Whether it’s her love of music, her politics or her weight, Candy Palmater is shy about nothing. The curvaceous former corporate lawyer turned education activist and standup comedienne is known for packing her sets with frank discussions on everything from human rights to contemporary beauty standards.
After cutting her teeth at comedy clubs across Canada, she launched The Candy Show with APTN last year.
Melding her trademark standup with musical guests and interviews, the eponymously titled program has been renewed for a second season.
Though she’s given much of her airtime to local artists from her adopted hometown of Halifax, the self-proclaimed metalhead is secretly pining for the big guns.
“I would love to interview Mötley Crüe,” she laughs. “I was such a huge fan growing up; I had the cover of Theatre of Pain tattooed on my bikini line. I’d have to do a handstand to show it to you now, but it still means a lot to me.”
Palmater’s image is as much a part of her politics as her various projects. At six feet tall, more than 300 pounds, copiously tattooed, and heavy on the high-femme makeup, she’s a big, proud, in-your-face kind of girl. But she wasn’t always that way. A competitive athlete growing up, she maintained a highly fit physique for most of her life. But as her brother slowly declined with cancer, the weight gain began.
“I had developed a personality and sense of self around being an athlete and was used to being treated a certain way,” she says.
“Seeing that change after the weight gain was an eye opener. It really fucking pisses me off when I’m condescended to by some nitwit who spends their entire life at the gym, when I’m clearly their intellectual superior. That anger ends up being a big fuel for my comedy.”
Palmater’s attestations to her intellectual prowess are not the result of an over-inflated ego. Prior to adopting her current job as an aboriginal advocate with the Nova Scotia Department of Education, she graduated as valedictorian of her class at Dalhousie law school and landed a plum position with a top corporate law firm.
“I was an activist all my life, starting in Grade 6 when I worked with a community group to lobby for a sports facility for my little home town,” she says. “After university I started working to organize unions at places like Tim Hortons, and I figured a law degree would help me continue that kind of work.”
Palmater quickly realized it wasn’t for her.
“In school I got caught up in this idea of success as being equivalent to getting into a big firm,” she says. “But I realized working there had nothing to do with advocacy. It was like going home drunk with someone, waking up the next day and being, like, What the fuck. I have no regrets because the degree gives me a lot of credibility with my activism, but I’m so happy to be out of that culture.”
Just as her law degree paved the way for activism, activism was the starting point for standup comedy. Despite being well known as an event MC, being funny on stage wasn’t a job. It was simply another way to contribute to her community. But that changed in 2007, shortly after the Harper government signed the residential schools settlement agreement, when she got a call from a group of government workers and survivors in Moncton.
“They had planned three days of recounting their experiences and wanted me to come in on the last day to do a standup set,” she says.
“My initial instinct was to say no because I didn’t think it would be a good fit. But I spoke with some elders and they said humour was how they healed themselves from those experiences. I realized then I had to do it.”
Palmater hadn’t seen comedy as a space for activism, just an enjoyable diversion for her natural talents. But the results of that evening radically changed her view.
“Each one of the survivors came up to me and hugged me at the end of the night,” she says. “I got in the car and cried all the way back to Halifax. I realized later even though people were laughing their asses off, they were also left thinking about gay and native rights, the very issues that drive my life.”
Melding comedy and activism has been both an expression of her politics and a recipe for success. One of her most popular bits, often requested as an encore, is about labial augmentation, the hot new trend among the slice-and-dice crowd, where women have their lady-parts aesthetically enhanced.
“I’m not anti-surgery, but seriously. How can my vagina be wrong?” she fumes. “Pussies are like snowflakes. Each one is different and each one is perfect. They aren’t supposed to look a certain way or smell like strawberries. The idea that women need to modify their genitals to have a place in the world is a serious problem.”
Though she’s willing to tackle virtually any taboo in her work, sometimes it’s her mere presence at events that has the most profound effects. After a recent 9am set for youth at the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation, she came home to a surprise.
“This young kid emailed me, saying he’d been worried about going to the conference because he’s gay and often ostracized by other native kids,” she says. “But when people thought I was gay and cool, he got cool by extension, and so he decided to come out. It was great to hear what that meant for him. That’s the kind of social change that keeps me doing this.”