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Tracey Ullman apologises for using blackface and impersonating Asian characters in past skits: ‘I used to get a high from becoming other people’


Tracey Ullman has apologised for using blackface and doing impressions of African American and Asian characters on TV in the past. 

The actress, 64, has amassed a fortune in the States specialising in sketch shows, including her Tracey Takes On series which aired from 1996 to 1999.

Among the alter-egos she played was an Asian doughnut shop owner called Mrs Noh Nang Ning, black airport security worker Sheneesha Turner and a New York cab driver called Chic.

Tracey was asked by journalist and television presenter Louis Theroux on the new edition of his podcast about how she viewed those characters now.

When he raised Noh Nang Ning, Tracey said: ‘Yeah, now you look back and you think, if somebody saw that and was hurt, you feel terrible about it.’

Tracey Ullman, 64, has apologised for using blackface and doing impressions of African American and Asian characters on TV in the past

Tracey Ullman, 64, has apologised for using blackface and doing impressions of African American and Asian characters on TV in the past

The actress has amassed a fortune in the States specialising in sketch shows, including her Tracey Takes On series which aired from 1996 to 1999 (pictured left on the show)

The actress has amassed a fortune in the States specialising in sketch shows, including her Tracey Takes On series which aired from 1996 to 1999 (pictured left on the show)

Probing further, Louis claimed he discovered there was pushback about that particular impression at the time, including protests, which Tracey said she wasn’t aware of, before admitting she was sorry.

She said: ‘Well, they probably were right. It was the wrong thing to do and I apologise and it was in the past now and I feel bad about it and what can you do?

‘It’s like, then it seemed fun and you know, people do all the things, now it’s like we’re living through this culture and everyone just has to be awash with shame for what they ever did or thought.

‘And I think we’re going through a big, big questioning period, as we should, but no, it’s not something I would do today.’

Before tackling the topic, Louis had warned Tracey: ‘We’re going to wade into the culture wars now, so strap in!

‘So some of the sketches looking back are clearly sailing close to the wind in a way that certainly nowadays probably would be questioned… and in there as well, how do I put this, occasionally you take on what would be called I suppose trans-racial…’

Tracey cut in to say she ‘wanted to be everybody’ and initially seemed to justify the skits.

She said: ‘Chic, an indeterminate Middle-Eastern cab driver. I got into a cab in New York once and this Middle-Eastern guy said to me, “Hey, you like sex?” Just straight up there!’

Among the alter-egos she played was an Asian doughnut shop owner called Mrs Noh Nang Ning, black airport security worker Sheneesha Turner and a New York cab driver called Chic.

Among the alter-egos she played was an Asian doughnut shop owner called Mrs Noh Nang Ning, black airport security worker Sheneesha Turner and a New York cab driver called Chic.

She said: 'Well, they probably were right. It was the wrong thing to do and I apologise and it was in the past now and I feel bad about it and what can you do?' (pictured in 2015)

She said: ‘Well, they probably were right. It was the wrong thing to do and I apologise and it was in the past now and I feel bad about it and what can you do?’ (pictured in 2015)

The comedian continued: ‘And he pointed and said, “This is my love cabinet.” You now, the compartment in the car.

‘I thought, “Oh God, I want to be that guy.” So I could do anything, I had this amazing make-up department, I’d dress up, I’d put all this hair over my arms.

‘For Chic, it was like the itchiest craziest character I’ve ever done and I would be at four in the morning in a gas station in downtown LA shooting this stuff and I thought I was somebody else.

‘I used to get a high from becoming other people and enveloping myself in these make-ups and stuff and it was fascinating, it’s what everybody was doing, this was 30 years ago. It’s just I wanted to be everybody. It was really interesting.’

When Louis mentioned playing black character Sheneesha Turner, Tracey conceded: ‘No, you wouldn’t do it now.’

And in response to being asked if it felt like ‘a dangerous or a big step’ she replied: ‘No, I just felt fun and I was with other black actors and I think I did it because Eddie Murphy had just been a white woman and there was so much going on and you could just do it and it was done with energy and interest and love and a love of people – and you wouldn’t do it now. It’s historical nuance, it was a time… it didn’t feel like a livewire at that time, no.’

Tracey then raised shamed paedophile Jimmy Savile, who Louis famously interviewed in 2000 years before his sick sex offending crimes became known.

She was responding to Louis stating ‘these things are constantly being revisited and rethought and tastes change and it’s very easy to look back and poke holes, whether it’s wise after the event or to apply cultural standards that perhaps are of now’.

Tracey said: ‘It’s really hard, you perceive things differently in different eras. Watching you do the two Jimmy Saviles is fascinating because you saw him as somebody totally different. When you first did it, you were taken in by that “Now then, now then!” guy.

‘I remember showing a clip of him to my writing friend in America and they went, “God, that guy’s weird.” They thought he was so strange and that England would like somebody like that.

‘But look how your perception of him changed, that shifted didn’t it?

‘Because everybody’s got their s*** from their past that their dealing with, Louis!

‘It’s like s*** from your past, it’s things that you thought were different back then, that you just look at now and go, “Argh!” You know, we all have this.’

Tracey made her comedy breakthrough in the early 1980s in Britain, including alongside Lenny Henry and David Copperfield in BBC sketch series Three of a Kind.

But it was when she emigrated to the United States that her career really took off thanks to The Tracey Ullman Show from 1987 until 1990, which also featured the first appearances of The Simpsons.

By 2017 she was said to be the wealthiest British comedian with an estimated £80million fortune, according to the Sunday Times Rich List.

In an interview the previous year with Vulture she said she ‘never got any complaints’ for doing blackface and complained that in the modern era ‘everyone’s so damn sensitive’ but added at the time: ‘It wouldn’t stop me.’

She also bemoaned political correctness impacting comedy and said: ‘It’s very inhibiting. That’s why I did it then. Everyone is being so PC, it’s exhausting.

‘If it’s done with the right spirit and energy and people like that exist, speak like that, have lives like that, and you’re doing it in the right way, I think there should be no objection to anyone trying anything.’



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