The funny thing about Ruby…
…is she’s far happier now she’s swapped comedy for meditation, mindfulness and a house on her own in the middle of nowhere. But what does her husband Ed think about them living apart together? She opens up to Louise Gannon
Ruby Wax is no longer the woman she was. The loud, brash comedy darling of the 80s, 90s and noughties is now living on her own in a tiny eco Nano house in the countryside.
Ruby Wax’s various documentary chat show series ran for more than a decade with audience figures of 14 million and must-see moments. Dress, Amanda Wakeley. Boots, Jimmy Choo. Earrings, Alighieri
Ruby pictured with her husband Ed Bye attending the Hawn Foundation UK launch in 2012
‘You haven’t heard of a Nano house?’ she says, her gravelly Midwest American accent sounding much quieter down the phone line when I call to discuss her latest book, And Now for the Good News. ‘It’s just one room, very simple and I have a little Ikea kitchen. Perfect.’
The 67-year-old, who could take down the likes of Madonna and Imelda Marcos with a sarcastic quip and a dive into their closets on her BBC chat show Ruby Wax Meets…, these days gets her fulfilment from meditation, writing and, her last vice, finding online bargains such as a handheld hoover and a bean-cutter.
So how has she ended up here and doesn’t she miss the heady fame she once had, appearing in shows such as Girls on Top with Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, or as a guest star and script editor of Absolutely Fabulous? Her various documentary chat show series ran for more than a decade with audience figures of 14 million and must-see moments, including being thrown off Donald Trump’s private plane in 2000 when she guffawed continuously as he described his plans to become president.
‘When you become famous it’s amazing but it has a time limit and you have to realise that,’ Ruby tells You Mag. Ruby wears dress, Roland Mouret, theoutnet.com. Earrings, Alighieri
‘I knew I suffered from depression but I didn’t understand it or how to deal with it, so there were periods where I was crippled and controlled by it.’ Dress, Iris & Ink, theoutnet.com. Earrings, Alighieri
‘God, no,’ she says. ‘I wouldn’t want to be on television these days because the way they do shows now sucks the soul out of everything. When I did my documentaries we had time and money, which is what made it all work. You could get to know someone, be in situations when everything wasn’t planned in advance. Now chat shows are like fast food outlets, quick soundbites. People come on to sell their products. You don’t learn anything. I have no interest. And I have no interest in fame. When you become famous it’s amazing but it has a time limit and you have to realise that. Mine came, mine went. It becomes sad when you keep trying to hang on to your fame because you can’t bear to let it go. You just get caught up in a vicious ever-decreasing circle which becomes stressful and unhappy. I don’t think about it any more. I never watch old shows; never look at photographs. It happened and it’s in my past. I can’t even remember what I was like or what it was like to be that person. I had a mental illness. I knew I suffered from depression but I didn’t understand it or how to deal with it, so there were periods where I was crippled and controlled by it.
‘I was very unhappy. It had come to a point where I knew I’d had my time. I knew I wanted to deal with my illness. I am in a much better place in my life now.’ But Ruby has not in any way disappeared. In fact, she is arguably a far more powerful force than ever as one of the leading voices and campaigners in Britain for mental health awareness. In 2015 she was awarded an OBE for her contribution.
Over the past decade and a half – after gaining a postgraduate certificate in psychotherapy and counselling at Regent’s University in 2006 and going on to graduate from Kellogg College, Oxford, with a degree in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy – she has written three bestselling books on mental health. She then turned these into live stage shows, performing to sellout audiences up and down the country, helping to remove the stigma from depression and – in her inimitable way – bringing neuroscience to life in the form of education and entertainment.
She gives keynote speeches and advice to major organisations from MI5 to Facebook, Google and Apple on mindfulness in the workplace, and in 2017, backed by Marks & Spencer, launched her Frazzled Café charity where people can turn up to designated cafés to meet and share their problems.
‘During lockdown we saw a huge increase in numbers and I was able to join three meetings every week on Zoom and just listen and talk,’ she says, excitement building in her voice. ‘We became a real close community which was incredible, all of us helping each other.’
Ruby has always swum against the tide. Like now, in the midst of the worst pandemic and world economic crisis, coming up with a book called Now for the Good News. Top, Roksanda, fenwick.co.uk. Earrings, Alighieri. Ring, Ruby’s own
But I am curious. Before we start to talk about her new book I want to know more about the Nano house and what has happened to her husband of 32 years and father of her three children, the television producer Ed Bye. ‘He’s in our house in London,’ she says. ‘I come here to write my books, but then lockdown happened and I just stayed. He visits. He’s working on a film and on his film-making journey and I’m on mine.’ She pauses: ‘When lockdown is over I’m going to go to a community called Ithaca [an eco-village outside New York where residents share tasks such as gardening and have weekly meals together] to see what it’s like to live there.’ Will Ed go too? ‘No, this is my thing. I might stay a day, a week, a couple of years – who knows? I want to experience it.’ She laughs: ‘Yes, it’s a bit of a shock to my kids but they appreciate I’m on this path. During lockdown I saw how community became a bigger thing in our lives and I want to explore that for a new book, but I don’t talk the talk, I walk the walk, so I have to find out for myself what it feels like.’
Her marriage is clearly not conventional, but she says it works. The mild-mannered former public schoolboy Ed has been the rock in her life, looking after her throughout the bouts of crippling depression that she had no idea how to deal with until her 40s. ‘He knows who I am in a good way, the best way,’ she says. ‘Being married to me cannot be an easy ride. My kids [Max, 32, Maddie, 30, and 27-year-old Marina] just think of me as the mother they’ve always had. I love them. I loved having kids.’
