Feisty comic crusader still turning heads 

Who: Suzanne Westenhoefer

What: Altitude 12 Comedy Night and Charity Auction

Where: Fairmont Chateau Whistler

When: Wednesday, Feb. 4., 8 p.m.

Tickets: $50

Ellen. Rosie. Such is their celebrity their last names are pretty much unnecessary. If you’re talking gays and lesbians in the entertainment industry, it would appear that lesbian comics have made pretty good inroads into the mainstream.

So that’s why it’s surprising to hear that when Suzanne Westenhoefer opened her set on David Letterman’s Late Show last March with a crack about her girlfriend, it marked the first appearance by an openly gay or lesbian comedian on the program. It was, she says "a big deal," adding a dry "woo hoo!"

Technically, explains Westenhoefer, the aforementioned pair and others like them established themselves in television and film before coming out as lesbians, making neither "gay comics."

So it seems in an era where Will and Grace sit comfortably at the top of the Nielsen ratings, The Hours claims Best Actress Oscar accolades, and Britney and Madonna play lesbo-chic tonsil hockey as a publicity stunt, there are still some bridges to cross. Still some milestones. Still some "firsts."

Another first for Westenhoefer will be her appearance in Whistler this Wednesday. Altitude 12, Whistler’s annual gay and lesbian ski and snowboard week is once again hosting a comedy night and charity silent auction, for which Westenhoefer and Canadian comic Roman Danylo are the headlining acts. All proceeds from the auction will benefit the Western Canadian Pediatric AIDS Society, also the charity recipient of Altitude 11’s comedy night and silent auction, which raised just over $25,000.

Since the Pennsylvania-raised Westenhoefer doesn’t ski ("I actually don’t do anything outdoors, but I’ll be very excited that everybody else is," she quips) it’s the comedy that’s bringing her to town. In the game for 12 years now, Westenhoefer performs between 80 and 90 shows every year for a variety of audiences, both gay and straight.

"It really depends on what town you’re in and who’s producing it. If Dykes on Bikes are bringing you to Kansas City, it’s pretty much just gonna be gay girls," she says.

Sometimes the orientation of the audience can even be influenced by extenuating circumstances, such as when she performs in Utah, where she can’t be billed as a "lesbian" since the word is apparently restricted from mainstream publication by obscenity laws. Instead she’s billed as "feminist," a term which tends to result in some confusion.

"They called me a ‘female alternative comic once,’" she says. "Isn’t that technically a guy?"

Unlike many gay and lesbian performers that start out in the comfy confines of their own scene and branch out into the mainstream, Westenhoefer went about building a career from the opposite direction.

"Because I started out doing gay comedy in the straight clubs, all my audiences were straight. The gay people found me. And so there’s sort of a backwards quality to that," she notes.

Just by the sound of her slightly flinty voice you can tell Suzanne Westenhoefer is a tough chick. Not that she’s defensive, or huffy, just good and tough.

It’s got to be due to tough early years in New York City’s comedy clubs, trying to make a name for herself, and determined to do so as a proud lesbian, long before big gay Rosie was flinging koosh-balls at adoring housewives on daytime TV.

"I was a shock. And it was hard and it was fun for me to be groundbreaking, and also quite terrifying," Westenhoefer remembers. "There was an adrenaline rush as to whether they were going to accept it and most of the time they did but pretty grudgingly. It was pretty intense."

And then there were those she says who made up their minds not to like her, no matter what.

"You could see them shut down right there in the audience," she adds. "That was always painful. I took it personally."

But along with the toughness comes a desire to fix things. Is she a civil rights crusader? The answer is yes.

"And I have been forever, and it’s still as unpopular now as it was back then," she says dryly.

And she’s willing to perform in support of pretty much any charity, so long as the cause is just. This includes Wednesday’s charity auction for the Western Canadian Pediatric AIDS society. Planned Parenthood is the one organization to which Westenhoefer says she regularly writes a cheque.

"Yeah," she says proudly, "I’m a big pro-choice girl."

Catch Suzanne Westenhoefer along with Canadian comic Roman Danylo this Wednesday at Altitude 12’s annual comedy night and charity silent auction in the Grand Ballroom at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler. Items up for bid include spa packages, ski equipment and artwork. Tickets to the event are $50, with reduced rates for locals. Doors open at 8 p.m. for pre-performance cocktails. For more information go to www.outontheslopes.com or call 604-938-2769.


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