Joanna Woodward: Actress, Singer, Cabaret Performer
In a society obsessed with fame and fortune, it is easy to forget that behind the paparazzi and pictures of Kim Kardashian’s bottom there are scores of hard working and talented women carving out their own extraordinary – but often unsung – careers in showbiz.
Earning your living as a performer requires passion, dedication and a love for your profession that extends far beyond the desire of simply ‘being famous’. It is an exhausting but exhilarating world – if you can handle it. To give us the inside scoop, we caught up with soon-to-be West End starlet, Joanna Woodward, to find out more about the realities of rehearsals, the beauty of burlesque, and the time she made national headlines by putting the X Factor in its place…
My Little Black Book: Joanna, you’re an internationally acclaimed actress, singer, compere and burlesque dancer who has performed in cabaret clubs and theatres across the world. Where did it all begin?
Joanna Woodward: Probably when my Grandma decided to pay for me to go to tap and ballet classes aged three. Although, before that, apparently I used to run/waddle up and down any room singing (screaming) at the top of my voice.
I grew up in Glastonbury, Somerset, and performed every year in the youth theatres, but according to my Grandma I also used to like to perform for people wherever I could, popping round to her neighbour’s houses or even the fish and chip shop and asking, “Excuse me, but can I sing for you please?”.
MyLBB: Aww, born to perform! What does an average day now look like for you?
JW: Well that really depends on what I’m up to! If I’m not rehearsing for something then I usually have a relatively slow morning (I get more creative later in the day). I like to meditate daily – I have suffered depression and anxiety from a young age and I find that this really helps – and I also like to exercise, usually at the gym or sometimes a dance class. At the moment my days are filled with rehearsing for a new musical opening in the West End in March, but if I’m not doing that then I try to write or paint. I’m usually working on some new project.
At night I perform or, if it’s an evening off, then you can usually find me in my pyjamas snuggled up with my other half and eating nice food!
MyLBB: One of your performing credits is as the highly successful cabaret act, Coco Dubois. How do you think burlesque empowers women? What would you say to a cynic who believes it portrays women in a negative light?
JW: Well first off, feminism means the freedom of choice for women. So any cynic wouldn’t get very far in a conversation with me. Every woman has a right to choose what they do or don’t do. I can vaguely understand that some people think it demeans women, but nobody is forcing them to do it! Another common misconception is that our audiences are full of men, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Our audiences are always at least 90% women. Women cheering each other’s beauty, ogling their sparkling costumes and enjoying the tease and the laughter that is to be found in burlesque. The best burlesque is funny and sexy. Who wouldn’t want to be that?
MyLBB: Sign us up! In addition to burlesque you’re an experienced musical theatre performer, soon to be appearing back in the West End. What are the opportunities like in the West End for young women?
JW: It’s no secret that it’s harder to get there for the girls. It’s just statistics. There are literally thousands of girls trying to break into the industry. The one thing I would say is that it’s the most determined who make it. Over the years, ever since I was a kid, I have met and worked with some incredibly talented people, but sometimes they just don’t have the drive. You really have to have the fire in your belly because there is a lot of crap in this industry and a lot of rejection. You have to have balls of steel (so to speak) but remain totally vulnerable and emotionally open. Nearly impossible. But it’s the journey that makes the result all the more special.
Things are changing and getting better for girls in the West End. We don’t always have to be prostitutes or maids. Although I’m betting you’ll play a fair few along the way…
MyLBB: What is your opinion of programmes like the X Factor? How do you think they affect the entertainment industry today?
JW: When I was younger I used to think they were brilliant! In sleepy Somerset it seemed like this incredible opportunity for stardom. As I’ve grown up I cannot express how happy I am to have done it the hard way. Fame for five minutes must be horrendous for these young people and really can ruin your life and any chance you have of becoming a respected artist.
Also, the programmes are fixed and fake. Just earlier this year I received an email from the producers of the X Factor claiming that they ‘loved my look’ and did I sing? They wanted to invite me to a private audition just because of my burlesque style. Singing was secondary. That says it all really. Needless to say, I told them exactly what I thought…
MyLBB: With the plethora of talent and reality shows on our screens, many young people grow up dreaming of quick-fix fame. As someone who earns their living in showbiz, what advice would you give to those who simply want to be ‘famous’?
