates at the EICC. Is she still the same 'free festival girl?'

Feature by Ben Venables | 01 Jul 2016
  • Luisa Omielan

"We're the same age," says Luisa Omielan, about her hero Beyoncé, "but when she was 21 she was selling out arenas, while I was drinking Bacardi Breezers in Wetherspoons."

Fast-forward to their late 20s: Beyoncé was in control of her international fame, but Omielan was back at her mum's trying to unclog shit from a toilet with a stick. But it was then that Omielan had a change of attitude. Even beside this universal throne, she could ask, 'What would Beyoncé do?'

"As a role model I think she is superb. I still think, 'What would Beyoncé do?' because it helps me have that confidence in myself. In February, I played the Kentish Town Forum – I hired that myself. It's a 600-seater and I sold it out."

Back in 2012, Omielan arrived at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to perform her debut hour What Would Beyoncé Do?!. Now she returns to the Fringe with the same show – only this time she isn't performing in an upstairs pub closet, but to a room with 20 times the capacity. Although this is the WWBD's fourth 'victory lap' in Edinburgh, having run for five years, 2016 is special for Omielan as the show now has a companion book. (And that's without mentioning Omielan's hit sequel show Am I Right Ladies?!, which also returns for its third Fringe outing since it powered into the Counting House Ballroom in 2014.)

What Would Beyoncé Do?! – the book

Omielan wasn't initially keen on adapting her rapturous debut from the stage into a book. A publisher accosted her after a gig and tried to persuade her that it would help What Would Beyoncé Do?! reach more people. "I was all, 'No, thank you, I have no intention of writing a book,'" she says. "But then she said, 'We would pay you,' and offered £3,000. So, I was like, 'Okay.'"

It's said with humour, but Omielan isn't the type of artist to become shy when she talks of money and ambition.

"I'm just more honest about it," she says. "I've always wanted to be rich and famous, but I think some comics are scared of what everybody thinks – or how they come across. It's exhausting, because anyone with half a brain... If I just wanted to be rich and famous I could've done Big Brother 12 years ago, or had sex with a footballer and sold the story." Instead, Omielan's ambition is of the kind that simply desires to make a living through her work: "I want to be able to buy my own flat off the back of doing my own shows, I want to be able to stop renting and afford my lifestyle. It's a long slog and it's hard. I'm still renting, I don't have any savings – and I've had some stupidly successful shows."

Despite symbolising the Fringe Dream, of becoming an overnight star, Omielan can add some home truths about the festival's economics: "Last year at Edinburgh my ticket sales generated £15,000 and I got paid £1,800 – and I was lucky. Many people don't get that. It's like that for the rest of the year too. I've generated a lot of money for ticket sales, but I'll be lucky if I have a tenth of those sales."

That ambition is also driven by a relentless work-ethic: "I put on the show, and I previewed it and I previewed it and I previewed it: I was like a one-woman machine. I think I'm still that now – I still feel like the same free festival girl, it's just things are on a bigger scale. I still have to work just as hard as I did then. Everything I've achieved has been off the back of word-of-mouth."

(Continues below)

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Writing has allowed Omielan the space to cover both the live show and the whole Fringe experience: "The book is the story of the show, but it's also the story of before and after. It's a story of how I got previews, gigging and about the people who said no. It's the story of Edinburgh."

On the parts which overlap with the stage version, she adds, "I'm a bit nervous because it's not like live shows. With live shows it's easy to say things in an intonation that people understand, but it's hard to get that same intonation on the page across."

"However, I'm sure it won't be for everybody. I talk a lot about the industry and Edinburgh; how it can be quite daunting and stressful. But overall I think the moral of the story is: just do it anyway. It's always going to be hard, but the reward is having a show that gives you a feeling you can't replicate anywhere else in the world."

Luisa Omielan on Fringe success

What Edinburgh has done for Omielan doesn't happen for many, we suggest. "No, it doesn't... The main problem is that the industry has too much clout over it, and they fiddle and they meddle, and everything they want their acts to have, I had to get organically. The true spirit of the Fringe is where audiences come and see art and experience something, and without the Fringe they may not have otherwise had access to that art – and the artist wouldn't have the opportunity."

She also remembers that four years ago, free shows were perceived to be of inferior quality when compared to their paid counterparts: "Many agents were snobby about it, whereas now many want to put acts on at the Free Fringe." For Omielan there was no plan to storm the city with an arsenal of agents, promotors and propagandists. "No-one was trying to get me gigs," she says. "Edinburgh seemed the only place where I could play and perform – where I could just book it and do it. When it came to my show there was no other option but to do it on the free festival. And, I thought, 'If I can get a nice couple of reviews and some audiences, I'll be delighted.' That was my game plan.

"I was so pleased that I did the free festival and proved that you don't need a big team behind you," she says. "What you need it is a lot of hard work and a really good show that will do its thing."

Her performances today retain many of the features she had to adopt in a small and free festival venue. "All the little cute things that happen in the show came from that. For example, I always start the show on stage with music playing as the audience comes into the venue, and that came from the free festival because I had to set up the room, put the music on and clear the glasses. Now I don't do a show unless I'm on stage when the audience come in. I love that it's been very grassroots and that it's the audience that have built it. No one has made me, it's not because I've been on TV that I've got this big room.

"It's an Edinburgh show," she adds, and because it largely grew on audience recommendation, "I think it was built in the truest form."

Recorded at the Melbourne Comedy Festival, where Omielan has twice been nominated for Barry Awards, her thigh gap routine has now amassed over 36 million views on Facebook alone

Luisa Omielan: What Would Beyoncé Do?!, out 14 Jul, published by Century

Fringe shows:
Luisa Omielan: What Would Beyoncé Do?!, EICC (Pentland auditorium), 26 Aug, 9.30pm, £17.50
Luisa Omielan: Am I Right Ladies?!, EICC (Pentland auditorium), 27 Aug, 9.30pm, £17.50