Nearly 10 years ago comic Suzanne Westenhoefer told Metro Weekly she had quit smoking, in part because of the Mautner Project.
''I'm not going to say it was the exact reason I quit,'' she said at the time, ''but it sure as hell helps things along to have a thousand women staring at you like you're a leper.''
(Photo by Adam Bouska)
Turns out Westenhoefer has been affiliated with Mautner for most of her 33-plus-year career as a comedian. And, it's worth pointing out, Westenhoefer has never once shied away from being open and honest as a lesbian. She was out many years before Rosie O'Donnell and Ellen DeGeneres mustered similar resolve, to great hoopla. Soon after the small-town Pennsylvania native started as a standup comedian in 1990, Mautner came calling. ''It was just like this awesome fit,'' says Westenhoefer. ''Like, I'm not just another comic here to help you guys raise money; I'm a comic here to help you raise money and I actually care about this. This actually matters to me.''
This Saturday, March 9, Westenhoefer returns once again to host and perform at the organization's Spring Gala. When asked a week prior if she remains a nonsmoker, she responds, ''There will be discussion of that. I can't give it away.''
The 51-year-old Westenhoefer, friendly and funny to her bones, will also share other personal health issues and concerns, as well as discuss her experiences helping friends and relatives with cancer. ''I found out the hard way, while going to chemo with someone, that I can actually make chemo patients laugh,'' Westenhoefer says, quickly adding, ''It's not something that I suggest that you try on your own. It could backfire pretty badly.''
As with so many things, better to leave the laughs to a professional.
METRO WEEKLY: How many times have you done the Mautner Project Gala?
SUZANNE WESTENHOEFER: The Gay-la? I honestly don't know. I think I've hosted it four times.
MW: Obviously it means a lot to you.
WESTENHOEFER: It does actually. Women's stuff – oh, I'm one of those feminists.
MW: Has your involvement with Mautner influenced your behavior aside from smoking?
WESTENHOEFER: I've always been one of those obnoxious women who are telling lesbians that they have to get their Pap smears and all that. Just because you don't have sex with men doesn't mean you won't get diseases and blah-blah-blah-blah-blah. So, I'm a supporter. That's my thing! I've taken more women to get Pap smears – that sounds really [crazy], when I hear it out loud like that. [Laughs.]
MW: Cancer remains a huge concern for women's health. But over the decades and the time you've been involved with Mautner, what else would you say has become a hot-button issue?
WESTENHOEFER: Weight. Weight. I have to say weight. Eating badly. Just weight. That's not just women. That's not ethnic. That's not poor, that's not rich. And it's my problem, too. I struggle with it as much as anybody. You can't give in to it. And there have been studies done, and I know that it's true that lesbians, especially, struggle with weight issues. And we just can't [avoid it], because it makes every other issue bad. And it's a pain, and I hate talking about it, 'cause I'm not one of those people who's like, ''Everybody needs to be rail-thin.'' And I'm not one of those people who says, ''Not only do you need to be thin, you need to be fit,'' and all this other stuff. But we can't let this obesity thing take over. I'm sad when I see 13-year-old and 10-year-old kids who are morbidly obese. It's like, No! That can't be! So I would say that's one of the biggest health issues.
But, as of yet, I have found no jokes about it. Not saying I'm not working on it, I'm just saying, because I still struggle with it so much myself, it's just not funny yet.
MW: So you haven't figured out a way to make it funny?
WESTENHOEFER: Not yet. Not that I'm not trying. Just saying that, having struggled my whole life just to keep the 10 pounds off, 20 pounds off, watching other people struggle with it, it's such an ugly problem. Like, you can smoke your whole life and not get cancer. That's the horrible truth about that. You can quit smoking and never smoke and you get cancer. But we can't go without food. And we're really struggling with that. That's a very big issue. Not working out, not taking care of ourselves, not – it's not just anybody, it's everyone. It's me! I mean, I get up some mornings and I think, ''Oh, I would rather club baby seals to death than to get on this treadmill.'' There! My first weight joke!
MW: I take it you work out in the morning?
