‘It’s not cool to be a Jew in London, but in New York it is’
As hundreds of comedians packed up their bags, and their gags, for another year and headed out of Edinburgh at the end of the Festival Fringe this summer, few were likely to have been thinking of Israel – but black, Jewish, runway model-turned- stand-up comedian, Michelle de Swarte was looking forward to a holiday in the holy land.
Ms De Swarte, 34, whose north London Jewish mother featured prominently in “Jewish Cockney Caribbean Female”, her debut solo show at Edinburgh this year, was flying out to Israel this month to spend some time with her younger brother, Asher.
“I’ve been to Israel about 15 times – I’ve got loads of family out there. I spent all my childhood holidays in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Eilat,” she said. “I’m going to visit my brother, who’s in the army. I’m hoping he’s got time off, so I can hang out with him a bit.”
The bisexual comedian, who was born in Lewisham, in south London, had no shortage of material for her show. Her white mother was a prostitute and her black Jamaican father is a paranoid schizophrenic, she told her audience in the basement bar of the student-friendly Cellar Monkey in Edinburgh’s Marchmont area.
Her show, part of the Free Festival, was an upfront account of a career that has enjoyed a stratospheric progression from leaving school at 14 and selling bagels in Deptford market to modelling for Gucci in fashion shows in Milan in the company of designers such as Tom Ford.
In between tales of the catwalk, such as falling over in her six-inch heels into someone’s crotch, taking coke, and a less than flattering depiction of Donatella Versace, the streetwise, sassy and smart De Swarte recalled her impoverished childhood with a mixture of down-to-earth honesty and wry wit: “Everyone’s mum was a sex worker, including my mum – but not any more. My mum had sex for money so one day her girl could grow up and have sex for free.”
As for her mother, who more recently has done outreach work, including for the homeless, De Swarte recalled her saying: “I worked in a hotel. If you can, tell the audience that every time you tell that joke.”
De Swarte got into modelling at 19 when a gay black stylist scouted her while she was working in a bar in Clapham, south-west London, and asked if she fancied trying it out in New York. She didn’t hesitate.
Now living in the hip Brooklyn neighbourhood of Greenpoint, she said in her show: “I was so desperate to leave – but now I realise I don’t have enough money to move back to Brixton. What I’d like to say to the kids today if you live in a shitty area is… to stay put. Don’t move. Wait till the white people come and want brunch.”
Speaking afterwards in the upstairs bar, she recalled going as a young girl to a synagogue in Streatham, in south London, but not feeling “massively welcome” or enthusiastic. Yet her Jewishness was integral to her being, she said.
“I feel I am as much Jewish as I am black. I’m not a practising Jew, but I feel I am very much Jewish, whether I like it or not – but I do like it: I like them both. I am very happy to be Jewish and Jamaican.”
Ms De Swarte also has a sister living in Camden, north London, who she said was adopted by a wealthy Jewish family, gained a scholarship at the University of Cambridge, and now works as a landscape gardener.
Ms De Swarte is also a TV presenter who has presented The Fashion Show on ITV2, and is a correspondent for Vice Media’s new female-focused channel, Broadly. She is hoping to film a documentary on women’s prisons on the west coast of America.
In New York, she co-hosts “Shoot the Shite” at the Creek and the Cave comedy club in Long Island City in Queens, and she would love to perform in Israel. “I can’t imagine it would be much different to performing in New York,” she said.
“I love performing in New York, because there’s a Jewish comedy scene, and it’s well-established and celebrated, and there isn’t in London.”
Her perception of London Jews is not flattering. “We’re a quiet and Orthodox and reserved bunch of people – unless you talk about Tottenham – and it’s bloody annoying. It’s not cool to be a Jew in London, but in New York it is.”
This article was updated on 16 October to say that Ms De Swarte’s show was part of the Free Festival, not the Free Fringe.