JW: Bog off! Haha, no. I was that kid who dreamt of fame. Many of us are; there’s nothing wrong with that. But unfortunately it just doesn’t work out well for most people. In today’s society it is terrifying how easily and quickly people can get famous, and usually not for something they should be proud of. As and when these opportunities arrive, we each have to look deep inside ourselves and ask, ‘is it worth it, and will this lead me to where I want to be?’. I’ve discovered that I am terrible at talking to people after my shows – I literally try and run from the stage door – so I’m very glad that I don’t have paparazzi sat on my doorstep, or people trying to touch me, or online trolls telling me how awful I am.
MyLBB: Who are your role models?
JW: Oof, I have many! I adore my friend Jenna Russell. Not only is she an incredible actress – I have never seen such truthful performances through song night after night – but she also has a loving husband, a house in the country, a beautiful daughter and she is a great friend. I really do see her as the woman who has it all. She’s a very grateful and totally humble person, something that I strive to be.
Other strong women that I look up to and have the privilege of knowing are Josefina Gabrielle, Fiona Laird and Stella Duffy.
Throwing a man in there, I really look up to Terry Johnson. He has been a great inspiration to me and conversations with him always leave me excited and full of new ideas!
MyLBB: If we had a time machine to send you back to drama school, what would you say to your twenty year old self with the benefit of hindsight?
JW: I think I would say, “Drama school was hard. You will do well. Everything will work out because you will stay true to yourself and you will surround yourself with interesting people. Hold on to your truth, your instinctiveness. You are more than your depression.”
MyLBB: Thank you for sharing that, Joanna. You are an incredibly strong woman and can be very proud of your hard-earned successes. Speaking of which, what would you say is the most important lesson you have learnt in your career?
JW: There are so many. Work-wise, to remember that when you walk into an audition, everybody wants you to do well, they want you to be good. Work hard and be the best version of yourself, happy, bright and prepared.
And a lesson learnt from my career that applies more to day-to-day life is that you should surround yourself with people you love and people that love you. Don’t put up with anyone or anything that makes you feel unhappy. Not everyone will do for you what you would do for them. And that’s ok. They’re on their own journey. Just keep on going and making yourself happy. Happiness spreads happiness.
MyLBB: Such great advice, thank you. Now, do you think there are still certain expectations and pressures put on women in the limelight to ‘conform’? Is this just ‘part of the job’ or do you think it’s time for a change?
JW: Unfortunately yes. I have never been a stick and I certainly feel that my career would have been more successful more quickly if I was a size 8. It’s sad but it’s true. I really hope that times are improving. I think musical theatre is slowly becoming more open to our various sizes but the fight is not over yet. You only have to turn on the telly to see that 97% of the women on there are tiny. I’d love to see more varied figures on stage and on television. It’s really hard for girls and we can drive ourselves mad trying to conform, trying to lose just a few more pounds. I think confidence is the key. If you believe you are sexy at any size then other people will start to as well. But we definitely have a way to go before the rest of the industry follows suit…
MyLBB: Do you ever get nervous before going on stage? Do you have any tips you can share with us to help build confidence when faced with an audience (e.g. presenting to colleagues, pitching for new business, in an interview)?
JW: Of course! But it depends what it is. Some things are terrifying. I’m actually at my worst in auditions. It’s incredibly frustrating. I feel like I can win over an audience but an audition panel still leaves me in a panic.
Meditation, deep breaths, mindfulness and being totally prepared are my main guiding points. And surrounding yourself with people who believe in you and want you to succeed.
MyLBB: Your portfolio is impressive by any standards, but what’s next? Do you have any dream roles you are desperate to play?
JW: I’m still waiting for my big leading role on the West End, but I’m happy with where things are heading. I don’t have any particular roles that I’m desperate to play, I would probably rather create something new. I also want to pursue my writing.
But it’s not all about career. In the next few years I want to get married, move out of London and have babies! I’m a country girl at heart and family is really the most important thing.
Talented yet grounded, you are our idea of a star, Joanna!
Keep up-to-date with Joanna’s latest projects by following her on Twitter at @JoannaWoodward.
30 Second CV
Name: Joanna Woodward (aka Coco Dubois)
Current Title/Company: Actress, singer, compere, burlesque dancer
Educational Background: The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama – BA (Hons) in Acting for the Musical Stage
Tea or coffee? Coffee
Wine or cocktails? Cocktails
Morning or night? Night
Favourite book? Too many to choose from! But I love autobiographies.
Favourite singer? Etta James
I wish I knew how to______? Fly
Best advice you’ve ever received? Always be grateful. Instead of looking at the negatives always find what you are thankful for.
Woman you would most like to have lunch with (and what you’d order)? Liza Minelli – and I’d order as much as possible to talk to her for as long as possible. If there could be a piano so we could have a sing-song too, that would be great!