By Stephen Clarke. Published by special arrangement with Blogcritics.
“Have you seen that TV show, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel?” D’yan Forest asks her audience at New York’s Duplex Theater. “A woman in the 1950s whose marriage goes belly-up, so she starts doing stand-up? That’s my life! And in season two, where does she go to perform? Paris! Just like me! Mrs. Maisel doesn’t even exist and she’s stealing my act!”
Ms. Forest is rapping this in a comedy show, but she really means it. D’yan (real name Diane Shulman) is an 85-year-old stand-up who began performing professionally after the demise of her brief marriage to the pleasant, but disappointing, Mr. Cohen: “Irwin didn’t know how to satisfy a woman. Normally that wouldn’t bother me, except that the woman was me!”
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, D’yan was to be found performing in Parisian cabarets – some 60 years before Mrs. Maisel even dreamed of going there. Between shows, the (real-life) comédienne made an in-depth study of the City of Light’s dark side. D’yan explored gay clubs, transvestite cabarets, strip joints, and swingers’ parties, and was in a relationship with Paris’s second-ever female bus driver.
In short, D’yan went in way, way deeper than Mrs. Maisel’s creators ever imagined, so it’s not surprising to hear her vent her frustrations on stage: “You fictitious b****, Maisel! You have no idea what Paris was really like back then!”
I know all this because I helped D’yan to put her exploits into theatrical form. Together, in early 2019 we wrote an act about her time in France called Swinging on the Seine, which she has since performed both in Paris and in New York.
The writing process was enlightening. D’yan sat down and regaled me with the wildest stories from her Parisian youth and her dizzying “éducation sentimentale”: her first cabaret engagement, when she noticed that the glamour girls in the dressing room had strange bulges in their panty hose; her first sex party, when she was ordered to undress, and replied “but I grew up in Boston!”; her first strip club, when the mademoiselle on stage gave D’yan a spontaneous lap dance and revealed to her that women could do things to women…
It was a rollercoaster ride to self-realization, and I had never heard anything like it. I’ve lived in Paris for 25 years, and written novels about the city’s sexier side, but D’yan’s adventures proved to me that the 1960s were wilder than anything I’ve experienced – or anything American TV writers have invented.
And D’yan has spent her whole life performing – her life. After her first trips to Paris, she returned to the States and pretended to be a French chanteuse in America’s clubs, hotels and resorts. As she says in her show, she has sung “La Vie en Rose” far more often than Édith Piaf ever did.
And when she sings Piaf’s “Milord”, about prostitutes soliciting tourists on Pigalle sidewalks – “come with me, Milord!” – D’yan is describing the real scenes she used to see on her excursions into that notorious neighborhood to visit the strip joints.
She made the crossover from cabaret singer to stand-up in 2001, as a reaction to the tragedy of watching 9/11 unfold from just uptown in her 10th Street home. As the Towers burned and fire engines screamed toward the plumes of smoke and dust, D’yan suddenly felt that “je ne regrette rien” no longer rang true. And she sensed the urgent need to talk openly about her long, scandalous life while she was still standing.
Several brushes with cancer, and a whole collection of stents, have only strengthened D’yan’s resolve to get up on stage as often as physically possible.
And I’ve known times when it has been almost impossible. In September 2018, a month or so after undergoing spinal reconstruction surgery, D’yan performed on France’s TV talent show La France a un incroyable talent. She was on heavy painkillers, and spent the backstage waiting time lying on a sofa to ease her extreme discomfort. I honestly thought she would have to cancel, until a production assistant called out “Madame Forest?”, and in a blink, D’yan was on her feet, her stage smile in place, striding towards the cameras.
Then, in the spring of 2019, D’yan was diagnosed with a 95 percent clogged coronary artery. She was rushed into a Paris hospital and had a(nother) stent put in. Two days later, I called to check that she was resting up.
“Oh yes,” D’yan replied, “I’m staying in bed all day. My comedy slot tonight isn’t until 9:30.”
The show must go on. And on.
In November this year, D’yan performed the Swinging on the Seine show in New York while recovering from an attack of Lyme Disease (symptoms: extreme tiredness and possible death). After her triumphantly energetic performance, we walked to a nearby restaurant, with D’yan clinging to my arm and stopping literally every 10 yards to breathe. She had given everything, cramming her whole life into an hour or so on stage.
All of which means that D’yan Forest is much more than the real Mrs. Maisel. For a start, she’s miraculous rather than marvelous. And she is in her 60th season at the very least.
And besides, as D’yan explains in the show, she is also the real Lady Gaga: “You know that song ‘La Vie en Rose’ from the movie A Star Is Born? You probably saw Lady Gaga singing it in a gay club – like I used to do. And she did it lying on a bar, just like an 85-year-old woman. Here’s another b**** who’s stealing my act!”
Stephen Clarke is a British writer living in Paris. His books include 1,000 Years of Annoying the French and Elizabeth II, Queen of Laughs.
To find out more about D’yan Forest and her upcoming shows visit her website.
© Stephen Clarke