Guardian Angels

Presenter TOYAH WILLCOX'S limp and lisp made her painfully shy as a teenager. But joining her local chapter of the Hell's Angels changed all that.

I was a very happy child until the day I started school in 1962. My mother says I laughed until that first day, and then I hardly smiled again until the day I left school, 12 years later. School came as an utter shock to me - I never really understood the concept, I think. 

I remember my parents trying to gear me up for the first day, telling me where I was going and that I would be wearing a uniform. But nothing prepared me for the desertion I felt that day my mother left me at the Edgbaston Church of England School for Girls., near where we lived in Birmingham. 

Though I had an older sister and brother, I had no concept of the outside world before I started school, which makes me wonder if I was stupid in some way. It just didn't occur to me that I would have to go to school, just as my siblings had. I must have been so close to my mother that I thought life at home with her would never end. 

I was bullied for years, and I wasn't academically bright. The potential may have been there, but I was dyslexic. I think I also suffered from some kind of arrested development because I found it difficult to express myself. All my fears stayed locked away inside me. 

My powers of conversation weren't very good, partly because I had a speech impediment - quite a pronounced lisp - and people laughed at me as soon as I opened my mouth because of the earnestness of what I'd say. So I stopped speaking. I was quite a serious child. 

I was also born with problems with my feet and spine, and my left leg was shorter than my right. So I never felt normal. I always felt very different from everyone else. I walked with quite a bad limp, to the point when, wherever I went, people asked: 'Are you all right?' I sometimes hid the limp by wearing an insert in my shoe. 

Still, everywhere I went, people would say, 'Oh Toyah - that's an unusual name!' , or 'Have you hurt yourself?' because of the limp, so I always felt different. 

When I was young, vanity was a problem because I knew I wasn't perfect, just at that age when I wanted to be. Teenagers, in particular, don't like to stand out too much, so I became painfully shy as I grew older. I didn't want anyone to see me without clothes, and I didn't want anyone near me. 

But I always felt protective about my exotic name. People would look at me and think: 'God, this child's weird. She limps, she has a lisp - but she has a great name.' So it was a great way of breaking the ice, and I always wanted Toyah to be my name and my name only. 

My mother had seen the name in a book about ballerinas - her tastes were always a little exotic. Dad wanted to add the names Pepita Boodelle because he just liked saying them - they bounce off the tongue. My family can be completely dysfunctional but also very playful. Anyway, the registrar of births refused to accept Pepita Boodelle on the grounds that Christian names had to be predominantly British, so I ended up being registered as Toyah Ann.

My father was born into a wealthy family in Birmingham - his father built most of Kings Heath - ran three factories and was a construction engineer. But when I was seven, dad received some bad financial advice, and went bankrupt. All of his assets were in the stock market and, when it slumped, he just couldn't recover and had to sell up. It knocked his confidence terribly and broke his heart, too, because it was a business that had been in his family. 

Eventually, he went into antique dealing but, by that time, he was seriously ill with a heart condition. He and mum swore that the one thing they wouldn't give up was sending me to private school. They both really suffered for it - and I hated every minute. I failed my 11-plus and left school at 16 with only one O-level, in music theory. 

But I think going to a private school did help me, in a way. If I'd gone to a comprehensive, I don't think I would have rebelled as much as I did. And rebellion was a significant part of my childhood. It drove me on and gave me the confidence to go further afield. I moved to London when I was 18, partly because I was desperate to get out of Birmingham, and I became one of the first punks. If I'd been happier, I may not have left. So, in retrospect, I am grateful for my private school education. 

I'd wanted to act and sing since seeing Julie Andrews in The Sound Of Music when I was seven. But people thought I was living in a dream world - everyone kept mocking my genuine passion. They would say to me: 'You're not terribly bright, you've failed your 11-plus, you've got a lisp - why not just marry and have children?' To me, that lifestyle was a trap. 

Because I couldn't express myself so well but was so ambitious, I often felt very angry. From the age of 12, I started to run wild. I became a complete monster. I started going to discos and pubs, wearing make-up, dabbling in the occult and hanging out with bikers - I was utterly rebellious. Dad was terrified, mum despondent. Their baby daughter was starting to look like something out of The Munsters

Everything I wanted to be was expressed by James Dean. I was trying to copy East Of Eden and Rebel Without A Cause, but, in seventies Birmingham, the only way I could get access to a motorbike was joining the local chapter of Hell's Angels. I first met some of them at a disco in a church hall. They were truly nice people, led by a man called Steve who had been to public school and was reputed to be a peer of the realm. 

One day, mum and dad said they wanted to meet these mysterious new friends with whom I kept disappearing, so I invited the gang around for tea one Sunday afternoon. Mum made cucumber sandwiches, expecting about ten people, but 40 of them turned up. 

They roared down the road on about 30 motorbikes - we could hear them coming from miles away, particularly in our quiet, conservative little neighbourhood. 

My parents were absolutely horrified but, then, the bikers came in and were delightful, and it all went terribly well. Some of them watched a John Wayne movie with dad and the peer chatted to mum all afternoon, and was utterly charming. But my parents never asked to meet my friends again. 

Interview by Sue Corrigan.

Night & Day Magazine
22 April 2001
Thanks to Kevin McNamara