He’s the feminist who took Women’s Studies at university – then found himself at the centre of a media storm about the portrayal of female stars.
It’s ironic that while James Mullinger was working at GQ magazine, he was responsible for airbrushing the controversial cover picture of Kate Winslet. By making her thinner and giving her longer legs, he provoked outrage at the digital manipulation.
But he protests that he, of all people, would never set out to denigrate women.
“I wasn’t being sexist, I was just an idiot,” says James, who has now found fame as a stand-up comedian and is appearing at Birmingham Comedy Festival.
“I was inexperienced and didn’t know what I was doing. God knows why I was left in charge of this.
“The argument against airbrushing is very valid – Kate is beautiful and really didn’t need her photo retouched – but I wasn’t a misogynist move on my part, just a bad mistake. It should never have happened.
“It was a really traumatic time for me, with everyone saying I was a misogynist, when I’m a hard-core feminist who has been on marches!
“In another ironic twist, I’d actually been Kate’s penfriend when I was a teenager. I was obsessed with her character Marianne from Sense and Sensibility and wrote to tell her.
“Weirdly, she wrote back and this exchange went on for months. She said I made her laugh. I didn’t get to meet her when she did the GQ shoot, probably because they were worried I had stalker tendencies.
“But at least the whole incident gave me material for my stand-up act, which is very honest and confessional. Things that other people would try to conceal, I talk about, like losing my virginity, terrible things I’ve done when drunk and embarrassing sexual encounters.
“I don’t go looking for trouble, but when awful things happen to me, I go ‘at least this is 10 minutes for the act’.”
James frequently performs gigs in aid of women’s charities and has a degree in Women’s Studies and English Literature.
“I was inspired by my English teacher at school who was dying of lung cancer and taught literally from her death bed,” remembers the 35-year-old.
“She taught us feminist ways of reading Chaucer and Jane Austen which I found fascinating, so I decided to study it further.
“A few other men joined the university course as a way of meeting women, but they were soon weeded out. On the first day we walked in and on the whiteboard was written ‘All men are rapists, discuss’.
“I think I was before my time. There were lots of comics in Edinburgh this year talking about feminism in their acts, when I was doing it three years ago.
“It is talked about more but attitudes haven’t improved that much. Unfortunately men still make sexist comments and get away with it. Women still earn less than men and hold less power.
“I think it’s interesting to talk about a serious subject and be funny about it. I find it easier than writing a straightforward gag. If you make an interesting point, there’s less pressure on you with the punch line. You try to be funny, but at least if people nod and you make them think, that’s not so bad. It’s braver to be the type of comedian who talks ingenious nonsense – if you don’t laugh at that, that’s far more awkward.”
James plays the Old Joint Stock Theatre in Birmingham tomorrow (Friday) as part of the city’s comedy festival.
“The show is called Living The Dream and is my first one that’s intended to be feel good. My shows have been about getting people to laugh at my misfortune, but now I’m trying to be more positive.
“Five years ago the phrase Living The Dream was overused. Now you only ever hear it used sarcastically because we’re all so miserable. The aim of my show is to reverse that.
“I love playing Birmingham, I genuinely think it’s the best place I’ve ever played. It has the most comedy savvy audience. They’re not cynical or comedy snobs, they are just up for a laugh.
“I started my second solo tour at the Old Joint Stock theatre, which was nerve-racking but it’s a lovely little space.
“I think all comedians agree that Birmingham is a great city and its Glee Club is the best club in the country. It’s well designed and it all runs smoothly. I don’t think people realise quite how rare that is!
“I’ve been to numerous gigs where you turn up and there’s no microphone and no stage, or the audience is facing the wrong way or are all drunk and violent.
“I’ve had an audience chant ‘You unfunny ****’ at me at the Comedy Store in London. That happens less as you get more experienced, but a gig can still go badly.
“Sometimes it’s because it’s a rough room and a bad audience, but sometimes it’s your fault, you may have said something to alienate them. I have seen comedians turn an audience round and go from silence to a standing ovation, but I’ve never been able to do that. I just panic!”
* James Mullinger plays Birmingham’s Old Joint Stock Theatre on October 4. For tickets, ring 0121 200 0946 or go to www.oldjointstocktheatre.co.uk
Russell Brand leads Birmingham's comic invasion
Russell Brand is the biggest name in this year’s Birmingham Comedy Festival, but he’s just the tip of the funny iceberg.
There are more than 60 events taking place from tomorrow until October 13, featuring plenty of stand-up comedy but also theatre, burlesque, workshops, quizzes, visual art, music and puppets.
Brand appears at sell-out gigs at Symphony Hall on Monday and Tuesday. Other headliners include Adam Hills, Robin Ince and Nina Conti.
Also appearing are Rosin Conaty, Tony Law, Rob Beckett, Adam Kay, James Mullinger and the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre.
There are plenty of local acts popping up during the festival, including Joe Lycett, Barbara Nice, Jo Enright, Shazia Mirza, Steve Day and James Cook.
Barbara, aka Janice Connolly, is celebrating 30 years of Women & Theatre with a special fund-raiser at the Glee Club, featuring Jan Ravens and Jen Brister.
The Coin-Operated Girl is a comedy play at the Blue Orange Theatre based on the real experiences of Miranda Kane as a sex worker.
Wolverhampton’s Linda Hargreaves brings her one-woman show Rice n Peas n Caviar to the Lamp Tavern, while The Birmingham Footnotes, sketch troupes from University of Birmingham, perform their Edinburgh Festival act at the Six Eight Kafe.
The festival closes with the crowning of the Birmingham New Comedian of the Year.
For more information, go to www.bhamcomfest.co.uk .