‘One of my coping mechanisms was to create a fantasy world, pretending to be an Edwardian nobleman’


Tom Allen was born in London in 1983, and is a standup comedian and television presenter. His comedy career began in 2005 when he was awarded the winner of the So You Think You’re Funny talent competitions and the BBC New Comedy award. Since then he has hosted The Apprentice: You’re Fired!, Cooking With the Stars and The Great British Bake Off: An Extra Slice. His documentary My Big Gay Wedding is available on BBC iPlayer.

A friend took this photo of me before the start of the school summer holidays. I was 16 years old and standing in front of the sixth form center with an expression that sums up how I looked at that time: Maudlin, but also quite precocious and pretentious.

As a teenager, I felt very unusual. I was burying the fact that I was gay, deep down in my psyche, and as a result I did not feel at ease with the world. My experience at school was openly homophobic. There was pain and longing in my life, which is very normal when you’re a teenager, especially when it comes to attracting people. The difference was that my friends, most of them girls, could talk about it together and maybe tell the person, and maybe it would develop into a relationship. The idea that I could express my feelings to another man – while I was at a comprehensive school in Bromley – was completely unimaginable. I had to ignore it.

One of my coping mechanisms was to create a fantasy world, which mostly involved pretending to be an Edwardian nobleman, John Gielgud or someone out of a Virginia Woolf novel. Maybe that’s what I was trying to convey in that photo, especially with the hand in the pocket. I wanted to be Noël Coward too. Sometimes, I would get teased at school for losing my hair, so I slicked it back with Brylcreem, so did Coward.

The way I styled myself that there was a sense of disobedience about it. Although my father, who was a coach driver, was very proud of the way he looked, sometimes I would get dressed and he would say: “No, don’t go overboard.” For many parents, it’s important that your child looks and behaves a certain way so they fit in, and I certainly didn’t. It was the late 90s, the era of young people wearing tracksuits, and being scruffy and dominant like the Gallaghers. I started that by being smart and liked by the teachers. I saw very hard work and excellence as a small rebellion.

The music room was also a salvation for me. It was a way to hang with the other gay teenagers who were too scared to come out. Then, we were able to express ourselves in a way that the rest of the school would not understand, for example with niche mats about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals. I liked to be funny too, but my mawkishness was a bit overbearing. I was not far from being the class clown, which put the image of someone who was a bit mischievous in my mind. I have never been a fan of betrayal. I was much more of a fan of the conversation in an unfocused way.

Although I had beautiful friends, the homophobia I saw at school and in the world in general was so blatant that I hated myself. These views seemed to go unchallenged, all of which contributed to this feeling of repulsiveness. All the cultural touchstones about homosexuality were shrouded in tragedy and shame. There has never been a happier story about an openly gay character.

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In my early 20s I began to think that maybe not hating myself was a better way to live. So I started telling people. The moment I came out was the moment that defined my life, and it showed that I had taken a path to self-acceptance. I was allowing myself to find a partner and imagine a life where I could be gay and be okay.

Of course the internalized homophobia kicked in – for a while I thought no one would find me attractive if I was pale. But there were people around me who encouraged that out of me; friends who would find amazing outfits and suggest me to buy new, eccentric clothes. Eventually, I felt as if I were myself. But I hadn’t told my father yet. He was the last person to find out, when I was 24. As he was born in the 40s and part of the silent generation, I assumed that there was no room for feelings, that he would not be able to connect with what I .was saying. When I called him, he cried. He was so sad that his son was in a situation where he felt he could not tell him the truth.

It was around the same time that I started doing comedy. I was working at the National Youth Theater and my friends Sam and Charlie suggested I try standup as a bit of a dare. First I won So You Think You’re Funny at the Edinburgh Fringe, and then the BBC New Comedy award. That was a real “aha” moment; I realized I could stand on stage. After that I started getting booked for clubs.

For a long time, I didn’t feel completely at home in comedy. I always liked Victoria Wood when I was growing up, but whenever I did gigs, all I could see was a lot of heterosexual people doing jokes. I didn’t make jokes – I didn’t know what a costume was, or where I was getting into. There weren’t many 22-year-olds who were a little distrustful of the circuit doing gigs under their mother’s hostess trolley.

It was very challenging for me to perform at the Edinburgh festival. I would do my show and then go back to where I was waiting and hide until I had to do it again. It felt a bit like my teenage years – retreating into the music room. Over time I met other comedians such as Suzie Ruffle, Amy Annette, Nish Kumar, Stu Goldsmith, Josh Widdicombe, James Acaster, Joel Dommett and Rose Matafeo, who invited me to live with them in Edinburgh. After they were over, I felt more confident as a person, which made me much more confident on stage.

It took around, though 13 years for me to find my way. That must have been quite scary for my parents, who had no idea how to make a career in TV and showbiz. At first I wore a suit – a neutral suit, because I was scared. I soon realized that I could be a little more elegant with added flavors and thorns and color. I shaved my head too. I was 24 and starting to feel self-conscious about receding. My dad was bald, so I was always waiting for the moment I would break him. Then he came. It was done. One critic who reviewed my show in Edinburgh said I looked different because of my baldness. I interpreted that as looking like a foreigner – which I was, a little. At first I took it to heart, but I learned to accept it instead.

I have come a long way since that photo was taken. I’m still a bit “Edwardian starched collar”, both aesthetically and emotionally. But I now feel a great deal of generosity and warmth towards the old version of myself. When I was a teenager, I thought I was repulsive, ugly and disgusting. Now I look back and realize, sadly, I was okay.

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