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'In my 20s I used to get blackout-drunk and I'm also a binge-eater... I had a self-destruct button'

Though it's not an autobiography, comedian Shappi Khorsandi tells Hannah Stephenson that the wild teenage heroine in her debut novel, Nina Is Not OK, isn't so far removed from her younger self

Published 06/08/2016

Sitting pretty: Shappi Khorsandi is firmly on the road to recovery
Sitting pretty: Shappi Khorsandi is firmly on the road to recovery
Uneasy past: Shappi admits to having an addictive personality

Witty and intelligent, Iranian-born, UK-raised comedian Shappi Khorsandi will be a familiar face to many who've seen her on BBC's Live At The Apollo, Mock The Week and Have I Got News For You?

Yet, her debut novel, Nina Is Not OK, is much darker than her stand-up routines, exploring a 17-year-old girl's descent into alcohol abuse, sordid sexual encounters, most of which she can remember little about, and a spell in rehab.

Today, Khorsandi (43) admits her eponymous fictional heroine is not that far removed from her earlier self ("I was one of the Nineties ladettes in a binge-drinking culture").

In the first chapter, a drunken Nina's thrown out of a nightclub for attempting to perform a sex act with a man in full view of other clubbers. Khorsandi was also once ejected from a club, but is reluctant to go into details of what actually happened.

"When I was 19, I was thrown out of a nightclub in Eastleigh and it was a dramatic thing. I didn't tell anyone other than my two friends who were there with me, until about four years ago. I carried a lot of shame around that. I'm not saying any more, but I didn't have any boundaries.

"When I was 22, my dad said, 'When was the last time you had a day without booze?' and I didn't know. Another time, my dad was driving home and he saw a young woman at about half past two in the morning staggering down the street in a mini skirt. He looked and said, 'Poor girl, her parents must be so worried about where she is right now', and it was me. He drove past.

"I remember being in my 20s and not knowing when to stop drinking. I can't lie and say I wrote completely from my imagination."

She says she doesn't know if she had a drink problem, but admits she had a social problem and has an addictive personality.

"I was incredibly shy with very low self-esteem. To be comfortable with the whole flirting thing, the parties and the dancing, I couldn't do without a drink.

"I remember starting on the comedy circuit and always ending up in somebody else's house, because I was too drunk to go home. It was really horrible sometimes, because you weren't really sure whose house you ended up at.

"Sometimes they were lovely people, whose girlfriends put you in a clean pair of pyjamas, and sometimes they weren't. It was a very blurred, difficult time for me in my early-20s."

Her novel is an uncomfortable read in many ways, as Nina struggles through her various teenage problems and tries to cope with the death of her fun-loving, alcoholic father.

Khorsandi's own father is poet and satirist Hadi Khorsandi, on whom she clearly dotes. They fled Iran for London when Shappi was three, after her father wrote a satirical poem about the Islamic Revolution and received death threats.

"My dad's a party animal. Our house was party central. My dad always filled our house with amazing, exciting guests. No day would pass when we didn't have friends for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, or all three."

She was introduced to alcohol at around 13, she recalls, and later would use it as a prop for her shyness.

"It was more about, 'Oh, I'm really shy socially, I don't feel valid in this situation, I feel out of my depth so I'm going to drink booze'."

Her lack of self-confidence may have come from the fact she was overweight as a youngster growing up in West London, she reflects.

"I was teased an awful lot. There was this game, 'Pull a pig', where guys would place bets on who would pull the fat girl. That was me."

Yet, from a young age, she did turns at her parents' parties, mimicking Margaret Thatcher having flirty conversations with Ronald Reagan, which made everyone - and most importantly her father - laugh.

"Being a child that isn't one of the cool kids, you get over it. Stand-up for me was: 'Well, I'm not invited to the party so I'm going to have my own party every night of the week'. Stand-up is my own party.

"It was absolutely terrifying. However, I also knew that I didn't want to do anything else."

Starting off at grimy pubs and clubs, she progressed to the Edinburgh Festival, starring alongside the likes of Russell Brand. This year, her show Oh My Country! will be touring nationwide after the festival.

She's come a long way since her 20s, when booze and food addiction blighted her life.

"I used to get blackout-drunk. I know what it feels like to have that horrible paranoia when you feel you've got to ring up the world and apologise for your behaviour without knowing what you did."

She was also bulimic and ended up in recovery.

"My life was in disarray. I didn't know what mealtimes were. Physically, it started to take its toll on me. My hair fell out, I got alopecia and stomach ulcers.

"I'm a binge-eater. I was 31 when I went into a 12-steps recovery programme for eating, but it's all inter-connected. I had a self-destruct button."

She married fellow comedian Christian Reilly in 2005, with whom she has an eight-year-old son, Cassius.

They divorced in 2011, which she says affected her massively, although they're on amicable terms now.

"I cried for five years. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy. This year will be seven years since we split up, which makes me realise the seven-year grief process is true. I let my career go down the toilet. I was a ball of agony.

"I didn't plan to be a single parent," she continues. "It absolutely shattered my world. The loneliness is indescribable, not being able to share the little joys of your child, but what doesn't kill you makes you stronger."

She's in a better place now, and has since had a daughter - Genevieve (3) - though she and the biological father are not together. She does have a new partner, though, Andrew, who works for a public speaking events agency.

"He's been with me since my daughter was one. We live together, but I'm not going to get married again. I find it all deeply unromantic now." Today, if she has any addiction it's probably running, which helped her out of her alcohol-driven haze.

"Exercising meant I got a connection with my body and my emotions that I didn't have before."

But recovery is a fragile thing, she acknowledges.

"I relapse a lot. I don't want to explain it. I'm in awe of Russell Brand, because his recovery is so strong that he's able to talk about it in a much more open way than me.

"But, for me, my recovery is quite fragile.

"Without recovery, I can't get on with my life. Part of avoiding relapse is not being in a position where I have to explain it. My book is the best way I have to explain it in a fictional way."

Nina Is Not OK by Shappi Khorsandi is published by Ebury, £12.99

Belfast Telegraph

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