How I found my groove: celebrities' life-changing moments

Becoming an astronaut, conquering comedy, overcoming stage fright to find Hollywood fame… Jack Black, Jenny Eclair, Dita Von Teese and seven more life changers tell Katie Forster about the time they dared to try something different

Jack Black: ‘Stage fright gripped me. Then a teacher stepped in…’

I once tried to overcome my stage fright at school by showing up to class really high. “Maybe I’ll discover some new level of performance,” I thought. However, I just became paranoid, and even more paralysed by fear. I had been running with a rough crowd and needed a fresh start, so I was at this school in Los Angeles for troubled youths. I loved studying theatre, but I was always terrified that I’d be no good.

The moment I managed to beat some of my stage fright demons and thought: “This is really what I’m going to do with my life,” was in a school production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle when I was 17. I was playing an anarchist judge called Azdak.

On the day of the show, I called my theatre teacher, Scott Weintraub, and told him I couldn’t do it. He said: “OK, I’ll cancel the show, but let’s go for breakfast first.” I agreed and at the diner he told me I’d been brilliant in rehearsals, and no one was going to judge me.

Something he said gave me the confidence to go ahead. It was very haphazard. There was confusion backstage; some of the cast weren’t there. I was carried out on a throne, and there was no one onstage to do the scene with.

But a remarkable thing happened – all my terror disappeared, and the joy of performance came back to me. It was a feeling I’d first had when I was eight, playing drama games at a family friend’s house. So I just took over, improvising orders to the people who were carrying me. I was off script, entertaining people – I felt the anarchy.

I still get stage fright, most intensely when it’s a live televised event. At the Oscars last year Neil Patrick Harris was onstage, my cue was coming up to go and sing with him and I had a heart-palpitating moment right beforehand. So I went back to the lesson I learned on that day: even when every fibre of your body tells you, “This is wrong, this is terrifying, you’re horrible,” you can shut off that noise and just go out there. And good things can happen.

Jenny Eclair: ‘Having a baby made my career as a comic’

‘To afford childcare, I started taking my work much more seriously’: Jenny Eclair.
‘To afford childcare, I started taking my work much more seriously’: Jenny Eclair. Photograph: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty Images

I was in the park with my baby, Phoebe, talking to the other mums. And I was so bored. It felt like punishment. I loved my daughter but I missed comedy, even if the gigs were so rough – onstage the first thing that hit me was a plastic glass of lager. Having a baby had felt like the final excuse to take my foot off the career pedal and stop putting myself through the terror of the shows. But the days at home alone with the baby stretched ahead endlessly, and I knew I would become terribly depressed if I didn’t start doing stand-up again. To afford childcare, I started taking my work much more seriously.

My partner drove me to my first gig in Chelsea: I was crying, and had milk coming out, and the baby was on the back seat. I ran into the club, did 20 minutes, then came out with rock-hard tits to feed her. Motherhood gave me a lot of material. There weren’t a lot of female solo comedians in the early 90s, so I was a novelty – I was getting work I wasn’t good enough to do so I had to get better, fast. Sometimes I’d pretend the gig started earlier, and have time to myself in a pub having a lager.

I slogged away for six years: it wasn’t just about getting pissed any more, it became about taking Edinburgh seriously and in 1995 I was the first woman to win the Perrier Award.

Jenny’s new stand-up tour How to be a Middle Aged Woman (Without Going Insane) starts on 2 February (

Dita Von Teese: ‘Seeing a crowd of young female fans was overwhelming – and moving’

‘They’d put on a horse and carriage for me to arrive in’: Dita Von Teese.
‘They’d put on a horse and carriage for me to arrive in’: Dita Von Teese. Photograph: All Access Photo/Splash News/Corbis

My early audiences were almost all men: fetish aficionados who were fans of my seamed stockings, or older men who remembered sneaking into burlesque theatres when they were boys.

I was in London to promote my first book, and was doing a big signing at Harrods. I’d woken up late that morning, and rushed to do my hair and make-up. They’d put on a horse and carriage for me to arrive in.

Then I stepped out of the carriage and saw all these glamour girls looking back at me – hundreds of girls with red lipstick on, in vintage dresses, with boyfriends hanging on their arms.

It was the first time I’d seen a crowd like that, and it was overwhelming. I thought about why they were there, and realised that maybe it was for the same reason I’d started creating burlesque shows in the early 90s.

There were a lot of mainstream, modern versions of beauty and sensuality that I couldn’t relate to: the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, for example. So I looked to the past, to lingerie, rhinestones and feathers – it was more about presentation than that scrubbed-clean beauty that I didn’t feel I had.

I started wearing red lipstick, dyed my hair black and held it in a hot roller set, and I felt I had this power – I could feel different, and be noticed. It was a far cry from my past as a dishwater blonde from a farming town in Michigan.

I liked seeing those other women, who perhaps felt like they had more in common with me, or their idols of the past, than with regular beauty icons.

It had an impact on the way I viewed my career: it’s different when you’re performing for other women, or gay men, who are not necessarily sexualising the show, but are getting some form of inspiration from it. It moved me.

