Josh Howie converts his life into laughter
Brought up Buddhist by his mother, Lynne Franks, PR guru and model for Edina in Ab Fab, Howie has turned to Judaism and comedy
Josh Howie is telling me what it felt like to be reborn. Not in a letting-Jesus-into-your-life sense but in a new-age, feel-the-karma, regressing-back-to-the-womb sense.
The event took place at midnight in a hot tub “for added authenticity”. Howie, then 18, had been badgered into it by his mother, Lynne Franks, the PR guru and the inspiration for Edina Monsoon in Jennifer Saunders? hit television series Absolutely Fabulous. Things took a turn for the absolutely agonizing when Franks decided she, too, wanted to undergo rebirth and insisted on joining her son, naked, in the tub while a nude “midwife” jigged around them.
“I questioned it but there was a fair bit of blackmail and there weren’t any other adults around to confirm it was as mad as I thought it was,” says Howie, sipping a cranberry juice in the bar of the Scotsman hotel in Edinburgh. “I only agreed to it because she kept hassling me during Star Trek: The Next Generation. It was the most excruciating experience of my life.”
It’s not as if he has any shortage of knuckle-chewing memories from which to choose. Being dragged off to live with native Americans before being abandoned in the wilderness for 24 hours to discover his “animal spirit” must come a close second. Being forced against his will to become a Buddhist is another. Believing that his mother secretly wished he were gay must also be a contender.
Howie has brought his new, one-hour stand-up show, Chosen, to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Not surprisingly, it’s based on his life story. While he doesn’t mention Franks in the show and has, until now, not spoken publicly about her, anybody who has watched an episode of Ab Fab cannot fail to make the connection. As the straight-laced teenage child of a flamboyantly hippy mother, Howie was the inspiration for Saffy, Edina Monsoon’s serious- minded daughter.
“I was the Saffy character,” Howie admits. “I was very cynical, always dissing the hippies hanging around and just being a grumpy teenager. Mum and my sister Jessica would be off at Grateful Dead concerts doing their thing and I was the voice of reason. There was no question that I saw myself in Saffy.”
Howie has introduced photographs of himself as a child into his act in an effort to convince his audience he hasn’t fabricated his stories. “People just didn’t believe it so I’ve had to bring in a projector,” he says. “This is me training to be a rabbi. This is me living with the American Indians. This is me as a Buddhist. Even when they see the photographic evidence, they still think I’ve made it all up but I don’t have that good an imagination.”
Saunders quickly discovered that when it comes to comic material Franks provides an embarrassment of riches. Howie was 15 when Ab Fab came out. The show took satire to a new level. Edina, Patsy and Bubble were monstrous stereotypes. Was he aware at the time that it was him and his mother who were being portrayed?
“God, yes,” he says. “It was quite painful to watch. It was like watching a documentary. The kitchen was the same. My grandma is just like the June Whitfield character, very prim and proper and slightly oblivious to what was going on. My mum’s secretary looked exactly like Bubble. Patsy was an amalgamation of a number of mum’s friends. It was pretty trippy to see our lives up there on the screen.”
Initially the series caused Franks a great deal of heartache and pretty much ended her friendship with Saunders who had observed the family in anthropological detail while on holiday with them.
“About a year before the series came out, one of mum’s friends gave her a copy of the script,” says Howie.
“Mum was upset because one of her best friends had taken the piss out of her in a television show. I was upset for her because I’m protective of my mum. I can diss her but I don’t want anyone else doing so. But when it came out it was very funny and we loved it. Mum embraced it and used it for her own ends. But there was a bit of betrayal there.”
Howie’s sister, Jessica, has followed her mother down the flower-strewn road and has taken to the new-age lifestyle like a hippy to hash cookies. Howie, however, was more resistant.
It didn’t occur to him at the time that his childhood was in any way odd. Franks is a woman for whom a boundary is merely a cricketing term. Home was a constant melee of the rich, famous and eccentric. It wasn’t unusual to find Jasper Conran, John Paul Gaultier, Donna Karan, Katharine Hamnett, Ruby Wax, Lenny Henry, Sinead O’Connor or Sting in the chanting room.
Despite the constant quest for spiritual experiences, Franks embodied the excess of the 1980s. She was the confluence of materialism and meditation, the sort of women who would feng shui her Versace handbag. She is, according to one former employee, a mixture of Margaret Thatcher and Cat Stevens. It was a life of extreme opulence. As well as visiting cranks and celebrities, her London mansion housed a maid, a macrobiotic cook-cum-nanny and a chauffeur. There was also a luxurious pad in Mallorca, which has just gone on the market for more than ?4.5m.
“All of her clients were also her friends,” says Howie. “They all came on holiday so it was quite an adult environment. But I didn’t really know who any of these people were, apart from maybe Seal, who used to play tennis with us. It’s very hard when your parents are high-achievers, and my mum is a very dominant personality. It just becomes normal and you suppress yourself. If you look at the photos, there are all these glamorous events and holidays and I’m always the one reading in the corner, hiding away.”
The really nutty stuff started when he was about 7 years old. Franks, the self-made daughter of a butcher, arrived home one day and announced that henceforth the children were to be Buddhists.
When Howie stubbed his toe, his mother told him he must have done something wicked in a previous life.
