Risque, loud and exaggerated are words synonymous with Joanne Kam Poh Poh in the public eye. But that’s quite far from the truth when one sits across this self-effacing comedian and all-round entertainer.
A lot of times people forget that Joanne on stage is very different from the Joanne off stage. I needed to be that big character. Because it is a show and I’m a showgirl
This is why Joanne’s upcoming one woman comedy special, La La Lian, is a rare peek into her illustrious career in comedy spanning over 25 years – pioneering women stand-up comedy in Malaysia in a traditionally male-dominated industry, facing up to stereotypes of being plus size and navigating through life as an independent, single mother – all these served on a comedic platter, of course.
La La Lian, scheduled for 26 – 27 January 2018 at the PJ Live Arts Theatre, Petaling Jaya, has been years in the making .
Joanne feels it’s finally the right time to tell her truth – and that also means revealing her life journey and experiences to strangers in a more meaningful way than just as set up to deliver laughs and punchlines.
"When I was growing up, I was very a shy kid.”
“Let me put it this way – I was fat, ugly, pimply, had glasses and curly hair that made me looked like Simba.’
“Back then, there was no movement for girls or women that are slightly chubby. There was no mentor to look up to. When you grow up being a plus size kid, a lot of times, your self-confidence gets put on the back seat. You move very quickly and disappear, so that nobody would recognize you.”
So, what changed?
“I think it was in Singapore when I started working as performer at Har Paw Villa. I had no choice but to go up and entertain people. So whether I liked it or not, I had to fake my confidence.”
“As comedian you need to go up there to tell your truth. If you’re not ready, you need to come up with a character that will allow you,” said Joanne, who is also a radio presenter, writer, theatre producer and ‘ladyboss’ of her own event company.
“When i first started telling those ham sap jokes in Boom Boom Room Singapore, I was still a virgin! So I used stories other people told me and made them my own,” admits Joanne, whose sheer talent also catapulted the success of Boom Boom Room in Kuala Lumpur, whom she anchored after leaving Singapore.
It comes as no surprise why women continue to be a minority in the business of comedy.
From an early age, girls are often raised according to the culturally prescribed notion of the feminine ideal – nice, ladylike, well-behaved, unprovocative.
Swearing, clowning around, telling rude jokes – these are ‘acceptable’ behaviour for boys, not girls. But many of these ‘traits’ are essentials to being a good comedian.
“Starting out in comedy, you need to be very raw – to talk about yourself. Women tend to hold back a little bit. For instance, when I talk about myself, people do look at me at a certain kind of way.”
Having said that, Joanne is excited about the industry in Malaysia, which she says is heading towards an encouraging direction for women comedian.
“Much more women have come up to do open mic sessions,” citing young talent like Hannan Azlan, who became the youngest and first woman ever to win the Hong Kong International Comedy Festival in 2016, as one to look out for.
While Joanne acknowledges she is regarded as a plus size icon to many women, she hopes the community, and society as a whole, would stop using one’s body size as a dart board and object of derision to be laughed at.
“I have seen some award show where the smaller celebrity will joke about the bigger celebrity.”
“Is this comedy or is this a jab? It’s so easy to jab at people our size. I hope in the next few years, the community and industry will be able to mature in the sense that we don’t need to use such cheap thrills to get a laugh from our audience.”
People don’t even realize that they are saying in retrospect to your body weight, and that is body shaming
Staying body positive isn’t easy, especially if you’re a woman in the public eye who often receives unsolicited comments about one’s weight and attractiveness.
“Eat so much already ah, remember to diet later!” Joanne illustrates an indirect and seemingly ‘harmless’ remark about a person’s body, noting that such behaviour is rather prevalent in the Asian culture.
“People don’t even realize that they are saying in retrospect to your body weight, and that is body shaming.”
This is why Joanne wants to set a strong example on body positivity for young girls, like her 12-year-old daughter, who herself had been affected by similar comments due to her physique.
“Something needs to be thought about body shaming and bullying at schools. If school teachers can’t do it, then perhaps a separate entity or group can go to school, and maybe teach the adults too.”
“A lot of time, people are unaware that what they say to a child could affect them mentally and physically.”
“Society hasn’t learnt how to stop making remarks that will make girls and women feel uncomfortable.”
Podcast of the interview: