Francesca Martinez: The key to happiness isn't to be normal, but to be yourself
Francesca Martinez was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at the age of two. The actress and comedian, who will be appearing at Belfast's Book Festival this week, talks to Jenny Lee about how the condition hasn't held her back
IF YOU grow up in a world where wrinkles are practically illegal, going bald is cause for a mental breakdown, and women over size zero are encouraged to shoot themselves, what do you do if you’re – gasp – disabled?
During her teenage years, English actress and comedian Francesca Martinez struggled with self-esteem issues and bullying, before "being rescued" by landing the role of Rachel in BBC children's drama series Grange Hill in the mid-90s.
Diagnosed at the age of two with cerebal palsy, a neurological condition which impairs muscle coordination, a chance encounter with comedy led the Londoner to re-examine her values and self-belief.
"Grange Hill was like a dream come true. It not only started my career as a performer, but saved me from the negative environment of my high school," she recalls.
The Londoner, who describes herself as a "bit wobbly", hasn't let disability hold her back – rather she has learnt to laugh at herself.
The daughter of playwright Alex Martinez, whose play The Rose of Jericho, is currently showing in Dublin, Francesca has her father to thank for her experiment with comedy.
"When I was 17 Dad wrote me a part in a film where I was a comedian. I didn't think I had the confidence to play the role, but decided to research it by signing up to do a comedy workshop."
While the film was never released, Francesca is delighted it introduced her to comedy and turned her life around.
"A very big part of stand-up comedy is that the audience need to believe that the comic is in control and is happy being there. It's very exposing and it forced me to stop hiding and say 'I'm disabled, I'm wobbly and I'm OK with that – I'm just going to connect with you as a person'.
"I thought the way to acceptance was to try and be normal, but comedy taught me that the way to acceptance is to be yourself. It showed me that if you are happy with who you are that is all that really matters."
Francesca acknowledges that young people growing up in an age of social media have an even tougher time trying to conform to society's expectations.
"I had a rough time at school, but when I came home it ended. Now there is no real escape from peer pressure. I wrote my book, What The **** Is Normal? to share some of the tools that helped liberate me from the pressures to conform to being normal."
"We view ourselves as technologically advanced in the West, but our mental health is declining. Studies have shown that the more wealth you have the less likely you are to be happy.
"For consumerism to work, they convince enough of us that we are not good enough, so that we have to go out and buy stuff. That creates a very unhealthy cycle where our value system and our ideas are about aspiration and comparing ourselves to people.
"A very simple but powerful exercise I tell people to do is to focus and appreciate what we do have, rather than what we don't have."
Francesca will be sharing her universal story of how she learned to stick two shaky fingers up to the crazy expectations of a world obsessed with being normal at this month's Belfast Book Festival.
"I have travelled the world with my show. Most of my audiences are young able-bodied people and sadly the majority of them are really struggling with self-doubt.
"No matter what body you are born into or what label you have, ultimately you can liberate yourself by saying you're going to make up your own definitions. I've got one life and one body and I'm not going to spend that life hating who I am."
At the festival, Francesca will also be interviewing her brother, Raoul Martinez, a philosopher, artist and film-maker whose book How To Create Freedom explores the limits placed on our liberty by human nature and society and also the myths at the heart of our economic, political, and criminal justice systems.
Given that she is passionate about empowering people to stand up against consumerism and has loudly sung the praises of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for campaigning to prevent disability benefit cuts, I ask Francesca, has she thought about a future in politics?
"Politics isn't the only way to change society. Comedy is really fantastic as it allows you to tackle taboo subjects, but in a very light-hearted, accessible way. If you make people laugh, often you find they open up to you.
"I am interested in politics but seeing how the media has treated Jeremy – someone who challenges the status quo – doesn't exactly make me think 'that's a great job," she laughs.
Happy not just with her career, but also her personal life, Francesca has been in a relationship with Dublin actor Kevin Hely, for the past 12 years.
She has become a regular face on television including appearances on The Frank Skinner Show, Russell Howard's Good News, The Jonathan Ross Show and Loose Women, but over the past year she has been busy concentrating on writing.
Her first radio play was aired in April and as well as planning her next book, she has finished her first stage page – commissioned by the National Theatre and dealing with the subjects of diversity and austerity.
And does she believe television is appropriately representing disabled people and using disabled actors?
"Television by and large has been very nervous about reflecting human diversity. The change is happening very slowly and I hope it continues to change. I don't think it serves anybody to represent a skewed version of humanity. We need diversity on our screens to make a more equal and happy society."
:: Francesca Martinez will be performing her show What The **** Is Normal?! on June 8 at Belfast's Crescent Arts Centre as part of the Belfast Book Festival. For full programme and tickets visit Belfastbookfestival.com