Skip to main content

Chronicling the 'Beauty Academy of Kabul'

Filmmaker Liz Mermin's new documentary, The Beauty Academy of Kabul, is about a group of American hairdressers who open a beauty school in Afghanistan to teach local women how to cut hair and apply make-up, thus making them financially independent.

32:56

Other segments from the episode on April 24, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 24, 2006: Interview with Liz Mermin and Shaima Ali; Interview with Craig Ferguson. Shaima Ali

Transcript

DATE April 24, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Filmmaker Liz Mermin and Afghan-American beautifician
Shaima Ali discuss Mermin's new documentary "The Beauty Academy
of Kabul"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

After seeing so many women in Afghanistan hidden under burqas, it's
fascinating to watch a group of women in Kabul talk about what beauty means to
them and look back on the risks they took under the Taliban to get their hair
done. The new documentary, "The Beauty Academy of Kabul," follows a group of
women from America who in 2003 opened a school in Kabul for aspiring
hairdressers and beauticians. The school was funded by people in the American
beauty industry.

My guests are Liz Mermin, the director of the film, and Shaima Ali, who
returned to Afghanistan to teach for several weeks at the academy. She fled
Afghanistan with her two children after her husband was killed about 20 years
ago when the country was under Soviet rule. She moved to New York where she
felt completely lost until she followed through on her friend's suggestion
that she enroll in a beauty school. Becoming a hairdresser she said saved her
life and enabled her to support her two children.

Director Liz Mermin also made the documentary "On Hostile Ground," which
profiled three abortion providers in Buffalo, after an ob-gyn was killed by an
extremist. Mermin produced and edited ABC's anniversary special, "Report from
Ground Zero."

Liz Mermin, Shaima Ali, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Liz, what interested you in the story of the Beauty Academy of Kabul?

Ms. LIZ MERMIN: Well, I just came across it in the newspaper, and--I mean,
it leapt out, as I'm sure it does to anyone who hears about it, as something
that was so unusual and to my mind, bizarre. I mean it seemed--when I first
heard about it--like the last thing that Afghanistan could possibly need. You
know, roads, schools, hospitals seemed--seemed higher on the list, but
something in the article really intrigued me, and it was under the fact that
under the Taliban, women had been running beauty salons in secret. And I
thought, you know, if they are doing that at risk to--basically at risk to
their lives, certainly putting their families at risk, you know, a very
dangerous thing to do, then there must be something more going on. And my
sort of dismissive reaction is kind of naive and I was really intrigued to
find out more about why this was something that was of interest to Afghans and
who these American women who had this idea to go over there would be. It just
seemed like there was going to be a fabulous story there, no matter what the
answers to those questions.

GROSS: Shaima, why did you want to teach at the Beauty Academy in Kabul?

Ms. SHAIMA ALI: Well, when I came to America, I got so involved with my life
here, and my concentration was to do the best that I can do for my children
and for myself. And sort of I forget how it was--and really I didn't want to
see too much of it--there was not too many news on American TV about
Afghanistan and after that in every day--day and night--I came to see how
terrible life is there and how badly people live. They have no money to make
a living for, you know--there was no money, there was no jobs. Women was
stuck in their house. So I was sort of very, very upset and depressed that,
OK, now I'm a hairdresser. I--my whole being wanted to go there and do
something and help and touch someone's life some way, somewhere, somehow. And
I didn't know how. So this project came about, and this was like all those
prayers that I was giving to God and doing this, and I didn't know what
to--how to go about it--I got a phone call, and they were talking about
opening a beauty school in Kabul, and I say, 'Oh, my God!' So, of course, that
is how for me it happened.

GROSS: Your documentary "The Beauty Academy of Kabul" starts with a couple of
the women who have just had their hair and makeup done, then putting on their
scarves and explaining that--one explains that she has to hide her makeup and
hair from her uncle. Another doesn't want her husband to see it. And it made
me think what's the situation now for women who do want their hair done or do
want a hair--you know wear makeup. What men in their lives do they have to
hide it from?

Ms. MERMIN: Well, one thing I learned when I was there was that, you know,
our concept of why we do our makeup and dress well and look good is very
public. It's very much how you look walking down the street, how you look
when you walk into your meeting, how do you look when you are, you know, with
your colleagues. And the women I met there explained it is much more about,
you know, on the street, you are covered up, and you don't want people looking
at you, but then you get to an engagement party, and you are surrounded by
your friends and your relatives and you want to, you know, look stunning for
them. So it is much more--and often these parties are segregated--there's men
on one floor, women on another--and it's really for the women in your life,
and your friends and your neighbors and your relatives and your sort of status
in that circle.

So the men--it's sort of, you know, not something that they need to know
about. Maybe Shaima can answer a little bit.

