Julie Kertesz’s life over the past 80 years has made her a master of reinvention.
When she was 10, her family fled Romania and the Nazis, and for a year she lived in Budapest as “Mary.” As a teen, she learned to study alone at home because the Communist authorities wouldn’t let her attend school.
In Paris, Kertesz earned her Ph.D. in chemistry at age 43 and began a career as a research chemist. She liked chemistry very much, but a few years later she discovered computers and realized that she loved them even more. And so in 1982, at the beginning of the computer revolution, Kertesz founded a computer company in France. “Being a woman was no problem, but being an old woman was,” Kertesz says. “Most of the computer people were young boys, ages 20 to 23. Since I was nearly 50, I was the ‘nice old lady.’”
Some 10 years later at age 60, Kertesz retired from the computer industry and applied her tech smarts to a pursuit of the arts. She became an active blogger and digital photographer, as well as a Toastmaster, teacher, keynote speaker and professional storyteller. Her Flickr account, which she started in 2005 with the tag Julie70 (she was 70 at the time), now holds over 56,000 images – including an album of selfies – and has recently surpassed 10 million hits.
Then, at the age of 77, she reinvented herself as a stand-up comedian. In the three years since, she has performed more than 70 gigs.
We recently video-chatted with Kertesz from her home in London (she was sporting gold nail polish, courtesy of her granddaughter).
You were an early adopter in 2005 of the photo-sharing site Flickr and you have a huge following. Tell us, why Flickr?
I kept a journal from the age of 10 until I retired at age 60, which I began to translate into French because I was living in Paris then. I wanted to publish the journal online and discovered the platform Blogger. The only way you could publish pictures on Blogger was via Flickr, so that’s how I discovered Flickr.
I don’t know where all the people come from who see my photos – an average of 10,000 views daily – but I do know they are from all over the world. It’s very good camaraderie to see other photos on Flickr, comment on them and connect with people there. A wonderful thing happened: Two girls I met on Flickr showed me around Sicily when I was there and then I showed them Paris when they visited there.
What’s your newest favorite gadget?
The newest is the iPhone, which I just bought. I didn’t have a smartphone until two months ago. Then I found a refurbished iPhone, very cheap, second hand on Amazon. Yes, that is my latest toy.
You have many creative outlets now – writing, speaking, photography. What role do they play in your life?
I feel like I live through them. After I became a member of the Toastmasters Club in London seven years ago, I fell in love with live audiences. When I tell stories, there is energy passing from me to them and them to me, which is wonderful. I like all the direct contact with the audience. I love people and it comes through somehow when I am with the audience. The past few years I began to give storytelling workshops and that also gives me a big, big pleasure when I see the students blooming.
That leads me to your comedy career. Stand-up comedy is hard. How, at age 77, did you begin performing? Were you always funny?
I always believed I had no funny bones because my mother told me I was not funny after I told a joke when I was seven. My father was a very good joker, and I tried to tell a joke he told, but in my excitement I began with the punchline. Killed it. So it took me a long time to realize I was funny.
Toastmasters led to storytelling and storytelling led to stand-up comedy. When I was storytelling, I found it was a wonderful feeling when the audience laughed and laughed. So I decided I had to know when and how I can I make an audience laugh. And that is when I began to read books and discovered stand-up comedy. I’d never heard of stand-up comedy until then.
I went to a comedy club to perform with the idea that I was experimenting, I was trying. If you go with that idea, it is not frightening. I already loved live audiences anyway.
I used my age in my act and I still use it. The comedians are mostly very young. I talk about age and my sexual experience, which makes people laugh even more because of my age.
What advice would you give your 30-year-old self?
Perhaps I would say the same thing my great grandmother told me when I was 12, that from every bad thing something good comes. And I believed it more or less even when I was 30, but not as much as I believe it now. Beginning to tell stories makes you rethink your past. You understand it differently and see how everything bad that happened has led to something good.
I tell people who are in my storytelling classes now, Listen, don’t wait until you are 77 to train your funny bones. Look at your life through comedy eyes. And if something bad happens, ask how can I use it? How can I make fun of it in my stories?
How do you recharge your batteries?
I read erotic romance. I use my Kindle and read a lot of romance novels, all different kinds. I just read my second volume of “Fifty Shades of Gray” again and I found out that the second volume is my favorite of the three. It’s not so much the sex in it as it has her imposing almost everything she wants on him – not the other way around.
I get tired a lot and I sleep a lot. I like to play. I have to tell you one of the things I recommend to everyone who gets older and older is to find the child inside themselves. It is still there usually. Very few people lose it. Begin playing more and more. So almost everything I do, I do with the attitude of that young child who likes to play, to experiment, to create things.
What does the phrase “Aging with Attitude” mean to you?
Use your age, embrace it and make the most of it. With a child’s attitude. Try to realize as many dreams as possible that you had when you were young, plus discover new ones. Like I discovered comedy, which I never dreamed of.
A selection from Kertesz’s “Selfies” album on Flickr
- To view Kertesz’s Flickr account, click here
- Visit her website here
- To watch her personal story, “When I Was 10, the War Caught Up,” click here
All photos: Julie Kertesz