At 81 years old, D’yan Forest describes herself as a “young Betty White.” The octogenarian and veteran performer doesn’t mask her sexual conquests in grandma-speak. Indeed she speaks Millennial more fluently than some natives I know– she’s sex positive, has done her fair share of swiping left on Tinder, and is open-minded toward all kinds of people. Before I set off to the West Village apartment to meet D’yan where she’s lived since the ’60s, I phoned her and she assured me: “I’m very interesting, too, darling.” Click. It’s hard to argue with that: the multi-instrumentalist’s career spans at least three continents, and she can sing in nine languages. On top of all that, she’s now trying to hack it as a stand-up comic.
D’yan’s latest effort, A Broad Abroad, opens tonight at the Kraine Theater in East Village, in conjunction with the 2016 Frigid Festival. Like her past comedic acts, this one combines cabaret, storytelling and stand-up. Starting with her stint in Paris in the 1950s, the globetrotting performer recalls everything from sexual conquests “with the Austrian guy or the Syrian guy or the Italian guy” to settling down for a time with an ex-nun. She sings and plays piano on classics like “Is That All There Is?” and “Not Exactly Paris,” as well as original songs like “Thank Heavens for Senior Sex.”
D’yan has certainly found her niche in geriatric jokes. “People start laughing the moment I get up there,” she explained. “Because they’re wondering, ‘What is this old woman doing up on stage?!’ I’m a conservative person in private life, not on stage, I’ll practically do anything, say anything,” she cackled. “But I accept me, I accept everybody.”
This might stem from being the odd one out. D’yan is bisexual, something she “kept quiet” for a number of years. “I had one boyfriend and then I had a girlfriend, whatever, and I was sort of faithful to the boyfriend and sort of faithful to the girlfriend, but I kept being bi– I couldn’t be one or the other– and nobody really knew except for my close friends,” she recalled.
Even though she’s still back and forth on whether or not to use the “bisexual stuff” in any given performance, it was comedy that offered D’yan a means of coming out of the closet to a larger audience for the first time and to really lay her sexcapades out there.
She has faced some obstacles, especially in appealing her true, bisexual, sex-positive self to her peers. D’yan faced what she refers to as “the pussy fiasco,” a few years back when she found that people were “turning away” from her show, My Pussy is Purrin’ Again, before they could even get in. “The title was too graphic for the white-haired people,” she said. “And the gays don’t want to hear about a pussy.” Hence, her title this time around is “a little more conservative,” she admitted. But don’t expect D’yan to hold back much more. “I guess I have a come-hither attitude,” she said. “The thing that works the best is the sex– I’m risqué, but I’m not vulgar at all– these young people, they can’t believe it! What seems to work is to be the sexy 81-year-old, because I guess there aren’t many around.”
D’yan doesn’t exactly fit the profile of the young, struggling but up-and-coming comic, which defines so many comedians in New York City. “I realized I’m different,” she said, thinking more on her set. “Well, it ain’t boring.” Still, D’yan has increasingly found wider audiences. “Young people love me, old people love me. ‘What’s your audience?’ people ask. Well, it’s anybody– a lot of the agents, they can’t figure that out,” she explained. “They want these young boys with the beards. You know? The fellows your age.”
Ah yes, the boys with the beards. There are people out there like Mo Fathelbab, founder of The Experiment Comedy Gallery, looking to shake things up. Fathelbab in particular is hoping to bump the mic out of the hands of the (sometimes bearded) white boys who dominate the comedy world, and toss it to women-of-color, Muslims, and other underrepresented groups in standup and beyond. But are there really that many people out there working to smash ageism in the comedy world too? D’yan said agents and bookers assume that she won’t work, or that her comedy will be too, well, old.
Haters are gonna hate, as D’yan and I agreed. Though it’s hard to know if D’yan knows how much of a badass she is. She has a self-deprecating, wry sense of humor that sometimes veers into doomed laughter. “I’m trying to find my niche, and before I do I’ll be dead!” she squealed. “They can’t figure it out, I should be married with children– I wish I was!– but it’s me. It’s me. What can I do?”
