Toyah Willcox’s colourful career has taken her from Punk Princess to Splash, Teletubbies and I’m a Celebrity. She never ceases to surprise…
There is something very endearing about Toyah Willcox. She is one in a long tradition of creative, sometimes downright cussed, free spirits who mellow into a kind of national treasure with the passing years. Say what you like about Toyah, you could never pigeon-hole her. The original wild-child punk princess is credited with starting the Goth movement, has voiced the Teletubbies, champions the National Trust and survived the Celebrity Jungle. And this multi-talented ball of energy has now been officially honoured by her home city with a star on Birmingham’s Walk of Stars.
Being Toyah, she challenges the word mellow. “I don’t think I’m mellowing,” she says, “though I do find things that freaked me out in the past don’t bother me anymore. And I’m working harder than ever.” No kidding! This is a one-woman phenomenon with a record company, six movies on the go and a touring band. A typical day starts at 6am, involves driving across the country, gigging, presenting and writing before final getting into bed at 4. Not that she’d change a thing.
HEARING WITH NEW EARS
“That’s the routine, but of course I enjoy it. I want a creative life. I have a new audience every year,” she says. “It’s very interesting because 80s music is brand new to these people. They don’t know the politics; they don’t know Margaret Thatcher; they don’t know mobile phones were the size of shoe boxes – they just like the music and they’re hearing it with new ears. Their opinions are so refreshing because they’re hearing it without history. I find it very intriguing.”
Born in Kings Heath, Toyah has had her ups and downs right from the start. Her Wikipedia entry states, rather brutally, that she was ‘born with a twisted spine, clawed feet, a clubbed right foot, one leg two inches shorter than the other and no hip sockets’ although she shrugs this off. “Like with many children these things grow out. My mother did physio with me every day to build up muscle strength. I still do physio twice a day – you can come on leaps and bounds with the right exercise.”
She was the original angry teenager – “I was the child from hell” – and battled with dyslexia. Her father had three joinery factories and Toyah once told an interviewer: “We used to drive a new Rolls-Royce every year. When I was seven my father was hit by a slump in the Stock Market and he lost everything. Our standard of living dropped dramatically but he managed to keep the house and me in private school which was a big achievement.”
I LIED ABOUT MY AGE
Before she was 14, the irrepressible Toyah had seen Marc Bolan, David Bowie, Mott the Hoople, Black Sabbath and Hawkwind play – “admittedly I lied about my age everywhere I went” – and these artists inspired her to become a musician. “The arts in Birmingham are still leading the way with a creative community keeping it firmly on the map of creative innovation.”
She went to the Old Rep Drama School after which she got her first lead role with the BBC. “My career began at BBC Pebble Mill, a place where dreams came true for me,” she says. She has gone on to pack a great deal into a career that boasts 13 top 40 singles, 23 studio albums, more than 40 stage plays and 10 feature films, including Quadrophenia and last year’s Aaaaaaaah! (for which she appeared in a Q&A with director Steve Oram at the Electric Cinema.) Not to mention the Shakespeare (The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s dream), the musicals (Calamity Jane, Rocky Horror) and a slew of celebrity programmes from Masterchef and Splash through to I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here’.
She has even acted alongside Sir Laurence Olivier and Katharine Hepburn (who was so delighted with Toyah’s screaming orange hair she couldn’t stop running her fingers through it!). The sheer mix of work is dizzying and last month this huge talent and thirst for a workload that would break most people was recognised by the city she loves so much. Toyah was honoured together with comedian Don Maclean with a star on Birmingham’s Walk of Stars in Broad Street, a cracking scheme that has recognised more than 30 fine celebrities and achievers from the region including Ozzy Osbourne, Jasper Carrott, Noddy Holder, Lenny Henry and Ellie Simmonds.
DAD’S ANTIQUE SHOP
“I was thrilled to receive a star. Having spent my childhood and teenage years here I developed my love of music and theatre thanks to all the great venues and theatres available within the city. My father’s antique shop stood on Broad Street, just at the corner of the Hyatt Hotel so I’m happy and incredibly proud. My only wish was that my parents could have been with me.”
So as she reflects back on her career and her youth in Birmingham, how does she feel about the city? “The transition Birmingham has been through is awe-inspiring. Walkable cities are the best. That way you discover things about a place. I love the Jewellery Quarter and adore Centenary Square. Some of the productions at the REP are mind-blowing. When friends come over from the US I always send them to Brindleyplace to explore the city from there. I love the depth of heritage here.”