Helen Lederer is, by her own admission, partial to a bit of self-help. Positive affirmations, meditation, therapy, decluttering and pampering, she’ll gladly give any of it a go in order to achieve a happy balance in life. However a recent chance meeting with a group of “amazing” older women inspired her to try something new. And it’s safe to say she’s been thrilled with the results. Her secret? A dab of testosterone gel, which she says has put something of a twinkle in her eye – and her marriage.
“Initially I thought, how can you get desire out of a bit of gel? But my experience is that it’s quite nice,” she says.
“Desire is a fantastically important thing to have. And it’s good to recognise if you haven’t got it and sort it out. Now I’m open to anything,” she laughs.
Comedian Helen, 64, has been a consistent presence on stage and screen since first appearing in The Young Ones and Naked Video in the mid-1980s.
She went to the Central School of Speech and Drama, where she was “lucky enough” to cross over with Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French who “gave me some fantastic jobs”, most famously as the hilarious magazine editor Catriona in Absolutely Fabulous.
Over the years she has appeared on numerous TV shows and is a writer and novelist. Her latest project however is something she feels is long overdue – an awards ceremony celebrating funny women writers.
The Comedy Women In Print Awards – or CWIP (geddit?!) – takes place in London on Wednesday. Marian Keyes, Kathy Lette, Katy Brand, Susan Calman and Jenny Eclair are all on the judging panel and a publishing contract with HarperCollins is up for grabs.
The awards are intended to encourage witty women, “There’s a deficit. Phoebe Waller-Bridge is great, very generous and genuine. We need more like her, we have a responsibility to do something,” she says.
Comedian Helen Lederer
Helen is herself a very funny woman yet has, by her own admittance, spent her life plagued by self-doubt – although she can’t pinpoint its source.
“Childhood? Being fat? Wheezy? I had asthma, all of that? I don’t know. But I don’t think I can really shift it, having reached this age. You just live with the fact that this is how it is.
“My 40s was the worst time for comparing myself because life hadn’t gone as I thought.
“I really wanted to be in a sitcom and it didn’t happen. But the important thing is to accept it isn’t a disaster. You can be on television or not but you still have your life to lead. You do get perspective.”
Helen has just finished her second novel and is now thinking about writing her memoirs. Staying busy, she says, helps. “If you’re energised, if you’ve got a kind of hope or a purpose to your day, it keeps you active, although there are those who don’t need that and seem to be happy.
“I’m not a person who seeks happiness because that isn’t my thing. I don’t expect to be happy.
“But I like to avoid being unhappy, so I work on that one.”
Helen’s tried therapy and went through a “spate of being low-low” a few years back, a period of depression that she only later associated with perimenopause.
“I know what’s normal for me, I am very self-critical but this was different. I don’t think people made that connection with perimenopause then.”
HRT (hormone replacement therapy) has been helpful and then there is the testosterone – a hormone that can be used to help boost libido during menopause. Helen is adamant older women – indeed, anyone in a long-term relationship – should find ways to reconnect with desire, not necessarily for sex, but to feel alive.
“I think you have to address how to keep connected as you get older and you’re with the same person. If you’re both very busy then you can suddenly think to yourself, ‘I haven’t had a proper conversation with this person for months’. So get that testosterone on,” she jokes.
Helen lives in Dulwich, south-east London, with second husband Chris Browne. She and her first husband, newspaper editor Roger Alton, divorced in 1989 and Helen raised their daughter Hannah Lederer-Alton, now 29.
“For ages, it was just me and Hannah on our own,” she says. When Hannah was 10, Helen met Chris, a GP. “I’ll have been with Chris 20 years this year, which I cannot believe because he’s the second one.”
And Hannah, who was an actress, recently retrained as a chef and now lives full-time in Ibiza running a catering business.
When Helen visited her last month, she did a breathing workshop run by Hannah’s friend.
“I thought, ‘That’s weird, surely you just kind of inhale and then exhale’. But it was mind-blowing.
Helen as Catriona in Absolutely Fabulous
“At the end, she said, ‘Would you like a hug?’ It made me laugh because it was like a line in a comedy film. But I was listening to a woman singing Hallelujah and I started to cry. I thought, ‘Blimey, I’m so cynical, but you stick on a tape, you do a bit of heavy breathing and I’m in pieces.’”
As her daughter forges a life in Ibiza, Helen’s been pondering the issues of “senior middle age”. Should she downsize, stop dying her hair, buy a cardi? Not likely. The trademark blonde hair, along with the eyeliner and mascara framing her famous cornflower blue eyes, are here to stay.
“I torture myself thinking, what would it be like if I didn’t have this lie on my head? My mum went grey and my sister has, but I need the colour.
“I’m quite limited with what I have, so I just have the eyeliner that goes under the eye and the mascara. I’ve got to have the mascara, a bit of the black liner, and the hair. And that’s me.
“It’s terrible, the co-dependence on the person who dyes your hair. When we start losing our mobility I’ll just have to get the hair person to come to the house.”
● For more information about the Comedy Women In Print Awards, visit comedywomeninprint.co.uk