Jayde Adams is flying the flag for that most maligned of female hobbies: gossiping. “It has been women’s power for so long,” says the standup, one eyebrow camply raised in what has become her comic signature. “We may physically have been at a disadvantage – but find a group of women and they’re not just sat there in silence, are they?”
Yet as Adams proves with her new podcast Welcome to the Neighbourhood – the latest entry on a CV that includes comedian, sitcom star (the Bafta-winning Alma’s Not Normal) and presenter of multiple food programmes – gossip is changing. The pandemic can take some credit: the boredom and isolation of lockdown not only connected us more closely with our neighbours, it also whetted our appetites for the most mundane tittle-tattle. Technology has played a part too. It has never been easier to talk about relative strangers behind their backs, largely thanks to neighbourhood groups and message boards devoted to crime-busting, hearty political debate and the giving away of old tat that have proliferated in recent years.
Each episode sees Adams join forces with a fellow comic to delve into the most bizarre and banal topics of such forums, from accidental bus diversions to graffiti- and Taliban-based conspiracy theories. Although the series riffs very amusingly on ridiculous feuds and pointless drama, Adams genuinely values these groups. “I’ve been a member of every single online neighbourhood message board in every area I’ve lived in,” she says.
In fact, she can measure her life through them, from the time a kind soul from her local WhatsApp group in Hackney lent her a Henry vacuum cleaner, to finding new owners for a vase, three goldfish and more when leaving her lockdown home of Leigh-on-Sea. “I didn’t have to pay for a skip,” she marvels. “The stuff people want is crazy.”
At the moment, however, Adams doesn’t really know her neighbours. She’s Zooming from her parents’ home in Bristol where she’s staying while the nearby fixer-upper she bought 18 months ago is renovated (she’s planning on buying her neighbours “fruit baskets and chianti” as a sweetener once work starts on her two-storey rear extension). Being back in the familial bosom has been relatively harmonious: “I’ve realised the key to getting on with my mum and dad is making my bed every morning. What a revelation!” She adds: “I left Bristol to find my identity. It’s hilarious that I’ve come back now after all these years.”
It’s the latest unexpected development in what has been an impressively eclectic life for the 37-year-old. After attending university in south Wales, Adams moved to Cardiff, where the manager of the restaurant she worked at encouraged her comedy ambitions by getting her a job presiding over weddings at music festivals, including Glastonbury. “The first time I ever held a microphone,” she says, “I was a priest in an inflatable church!”
She became close friends with her festival-priest predecessor and the pair moved to London. He was the one who noticed her magnificent singing voice. She started gigging on the cabaret circuit, eventually becoming an Adele impersonator on the drag scene. In 2014, she won the influential Funny Women competition with her first ever five minutes of standup, which involved an anecdote about two teenage boys calling her a “fat bitch” on a Megabus. The win got her a comedy agent and, in 2016, Adams brought her debut solo show – 31 – to the Edinburgh fringe, where she was nominated for best newcomer.
Her standup career has since gone from strength to surreal strength. Her 2020 Amazon Prime special, Serious Black Jumper – previously known, brilliantly, as The Ballad of Kylie Jenner’s Old Face – sent up celebrity cod-feminism and went viral on TikTok, racking up 150m views. Now, Adams is returning to the fringe with her new hour-long set Men, I Can Save You, which tackles two ambitious themes.
First, she parodies the messiah complexes of certain figures (Russell Brand, Jared Leto, Kanye), something prompted by her despair at the new celebrity trajectory. “It’s not enough just to be an actor or comedian or singer. It’s, ‘What’s the next stage of the evolution of me? Life guru!’” Then, after adopting an all-white-clad, Christ-like pose, she counsels all men through their recent loss: the (perceived) dwindling of patriarchal power in the west. “I’m the perfect person to help them grieve and show them what can happen when one hits rock bottom. In the words of Yazz, ‘The only way is up, baby!’”
This is not entirely tongue-in-cheek. Adams considers herself an “aficionado of loss”. If she ever decided to diversify into self-help, like the celebrities she pastiches, she would write a book about grief. In 2011, her elder sister Jenna died after being diagnosed with a brain tumour. The experience shaped her as a person: “I was 26, a really delicate age.” It also brought her comic nous into sharp focus. “When everyone in my family was super sad, I still made everyone laugh. I was like, ‘Actually, I’m quite good at this.’”
Adams is now in high demand. Next year, she’ll appear in series two of Alma’s Not Normal (she plays Leanne, best friend of creator Sophie Willan’s titular escort) and has just returned from a stint in Greece filming Greatest Days, a film version of the hit Take That jukebox musical The Band. Adams, who stars alongside Aisling Bea and Alice Lowe, describes the film as “super-camp”, which doesn’t come as a huge surprise. In fact, it has all the makings of the next Mamma Mia!. Adams was a bit too young to be a Take That fan the first time round, but Jenna was firmly in the target demographic. “She was obsessed with Mark Owen and I did everything my sister did, so I was like, ‘I love Gary.’”
Next on the agenda is Adams’ first sitcom, ITV2’s Ruby Speaking, in which she plays the eponymous “unconventional” call-centre worker. It’s based on her real experiences: a “long and boring” three years, but also a “normal job”. Adams has had a lot of normal jobs. From the age of 15 to 31, she worked “for between £5 and £7 an hour, never more”. Yet she’s starting to think her unglamorous professional past might be the key to a long and prosperous media career.
“London is fab for opportunities,” she says. “But every time I go in for a meeting, people are more interested in what my life’s been like previously and the influences I experienced through my upbringing. It’s quite hard to write a warm, relatable series if you haven’t got a backstory.” Adams’ unusual and hard-won journey to success means she certainly has plenty of those.
• Welcome to the Neighbourhood launches on 29 June on BBC Sounds, also on Radio 4 at 11:15pm. Men, I Can save You is at Edinburgh fringe 3–28 August. Tickets jaydeadams.com.