Your Beauty Mark, £20, by Dita Von Teese is out now (

Paolo Nespoli: ‘I followed my childhood dream and finally, at 50, went on my first mission to space’

‘I thought I was too old’: Paolo Nespoli.
‘I thought I was too old’: Paolo Nespoli. Photograph: Nasa

I was 12 when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. When people asked me what I wanted to do, I’d say: “I want to drive the lunar rover.” Later I started studying engineering at university in Italy, but it didn’t go well: I was young and confused, so I took a break and joined the army, staying for seven years.

At 26 I was on a tough international peacekeeping mission in Beirut. I was assigned to escort a respected Italian journalist, Oriana Fallaci. We had to evacuate, and on the navy ship, as we watched Beirut disappear on the horizon, she cornered me and asked: “What do you really want to do with your life?”

She was persistent; eventually I told her about my childhood dream of being an astronaut, but that it was impossible now. “Explain why,” she said. I replied that I was too old and there were very few European astronauts.

But she wouldn’t take no for an answer. She snapped me out of my way of thinking and I allowed myself to be a bit irrational – I resigned from the army, and told everyone I would become an astronaut. People were baffled – they thought something must have exploded too close to my brain.

I studied aerospace engineering at university in America and learned English. Twice I applied to become an astronaut, and both times I reached the final round, but didn’t make it.

I was patient: I worked as an aerospace engineer, got a pilot’s licence and continued doing a lot of crazy physical activities to keep fit. Then there was a third selection, in 1998. Miraculously, I was one of two people selected.

It took another 10 years of training before I went into space, but eventually I was sent on a mission to the International Space Station at the age of 50. It felt like I was in the right place.

Oriana and I kept in touch for several years, but our paths diverged and she died in 2006. I would have loved to tell her that the things that she started happened. But I think she knew anyway.

Kele Okereke: ‘I met my bandmate at Reading festival’

‘Russell and I were kindred spirits’: Kele Okereke.
‘Russell and I were kindred spirits’: Kele Okereke. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

I’d seen Russell [Lissack, of Bloc Party] at parties, and once on stage, in an Ash tribute band. At school in Essex I didn’t know many other kids who were into alternative music – we’d all stick together to avoid being beaten up by “Kevs”, as we used to call them. So I was keen to meet him properly.

I went to the Reading Festival when I was in sixth form – New Order were headlining – and back at the campsite I talked to Russell for the first time. I remember saying I thought it was really admirable that he wasn’t at school, but instead just... playing the guitar every day – I thought that was really heroic. Then I asked him if he wanted to jam with me. Making music was something I knew I wanted to do with my life. Russell and I are kindred spirits in that respect, so when he said yes, I knew that we both wanted the same thing. After that, whenever I had free periods I’d get the bus to his mum’s house in Chingford where he was usually playing Super Smash Bros on the Nintendo 64.

In 1998, we started Bloc Party. But we made the decision before indie music went mainstream: we just wanted to make a racket. We spent the next two years trying to find other members who weren’t flaky or idiots. By the time things started to look up, it felt like we’d been preparing for a long time. I don’t have much interest in many things, but the things I love, I would die for.

Bloc Party’s new album Hymns is out on 29 January

Karen Ingala Smith: ‘A local murder sparked my blog’

‘The lack of joining up the dots made me really angry’: Karen Ingala Smith.
‘The lack of joining up the dots made me really angry’: Karen Ingala Smith. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

I was coming back from a new year’s break four years ago when my colleague called. She told me that a young woman had been stabbed to death by her boyfriend in Hackney, where the women’s charity we work for is based.

It was a shock, as it felt so close, but I had also learned some of the extent of men’s violence against women through my work, so it wasn’t as shocking as it might have been .

That evening, I started searching online for reports and was surprised to see that in the first three days of 2012, eight women in the UK had already been killed by men. I started to jot down their names. I knew the statistic of two women killed every week in England and Wales by a partner or ex-partner. But the problem is much bigger than that. What I really didn’t expect to see was the number of older women being killed, often very brutally, in robberies.

I began feeling indignant that, in the reports, the police said they were treating it as an isolated incident. This lack of joining up the dots made me really angry. I thought that if we were to look at what connects all these murders, we would see patterns and be able to identify the social problems that cause and maintain violence against women.

So I started a blog to record every case of femicide after that evening, and haven’t stopped: weekends and evenings are filled with male violence. I Google for new cases every day.

Karen’s blog is at

John Sergeant: ‘Alan Bennett got me my first job’

‘I was larking around with a balloon, trying to be funny’: John Sergeant.
‘I was larking around with a balloon, trying to be funny’: John Sergeant. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian

I was on set with Alan Bennett, having passed up a trainee journalist job at Reuters to be in his television sketch show, On The Margin.

We were doing a big rehearsal, and I was larking around with a balloon, trying to be funny. The great director, Syd Lotterby [famous for directing Yes, Minister and Porridge], stamped all the way down the metal staircase from the gallery, gave me a real shake, and said: “Look, our jobs depend on that man,” pointing at Alan, who was on a settee. He meant, “Don’t lark around buddy, this is a serious rehearsal now.”