Ms. ALI: Well, it's--this was very, very new for me, too, because when I
left it wasn't like that. We all had our own--we all wanted to look good in
public. We all had the latest haircuts and we wear makeup as much as we were
allowed to as young girls and the women that they were married and had their
husbands, they were allowed to go out in public and have makeup done and their
hair was done. It's not like here that--just for yourself you go and you need
a haircut, you think that I need a haircut, so let me just go get it cut.
But, yes, occasions come--parties are fantastic there. They are just so much
overdoing their hair and makeup at times that you wonder--it's like you're
hungry and you have a big plate of food, and you want to finish it all at
once. And that's how these women feel, that now they are allowed--so, yes,
they are not allowed right now in their families for their grandfather to see
them very made up or their hair is done or their uncle and their cousins. But
I don't think their husbands mind seeing their wives looking good. But just
they are not allowed to go in public, just like that.

GROSS: What kind of hairdos and what kind of makeup did the women in Kabul
who you taught seem most interested in? Was it the kind...

Ms. ALI: Well....

GROSS: ...the kind of styles and makeup that we would be seeing now in the
United States?

Ms. ALI: No, not at all. They are very, very--they are filming a lot of
Indian movies there and everything that goes on in that culture. It's a lot
of makeup. And one thing that I was trying to let them know and teach them
that they wanted to all look very white. And the whitest makeup was possible,
they wanted to apply it. They wanted to all be--have light, light--very light
skin, and they put tons and tons of white makeup on--so they follow very, very
high fashion. A lot of makeup, a lot of big eye makeup and lipsticks that
popping up for miles. What I should say really, right now, we all migrated a
lot of us from different, different countries, so a lot people are going back
from Iran, from Pakistan, from India, from Arab countries and also from
America and Europe. We all bringing some kind of culture, trend, fashion from
all these countries to Afghanistan. You don't see the fashion and the trend
that was before I was there. You see a lot of fashion from all those
countries, so it's too much, and that's how they like it.

GROSS: What kind of hair or makeup did you recommend that the women there
found most baffling or most uninteresting, even though you thought it was the
right style?

Ms. ALI: Well, younger women they like softer styles, softer makeup, but
they have to compete with their cousins. They have to look like everybody
else, so even if they like to--my idea of how to do their hair and their
makeup--I have this story. I was doing hair and makeup for one of the girls
from the class. And I did a very nice, soft--we were shooting for Vogue
magazine, and we wanted something that looked good at Vogue. I applied light
makeup on her. By the time I went to the other room and came back, she just
did what she was used to. She just put that dark lipstick on, that dark
lipliner on, and I said, `You don't do that. There was a reason for me to do
this for you. You have to learn to soften your makeup.' But, `No, that
doesn't look good. My lips have to be like this.' So that's what they like.
So now that's what they like. See what happens in the future.

GROSS: Liz, did it seem kind of surreal to you to have like Vogue magazine
doing fashion shoots in the middle of Kabul?

Ms. MERMIN: Oh, gosh! Yeah. The Vogue visits was one of the more surreal
experiences. Sure. They swept in for three days and swept out, you know.
The photographer, Jonathan Becker, had a good--had a cigar dangling from his
lip...

Ms. ALI: Yes. It was amazing.

Ms. MERMIN: ...the whole time. And they brought this chest full of
beautiful, exotic-looking clothes, and we'd been there at this point for six
weeks, so we were sort of settled in and knew the ups and downs. And you
know, they were a bold bunch, and they were nervous, and they had all sorts
of--but, you know, they did it Vogue style, which is very different from
low-budget documentary style.

GROSS: So what did they dress the women in for the shoot?

Ms. ALI: Well, I guess I could jump into this because I'm in one of the
pictures, and--they had--I would say--I could say Arab-style dresses that they
had for young girls with--my daughter is in one of the pictures that they have
with me. They have--what they have on is Vogue clothes. Yeah. And I had my
own, very like--we call it sarag--to me it's ethnic--clothes from Pakistan,
and it--it's pretty, very nice. It fit the situation of the style in
Afghanistan. It--not all the dresses--the clothing that they wore was for
Afghan, but that was--that's what they wanted to wear, and that's what we had
on.

GROSS: We're talking about the documentary, "The Beauty Academy of Kabul." My
guests are Liz Mermin, the director of the film, and Shaima Ali, who's taught
at the school. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: If you are just joining us, my guests are Liz Mermin and Shaima Ali.
Mermin directed the new documentary, "The Beauty Academy of Kabul," which is
about a beauty school in Kabul where American and Afghani-American women and a
couple of--a British woman as well came to teach. And also with is Shaima Ali
who is an Afghan American who returned to her country for the first time in 22
years to teach at the school.

Shaima, you left Afghanistan over 20 years ago. Would you tell the story of
why you left?

