Spicy language spurs North Van granny's rise to fame
“How many old ladies do you know who get paid to swear for a living?”
It’s a question I’d never before considered, but when 89-year-old Jean Hamilton asked, the answer was clear: “Not nearly enough.”
The North Vancouverite is best known as Ethel Herman, the sweet but slightly off-her-rocker granny from a series of fiercely funny TV spots for Frank’s RedHot sauce.
Each of the five commercials riffs on the same gag: A priest, a pensioner, the Queen or a similarly prim and proper character compliments Ethel on her cooking before the little old lady explains her secret’s in the sauce: “I put that sh—t on everything,” she exclaims, the offending word bleeped out.
The role has garnered the nearly 90-year-old knitter more than a little fame and has led to starring roles in other ads too, including for Taco Bell, the PNE and the Medicine Shoppe Pharmacy.
“It’s a good thing I’m not teaching Sunday school anymore,” she tells The Outlook over coffee and muffins in her North Vancouver home.
While Hamilton never swears in public, she does so privately on occasion “when something goes wrong,” particularly in the kitchen, she says.
“But I listen to some people in the malls and buses and if they couldn’t interject the F-word, I doubt they could ever express a thought,” she laments. “They use it as an adjective, a noun, a verb, an adverb, a participle; they go right through the whole gamut and I don’t even think they’re aware of it.”
What Hamilton does swear by, however, is her own good luck at having been “discovered” by the Frank’s RedHot talent scout, despite not having done a lick of acting since a high school play some 70 years prior.
It’s an incredible story and one Hamilton will relay in its entirety this Friday, Sept. 7 at a seniors information fair from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the John Braithwaite Community Centre. Asked whether she has any advice for all those fellow “late bloomers” out there, Hamilton says the key is to never stop learning and never stop doing new things.
Having grown up through the Depression, Hamilton says her newfound money and fame — or “infamy,” as she insists — hasn’t changed her much. She won’t be caught cruising in a pink Cadillac or harbouring dreams of Hollywood any time soon. She’d love to travel a bit, but finds modern air travel “utterly miserable.”
“I’m still me — that person who’s always been involved in things,” she says. “The money certainly has helped immensely but my lifestyle hasn’t changed much.”
One thing that has changed in Hamilton’s life since springboarding into popular culture on a pitch-perfectly delivered cuss word, is her cooking. From soups to stews, cakes to hot cocoa, Hamilton practises what she preaches and really does put Frank’s on and in everything. So much so, and in such inventive new ways, that when asked if there may be a cookbook in the works, Hamilton becomes uncharacteristically cagey.
“I really can’t talk about those things right now,” she says.