Dame Edna Everage, the bedazzled, 6’3″ in stilettos violet-coiffed “gigastar,” who entertained millions over a seven-decade career on stage and screen, has died, along with her creator, Barry Humphries. They were 89.
The “gigastar” description was Dame Edna’s own.
A tribute from Prime Minister Anthony Albanese of Australia, where Dame Edna called home, celebrated Mr. Humphries as “a great wit, satirist, writer, and an absolute one-of-kind.” Humphries died following hip surgery in Sydney.
From her creation in Melbourne in 1955 to what would be her final performance in 2020 for the BBC, Dame Edna towered over audiences in one-woman shows across Australia to London’s West End and Broadway and was a ubiquitous and blinding presence in sequins and rhinestones on television all over the English-speaking world.
She was born just an “everage” Australian housewife but evolved over decades into a larger-than-life national and international treasure. Her schtick was spoofing first suburban pretensions, then the cult of celebrity that her own rise to fame coincided with.
Humphries originally conceived the character under the influence of Dadaism, and a lot of drinking, as he later confessed. Dame Edna’s resurrection in the 1970s was a part of her creator’s own rehabilitation following a battle with alcoholism.
One part Don Rickles, another a jewel-draped, side-eyed Oprah, Dame Edna triumphed on stage with her Tony Award and Drama Desk-winning performance in “Dame Edna: The Royal Tour,” in 1999, and later in “Dame Edna: Back With a Vengeance” in 2004 and “All About Me,” a revue with singer and pianist Michael Feinstein, in 2010.
Those shows and all of Dame Edna’s appearances opened with her signature greeting, “Hellooooo, Possums!” and closed with the “housewife superstar” tossing fresh gladiolas into the audience.
In between, Dame Edna’s fans would come in for a drubbing, as she cocked her wisteria-toned bouffant to the front row: “I know, dear. I used to make my own clothes, too.”
Once a mousy brunette under pillbox hats, Edna blossomed as she flaunted bourgeois bigotries for laughs, even as she skewered them.
Her one-woman shows threw a spotlight on the performer’s favorite subject, herself, and the constellation of concerns that revolved around her. Of her husband and children, Dame Edna said: “I made a decision: I put my family last.”
Even the royal family, Dame Edna intimates by her own account, could be burdensome. “I’ve had to change my telephone number several times to stop them ringing me.”
While Dame Edna acknowledged cultivating and maintaining her star status wasn’t easy (“Good self-esteem is very important. I look in the mirror and say, ‘Edna, you are gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous’”), she had no qualms cutting her fellow celebrities down to size.
“You’ve had nine hits this year,” she purred at Michael Bolton in an interview with the American singer. “On your website.”
According to her autobiography, My Gorgeous Life, Edna May Beazley was born in Wagga Wagga, Australia, sometime in the 1930s. She was an ordinary housewife who found sudden acclaim after winning a nationwide competition, the Lovely Mother Quest.
Dame Edna’s husband, Norm, was a chronic invalid “whose prostate has been hanging over me for years.” He died long ago. Her survivors include an adored son, Kenny, who designed all her gowns; another, less adored son, Bruce; and a despised daughter, the wayward Valmai. “She steals things. Puts them in her pantyhose. Particularly frozen chickens when she’s in a supermarket.”
A second daughter, Lois, was abducted by a “rogue koala” as an infant and never seen again, though her mother never gave up hope.
“Every time I pass a eucalyptus tree, I look up,” Dame Edna told NPR in 2015.
In addition to her memoir My Gorgeous Life (1989), Dame Edna is the author of Dame Edna’s Bedside Companion (1983) and Dame Edna’s Coffee Table Book (1977). Her discography includes the album The Dame Edna Party Experience (1989) and the hit single Disco Matilda (1979).
“I’m, as it were, in the wings, and she’s onstage,” Humphries explained in a 2015 interview with Australia’s ABC. “And every now and then she says something extremely funny, and I stand there and think, ‘I wish I’d thought of that.’”