The Real Story Behind The Duchess Is One Of Laziness & Exaggeration

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
Warning: Spoilers are ahead for The Duchess.
In the new Netflix series The Duchess, Katherine Ryan plays Katherine Ryan. The London-based Canadian comedian, who created and stars in the semi-autobiographical comedy, admits her character's name is the result of sheer laziness. She also knows it could lead to some confusion over what is real in The Duchess. Honestly, though, she's not all that concerned.
"What people think of me is none of my business. I really believe that now," Ryan tells Refinery29 over the phone from London. "If they want to believe that I’m exactly like The Duchess, that’s fine. I think I take a very Eminem, Marshall Mathers approach of like, 'I am whatever you say I am.'"
The truth is there are traces of fact throughout Ryan's fictional take on life as a stylish single mom trying to expand her family with help from her daughter's father, a former boy band member who she absolutely despises. (Unfortunately, Ryan didn't date a boy bander IRL, but did dream of marrying NKOTB's Joey McIntyre.) This is all while trying to navigate the changing relationships with her dentist boyfriend and her tween daughter, who also happens to be her BFF.
"I do think that the show is an insight into me as a person and a performer because the central relationship in my life is the relationship with my daughter," Ryan says. "I have never prioritized men. Historically, I keep them at arm’s length." (The real Ryan entered into a civil partnership with her childhood sweetheart Bobby Kootstra last year.)
The Duchess gives off some major Gilmore Girls vibes due to what Ryan likes to call the "ominous sisterly relationship" single moms tend to have with their daughters. As much as Ryan enjoys the ultra caffeinated Lorelai and Rory, she thinks Katherine would feel more at home with Kenny Powers from HBO's far less family friendly Eastbound & Down.
Kenny, played by Danny McBride, is a short-tempered, egotistical former baseball player with a "drive it like you stole it" mentality who does inexcusable things. Yet, Ryan says, we excuse his bad behavior because we like him too much not to. She's not as convinced audiences will be so kind to Katherine, who "can be very combative if you threaten her child" but, she says, "I appreciate that a lot of people will see her as very unlikable."
Not that she agrees with their character assessment. "I think that people are not used to seeing a woman with no interest in acceptance," she says. "Katherine is not interested in the responsibilities and expectations society has hoisted upon her."
Ryan also gave up caring what people thought about her a long time ago and has brought that zero fucks given energy to her comedy. "I love being authentically truthful about my own mistakes, my own shortcomings, my own worldview as I can be," she says. "I never mind being the punchline."
And on The Duchess, she often is. Just as she does in her two Netflix stand-up specials — 2017's Katherine Ryan: In Trouble and 2019's Katherine Ryan: Glitter Room the series mines her real life for material, putting a more eccentric twist on how Katherine would handle school pickup or at-home insemination.
"I did consider sperm donors," she says, noting that she was partial to donors from Seattle who were "very altruistic in their reasons." They also all happened to be about 20 years old, which is why Ryan didn't go through with it. "But it is something I explored," she says.
That exploration inspired the show down to that teeth whitening gag. Near the end of the season, Katherine's ex Shep (Peaky Blinders' Rory Keenan) starts delivering, with help from his very understanding fiancée, sperm-filled teeth whitening syringes right to her door. "There was a documentary about men who advertise themselves on Facebook or Craigslist and they would pull up in your driveway, wank in their van, and then you come out and collect it," Ryan says. "It was a real eye opener and I don’t recommend watching it."
Yet, it's hard to look away from The Duchess, a rather filthy show filled with so much heart. At its core, it is a coming of age story of a single mom who, like her daughter, is figuring out what life holds for her. She's testing her boundaries and making mistakes, but she is always trying to do what is best for her family. There is something noble in that even if you find yourself shaking your damn head at Katherine from time to time for going way too far.
Perhaps, all of that is why Ryan doesn't mind being mistaken for the onscreen character that shares her name. "It’s better for me if everyone thinks I’m Katherine from The Duchess," she says. "I mean, she’s so much cooler than I am."

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