Ms. ALI: I left during the Russian invasion. And at--at that time, I lost
my husband, and I was a month pregnant with my second child. My first child
was two and a half years old.

GROSS: What happened--what happened to your husband?

Ms. ALI: Unfortunately, he got killed. He was in the army, and my first
child was seven months old when all this started. So actually, I haven't--I
didn't see him--we were married three years. If we were together for a year
and a half was a lot, because then the war started, and he had to go to fight
against mujahideen, because that's the government at that time was and, of
course, he was against all of that, and money--government changing in the
three, four years, the time that I was there. They told me that he was
killed. It's like a closure that I probably would never find in my life. I
never saw his body. We couldn't find him. He just disappeared, and a month
later, they told us that he was buried in such and such cemetery. And so we
have to--if you want to have a wake for him--you just go ahead and do it. So
then I--my own family, we are a very big family--I had eight brothers and my
sister--and at that time, they would just knock on the doors and take the
young boys from their home, and you never saw them again. And my father
couldn't bear to lose his sons like that.

GROSS: Would they take them for the army? The Russians would take them for
the army?

Ms. ALI: They would just take them for the army. They would just give them
an arm and send them to the border to fight, and none of them ever came back
because they were 15, 16, 17 years old boys, that they never had guns in their
life in their hand and they didn't know how to use them. Then there were no
training, and they just want to have this huge amount of people standing
against the enemy supposed, and these boys couldn't fight. They didn't know
how to defend themselves. Many of them, they never came home.

So my father decided that he has to rescue his sons and leave the country.
And that is how we all had to leave, little by little. So, by that time,
there was no embassies of any countries in Afghanistan. There was no passport
to give and to--no visas or anything of any country. So you just pack a bag
and pray to God that you go to your destination safe and alive.

GROSS: You know, you eventually went to a beauty school and I think you
opened up your own salon?

Ms. ALI: Yes, I have.

GROSS: So did it ever seem shallow to you or, you know, superficial to you to
spend so much time on women's hair and makeup, knowing what had happened to
your country, knowing the dangers that your family had been in, knowing that
your husband had been killed? Did beauty ever seem irrelevant or did it give
you a kind of pleasure that made it seem to have real value?

Ms. ALI: You know, in my situation, I had a background of--I had education
back in Afghanistan, I had a very good job. I was working as a social worker
for Planned Parenthood in Afghanistan, but when I came here, I had to make an
honest living. And by having two young children I didn't have many choices at
that time. Of course, I wanted to go for higher education, have a better job,
have a nice...(unintelligible)...car job maybe, and beauty salons in my
country, a hairdresser or beautician, they are not people that are appreciated
in society so much. You're sort of a kind of a low-life kind of a person.
That was many years ago. And it was not a respectful job. I had a hard time
doing this because I still had the mentality from back home. I still didn't
feel so proud of myself that I am a beautician. But when I was in it, and I
found out that by me making somebody else feel good, it made me feel very
good. I learned a lot from every client that I came in contact with. One way
or the other, I learned to live a life that is good for me, that is respectful
for me and for my children. And if I make them feel better, OK, maybe I don't
have a chance to go and make my own people feel better, but I have to survive.
I have to live. I have to make the best of what God gives me in this country.
So I enjoyed it as a matter of fact. I enjoyed doing it very, very much.

GROSS: So, Shaima, you worked for Planned Parenthood...

Ms. ALI: Yeah.

GROSS: ...in Afghanistan before you left. I doubt Planned Parenthood
survived the Taliban era in Afghanistan.

Ms. ALI: Oh, no, I don't think they...

GROSS: What happened to your colleagues?

Ms. ALI: They were doing their own planned parenthood.

GROSS: Really.

Ms. ALI: They didn't have to go to contraceptives. They were killing them,
you know.

GROSS: What happened to the women in Planned Parenthood who you had worked
with?

Ms. ALI: Well, we--most of us, we all end up being here in America. I hear
they are in Virginia, California, some of us in Europe. So again, I have to
make a point here. People that are capable financially at that time, they
will all managed to leave. And again, to a point, we have better life than
they have. Again, I have a job. I have a business. Like me, maybe a lot
other Afghan women left the country. So we all we were able to leave and make
a living for us somewhere else, and those people that were left behind, they
are the ones who are suffering. They are suffering now, and I think they will
always suffer because their futures are not too great for them there.

GROSS: What other places in Afghanistan that you had memories of that you
wanted to see again when you went back to the Beauty Academy in Kabul? Did
you want to revisit your old home or school or any place like that?

