Model-turned-comedienne Honour Pillow opens her diary in a one-woman play at the Know Theatre this Wednesday and Friday, Sept. 19 and 21.
On Her Pillow, the 2012 Audience Pick of the Fringe Winner, is her autobiographical account of growing up biracial in middle America, and her journey from modeling and stand-up comedy to a battle with cancer and a reawakening to love and true identity.
Honour spoke with Becky Johnson of Soapbox about that journey and the life-lessons that brought her back to Cincinnati.
Q: What makes your story so compelling on the stage?
A: Growing up biracial and in a rural town where we were the only interracial family - that story alone is unique.
Q: Addyston is still a small, Ohio-river community in western Hamilton County. Why did your parents move there?
A: My father was born and raised in Addyston. When he was growing up, there were many, many more black people living in that area, but in later years, there were fewer and fewer. When my father returned from the service, we ended up there.
Q: Your parents were obviously progressive-minded for the time. What did others think about interracial couples like your parents?
A: It was downright unacceptable. On both sides of my parents’ families, there was no support. Then, it was looked poorly upon by both black and white people. Why would you want to complicate your life when we already had so many issues concerning race?
In doing some research on attitudes about interracial mixing, I discovered that some people believed it could actually cause health problems, like learning disabilities.
Despite all that, as children, my sisters and I felt normal and very average. I think my parents were very good at showing us what a marriage and a family meant, which to them was love and respect and dinners together and support. They helped us cope with it by their example.
Love is the basis of my play. I don’t believe there is anything more powerful.
Q: You’ve been a model and a comedienne, you have a degree in interior design, you’ve worked in corporate America…
A: I have crammed a lot into 35 years! I began modeling at 16 and moved to New York City at 17 to pursue professional modeling with an agency. I modeled for two years but started to hate the modeling industry.
My parents had worked so hard to make me a confident young woman and yet, there I was, in an industry that forced me to critique my every pound, my height, even my shoe size. I wanted to do something self-expressive. In that industry, you are never heard, only seen.
So I moved back home, got a degree in interior design, met my husband and started working in the cosmetics industry. Then I decided to be a stand-up comic… totally random, right?
Q: Why the drastic change?
A: I definitely have a comedic personality, but I think my dad inspired me. I like to refer to him as a dirty-mouthed Bill Cosby. He’s hilarious, quick and sharp and witty. And my mom is my biggest fan and has always encouraged me to try new things.
In fact, she encouraged me to use comedy as my “talent” in a beauty contest when I was 14. I didn’t win the pageant, but I won the talent competition.
Q: How does one learn to be a stand-up comic?
A: The only way you learn is by falling on your face a hundred times. It’s like putting someone on a bike for the first time and sending them down the street with just a “good luck!” Sometimes it’s even worse than you can imagine.
But then you think, “Wow, it felt really great when I got that laugh,” and that laugh keeps you going.
I moved to Chicago to study at Second City, which is more about sketch and improvisational comedy. Out there, I met a guy doing open mike comedy and I tried it. I totally bombed the first time; I had no idea about timing, rhythm, set-ups. Then I found this group, learned the biz, and we supported each other.
I was headlining acts when I left Chicago for Las Vegas. I wanted to expand my horizons and got really involved with the underground comedy scene there.
Eventually, I got into the “Divas of Comedy” at the Sierra Hotel, which gave me good recognition.
Q: How did you weave this all into your play?
A: I refer everything back to identity. Being a biracial child, being a model in New York, having identity issues with my body, being a female comedienne in a man’s world: it’s all about identity.
Q: Why are there so few female comediennes in the field?
A: Our place in society is to be pretty and feminine and polite. It’s not as acceptable to take the risks that male comedians do. Women get to joke about baby poop and menstrual cycles.
I started out being polite; I didn’t want to offend my mom! When I got to Vegas, I took many more risks. I never became vulgar, but I definitely did adult material.
It’s a recurring theme in my show; I appear three times as a comic, and the audience definitely sees me bomb once.
Q: What brought you back to Cincinnati?
A: I got promoted with the cosmetic firm I was still working with. I was in a reality show on female comediennes that got shelved. And I bombed at the Apollo in New York. I decided to give comedy a rest and never went back.
That’s when we moved back to Cincinnati, and I started seriously working on the show.
Q: How did you get from the pen to the stage?
A: In May of last year, a friend mentioned the Fringe Festival as a good venue for my play. It’s all about quirky, outside-the-box, locally produced shows. I entered my partially-written play in December, and the next thing I know, I’m on stage in June! The first night I performed, I cried twice that day.
It’s terrifying because I’m literally opening my diary up in front of people and having to watch their reactions. A friend mentioned that it felt like I was performing my own eulogy.
Q: But this is not a eulogy. You are also a cancer survivor.
A: Yes, and that it brings my story and my play full-circle. I was once in a place where I was on top of the world: I had a great career, I had peaked in comedy, I didn’t have a care in the world.Then I got diagnosed with cancer. When that happens, the things that were so important before are now not important at all.
Without the power of love, I could never have gotten through my battle.
Q: Where do you go from here?
A: Right now, I’m helping the UC Health Barrett Cancer Center to increase public awareness of cervical cancer. I may help with some informational videos that are in the works. Cervical cancer is silent and very deadly; they say it whispers, so you must listen.
By Becky Johnson
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