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Career

Ginette McDonald: 'I couldn't get the Queen to laugh but Prince Philip liked Lyn of Tawa!'

''The terror was considerable. The Queen didn't laugh at anything.''

By Julie Jacobson
It's a dreary Sunday afternoon. Rain is threatening. Ginette McDonald is hoping to get outside at some stage to walk Fifi, the adorable six-month-old Papillion-King Charles "handbag dog" she inadvertently picked upduring a recent acting gig in Auckland.
But right now Ginette, best known as the vowel-strangling, chuddy-chewing Lyn of Tawa, is reflecting on a remarkable 50-year-plus career that has seen her go from treading the boards as a young, unpaid wannabe to an award-winning performer, producer and director.
It's a career that started long before the #MeToo era, a career that in its longevity has allowed the trailblazing actress and comediennne to segue from young crack-up to heroine of the "older women", with all the vicissitudes that entails.
The Queen was not amused with Lyn of Tawa.
One of dozens of comedians featured in the new TVNZ series Funny As: The Story of New Zealand Comedy, Ginette explains how Lyn of Tawa's first outing was a spur-of-the-moment creation for a late-night revue at Wellington's Downstage Theatre, when she was just 16 years old.
The revues, cooked up by Bruce Mason and Roger Hall, were, Ginette says, "for people who wore black sweaters and medallions, had pottery, read Russian poetry and thought of themselves as liberal".
While Tawa could have been any suburb, it was chosen as Lyn's 'hood because "at the time it was being portrayed as having this sort of vibrant, Westie culture, with people in skin-tight Amcos pashing each other on top of their Holdens. In fact, it's a sleepy little dormitory place with about 18 churches!"
Lyn, with her broad Kiwi accent, was the personification of every talk-back radio caller who would "ask things like, how do you get snot stains off a Kaiapoi twinset?"
She was loved and loathed in equal measures.
Perhaps her most famous, or perhaps infamous, outing was for 1981's Royal Variety Performance for the Queen and Prince Philip.
Ginette wasn't the producer's first choice – "he thought Lyn was too common" – but a ring-in for Marcus Craig's Diamond Lil after he pulled out sick.
Bra-less and in a strappy, blue jumpsuit, she addressed the royal couple directly – not the done thing – making a comment about them opening Tawa's memorial paddling pool.
She recalls, "The terror was considerable. The Queen didn't laugh at anything; she was very remote. It was Prince Philip who engaged with me. We met them afterwards and he muttered things in my ear. He said he liked the sound of the 'piddling' pool!"
Lyn of Tawa blazed a trail for today's young comediennes.
While Ginette is full of praise for today's young female talent, she's in two minds as to whether she'd want to be starting out in 2019's cut-throat environment, despite the rampant sexism she encountered.
"If I was doing it now, there would be a branding exercise. I would be looking to be an influencer; I would be looking to make money from the get-go. There was none of that. I didn't, as a young girl, lie in bed thinking I was going to be a great comedienne. It was just a blundering around thing to it."
In the late 1970s, she was told to lose 15kg for a role because, despite being a size 12, she was considered too fat. And there were the corporate gigs where clients – mostly men – would palpably not want to sit and listen to a female entertainer.
"They would say the most extraordinary things to me, like, 'Could you, at the end of your talk, Lyn, sit on the managing director's knee and give him
a cuddle and a kiss?' They thought I was such an oddity, that I was kind of one level up from a paid woman of the night sort of thing … or that I should have been leaping out of a cake with tassels on my nipples."
Ginette is engaging politically on Twitter for the sake of the next generation, including her daughter Kate.
She is having much more fun these days, playing to her own demographic: "older women".
"For a long time, I wouldn't have dreamed of talking about an older woman's sexuality, but now you have all these ancient old women getting about in their leather pants, and all these shows on Netflix about older people having sex. To ignore it would be mad."
Ginette's Twitter profile features a selfie in a bright yellow motorbike helmet. It's her French grandmother's old Vespa helmet. The photo was taken following the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake. It could just as well be a metaphor for a world under siege.
Never one to nail her political colours to the mast – although she did stand as a "centre-left" independent during the 2013 Wellington City Council elections – she says Donald Trump's election in the US and the resultant "horror show" has compelled her to speak out.
"As an older lady and a mother [her daughter Kate McGill is also an actress], I've had to engage politically because I'm so concerned at the state of things. I can't be quiet about it.
"To the extent that I'm no longer a celeb – I'm more yesterday's fish and chips – as much as I'd like to retire back into the shadows, I can't."
Funny As: The Story of New Zealand Comedy airs on TVNZ 1 on Sundays, 8.30pm.

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