WESTENHOEFER: That's when I usually do it, yeah. If I work out at all – because I've also really struggled with a lot of [health issues]. I have degenerative disc disease in all of my disks! Ta-dah! I've had four surgeries, and two fusions, in the last five years. I make a really, really loud noise when I get up off the floor now. [Laughs.]
MW: Does exercise help?
WESTENHOEFER: Yeah, it does. But it's a lot harder now.
MW: What can you do to keep that from getting worse?
WESTENHOEFER: Exercise more – but I hate it! I'm like everyone else. Once you get to be 40, I think we all are just like, seriously? Why do I have to exercise anymore? I believe it was Kate Clinton, but I can't remember – some female comedian that I love dearly once said onstage, ''When I am 75, I'm going to eat a Big Mac while snorting heroin! And light a cigarette right after.'' And I know exactly how she feels. I've never wanted to do heroin, I've never done heroin. I don't eat Big Macs. But, I'm just so tired of that constant: What am I eating? What am I not eating? What am I putting in my system? Am I working out, am I not working out? Blech! Can't I just take a nap and watch a marathon of SVU? [Laughs.]
(Photo by Adam Bouska)
MW: Are you a vegetarian or on any health-conscious diet?
WESTENHOEFER: My sister is a vegetarian, and many of my friends are, of course, 'cause I live in L.A. I'm trying to be wheat-free for a month. Not gluten-free, just wheat-free.
MW: What's the difference?
WESTENHOEFER: I'm not sure the difference between wheat and gluten. I don't have that disease, I'm not allergic to gluten or anything. I just know that some friends of mine in Los Angeles have tried cutting wheat out of their diets, and they find they have a lot more energy, etc. So I'm trying it. I'm willing to give it a whirl for a month or two to see if it really does work.
The thing is: You can't give up. I want to give up; you can't give up. You've got to just give it some time. If you slip, and you drink and you're not supposed to drink, AA doesn't turn to you and say, ''Well, then that's it, you're out of the group! [Laughs.] You've failed! And you're now an alcoholic for life, so forget it!'' So working out, trying to eat right, not smoking, not drinking so much: Whatever your health issues are, you've just got to keep [vigilant], because you don't want to die! Or if we do, we want it to be nice and quick and easy. You know, like getting hit by a car or something like that.
That's the way comedians think, by the way. Comedians are dark. We're horrible people like that. Ask a comedian, ''Do you want to live to be 90?'' ''Fuck no, I won't know anybody!'' Or ask a comedian if they want to live to be 90. ''Only if I can still be doing shows.''
MW: That's a good segue to talk about your career. How many shows are you doing these days? Are you still doing it all the time?
WESTENHOEFER: All the time, yeah. I have no intention of slowing down, I'm not slowing down in any way. As long as people will come out and see me, I will come there to them.
Last year I played the 17th annual Gay and Lesbian Jamboree outside Laramie, Wyo. (Officially, ''Rendezvous: The Rocky Mountain Region's Largest GLBT Camping Event.'') It was awesome! How do you say no to that? Who says no to that?
MW: What made it awesome?
WESTENHOEFER: That there is such a thing as an annual Gay and Lesbian Jamboree 45 minutes outside Laramie, Wyo. Just the fact that that exists, there's no way I'm not going to go.
MW: How many people showed up?
WESTENHOEFER: About 500 people.
MW: Were you the host?
WESTENHOEFER: No, I was the comedian, the Saturday night entertainment. I performed on pieces of plywood laid down on the dirt. It was camping. And when I say camping – there was no running water. Like for real! [Laughs.]
MW: I gather you're not able to be home all that often.
WESTENHOEFER: Well, yes and no. It's kind of weird. I'll go like a couple months when I'm only home for a few days a month, and then I'll go a couple months where I'm home like the whole time except for a few weekend nights. I get to have a pretty normal life. It allows me to keep a cat.
MW: So you have a cat. Any children?
WESTENHOEFER: Not at the moment.
(Photo by Adam Bouska)
MW: Do you have a partner at home?
WESTENHOEFER: I would prefer not to discuss that right now. [Laughs.] You can Google all that horror.
