Daily Express

REBEL WITH A CAUSE

Born with club feet, a twisted spine and a lisp, all too often Toyah Willcox found herself the butt of the joke. But having exploited this outsider status to find fame as an actress and singer, she had the last laugh. And she’s still chuckling...

- By Nick McGrath

IN A remarkably eclectic career spanning almost 50 years, peroxide princess Toyah Willcox has topped the pop charts, illuminate­d the silver screen with movie legend Katharine Hepburn and even dressed up as a giant vegetable with members of the Royal Family. And today, as she celebrates her newfound status as an unexpected social media sensation, with more than 120 million views of her YouTube channel, the 66-year-old is in a characteri­stically defiant mood.

“My rebellion has always been that I just don’t fit into the norm,” she says from the once-haunted Dorset home she shares with her online partner in crime, King Crimson guitarist and husband of 38 years, Robert Fripp. “And I never will. I don’t think like other people. I don’t move like other people. I’m unique.”

And for Toyah, who first came to public attention in 1979 as the party-loving Monkey in the iconic British mod film Quadrophen­ia, before launching a hugely successful pop career in the early 1980s, the roots of her distinctiv­e, often-confrontat­ional creativity lie firmly in her challengin­g childhood.

“Growing up in Birmingham I was disabled and I was treated as disabled, even though I was physically very, very strong,” she explains. “I had a twisted spine, my legs were twisted, I had club feet, and my family referred to me as ‘Hopalong’. I also had a very bad lisp and dyslexia, but even though people would laugh at me, I had grand ambitions and grand ideas from day one.”

Toyah recalls always being the butt of the joke to the people around her.

“And that made me grow into a monster – and that monster grew daily,” she states with the ghost of a smile. “My ambitions grew daily because I was being set up for failure from the moment I could speak, but people didn’t see the person I knew.

“People were reflecting back to me this kind of freak, but I built my own stature and didn’t see what other people saw in my physical body, so from an early age I’d just go off to places.”

At the tender age of 12, she broke into the late-night venue Top Rank in Birmingham.

“I saw Black Sabbath on my own at the same age and that just sums up the person I became; a person who ended up in rooms with Ivana Trump, Donald Trump himself, and with Imelda Marcos,” she laughs.

“I just developed this, ‘f*** you,’ attitude, which I still have. It’s been sheer drive from day one and I still won’t take no for an answer.”

Prior to becoming a flamehaire­d regular on Top of the Pops, with hits like I Wanna Be Free and Thunder in the Mountains, Toyah cut her performing teeth on the northern club circuit.

She was spunky, but young and vulnerable.

Had her co-writer Joel Bogen not taken her under his protective wing, she believes she might easily have fallen victim to the kind of predatory promoters who treated emerging talent as easy prey at the time.

“I found myself in situations in 1977 and 1978 before I was famous where I might have been raped in some of the northern venues I played,” she admits today. “Promoters, who used to book strippers to open the bill, would say things like, ‘You don’t go on stage till I sleep with the singer’, and I’d be bundled off to the bedsit where we were staying, and told to stay there until showtime.” On one occasion, leaving a club in Leeds to walk back to her bed and breakfast, she was stopped by police. “They said, ‘Who are you?’ and I said, ‘I’m a singer appearing at that club’, and they said, ‘You do know that the Yorkshire Ripper is in this area? Do not go anywhere in this city alone’, before putting me in the car and driving me to the B&B.”

As her record sales declined in the mid1980s, Toyah diverted her energies back to her first love, drama.

She appeared in the television film of The Ebony Tower opposite Laurence Olivier and

Greta Scacchi in 1984 and with The Who’s Roger Daltry the same year in Murder: The Ultimate Grounds for Divorce.

BUT IT was her small-screen appearance in 1987’s catastroph­ic It’s a Royal Knockout which is still remembered by many viewers, rarely fondly.

Enjoyed by 18 million viewers at the time, the TV game show featuring Princes Edward and Andrew, Sarah Ferguson and Princess Anne in a variety of excruciati­ng, gungesoake­d japes, is often regarded as one of the most embarrassi­ng episodes in the Royal Family’s history.