Ms. ALI: Yes, I did. I revisited my old home, my father's home, my
grandfather and my mother's grave. My--my old little home that I left behind,
just locked the door when I left. I went to my old school that was completely
destroyed. With the fear that I had, I couldn't at that time when I went, I
couldn't walk on the streets that I walked 22 years ago. I couldn't look at
the people's eyes like I did 22 years ago. It was a fear of they recognize me
that I am from outside. I am not part of them as much as I wanted to be.
Twenty-two years made a big, big gap between my life and their life. So I
went to all those places, and the feelings they were very, very sad. They
were very, very upsetting because what I left behind I couldn't find it back.
It was gone.

GROSS: When you say you walked down the streets with fear, do you mean fear
or--or guilt?

Ms. ALI: At that time, yeah, it is called combined of both of them really.
Fear and guilt. Guiltiness of...

GROSS: Like a survivor's guilt?

Ms. ALI: You know, it is--yeah, it is survivor's guilt--but still I felt--I
still have a better life than them. You know, I am still saying, `OK. Here I
come from America, and I am here to teach you to do your hair and your
makeup.' And they are looking at me, maybe they are saying, `What the hell are
you doing here? Where were you 20 years ago?' You know. I cannot go with
this feeling--that's OK--here I come and accept me with your open arm and take
care of me or not be jealous of me because it's not possible. We have to feel
that way, and I have to feel guilty about it.

GROSS: Shaima Ali has taught at the Beauty Academy of Kabul. We'll talk more
about the new documentary, "The Beauty Academy of Kabul," in the second half
of the show. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: Coming up, more about "The Beauty Academy of Kabul." And we talk with
Craig Ferguson. He played a hairdresser in the film "The Big Tease." On "The
Drew Carey Show," he was Carey's boss. Now he hosts "The Late Late Show" on
CBS, and he has just written his first novel.

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We have been talking about the
new documentary, "The Beauty Academy of Kabul." It's about a group of women
from America who opened a beauty school in Kabul in 2003.

Shaima Ali returned to Afghanistan to teach in the school. She fled the
country 20 years ago when it was under Soviet rule. Liz Mermin is the
director of the film.

Liz, one of the points your movie makes is that during the years of Taliban
regime, the officials' salons were closed, but a lot of underground salons
opened in the homes of women. Can you tell us what you learned about those
home salons that existed during the Taliban days?

Ms. MERMIN: Sure, I mean--one of the first things I learned is that a lot of
people who were doing hairdressing in Kabul right now were from--from
backgrounds where this would not have been an acceptable career. It would
never have crossed their minds to do hairdressing. They were teachers, they
were working in government ministries, some of them were, you know, studying
to be doctors and, you know, these were women who had very different
professional ambitions and very different professional expectations.

But, you know, after hiding in their basements from bombs for a number of
years, and then the Taliban coming in and schools shutting down, none of them
could work outside their homes. A lot of them--their fathers, their husbands,
the men in their families--didn't toe the Taliban line--they lost their jobs
as well.

So people had to find things they could do in their houses to support
themselves. And so beauty salons sort of popped up as this cottage industry,
because even though none of this was officially allowed under the Taliban,
people were still having secret wedding parties and engagements. You know,
life had to go on, and so women were sneaking into these salons, they were
getting themselves done up for wedding parties and then they were sneaking
out. And you know, I mean, the nice thing about a burqa is that no one can
see what's going on underneath. So, they could manage to get away with this
to some extent.

And--I mean, one of the women who we visited in the film talks about how she
had this underground salon. Her daughter was still working with her. She
says, you know, at one point in the film, `Taliban wives would come, and it
was important to them. They could get away with it.' And people would sneak
in and out. Everyone knew this was going on, they just tried to keep it from
the men. The other thing she told me was that, you know, the only other form
of income they had was for her children--very young boys--to be weaving
carpets. And she didn't want them doing this, it was terribly unhealthy thing
to do. So by running beauty salons, she was saving her children, she was
supporting her family.

And so when the Taliban left and women were allowed to return to other sorts
of jobs, a lot of them realized that this was a much more viable career. They
could make better money doing this than they could make going back and working
for the state being teachers. And on the one hand, you could argue that those
jobs are more necessary for Afghanistan right now, but when you've got a big
family to feed and you've got two families living in half a destroyed house
and, you know, your husband is disabled from the war or dead, then arguments
about what your country needs and what your family needs become a little more
complicated.

GROSS: Liz, the teachers in the Beauty Academy of Kabul who are in your
documentary are mix of nationalities. And they are Afghan, British, Afghani
American. A couple of the American teachers, I have to say, seem like they
are almost there because they need to express their personal identity in some
way. And they seem to be--just look slightly inappropriate in what they are
doing. Like one of them's like teaching--like Anapta Chur, she's American or
British, but she's trying to teach the women from Afghanistan in the Beauty
Academy about meditation and there seems something just very presumptuous in
her approach to doing it. Like she knows something spiritual that they
couldn't possibly know, and--and one of them kind of criticizing the women
because they haven't shown up with their makeup on, and they have to set an
example for other women.

