Elf Lyons sits hidden behind rail upon rail of dresses, skirts and jackets – camouflaged by her own vintage apparel – a shock of brightly coloured dress, jacket and glitter. It’s difficult to imagine how this second-hand clothes shop makes room for gigs every few nights, but gradually the rails are wheeled away, lights are tested, the shop window transforms into a stage and the space is, for the moment, our own.
“I’ll be nervous by 8.20,” she says, “but generally speaking I am a very relaxed person.”
Elf – real name Emily-Anne – may well be the most relaxed person to ever have worn so much glitter. She dabbles in life-modelling, drama and even once combined the two by performing naked on stage at eleven o’clock in the morning, after meeting a charming Australian girl in a pub, because, well: “YOLO”. She has been compared to Noel Fielding and if she has a child, plans to name it “Wilde, after Oscar Wilde. So it will be Wilde Lyons.”
Lyons is well on her way to conquering the comedy world with her side-splittingly honest stories of break-ups, over-enthusiastic parents, and finding herself in a school library rap-battle. Last year, at the age of only 22, she came second in the Funny Women Awards, and recently made it to the semi-finals for Chortle’s Student Comedy Awards.
She grabs my arm, pulling me in as if to share a secret: “You know how there’s always one person in each class at school who is really funny? Well, I wasn’t that person at all. I had always been into acting – always ‘Miss Enthusiastic’. If it came to being on stage to do something funny and make a tit of myself, I’d do it. I wasn’t self-conscious – well I was in other ways, but not when it came to entertaining.”
Tonight marks the first anniversary of Elf’s proudest achievement to date, the Secret Comedians comedy club, and she wants it to be special. Six comedy acts are booked for the evening’s show at PaperDress Vintage, for which Elf will be compering. This, I learn, consists of much more than introducing each new act: “To be a good compere, you really must be relaxed on stage,” she says, emphasising this by leaning back into a window of hanging vintage bloomers, “you cannot rely on the same laughs every week – it has to be new material to keep the audience coming back. It’s also about being a mediator – it can’t be the poor comedian’s responsibility to deal with the really shitty heckler guy who’s ruining their night; it’s your job to protect your acts.”
Watching the acts begin to arrive, it’s clear that Elf does just this. Welcoming them into the shop, she introduces them to one another, creating the comfortable atmosphere before the show has even begun. But she hasn’t always been this relaxed.
Starting out on her comedy career in her mid-teens, Lyons progressed by means of trial and error. “I think my very first gig was the worst one I’ve done in my life – and I mean I really bombed – but I think that’s a good sign. I did two minutes, I absolutely panicked and my dad was filming me on the front row…” Despite this, Lyons found herself studying at Bristol University, several gigs later with ambitions still in tact, where she became the founder of Secret Comedians.
“There was the occasional one-off comedy night run by the students in Bristol, but there was no proper comedy society. I wanted there to be a student-focused comedy night, but where the acts could get paid as well.”
“So I went into the pub across the street – The Richmond, which had a really nice landlord and friendly clientele, and said: ‘I want to run a comedy night here, it will start in October and it will be fortnightly’ and that’s where it all began.”
“When we started, the catchphrase was like: ‘are you a secret comedian?’ – You know, for people who say: ‘I’ve always wanted to try comedy but I’ve never been brave enough’.” Having secured a venue, Lyons summoned some friends down from London, commissioned lots of student acts and charged £3 entry. The event was “always pretty much rammed” and became the base for a new network of fresh comedy and like-minded performers – a community which has continued to develop and branch out into Hackney.
“Once back in London, I did a few gigs, met some people and did a bit of a ‘recce’, looking for good locations,” she says, gesturing to the ever-transforming room around us. Secret Comedians now has two locations: the Bow Bells, “a proper Old-east London pub”, and here at PaperDress Vintage in Shoreditch. Elf works her comedy community, booking acts first at the Bow Bells, and then if she likes them, at PaperDress. “People email me asking about taking part, or if I love someone I just ask them. People do get to know each other in the comedy world, so if I like someone I’ll just approach them,” Elf name drops a few, unabashed by her fiercely strong book of contacts, “And I’ll be like ‘Hey! Do you want to do a fifteen minute set?’ They often say yes, especially in the run-up to Edinburgh when everyone is desperate for stage time.”
Lyons has had her fair share of stage time recently in the run up to Chortle’s national student comedy competition. “Everything I tells in my sketches is based on truth,” she says, “it’s phenomenal how your comedy brain evolves. Back when I was a teenager it was all boys and school discos… And although I could see the potential for comedy in it at the time, it’s easier to be funny with hindsight.”
In terms of future plans, Lyons declares that she is “playing the long game”.
“I’m doing it all at my nice, consistently calm pace,” she says, determined not to be fazed or overwhelmed by the irregular lifestyle that a comes with a career in comedy and stage shows. And although it is hard to believe that someone covered in glitter can really be so calm, I can’t help but trust that a girl who brings tears of laughter from a rap about her love for the London Underground really does know what she’s doing.
The Secret Comedians comedy club performs on the last Wednesday of every month at PaperDress Vintage, 114-116 Curtain Road, Hackney.