She has always swum against the tide. Like now, in the midst of the worst pandemic and world economic crisis, coming up with a book called Now for the Good News. It is an inspiring delve into ways in which new methods are being employed in business, education, technology and the food industry, and are working – from mindfulness in schools to companies like the sportswear label Patagonia, where babies come to work with their mothers, schools are subsidised for employees, 60 per cent of vice presidents are women and business has quadrupled in the past decade.
In order to write the book, Ruby walked the walk, travelling from China to Scotland (to the eco-village Findhorn near Inverness) to Finland and America. ‘Actually,’ she laughs, ‘for much of it I was carried. I broke my back a year ago falling off a horse, then a few days later falling down stairs. But I still needed to see these places so I had a lot of bandages and codeine – although at times I had to be carried. My son Max came with me to Finland. He thought I was insane, and when I think about it now it was insane. But I didn’t think about it – I just did it.’
Ruby with Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French and Joan Greenwood in Girls on Top, 1986
Ruby with actor Rupert Everett in 1987. ‘I wouldn’t want to be on television these days because the way they do shows now sucks the soul out of everything’
Ruby with Joan Collins in 1994. These days gets her fulfilment from meditation, writing and, her last vice, finding online bargains such as a handheld hoover and a bean-cutter
Ruby performing at the Latitude festival. At school, Ruby was considered stupid, with one teacher claiming she had ‘criminal tendencies’. ‘My life was miserable,’ she says. ‘I had a very strange upbringing’
As a child Ruby was deeply unhappy, with emotionally abusive parents (her dad, Edward, was the sausage-casing king of Illinois) who had themselves escaped Nazi-controlled Austria. Her mother would spend days screaming hysterically (she, too, suffered from depression). At school, Ruby was considered stupid, with one teacher claiming she had ‘criminal tendencies’. ‘My life was miserable,’ she says. ‘I had a very strange upbringing. My parents bought grave plots and took me to see them. There were three: one said “Mummy”, one said “Daddy” and the middle one said “Ruby”. When I was in my 20s they used to lock me in the house. I think they thought that if I went out I’d become a drug addict. They thought I was a loser. So I escaped.’
She hitchhiked across America and Europe, ending up in England where she pushed her way into drama school then (despite being told she didn’t stand a chance) won a place at the Royal Shakespeare Company. At the last minute she was told she had to be married to a UK resident, so she did so within 24 hours. Was this Ed? ‘No,’ she laughs. ‘I can’t tell you who because it wasn’t exactly legal. Just for convenience.’
Ruby with her husband, TV producer and director Ed Bye. She didn’t meet Ed until 1988 when he turned up at Dawn French’s house to talk about directing Girls on Top
She didn’t meet Ed until 1988 when he turned up at Dawn French’s house to talk about directing Girls on Top. They first kissed in the corridor of a Nottingham hotel after the wrap party, with Dawn waiting up all night for Ruby to come and tell her that they were officially an item. He describes her as a ‘mountain of joy’ and calmly took on the bouts of depression which would – during the height of her fame – leave her bedridden for weeks at a time.
Many have commented that Ruby’s success was an ‘act of revenge’ on her parents, who never considered she would amount to anything. The loud, funny woman front being a shield for her inner pain. She herself considers her success merely an example of her extreme bullishness, the same trait that got her on a plane with a broken back. When she didn’t get good parts at the RSC, she wrote her own plays and made a name for herself as a writer and comedy actor. And in 1985 when Girls on Top became a massive hit for ITV, the wise-cracking Ruby (as she was then) became a star. The laughter was a way for her to get through the pain until she was ready to face it head on.
I ask how her friends feel about her new way of life – are they proud of her? She laughs: ‘We don’t talk like that, we talk about other stuff.’ Then she says, ‘But I know when Alan Rickman [her great friend at the RSC] was dying, he had my books and he said to someone: “Have you seen what Ruby’s done? Isn’t it incredible!”’ She stops and her voice breaks. ‘Now that’s going to make me cry.’ There is a pause. ‘But I do think I have done something good.’
- And Now for the Good News… To the Future with Love by Ruby Wax will be published by Penguin on 17 September, price £14.99. Order a copy for £9.99 until 13 September at whsmith.co.uk by entering the code yougood at the checkout. Book number: 9780241400647. for Terms and conditions go to whsmith.co.uk/terms
- Styling: Sasha Barrie at A&R creative. Make-up: Charlie Duffy at Carol Hayes using Nars. Hair: Alex Szabo at Carol Hayes using Moroccan Oil. Picture Director: Ester Malloy
Ruby’s little gems
Most used emoji?
I never use them. I can’t reduce an emotion to a cartoon.
Last thing you put on your credit card?
Your karaoke song?
‘Let’s Get the Party Started’ by Pink or ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ by Cyndi Lauper.
Your favourite tipple?
Your go-to takeaway order?
Chinese – crispy duck.
The last time you cried?
When I was at an incredible, inspirational REAch2 school in Letchworth and all the children sang together.
The last person you texted?
How do you take your tea?
Standard with milk and honey.
Last great book you read?
A Brief History of Thought: a Philosophical Way of Living by Luc Ferry.
What superpower do you wish you had?
To be invisible, so I can listen to everyone’s conversations.
Finish the sentence: Love is…
A greeting card.
Your house is on fire – what do you grab?
Who’d play you in a film of your life?