Ms. MERMIN: Right.

GROSS: I am wondering what your reaction was to--to those moments that struck
me as very uncomfortable.

Ms. MERMIN: Well, I mean, I had two reactions. As a filmmaker, I thought,
this is an incredible moment of cross-cultural interaction, and I am
fascinated by it. As a person, you know, I mean--obviously, one of the things
I love about this story is it's about two very different cultures meeting and
women with very different experiences of life getting to know each other. And
there are comic moments in that. I think that women in the school would
acknowledge that as well.

You know, at the same time, I personally--you know, it's not the way I would
have approached these things. I--and it's not the way most people watching
the film--I mean, there was this sort of shock of meditation. Why do they
need that? That's the last thing they need. But, you know, everyone has
their--these Americans they picked up, they left their jobs, they were doing
it for no money. They just wanted to help, and they all had their own ways of
doing that. And it seemed sort of wacky to me--I mean, I'd be lying if I
didn't say so, but, hey, you know, it came from their heart and they picked
themselves up and took a great risk and went over there.

And the Afghan women--you can see in their faces in the film--they are
smiling. They are raising their eyebrows. They take it the way they want to
take it. Some of them by the end of it, they were into meditation. You know,
some of them were, some of them weren't. But I think that it was a fun
experience for the Afghan students to sort of see these strange American
approaches and get to chat about that amongst themselves.

GROSS: Ms. Mermin, one of the things I really like about your documentary,
"The Beauty Academy of Kabul," is that it gives us a chance to see and listen
to women of Afghanistan without being covered up, you know. I mean we get to
see their faces and we get to see their faces looking real good because they
have just had their hair and makeup done, and they are all really happy about
it. Is that one of the reasons why you wanted to make the movie, so that we
could see women of Afghanistan talking about their lives in a different
setting and from a different point of view and literally see them?

Ms. MERMIN: Absolutely. I mean, I--you know, when I started this project, I
had just gotten off of doing an anniversary special about the World Trade
Center attacks, and you know, I was sort of seeped in that sense of, you know,
Afghanistan is the place where al-Qaeda is and bin Laden is, and it's a scary
place,and it's a war zone, and that is sort of all we heard. So I really
loved the idea about making a film about Afghanistan that wasn't just about
the war--where you would really get a feel for what people were like and what
lives were like. And so, you know, when I heard about this beauty school, I
thought, `What a great way to find out what women are really talking about.'

Because you go to beauty salon and you gossip and you talk about what matters
to you and so, you know, Shaima was saying earlier people don't like to talk
about the tragedy. When I sat down and I interviewed the students in the
film, you know, I kind of knew--I had television funding behind me--I--I knew
that they were going to want some horror stories, and women just didn't want
to talk about that and when they do, they talk about it very lightly--and they
sort of smile and laugh after they tell you something awful. And then they
move on to what they care about--which is stories about, you know, love and
marriage and hair and they would just light up when they were talking about
these things and I felt, as a film maker, uncomfortable pushing people to talk
about--about the trauma. And everyone would go there a little bit, and you
would sort of feel how much they want to talk about, and then they go back to
what they really want to talk about. And you just saw them being engaged and
lively and excited about something because, you know, they were finally not
hiding from bombs or hiding from the Taliban or going through that hell that
they've been through for the past almost 30 years.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both very much for talking with us. Thank
you.

Ms. ALI: Thank you for having us.

Ms. MERMIN: Thank you.

GROSS: Liz Mermin directed the documentary, "The Beauty Academy of Kabul." We
also heard from one of the teachers, Shaima Ali. The film is currently
playing in several cities, including New York and Chicago. It opens this
Friday in Los Angeles and in more cities over the next few weeks.

There's more information on the movie and where to see it on our Web site,
freshair.npr.org.

Coming up, the host of "The Late Late Show," Craig Ferguson. He's just
written his first novel.

This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Craig Ferguson, host of "The Late Late Show," talks
about his new novel "Between the Birdge and the River" and how he
started his show business career in the United States
TERRY GROSS, host:

Since 2005, David Letterman has been followed each weekday night by Craig
Ferguson on "The Late Late Show." Until he became the unlikely host of the
show, this Scottish actor, writer and comic was best known in the US for his
starring role in the comedy, "The Big Tease," which he also wrote, and for
playing the boss on "The Drew Carey Show." Now he's written his first novel.
It's called "Between the Bridge and the River." Two of the main characters,
Saul and Leon, are half-brothers, the love children of Frank Sinatra and Peter
Lawford. They start their own church, but first they take a road trip through
the American South.

