Tom Allen looks back: ‘One of my coping mechanisms was to create a fantasy life, pretending to be an Edwardian aristocrat’


Born in London in 1983, Tom Allen is a standup comedian and TV presenter. His comedy career kickstarted in 2005 when he was crowned the winner of talent competitions So You Think You’re Funny and the BBC New Comedy award. He has since hosted The Apprentice: You’re Fired!, Cooking With the Stars and The Great British Bake Off: An Extra Slice. His documentary My Big Gay Wedding is available on BBC iPlayer.

A friend took this photo of me before the start of the school summer holidays. I was 16 and standing in front of the sixth form centre with an expression that sums up what I was like back then: maudlin, but also quite precocious and pretentious.

As a teenager, I felt very unusual. I was burying the fact that I was gay, deep down in my psyche, and as a result I didn’t feel at ease with the world. My experience of school had been openly homophobic. There was a pain and longing in my life, which is all very normal when you’re a teenager, especially when it comes to fancying people. The difference was that my friends, most of whom were girls, could talk about it together and possibly tell the person, and maybe it would develop into a relationship. The idea that I could express my feelings to another man – while at a comprehensive school in Bromley – was absolutely unthinkable. I had to ignore it.

One of my coping mechanisms was to create a fantasy life, which largely involved pretending to be an Edwardian aristocrat, John Gielgud or someone from a Virginia Woolf novel. That’s possibly what I was trying to emulate in that photograph, particularly with the hand in the pocket. I also wanted to be Noël Coward. Sometimes, I’d get teased at school for losing my hair, so I’d slick it back with Brylcreem, because that’s what Coward did.

The way I styled myself had a sense of disobedience about it. Even though my dad, who was a coach driver, took a lot of pride in the way he looked, sometimes I’d get dressed and he would say: “No, no, don’t go over the top.” For a lot of parents, it’s important that your kid looks and behaves in a certain way so they fit in, and I certainly didn’t. It was the late 90s, the era of young people wearing tracksuits, and being scruffy and belligerent like the Gallaghers. I kicked against that by being smart and a favourite of the teachers. I saw working very hard and excelling as a little rebellion.

The music room was also a salvation for me. It was a way to hang out with the other gay teenagers who were too scared to come out. There, we were able to express ourselves in a way that the rest of school might not have understood, such as with niche jokes about the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber. I liked to be funny, too, but my mawkishness was a little overbearing. I was far from being the class clown, which to my mind conjured the image of someone who was a bit bantery. I was never a fan of banter. I was much more of a fan of chatting in an unfocused way.

While I had lovely friends, the homophobia I witnessed at school and in the world in general was so insidious that I absolutely hated myself. Those views seemed to go unchallenged, and it all contributed to this feeling of repulsiveness. All the cultural touchstones about homosexuality were shrouded in tragedy and shame. There was never a happy story about an openly gay character.

Related: Joe Joyce looks back: ‘My parents didn’t want me to box. I thought I’d become an artist’

In my early 20s I started thinking that not hating myself might be a better way to live. So I started telling people. Coming out became the defining moment of my life, and showed that I had taken a path to self-acceptance. I was allowing myself to find a partner and to imagine a life where I could be gay and OK.

Of course the internalised homophobia crept in – for a while I thought that no one would find me attractive if I was flamboyant. But there were people around me who encouraged that out of me; friends who would find fabulous outfits and suggest I buy new, eccentric clothes. Eventually, I felt as if I was myself. But I still hadn’t told my dad. He was the last person to find out, when I was 24. As he was born in the 40s and part of the silent generation, I had assumed there was no space for emotion, that he wouldn’t be able to connect to what I was saying. When I called him, he cried. He was so sad his son had been in a situation where he felt he couldn’t tell him the truth.

It was around the same time that I started doing comedy. I was working at the National Youth Theatre and my friends Sam and Charlie suggested I try standup as a bit of a dare. First I won So You Think You’re Funny at the Edinburgh fringe, and then the BBC New Comedy award. That was a real “aha” moment; I realised standing on a stage was something I could do. After that I started getting booked up for clubs.

For a long time, I didn’t feel completely at home in comedy. I always liked Victoria Wood when I was growing up, but whenever I did gigs, all I could see was lots of heterosexual blokes doing jokes. I didn’t do jokes – I never really knew what a joke was, or where I fitted in. There weren’t many slightly underconfident 22-year-olds on the circuit doing bits about their mum’s hostess trolley.

I found performing at the Edinburgh festival particularly challenging. I would do my show and then go back to where I was staying and hide until I had to do it all again. It felt a little like my teenage years – retreating into the music room. Over time I met other comedians like Suzie Ruffle, Amy Annette, Nish Kumar, Stu Goldsmith, Josh Widdicombe, James Acaster, Joel Dommett and Rose Matafeo, who invited me to live with them in Edinburgh. Having them around made me feel more confident as a person, which led to me being much more confident on stage.

It did, however, take about 13 years for me to find my way. That must have been quite alarming for my parents, who had no idea how to make a career in TV and showbiz. At first I wore suits – neutral suits, as I was scared. I soon realised I could be a little more exuberant and added cravats and brooches and colour. I also shaved my head. I was 24 and starting to feel self-conscious about receding. My dad was bald, so I was always anticipating the moment I would have to shave it off. Then it came. It was done. One critic reviewing my Edinburgh show said that I looked otherworldly because of my baldness. I interpreted that as looking like an alien – which I was, a bit. At first I took it to heart, but I learned to embrace it instead.

I have come a long way since that photo was taken. I’m still a little bit “Edwardian starched collars”, both aesthetically and emotionally. But I now feel a great deal of generosity and warmth towards the former version of myself. When I was a teenager, I thought I was repulsive, ugly and disgusting. Now I look back and realise, gosh, I was fine.