D’yan didn’t start out as a comedian. In fact, she’s spent most of the last 50-plus years working in show biz, scoring gigs as a multi-instrumentalist serenading over pianos at cocktail lounges, singing in French for audiences at country clubs, “elegant hotels,” and private parties.
As a kid in Boston, D’yan took music lessons of all kinds– “trumpet, piano, drums”– but when she turned 16, she had her heart set on a guitar. “That was all the rage in whatever year it was,” she explained. “They gave me a ukelele, and I started crying, ‘But I want a guitar.’” D’yan recalled her father telling her squarely, “‘Guitars are for boys, a ukelele is for a girl.’” She shook her head. “Can you believe it? This is the way the world was.”
But growing up in “Puritan Boston” didn’t stop D’yan from becoming an independent woman. She traveled to Paris, a rarity back then and much more difficult (“It was a big deal, go over in a boat, six days, you can’t imagine the difference”), before she was beckoned home. “I got married to a nice Jewish boy, because in the ’50s you were pushed to get married,” she recalled. “And, well, he turned out not to be a great husband because he didn’t know how to pleasure a woman. Now, ordinarily that wouldn’t matter, except that the woman was me.” After the divorce, D’yan returned to Paris to “escape” Boston. “My parents still had my wedding picture on the television,” she shook her head. “This is the way it was, they didn’t want to tell anyone.”
D’yan recalled Paris, where she returns occasionally, in glowing terms. “I had a ball,” she said. “In other words, everything that didn’t happen in Boston with my husband, I decided to explore in Paris. I finally met someone who taught me about love.” An underground “women’s club” offered D’yan an opportunity to mingle with other women who were interested in women. “Wow! It was an awakening,” she said. “I was only 29 years old, my god what a world!” Actually, D’yan is still in touch with the first woman she was ever with in Paris. “I’ve been bisexual ever since that swing scene,” she explained.
After her parents beckoned her back stateside, D’yan made her way to New York. “Daddy said I couldn’t go back to Paris, so I decided to split the difference and I came to New York,” she recalled. “It was the Vietnam War, whenever that was.” Right away, D’yan found work in cocktail lounges scattered around Manhattan, work that pushed her to open up. “You had to work six nights a week, six hours a night and to work in these places, part of it was I had a great voice, but that doesn’t really count,” she recalled. “I started losing my voice, so to save your voice you would have to play god-knows-what on the piano and talk to the people.”
D’yan didn’t discriminate. She worked in fancy hotels, lounges, and even dives– “Because I don’t care, I’m a pianist,” she laughed. Occasionally, though, D’yan found herself in the midst of the city’s seedy underbelly. She remembered a weekend gig she had at a lounge on East 57th street about 30 to 40 years ago. “Usually when you have these jobs you have 20 minutes off. The owner said, ‘I want you to sit at the bar, and talk to the clients.’ It took me a couple of weekends to figure out what was going on. The women in the bar would leave, and then they’d come back an hour later, and then I was able to go back to the piano. This was a hooker bar! And when they’d go off with the johns, the owner wanted someone sitting at the bar to bring in more clients. I was a decoy hooker!” she squealed. “If my mother could see me!” Another place, what D’yan recalled was a Japanese establishment now long gone, was a front for a clandestine mahjong gambling operation. “They weren’t there to see me, they were there to gamble,” she laughed. “That’s the thing with show business– you do everything.”
I wondered what the gay scene in New York City was like back in the ’60s– after all, D’yan had moved here well before the Stonewall Riots of ’69. She recalled going to “girls clubs,” many of them underground operations. “There was one on 14th Street called Kooky’s and it was run by the mafia,” D’yan recalled. “Kooky was this blonde, beautiful woman, she wasn’t gay at all, but was hired by the mafia so all these women could go in on Friday, Saturday night.” Some googling around led me to read that Kooky was “said to be hostile to the gay liberation movement, fearing it would cut into her business.” According to D’yan she was a hardcore business woman. “It was hysterical because I don’t drink really, but you had to buy one drink, and even if you’d had one sip and you look off, she’d whip it away, so you’d have to get another drink,” she laughed. “Other clubs you’d go to, if the lights went on and off, that meant the police were coming, and if there were guys in the club, then everybody danced with guys.”