I then realised to my horror how serious grown-up adult comedy is, compared with fooling around as a student. I was seriously put off, which isn’t a criticism of Sydney or Alan, but a feeling of – oh, so comedy isn’t fun? And, of course, it’s not. I’ve done quite a bit of light entertainment since then, and the jokes are always difficult to do: they have to be planned and in exactly the right position.

I decided to go into journalism after all, because instead of sitting around saying: “Well, he’s quite funny, but not as funny as him,” I wanted to meet people and have adventures.

Curiously enough, working with Alan Bennett got me a job as a trainee reporter on the Liverpool Post and Echo. The person interviewing me had seen the show and was thrilled to bits that this young man who had a career in showbiz was going to come to Liverpool and work as a trainee.

Then, later, I applied to the BBC and 30 years later my manager there gave me a brown envelope with Alan Bennett’s reference in it.

Mukunda Angulo: ‘A chance meeting made my life into a film’

‘We grew up in a magic movie world’: Mukunda Angulo.
‘We grew up in a magic movie world’: Mukunda Angulo. Photograph: Lennart Preiss/Getty Images

My five brothers and I were walking back from Union Square in Manhattan together. It was the first time we had all gone out as a group, or a pack, [Mukunda and his siblings grew up in isolation in a Lower East Side apartment, with films their only exposure to the outside world] and we were dressed as characters from Reservoir Dogs, in suits and sunglasses. We grew up in that movie magic world, and we were bringing it to the streets.

A lady approached us at a stoplight at the junction between First Avenue and Fourth Street, and asked if we were brothers. She seemed to take a real interest in us, unlike other people.

She wanted to know where we were going and asked if she could walk with us. We were like, “What’s going on here?” but we walked about five blocks together, which we’d never done with anyone before.

She told us her name was Crystal [Moselle], and that she was a filmmaker. We felt a bond immediately: her love of movies was just as passionate as ours. It was a really exciting moment, like waiting for the new Star Wars film. After that, we’d often go to a café together to talk about movies. Eight months after we first met, she said she wanted to make a film of us.

We weren’t exactly talking to our father at the time, because of when I stood up to him and told him we weren’t father and son. But our mother got excited. She said: “How about that, you’re not even out on the streets a year, and you meet a filmmaker?”

The documentary has opened a lot of doors for us. It’s been a roller coaster. Meeting Crystal was... kind of destiny.

The Wolfpack is available now for download, and is out on DVD and Blu-ray

Romesh Ranganathan: ‘I was about to ditch comedy, then I won a prize’

‘I thought: I don’t know how much longer I can do this’: Romesh Ranganathan.
‘I thought: I don’t know how much longer I can do this’: Romesh Ranganathan. Photograph: Rex Shutterstock

I was a crap teacher and a crap comedian. So I made a decision. I handed in my resignation at school, but just before I was about to try comedy full time my dad had a heart attack and died. There was a lot to manage, which meant I wasn’t able to pay the bills and our car was impounded. I felt guilty because it was a vanity project; I’d had a good job, then said to my wife: “Now that we have children, I’m going to be a stand-up”.

I was on the way to the Leicester Mercury comedian of the year competition and I phoned my wife saying, “I don’t know how much longer I can do this for.” Then I went on to win the competition. It felt like a sign. When you’re desperate, those sorts of moments feel so huge. That was the moment where things switched.

Camille O’Sullivan: ‘An accident triggered my career as a singer’

‘I was in hospital for a month, then in a convalescent home for old people’: Camille O’Sullivan.
‘I was in hospital for a month, then in a convalescent home for old people’: Camille O’Sullivan. Photograph: David Sillitoe/The Guardian

I am what you’d call a reluctant performer: I adore singing but suffer from stage fright. While living in Berlin as an architecture student, I performed Jacques Brel on stage – that was when I first considered a career in music.

Then, in 1999, I was driving on the motorway from Cork to Dublin when I hit a traffic light side-on and broke my hip and pelvis. I was in hospital for a month, and afterwards, aged 27, went to a convalescent home for old people. They told me about their achievements and regrets, and I realised my existence wasn’t that important. I could have died, so what was I worrying about?

It took six months of physio to learn to walk again. I remember writing, “I want to sing, I will sing” on my wall while I watched endless daytime TV.

Within a year I had given up my job, and my boyfriend at the time helped me put a show together. There were only 50 people in the audience. Now there are moments, when I’m performing at the RSC, or the Sydney Opera House, and I cannot believe this is my life.

Sometimes, when I’m having doubts, I meditate back to my recovery period. There was a loving feeling to everything, I wanted to take hold of life and to give it my best shot. Everything that scared me was exactly what I had to head towards. Interview by Megan Carnegie Brown

Camille is performing in La Soirée at the South Bank Centre until 17 January and at the Roundhouse, both in London, on 31 January


Katie Forster

The GuardianTramp

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