“It’s easy to become a Buddhist,” says Howie. “You learn the chant and you become one straight away.”
Franks chanted for an hour in the morning and an hour at night. The children were expected to join her. Before long, all her staff were chanting, as were half her friends.
“You’d chant for whatever you wanted,” says Howie. “It was all very materialistic. All the people at the company were chanting for promotions. Mum would chant for her clients or to win work. I’d chant for a bike. If I didn’t get a bike, I’d say: ‘Mum, I don’t think this chanting thing works,’ and the next day I’d get a bike. There was five minutes at the end of the hour when we’d chant for world peace. That was meant to make up for the materialism but I really resented the world peace stuff because it ate into my bike-chanting time.”
The Buddhism lasted until Howie was 16 then it was over as quickly as it had started. Franks’ marriage to Paul Howie, an Australian fashion designer, was breaking down. At the same time, she sold her company for a reputed ?6m and started a 10-year voyage of personal discovery, accompanied at various points by a poet, a Rastafarian drummer, a 22-year-old fire-eater and a self-help guru. “I went though a second puberty alongside my children,” was how she put it.
“We lived with North American Indians for a time,” says Howie. “I made my own drum and built my own sweat lodge. The culmination was the ‘vision quest’ where we were each abandoned for 24 hours with no food or water in the wilderness and told to find our animal spirit.”
He returned to school as “Blackhawk”, much to the amusement of his classmates. There followed a hip-hop phase, in which he decided he was black, and an inevitable stint in therapy.
“When I was 16 my mum sent me to a psychic therapist,” he says. “She paid for it, which I took as an admission of guilt.”
He didn’t dissent, he says, because he was “born to follow orders” and capitulating to the latest fad was a way of getting his peripatetic mother’s attention.
“I was just so eager to please and it was a way of getting love,” he says. “I went along with whatever was suggested. I was quite a late developer, both mentally and physically. I didn’t start questioning things until I was 15 or 16.”
The rebellion, when it came, took an unexpected form. He was watching Exodus on television with his Jewish maternal grandmother when he discovered he was in entirely the wrong movie. Having adopted more new-age religions than a Californian commune, Howie became an Orthodox Jew.
“I thought, ‘Why am I trying to be black, which I can never be, when what I really am is Jewish’,” he says. “I’ve always wondered whether, if Braveheart had come out a year earlier, I would have embraced my father’s Scottish roots instead. Then there’d be one less Jew, which would make Mel Gibson happy.”
He had, however, aligned himself with the only faith with which his mother would have no truck.
“She was not keen,” he says. “She sees Judaism as a very patriarchal religion and she’s been running away from it all her life. All her friends were talking about their sons in rehab, which was the cool place to be, and I think I was a bit of an embarrassment.”
The initial manifestation of Howie’s conversion was his decision to form a Jewish hip-hop band called Circumcised and to have a Star of David shaved onto his head. His lyrics included “Back to Yiddish-land and that’s the law/But first to Germany to settle the score”. It helped that he idolised Woody Allen, whom he resembles.
Gradually it became more serious. When he finished school, Howie went to Israel to work on a kibbutz. He intended to “dig ditches, reclaim the land and meet real Jews”. Instead he found himself selling ice-cream, the only Jew among 50 volunteers.
“There were quite a few Germans who were just there to feel guilty,” he says. “I obliged them. I’m quite anal, which is why the whole Judaism thing appealed. The Jews are the only people who could go to India and get constipation.”
He ended up in rabbinical school in Jerusalem. That came to an abrupt end when he was caught in flagrante with a Catholic girl and was expelled. “I might have got away with it if she had been Jewish,” he says.
He is no longer Orthodox but observes kosher laws and goes to a liberal synagogue with his wife of two months, Monique, who is – rather conveniently – a child therapist. “She converted, at my insistence,” he says.
They had a Jewish wedding attended by both his parents. Any children will be brought up in the Jewish faith. His rabbi was very understanding when, booked to give an after-dinner speech to a bunch of Jewish estate agents, Howie’s Holocaust jokes went down like the proverbial pork sausage and the ensuing row made the front page of The Jewish Chronicle. Under “occupation” on his MySpace CV he’s put “Palestine”.
He’s been a full-time stand-up for six years and performs six nights a week, supplementing his income by presenting a show on Sky Movies and writing for television. With the help of Monique, he’s finally found himself. What strikes you abut Howie is how normal he is.
“It could have gone one of two ways,” he says. “I was very bonkers for a while. Comedy has been such a great outlet for me because for the first time in my life I’ve become a blossoming butterfly.”
As for his celebrity connections, he makes little of them in the show. “I was always very reticent about it and still am. Right from the beginning I tried to distance myself from it. That’s why I love comedy so much. Your success is not remotely dependent on who your parents are.”
His mum, who appeared on I’m a Celebrity . . . Get Me out of Here! last year, has been to see his new show. “There was a lot of it, like the rebirthing thing, that she didn’t know the full truth about,” he says. “She basically said: ‘Sorry’. She loved it and was very complimentary.”
Does she look back on her new-age madness with any regrets?
“She’s still doing it,” he says. “She’s a Brahma Kumari now. I don’t really understand it but she’s trying to better herself and the planet and I respect that.”
But Howie is his mother’s son in more ways than one. That’s him in the spotlight, using his religion.