Throughout the years, D’yan dated who she wanted– “guys, girls, whatever”– and worked hard for her money. While she admitted it was hard being a woman in her industry, something else threatened to derail her career even more. “It was about being Jewish,” she explained. “Immediately you had to change your name, when I started entertaining at 23 years old. So I picked the name Diana Lunn, and then when I came to New York, they kept thinking I was Chinese. They’d call me ‘Diana Lung’ before I walked in the room. Then I figured out, let’s become something else– so D’yan Forest, Diana of the hunt– it worked.” This allowed her to work in country clubs in Connecticut and on Long Island without any issues. “I pretended I was French,” she said. “Because they were so stupid people didn’t think you could be both Jewish and French.”
But even D’yan’s appearance betrayed her. “I would go to country clubs and someone would say, ‘You look like Barbara Streisand! You’re Jewish, aren’t cha?’ This was 30 years ago, Jersey City– I said, ‘No, I’m French!'” she recalled. “So, I got a nose job. This is what you had to do.”
Still, D’yan admitted that being a woman raised some automatic assumptions about her. “‘Women don’t do comedy, they have to be ugly,’ I was told this at age 30,” she remembered. “I saw Joan Rivers doing it, but I didn’t know what comedy really was, nobody ever encouraged a woman. Joan Rivers broke the barrier for us. White wasn’t a comedian, she was in the TV shows. Now, there’s still this attitude that women can do it, but they want the young fellows with the beards still. Being a woman, it’s still hard.”
D’yan continued to work long hours in the entertainment industry, until 9/11 happened. “All of a sudden the jobs dropped, believe it or not, for years– people weren’t drinking in the country clubs, everyone was so sad, all my jobs are canceled,” she recalled. “It was like, ‘What?!’ Because my career was going pretty well, even though I was older.” So D’yan began thinking of ways she could jumpstart her career. “I was sick of not performing,” she said. For help, D’yan reached out to Caroline, owner of the legendary comedy club on Broadway.
Shortly thereafter, D’yan was writing jokes and “parody songs,” but admitted, “learning comedy was hard.” Eventually, she lined up her first gig at Gotham Comedy Club. “There were a few people there– you know, you have to beg, borrow, and steal,” she said. “I told people, ‘Come watch me fall on my face’ and I did this little schtick with my ukulele.” D’yan still has a videotape of her first show. “What happened was, all the sudden people started to laugh,” she beamed. “You could see my shock, ‘Oh! They’re laughing at me!’ I was amazed.”
Because attitudes change quickly, D’yan has had to stay on top of her game. For example, several years back she had a number about being a cougar. “You don’t even hear people talk about cougars anymore,” she said. “So that whole schtick is gone.” But D’yan’s been on to what’s next for a while now. Her next focus? An account of her experiences on Tinder. “Now I’m trying to find somebody, because I broke up with someone last year so I’m on all these websites which are phony, phony, phony,” she said. “I’ve been trying Tinder, and you should see the comments from these guys. I tell them I’m 71, but still it’s crazy. This will be the newest comedy schtick. I’m saving all these horrible messages.”
And despite some serious setbacks, like lung cancer, D’yan has found something that she’s truly passionate about. “I had the cancer, but I still kept performing,” she said. “I had the chemo for a week, and then another week you feel stinky, and then another week I’d perform. And then the chemo came again! In the end they took out a lobe, and ay ay ay, but I kept performing, I kept singing.”
While her show is ostensibly about her adventures as a young person and D’yan’s continuing commitment to new experiences, travel, and dating, it’s also about “educating my audience,” she said. “The young people I meet, they say, ‘What? You’re still looking for someone?’ They have no idea. I met this one guy at a wild party in Paris and I told him, ‘I’m a lot older than you,’ and he said, ‘Amour n’a pas d’âge’– love has no age–this is what I’d really like to call my show, but I don’t think it will bring the people in. But really, that’s what my show is about: love has no age. Americans don’t understand.”
D’yan Forest will perform “A Broad Abroad” at The Kraine Theater (85 East 4th Street), Tue Feb 16, 5:30pm, Sun Feb 21, 3:30pm; Fri Feb 26, 6:50pm; Wed March 2, 5:30 pm; and Fri March 4, 8:30 pm.