(Soundbite from "Between the Bridge and the River")

Mr. CRAIG FERGUSON: (Reading) "For most of the way, Route 40 follows old
Route 66, a highway white America remembers fondly, because for them it
conjures up a time of innocence before cigarettes gave people cancer and
gasoline fumes burned a hole in the sky. A time before homosexuality and
drugs. A time when the only threats to the world were Soviet Russia,
aggressive extraterrestrials or perhaps the occasional mutant insect who had
inadvertently fallen into a nuclear reactor and grown to 5,000 times its
original size and was intent on eating Chicago.

In short, Route 66 was a symbol of what white America is really nostalgic for,
a time that never existed.

Saul and Leon were, of course, white American. They used history, their
country's and their own, and any suitable religious doctrine to suit their own
ends. They were survivors, like roaches. Saul and Leon were barkers of the
carnival tent, catering to the low-end command of America's spiritually
disenfranchised. Historically, it is better for religions to cater to the
pure, because there is always more of them. They are more desperate, so
therefore they will cough up as much money and devotion as they can. Plus
their life on earth is unpleasant enough for them to buy the idea that things
may actually improve after death."

GROSS: Craig Ferguson, reading from "Between the Bridge and the River," his
first novel. Writing a book was new to him, but he spent a lot of time
writing his monologues for "The Late Late Show," which aren't always about
the day's events.

Perhaps your most talked about monologue was the one you did after your father
died. And I am wondering how you decided to do that, how you decided to
actually mention it, and not only mention it, but to really talk about him for
a while, you know. And it wasn't--I mean there was funny stuff in it, but it
wasn't meant to like crack up the audience. I mean...

Mr. FERGUSON: No.

GROSS: ...it was a pretty reflective monologue.

Mr. FERGUSON: Yeah. I--well, the thing about the monologue is most nights I
understand that my job is to keep it light and to entertain. But I tell the
truth on that show. I tell--I made a decision about--I went through a divorce
a couple of years ago, and I realized that, you know, a lot of the stuff that
I had made--I think I had made like two movies I liked. And other than that a
couple of episodes of "The Drew Carey Show" had been on I liked. And
everything else I had done I felt was junk. And I thought, I don't--I am not
going to do that any more. I am going to do exactly what I want. So I am
going to write a book that I want to write. I am going to do a show that I
want to do. So when it came to, you know, my father's passing, I--you know,
the option was I could either not do a show or ignore and do a bunch of jokes
about--I don't know--the weather or the playoffs or, you know, Paris Hilton.
You know, I don't care for that. There are plenty of other channels to get
that on. You know, I do the show that I want to do, and if anyone wants to
watch it, that's great. And I want them to watch it. It's not like I am
trying to exclude people. I want people to watch the show. But not at the
expense of my own sanity or my own life. So, you know, I talk about my life
on the show, and I talk about what happened in my life. And that was--that's
a big deal when a parent dies. I'm not going to, you know--he was my dad, I
loved him. I wanted to talk about him. And it seemed the appropriate thing
to do. I called my mother first and asked her what she thought. She said,
`Yeah, do it. Do whatever you think is right.'

GROSS: One of the things you mentioned in that monologue about your father is
that when you--when you were in rehab to give up drinking, you said your
father came to visit you, and he said, `Well, Craig, I'm not going to stop
drinking.'

Mr. FERGUSON: Yeah. Yeah. That's right. He did.

GROSS: I thought that was a really funny moment, and I couldn't help but
wonder, what did you think at that moment when he said it to you?

Mr. FERGUSON: I think at that point, it's hard to recall it, but I was in
rehab--it was 14 years ago when I--understandably my brains were a little
fried at the time. I do remember thinking it was funny. And I do--the main
thing I remember is that my parents had to cross the United Kingdom. I was in
rehab in the southern--in southern England--and they crossed the country to
come and visit me in this, you know, kind of rather swanky, I think, treatment
center. I mean, I was in on credit. I had no money, but they came to this
very alien environment, and I was kind of touched by it. They didn't
understand it. They didn't really understand what was going on with me,
and--but they knew that I was in trouble. I knew I was in trouble. And I
think that, you know--that was my dad--he was kind of uncompromising.
It--there was something reassuring about it, actually, I suppose I remember
thinking about it. I didn't want my dad to give up drinking and start giving
me hugs and talking about his inner child. That would have made me very
uncomfortable.

GROSS: What--how did you know you were in trouble?

Mr. FERGUSON: Oh, I think there was some evidence. You know, the way the
drinking manifested itself for me--I--you know, I couldn't tell you with any
degree of certainty what was going to happen if I had a drink. I might go out
and have a drink and be very nice and come home, you know, a couple of hours
later. I might go out for a--with that intention to do that--and wake up four
days later in another country. So it's--it was a very random and weird, weird
experience, the drinking. I've been--I guess it's--what--it's over 14 years
now since I've had a drink, so I probably have been off the stuff as long as I
was on it.

GROSS: Would you describe where you grew up in Scotland?

