A cold beer after a long, hard day, or a comforting glass of red by the fire on a freezing winter’s night – both of these things cause Urzila Carlson to sigh with pleasure. As a comedienne, alcohol is everywhere she goes – at gigs, people clamour to buy her a drink – and there’s always booze backstage. But this July, despite a hectic schedule where she’ll be in one of the cocktail capitals of the world, she’s going dry.
“Mocktails are just as good. Right?” she asks, feigning terror.
Urzila (40) has signed on for Dry July, a fundraiser that raises money to support adults living with cancer, and New Zealand’s favourite South African reveals a personal connection to the cause – she herself battled kidney cancer.
Urzila had an almost 20cm tumour growing on her kidney – but incredibly, when she first visited her doctor, she was told there was nothing to worry about.
“I knew there was something wrong,” she explains. “I felt uncomfortable in my own body. The doctor said, ‘No, you’re fine.’ He saw the growth and said that it was quite common for people to have cysts.” She continues, “I got a second opinion. He was quite offended, but I didn’t give a toss.”
Her new doctor took a look at Urzila’s scans, which showed an 11.5cm growth. A second scan, done only two days after the first, revealed the tumour had already grown to 19.5cm.
“If I had listened to that first doctor and waited six months to a year to get it checked again, I would have had a hump!” she exclaims. “You have to trust your gut. Always trust yourself.”
Now cancer-free, Weekly columnist Urzila says if you can help others living with the disease, you should – and giving up your favourite tipple for 31 days is a small price to pay.
“I mean, I know it’s going to be difficult,” she admits. “I love a glass of wine in the winter. And I’m going for a three-week comedy tour of Asia, where the cocktails are cheap and yum, and in great abundance. Basically, the month where I get as much free booze thrown at me as I want, I can’t have it.”
Urzila – who lives in West Auckland with her wife Julie and their pre-school daughter – admits she does love a drink, but has scaled down her alcohol consumption of late.
“I’m more of a social drinker, not a binger,” she says. “It’s because of this job. Everyone buys me a beer. I had to ease off or I’d be off my nut the whole time. Now I have a rule – no drinking before a gig, and if I do drink afterward, I stop at three. Otherwise, I’ll dig in and stay all night. It’s either go home or someone find me a comfortable chair.”
And a drunken encounter with one of her comedic heroes also made her realise just how unattractive being sozzled in public truly is.
“I was in a bar at the Melbourne Comedy Festival and [US comedienne and actress] Wanda Sykes walked in,” Urzila remembers. “I was so excited – I’m a big fan, and said, ‘Hi, I love you! You’re an amazing comic,’ and she turns around, blind drunk, and tells me to do something I can’t repeat in a family magazine. That was three years ago, and since then, I’ve decided that I’m never going to be like that. So if I do get drunk, it’s at home where people know me – and I won’t get arrested if I take my clothes off.”
She’s also determined not to use a “golden ticket” – where those participating can gift $25 to the cause, in exchange for a day off from abstinence.
“In for a penny, in for a pound!” she asserts.
Instead, it’s alcohol-free beer in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia’s 40-degree heat, as well as a firm “no” to anything with a paper umbrella in it.
“It’ll be over before I know it,” she nods. “I hope! I’ll miss it, but at the end of the day, I’m not sick in hospital. It’s a small price to pay to do some good.”