Toyah, who helped Prince Edward pull together a stellar guest list of A-listers, including John Travolta, Jane Seymour and Tom Jones, disagrees.

“I don’t think it was a car crash,” she recalls. “I think Edward was set up, and if the press hadn’t been kept in the press tent

‘I just developed this “f*** you” attitude, which I still have...I still won’t take no for an answer’

all day, their response would have been completely different.”

That same year, Toyah made a speech at the Women of the Year awards with the Princess of Wales, who had been wisely vetoed from humiliatin­g herself in It’s a Knockout by Prince Charles.

The two outsiders connected instantly. “I always used to bump into her at charity events and she had a lovely, lovely sense of humour,” recalls Toyah.

“She had wonderful timing and was a very feminine and a very beautiful person.”

One of her funniest moments was the moment she, Princess Diana and Judi Dench were waiting in the wings at the National Theatre’s Olivier stage to announce a charity project winner in 1986.

“Princess Diana was at least two foot taller than both me and Judi Dench, and Judi just had a fit of giggles because of this height discrepanc­y,” she chuckles.

“Princess Diana just looked at both of us, and she said in that way of hers: ‘If you think I’m going down on my knees for you two, you’ve got another thing coming.’ She clearly loved her children very, very much and William and Harry came into the conversati­on often and she used to say how much she loved being a mother.”

Motherhood – or rather her decision not to have children – became the bête noir of Toyah’s TV career in the 1990s.

“Robert didn’t want a family and I spent so long dealing with my unhappy childhood it never really occurred to me to have them,” she explains.

“I don’t know how different my life would have been if I’d had them, but what I do know is that I was ostracised for not having children in my 30s, when I was mainly presenting.”

Despite the decade of Britpop being synonymous with so-called ladettes – the term described young, hard-drinking women who behaved as raucously and as unapologet­ically as their male counterpar­ts – Toyah found stifling traditiona­l stereotype­s concerning motherhood still proliferat­ed in showbiz circles. “It was a problem for people that I didn’t have children. The expectatio­n of a woman to be a mother within certain programmes I was working on became a necessity and I actually lost work for not having children.

“I also came up against people who saw me as a woman who was married but didn’t have children – therefore, I was some kind of sexual predator.

“It was like, ‘Oh, you’re a woman on your own at this party. You don’t have children? How are you going to behave?’

“I was seen as some kind of sexually promiscuou­s marriage-breaker. It was absolutely bizarre.”

TOYAH’S own 38-year marriage to guitarist Robert is one of the strongest in showbusine­ss and their performati­ve Sunday Lunch YouTube videos – which they first started in lockdown – have now been viewed more than 120 million times. Toyah is normally seen bouncing around in all manner of costumes as Robert plays his guitar. Rather than balk at such eccentrici­ty, Robert clearly embraces Toyah’s creativity and their affection is clearly mutual.

“I became the person I am today thanks to Robert,” she smiles.

“He could see how messed up I’ve been from my childhood and because he’s such a great listener, he was able to help me unravel that and he means everything to me.

“We both have our own lives and it wouldn’t work if I wasn’t allowed to work. I can go anywhere, any time I want.

“My husband trusts me. He never asks questions, so I’ve had complete career freedom, but he’s just turned 78 so his time is so precious. He’s never been more precious to me.And I look at him, and I just think, ‘God, I’m so glad you’re here’.”

●●Toyah is performing at Let’s Rock: The Retro Festival across the UK this summer, visit letsrock80­s.com for more details

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 ?? ?? KITCHEN JAM: Making a video at home with her musician partner Robert Fripp
KITCHEN JAM: Making a video at home with her musician partner Robert Fripp
 ?? ?? TV QUEEN: Promoting It’s A Royal Knockout with Tessa Sanderson and Stuart Hall in 1987
TV QUEEN: Promoting It’s A Royal Knockout with Tessa Sanderson and Stuart Hall in 1987
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 ?? ?? GLAM ROCK ’COX: Toyah Willcox in her pop heyday, above; main, still opting for a highdrama look today; left, in 1986 with Princess Diana
GLAM ROCK ’COX: Toyah Willcox in her pop heyday, above; main, still opting for a highdrama look today; left, in 1986 with Princess Diana

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