MW: Well, although you don't have children of your own, childbirth is another health-related issue that has become a bit more prominent in the LGBT community in recent years.
WESTENHOEFER: Oh my God, yeah. I'm old-school: no kids, no marriage. '
MW: You must have friends that do.
WESTENHOEFER: I actually do. On the block right north of me, most of my lesbian friends up there have children, and they all had them at the same time, so they're all turning like 13 right now.
I live on the block with all the gay men who don't have children. It's better for everyone.
MW: The past couple years have also witnessed an uptick in conservative efforts, including in Virginia, to limit women's reproductive health, specifically when it comes to abortion. Do you weigh in on those kinds of political issues?
WESTENHOEFER: I don't talk about a lot of that stuff in my act. I talk about it person-to-person, and if I'm asked to make a speech somewhere. But I'm not a per se political comic in that vein. Not the least of which is, in general, the majority of people who come to see standup really want to laugh. So, unless I can find a real good joke that goes with it, I don't just throw my opinion out there to throw my opinion out there. And there are very talented, extraordinary political comedians who can make great jokes out of that stuff. That is not my forte.
I want the people to laugh. Obviously, I'm very opinionated and I'm very political, and I say a lot of very controversial, politically incorrect things, but I don't know that unless I was in Virginia and doing a show, and news had just happened that morning, and we were talking about it, that I would say much about it. If you've ever seen my full show, you know I'm controversial enough, I don't need to make any more political enemies. I've got enough of them.
MW: From your vantage point, how much progress has the LGBT community made?
WESTENHOEFER: Obviously, we're just way more visible, and I think there's a lot more acceptance. You can't take that away. But to sit back and act like the work is done would be foolish and would be completely wrong. It's a lot easier to be gay in some cities, but I also perform in Kansas, and I perform in Nebraska, and I perform in Alabama and Mississippi. Things have not changed nearly as fast and not as much. There's still a very big schism.
MW: You notice that when you travel around?
WESTENHOEFER: Oh, totally. I think the biggest difference is that it's something we can talk about now. You don't get run out of town, but it's still bad. There are [LGBT] people who lose their children, who lose their jobs. The kids get beat up. This stuff still goes on. And until that kind of thing starts to calm down, and there's a kind of equality in civil rights, it's going to go on. You can't legislate whether or not people are going to be racist. You can't legislate morality. But I do think people's ideals are changing, and I do think part of why the extreme Christian fundamentalist right-type folk are so loud and verbal now is they're seeing that they are losing. They're losing that battle. But that doesn't mean things are going to be great for us for a while, necessarily.
MW: How has your career changed? Do you have more opportunities now than when you were one of the very few openly gay comedians on the scene?
WESTENHOEFER: No. If I had to say the thing that is most different is, when I started in 1990, just by saying I was a lesbian was controversial and was a big deal. Geraldo called and Phil Donahue called. You've got to go on television and talk about it, and it's, ''Oh my goodness!'' And now there's a lot less of that.
MW: It doesn't have the shock value that it once had.
WESTENHOEFER: And I'm good with that. 'Cause I just want to do my show, you know what I mean? I don't want to have, the first 15 minutes, people passing out or freaking out just 'cause I said I was gay.
MW: Is your family back in Lancaster County, Pa., supportive of your career? Are they fans of your comedy?
WESTENHOEFER: They are. I have a show coming up in Lancaster County in April, in a small town called Ephrata. And all my old babysitters, and the last guy I dated, and everybody – my old cousins and great-great uncles – will come.
MW: I guess you've kept in touch with the last guy you dated.
WESTENHOEFER: Uh, a little bit, yep.
MW: Is that awkward?
WESTENHOEFER: No, he's married and stuff, has kids. [Laughs.] We're all old now!
Suzanne Westenhoefer serves as special guest emcee at Mautner Project's Spring Gala, Saturday, March 9, starting at 5 p.m. at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, 2500 Calvert St. NW. Tickets are $225, or $275 with VIP Reception beforehand featuring Westenhoefer, complimentary wine and hors d'oeuvres. Call 202-332-5536 or visit gala.mautnerproject.org.