Not even the English can keep a stiff upper lip when Tracey Ullman is around—and with good reason. If this extroverted 24-year-old Brit wit, actress, pop singer and TV comic isn’t the funniest lady to come along since Joan, Lily and Gilda, she’s surely a next-best Bette. Back home, where she’s affectionately known as “our Trace,” she has hit it big with three smash singles in a row and a satirical TV series, the SCTV-like Three of a Kind, which had viewers howling at her razor-sharp impersonations. In the U.S. her album containing girl-group classics from the mid-’60s, You Broke My Heart in 17 Places, was easily the most delightful pop confection released last spring, and her campy music video to They Don’t Know was one of MTV’s most popular. This month audiences can view her comedic gifts on the large screen as well: She has a plum role in Paul McCartney’s new musical movie, Give My Regards to Broad Street, playing a punky waif who helps the Big Mc track down a thief.
In person, Ullman is every inch the wisecracking, gum-snapping madcap, taking flight in a change-of-pace voice that can negotiate a turn of character like a Porsche taking a hairpin curve. One moment she’s flawlessly twitting a Jewish American Princess in a Streisand nasal whine. The next, she’s lampooning former Miss America Tawny Schneider, now an L.A. television reporter. “She’s always in some exotic place like Tahiti eating lobster, saying, ‘This is rillee tastee.’ ” Then in a stage whisper Ullman adds, “I’d love to do something disgusting to Tawny.”
“I just didn’t make an impact as a straight actress, ya know?” says Ullman, finally coming in for a landing. “I really thought I was great when I did a quite serious soap opera for the BBC. I played a nice girl from St. John’s Wood. ‘Mummy, I think I’m pregnant. I don’t know who’s done it.’ Then I would fall down a hill or something. ‘EEEEE! Oh, no, lost another baby.’ It seemed all I ever did was have miscarriages—or make yogurt. I thought I would be made. But the only call I got was from a very, very seedy journalist who wanted to know what I liked doing in bed.”
The irony is that despite the wacky image, Britain’s favorite funny lady has a dark side. Although she was born into a prosperous family in Slough, England, her émigré father—a lawyer serving her town’s large Polish community—died when she was only 6, and her upper-crust world of private schools, ponies and orange squash quickly crumbled. Shuttled off to a state school with her older sister, Tracey was regarded as an outsider by classmates, who bristled at her upper-class accent. “I had to talk like them”—she says the word with disdain—”to avoid being beaten up.”
At the age of 10—”a real woof-foot, always the plain Jane”—she was already modeling herself on the great character actresses. By 12 she won a scholarship to stage school, where she developed a healthy cynicism for “false glamour,” eventually rejecting her mother’s offer to pay for a redesigned nose and bust (“I have a pair of fried eggs up there”). She got her start in a Berlin chorus line, but her dancing career ended two years later. One night, when her partner flipped her into the air, there was a silence—followed by a rousing cheer from the front row. Ullman had “forgotten to put on my knickers” under her small swirly skirt.
Ullman branched out with a series of theatrical roles in West End musicals and occasional trips to the repertory circuit to prove she could be serious. She made her breakthrough portraying a fluffy club singer in an improvisational play called Four in a Million, for which she won the London Theatre Critics Award as Most Promising New Actress of 1981, and landed a part in Three of a Kind.
Ullman asserted herself by refusing to play stereotyped “female” roles. Nobody believed her portrait of Berry Tomlinson—a woman whose house was full of fungus—could work, but she stuck with the ideas and developed Tomlinson into one of her best-known caricatures. Her lampoonery also targeted the Mandrell Sisters, “chat-show” guests and Duran Duran fans.
It was a chance encounter in a beauty parlor with the wife of Stiff Records’ President Dave Robinson that encouraged Tracey to launch her recording career. With a poker face, she sings mostly nostalgic chestnuts like Bobby’s Girl and Move Over Darling, a song made famous by Doris Day in the film of the same name. Hardly liberated fare, she admits, but she insists the music is intended to recall happy days “before my father died.”
Ullman’s sister once described Tracey’s voice as a dead ringer for Minnie Mouse’s. Tracey admits she doesn’t give Tina Turner much competition and insists, “I’m an actress above all else. And I do it to the full. Whether it’s theater, TV or films with singing, I just mime my way around the world. Acting sells the records.”
For her role in Broad Street, Ullman auditioned by sending McCartney one of her music videos. Although Fleet Street critics tartly dubbed the film Mc Yentl, Tracey insists, “I liked my character. She was a bit tarnished and looked tatty and dyed her hair and looked a bit of a slut, really. I find that interesting. I hate being the goody-goody in anything.”
Her friends have learned to expect other surprises as well. Tracey’s three-year relationship with a West London electrician had no sooner ended last fall than she headed for Los Angeles and a secret Christmas wedding to millionaire British TV producer Allan McKeown, 38. Ten months later she admits they still reserve the honeymoon suites when they travel (although Ullman, who is “very independent,” insists on splitting the bills).
The pair divide their time between Los Angeles and London, where Tracey is now on location with Meryl Streep filming Plenty, based on a play about an English heroine of the French Resistance. She’s also working on a new LP, a British TV sitcom and an idea for an American TV pilot. “I think I’ll live in America eventually,” says Tracey. “The attitude toward success is better there. If you do well, people seem genuinely pleased for you—they accept it, respect it. There’s a star system there. Here everyone is bitter and backbiting.” The question is, will a simple star system be enough? An import like Ullman might need something more like a galaxy.