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Debbie Chazen: Will body-shaming critics ever change? Fat chance

Debbie Chazen in The Girlfriend Experience at the Royal Court. Photo: Tristram Kenton Debbie Chazen in The Girlfriend Experience at the Royal Court. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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“Debbie Chazen plays the obese…Bible-bashing Maribel…” British Theatre Guide

“She is very fat, like a vast, chatty marshmallow…” The Independent

“Busty overweight…perky pudding…” The Telegraph

“Elephantine Debbie Chazen…” The Independent

“Debbie Chazen captures the chubby goodness of…” The Guardian

“…as plumply upholstered as the DFS sofas on which [she] sits…” The Londonist

“Supersized…” Daily Mail

“Bubbly, overweight and hopelessly innocent Chazen…” The Stage

Last week, Mark Shenton asked if it was ever appropriate for a critic to comment on an actor’s body image. His column was responding to a review that described the marvellous Nick Holder, currently playing Uncle Vanya in Manchester, as “rotund”.

This issue is something I know something about. Above are just a few of the comments I’ve received from critics during my acting career. Naturally, at first I was shocked and upset, but it happened so regularly that such remarks soon became water off a sitting duck’s back.

Fair play: at the time of those shows I was huge. “Chubby” and “full-figured” are actually rather an understatement. Did the critics like my performances? Yes. Did my size have any bearing on the role I was playing? Not really. Should the reviewer have made those comments? Of course not. Will things ever change? Probably never.

In my second year at LAMDA, one tutor told me I’d never work because I was too fat. By that time, I was 21 stone, having eaten my way through the illness and then, sadly, the death of my mum. My tutor had spent the previous couple of years watching me get out of breath and sweaty just bending over to tie up my dance shoes.

Thankfully, she was wrong. I’ve done fine. I’ve never (yet) played Lady Macbeth or the romantic lead, but I make a living.

I always joke that a typical call from my agent goes something like this: “Darling, I’ve got you a meeting for a piece about a fascinating, complex character – lives in a tropical paradise, has incredible adventures and lots of challenging speeches – it’s the sort of role that will definitely win awards. Now, she has a friend in Scunthorpe…” But you know what? I’m lucky enough to have made a career out of being the ‘comedy best friend’, so who am I to complain?

But, of course it’s not appropriate for a critic to mention an actor’s size. You never read “The hairy owner of Bob’s Pizzas makes a mean Pepperoni Slice” on TripAdvisor, or “Dave’s tiling is as wonky as his legs” on MyBuilder.com.

One thing has nothing to do with the other. Sadly, the modern world tells us that our opinion of other people is important, and everyone is fair game. Especially in showbusiness. The clue is in the title. We performers are all on show, and must look the part.

The trouble is, critics mention size because you don’t ever see a 21-stone Lady Macbeth, and very rarely a “rotund” Uncle Vanya. Wouldn’t it be lovely, daring and rather life-affirming if someone who looked, well, different, got cast every now and then? It wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow if it was the norm.

I know the critics who reviewed my body didn’t intend to wound – and they didn’t. Rather, they amused. You’ve got to develop the skin of a rhino in this game anyway, especially when you’re constantly being reminded you look like one. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but not when they’re cushioned in fat.

Ironically, since I lost ten stone, I’ve found that roles have been harder to come by. I used to be one in tens, not one in hundreds. Sometimes my face fit even if my jeans did not. I used to be quirky and interesting. Now I’m just… normal. And no reviewer ever wrote “nondescript actress managed not to disgrace herself”.

As Oscar Wilde said: “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” So Mr Holder, you magnificent, talented, perfectly formed creature, I hope those critics continue to talk about you (and me) for many, many years to come – in whatever way they choose. After all, it’s only an opinion.