Mr. FERGUSON: Yeah. Where I grew up in Scotland was a town called
Cumbernauld which is about 15 miles outside the big industrial city of
Glasgow. Glasgow was heavily bombed during the Second World War, so
Cumbernauld--although it was a tiny village and dates back to Roman times, the
village itself--it's a big sprawling new town. It was built very quickly in
the late '50s, early '60s and '70s. It was built--they built houses upon
houses upon houses upon houses, and there weren't a lot of facilities other
than houses, and a lot of the people that moved there were coming from
Glasgow. They were misplaced, they were a little anxious to be there. It was
a rough place. It was a rough town. I think it was voted, even recently, the
second worst place in Britain to live.

GROSS: Did it feel like a bad place to you?

Mr. FERGUSON: I wasn't aware of it feeling that bad. I--it doesn't even
feel like a bad place to me now. What it was was--I realize looking back on
it now--was the constant threat of violence was what I found intimidating.
Now other people who have grown up there will tell you that's not true. And
maybe that's not true for them, but I felt, you know, especially as a young
man, you're part of--you are a target for other young men. And there was a
law of sectarian violence. There was a law of anger. There was a law of
drinking. You know, outside--my home was actually kind of a haven, but
outside the home was terrible. And the schools were terrible. To my mind, I
didn't find the schools in any way--well, I only went to one, but the school I
went to was--you know, corporal punishment was still in place. It was
outlawed in Scotland in 1979 by the European Court of Human Rights, which was
a problem for me because I left school in 1978. So the teachers were
state-endorsed villains. You know, they would hit you, they would hurt you.

GROSS: You quit school when you were 15 or 16?

Mr. FERGUSON: Yeah, I did. I walked out on it. I didn't like it.

GROSS: So when you quit, what did you do?

Mr. FERGUSON: I drank mostly for a while. I drank, and I was a drummer in
punk rock bands, which punk rock was very--kind of popular at the time. And I
had this ratty old drum kit, and I made a living playing. I was not a bad
drummer so, you know, I would kind of be a jobbing drummer for a--for punk
rock bands. And a punk rock band and rock and roll--it's very important that
someone can actually keep the time while everybody else goes nuts. That's
what I did, and I kind of worked in bars and I bussed around, and I worked as
a bar--the reason I actually got into show business is I worked in a bar next
to a theater, and I was the--you know, the bartender there. And the guy that
used to come in--that used to run the theater, who is now the artistic
director of the Royal Shakespeare Company--but he came in--his name is Michael
Bride--and he sat, and he would talk to me. I was behind the bar. And you
are kind of on show when you are a bartender in a busy bar. And I kind of
became a pet to these actors, you know, and they kind of invited me into the
theater, and I kind of drifted in that way.

GROSS: And you found liked it?

Mr. FERGUSON: I did like it. I like show business because it seemed to be
very forgiving of drunkenness. And also, you know, you could work while you
were drunk. And there were a lot of very attractive girls who also were much
friendlier than any girls I had met before.

GROSS: Well, you are making it seem that it was lucky you were drunk,
otherwise, you never would have gotten into show business.

Mr. FERGUSON: Oh, I don't for a second discount alcohol--I'm not a
temperance campaigner in any way shape or form. I'm quite clear on alcohol
saved my life at times. You know, it was the medication which I was trying to
even out, I think, a lot of the time with alcohol. I think if I could drink
alcohol, I would drink it. I am not in any way, shape or form anti-alcohol.
I'm `anti' the way I drank it.

GROSS: My guest is Craig Ferguson, host of "The Late Late Show" on CBS and
author of the new novel, "Between the Bridge and the River." We'll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Craig Ferguson. He hosts "The Late Late Show" after
David Letterman on CBS, and he has just written his first novel called
"Between the Bridge and the River."

So how did you get to the United States?

Mr. FERGUSON: Well, it was circuitous route. I mean, I came here in 1976
with my father, and so we came over to visit then, and it was 1976. I was 13
and, you know, America was going through the Bicentennial, so it was a very
exciting time to be here. And also, I was at a very impressionable age. And
I loved America. I loved America before because it was the source of all
glamour, you know, superheroes, rock and roll, everything came from America.
So to actually get to America from Scotland at that time, I, at that point,
swore I would come back. And I came back when I was 21 and lived in New York
City for a while, for a year, working in a construction site in Harlem and
living in the East Village, which anyone will tell you is a bit of a commute.
So I would work in this construction site during the day. And there was a bar
at that time called the Last Resort, which is now called Coyote Ugly, in the
East Village, which they made that movie about dancing about--which used to
have this--what they called the American Modern Dance Theater, which was a
very grand name for a bunch of gay men that wore black clothing, you know, and
danced around. And they invited me to join the happy band, and I did. And I
was the--at that time, I was married to a Scottish girl, and we were both--you
know, we became the pets of this fabulous bunch of guys in the East Village.
So I would dance with these guys in the evening and do construction during the
day, which you don't need to go to the gym if you do that. But I was 21 then.
I don't think I could it anymore.

