Who Replaced Avril Lavigne? Joanne McNally’s deliciously deranged investigation is a must-listen

Podcast review: The Irish comedian musters all her charm and chutzpah to find out whether a body double has taken over from the Sk8er Boi singer

Who wants to spend hours listening to a faux-journalist take on a ridiculous conspiracy theory about an early-oughts Canadian celebrity? Turns out that if the faux-journalist is the Irish comedian Joanne McNally, pumped up on BBC credentials and an apparent carte blanche to belly flop into an internet black hole while comparing herself to David Attenborough, then I’m all in.

Who Replaced Avril Lavigne? Joanne McNally Investigates, to give it its full title, is a six-part series that purports to probe a 13-year-old theory that the Sk8er Boi singer was not who she seemed – which, in case you need reminding, was a teen-pop punk rocker in a T-shirt and tie. In a not unfamiliar imaginative turn – see Paul McCartney, Britney Spears et al – a rumour began to circulate that Lavigne had died in 2003 and been replaced by a body double. This TikTok meme grabbed hold of one of Ireland’s funniest women and sent her on a journey across the world and down a rabbit hole talking to experts in everything from handwriting to vocals and roping in fellow podcasters and comedians such as Joe Lycett to add their voices to the general cacophony.

Some of the questions raised deserve more nuanced answers: why do people love conspiracies? What makes one take hold and another die in some back corner of internet ignominy? But McNally is not here for those kinds of answers nor really for anything that disproves a theory of which, she makes clear, she has grown extremely fond: that Lavigne has been replaced by a Doppelgänger called Melissa Vandella and the clues are there for anyone to figure out.

Some of the best moments so far – episodes drop on Tuesdays – are when she finds herself “in the field”, either attempting to get backstage at a Lavigne concert – “I literally just want to know if she’s alive! This is a welfare check!” – or roaming about Greater Napanee, in Ontario, to talk about Lavigne’s childhood, which is where she “touches cheeks” with the subject of the podcast by sitting on the singer’s favoured chair at the local pizza joint.

Then there’s McNally’s decision to find her own Doppelgänger as part of the podcast research, which leads to her search for someone with “as despicable an accent as me”. When she interviews the one finalist for the role, a woman called Selena, it’s like an audio echo chamber so bizarrely comical that it makes your petrol-station gin come out of your nose. “Any questions for me about the role?” McNally asks after verifying the physical and vocal overlaps down to both of them coming up in the “eyebrow-plucking eras”. “Yes,” says a McNally-voiced Selena without hesitation. “What is it?” (For what it’s worth, the full explanation includes discussion of Selena’s willingness to become “the face of thrush”.)

There’s something deliciously deranged about this entire experiment: McNally approaches her investigation from all manner of bizarre angles and carries it through with charm and no small degree of chutzpah. Who replaced Avril Lavigne? Who cares? It’s McNally, whose bawdy, brazen brand of genuine pulls the listener through a shaky premise on thin scaffolding with the sheer force of her personality, who turns out to be irreplaceable.

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