GROSS: One of the movies that you co-wrote and co-starred in--well, you
really starred in this one--"The Big Tease," you play a gay character. He's a
hairdresser from Scotland who...

Mr. FERGUSON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...wants to compete...

Mr. FERGUSON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...in the big haircutting competition in the United States, and he
thinks he is invited, and when he gets to--to Los Angeles, he finds out he was
actually invited to be in the audience, not to be in the competition. So then
he has to figure out how to actually get into the competition. So...

Mr. FERGUSON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...so...

Mr. FERGUSON: Well, that's very much my life in LA. When I came to LA in
'95, I though I was invited, and I found out I was invited to be in the
audience. I mean it--I also wanted to use--I mean the reason why I--you know,
it was set in the world of hairdressing is I wanted to use a business that
took itself very seriously, that doesn't really matter that much. And that's
why I chose, you know, the hairdressing as an allegory for show business.
It's just the same, you know.

GROSS: So did you have to learn how to cut hair to convince them to let you
do the part?

Mr. FERGUSON: A little bit. Although I wouldn't trust me with doing your
haircut now. I did a little bit of haircutting, but mostly--it was funny I
came home. I was--the long hours, it was an independent film. I had been
working 18 hours one day, and I came home. It was--we'd worked through the
night. It was late on in the afternoon, and one of my ex-wife's friend--my
then-wife's friends, who was a gay man who was helping us decorate the house,
was hanging some drapes, and when I came home, I--without thinking I just--I
lay on the couch, and I was exhausted and I went, `I am so tired of being
gay.' And he--it's funny. He came and he looked at me, and he said, `It can
be work sometimes.' And I thought that was--it was so gracious and so funny.
I did--I do have this great affection for the gay community. Because I was in
the East Village, I was made very welcome there and, of course, it was just at
the time that the AIDS things was--a lot of these guys didn't make it, you
know, through the first wave of this stuff. And it was a very kind of
welcoming, very folksy, very homesy--homey environment. So that's why I used
a gay character.

GROSS: And another role that made you well-known before "The Late Late Show"
was your role as Drew Carey's boss on "The Drew Carey Show." How did you get
the job? Were you already part of like a comedy circuit in America? Did Drew
Carey know you from that?

Mr. FERGUSON: No, not at all. Well, this is a very odd story. What
happened was I was actually broke. I was down to my last 27 cents. I had 27
cents in the bank, which I don't know if you have ever tried to get 27 cents
out of the bank. You can't do it. It costs a buck to take out 27 cents. It
can't be done. So I was broke, and I was--I got this manager at the time that
got me this audition to play the part of the Hispanic photographer on the
Brooke Shields sitcom "Suddenly Susan." And I said, `This is ridiculous.' I
looked at the script, and I said, `This part is for a Latino man.' And he
said, `Oh, you're foreign. Just go to the audition.' And I--you know, I had
nothing else to do, so I went. And I went to the audition, and what happened
was, you know, I get to the corridor, you know, and outside the audition was a
bunch of guys who all look like Antonio Banderas sitting there, and we
are--you know, they kind of look at me--I look--I'm like `Como estas,
everybody.' And I go in and, you know, the producers laugh when I start
talking, you know--even when they see me about how inappropriate I am for the
job. But the cast--one of the casting directors there was a guy called Tony
Sepulveda from Warner Brothers casting. And after the audition, he said,
`You're not really what we are looking for for the Hispanic photographer. But
we are doing a show with a guy from Cleveland. Can you do an English accent?'
And I said, `Si, senior. I can.' And they--we--and so, it was from that--it
was for auditioning for a job I was hopelessly wrong for. So it's a real
lesson about showing up, even when you think it is ridiculous.

GROSS: Craig Ferguson, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. FERGUSON: Thank you very much for inviting me into your humble--no, it's
not so humble--very fancy studio.

GROSS: Craig Ferguson hosts "The Late Late Show" on CBS. His new novel is
called "Between the Bridge and the River." You can read an excerpt on our Web
site, freshair.npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

22:30

From 'Designing Women' To 'Hacks', Jean Smart's Career Is Still Going Strong

Smart is nominated for Emmy Awards for her performances Hacks, about a veteran comic working with a Gen-Z comedy writer, and the crime drama Mare Of Easttown. Originally broadcast May 2021.

52:30

'Storm Lake' Documentary Depicts The Triumph And Struggle Of A Local Newspaper

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Art Cullen discusses the battle to keep print news alive in small-town America. Cullen runs Iowa's Storm Lake Times, along with his brother, the paper's publisher.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue