Sex, God And Rock n' Roll

Toyah Willcox, the former ďpunk princess of popĒ who can boast of being the presenter of The Good Sex Guide and the hymn-singing Songs of Praise, talks to Tony Leonard about virginity, Derek Jarman, scrotums, the General Synod, John Gielgudís balls, bottle-throwing lesbians, Jesus Christ and... more besides!

Youíve always had a big gay following. Why do you think that is?

Toyah: I think because I always championed people that sat on the outside of the norm. Iím not saying that being gay is outside of the norm but twenty years ago, gay was still very much underground. I championed peoplesí individuality and the right to be individuals rather than be seen as uniform, and I think that had a lot to do with it. And possibly, Iím a girl and I just think gay blokes love girls, they love girl performers.

But youíve got big lesbian following as well.

Toyah: Do I? Because the only time Iíve ever been bottled off stage was at the Fridge on a female night. He, he. Yeah, bottles were hurtling through the air.

Why was that?

Toyah: I had a very pretty backing singer with me who is very hetero and was performing very hetero. Sheís a bit of a prick-teaser and I think she aggravated the women in the audience. I had a painted-on tattoo and I think that just pissed them off politically. It was interesting. I was quite shocked. It was the only hostile audience Iíve ever experienced.

You say in your autobiography, Living Out loud, that in 1976 you and all your punk friends wanted to be gay. Why?

Toyah: We all wanted to be gay. I had a jumpsuit I wore with ĎLesbian Ruleí on it; because gay to me meant creativity. It wasnít just about anything sexual, and at this time I was a virgin so I didnít even know what blokes were about. Gay to me meant an alternative lifestyle, creativity, exploration, nothing staid, nothing boring, no dull habits. It just meant everything romantic and exploratory. All the gay people I knew at the time, Derek Jarman, and all his friends, John Maybury, were stunningly visual, expressive people so I associated gay with that. And they knew how to live. They lived life to the full. 

Then you acted in Derek Jarmanís JubileeÖ as a virginÖ with all theseÖ

Toyah: HaÖ Naked men! I couldnít get over the scrotums, I thought ďOh my God, these are disgusting!Ē He, he, he. Scrotums are so peculiar! When I had to do this scene with Karl Johnson and Ian Charleson naked, I couldnít speak. I just couldnít take my eyes off these testicles in skinny bags lying on thighs and Derek took me aside and burst out laughing when I said to him ďIíve never seen a naked man before. Iím completely shocked!Ē Ha, ha, ha. I saw a lot on that film, I can tell you! 

Like in the scene filmed in The Coleherne?

Toyah: Yeah. With the Lindsey Kemp Company having sex all over the place!

Was that part of the film?

Tony: No. It wasnít part of the film, it was just their offscreen entertainment. And I just couldnít stop watching because I didnít even know what sex was about between heteros. Obviously Iíd seen porno mags and stuff like that but I didnít know how a human being actually went about it in motion. And it was just fascinating. I was very scientific.

And was it quite soon after that you lost your own virginity?

Toyah: There was no-one on offer. I wasnít a very attractive person and I was a bit picky. I tend to like pretty boys so it was my own fault. And also that old cliché, if someone was interested in my I was immediately not interested in them. So if people were interested in me, which, looking back, there were probably quite a lot of men and women at the time who were, I dunno, I felt threatened by it as if I had to live up to some kind of reputation.

How did you get involved with Derek Jarman?

Toyah: Through Ian Charleson. I was working at the National Theatre with him and he knew Derek was making Jubilee and he just said to me, ďThereís someone youíve got to meet. Come and have tea at Redcliff Gardens and meet Derek Jarman." So I just went round for tea, a complete stranger, and no-one was ever a stranger with Derek. You were straight in there, one of the family. I had tea with him, he threw the script at me and said ďPick a part.Ē 

How different was it working on The Tempest with Derek?

Toyah: Very, very different. Between Jubilee and The Tempest, Derek had become a serious, very focussed film maker. And itís not that he wasnít on Jubilee, but dealing with a punk film, there were so many laws that could be broken. Dealing with The Tempest, he had to be very considerate over how he broke the laws and it was treated very much as a serious Shakespearian production. Again, very beautiful, very happy time. Derek was very good at expressing a kind of creative love for everyone he worked with. There was never any bitterness or resentment with Derek. He was nurturing, the whole time. I view The Tempest as really one of the most important films Iíve ever made. Purely because of the relationship with Derek and how he let me perform it. And he let me take aspects of myself, the experience I had of long-term virginity and being wild and just craving sexual touch and sexual knowledge, he really tapped in on that and used it.

Would you have liked to have worked with him again?

Toyah: Iíd have loved to but I was dumped for Tilda Swinton, whose a far better actress. I think they were passionately in love, whereas Derek and I was a bit of a father/daughter relationship.

You think they were in love?

Toyah: Oh yes, I do, very much so. Derek was capable of loving women. It wasnít sexual love but deep, deep love. He was capable of expressing that.

You met another great creative gay figure of the 20th Century, Sir John Gielgud. You didnít get on with him so well, I think?

Toyah: Well, it wasnít a question of trying to get on with him. He had a dressing room next to mine at the National and I was always shouting out of the windows to wardrobe up above to get my effing costume down. I think he just had enough of it one day. He must have been snoozing in his dressing room and he phoned my room and told me that that the National Theatre wasnít a zoo and people in London donít go around hitting each other and I said ďOh come on you effing bastard, who is this?Ē thinking it was wardrobe winding me up and looked across to the next dressing room and there was John Gielgud glaring at me on the phone. I felt terrible, I ran off and hid. But that wasnít our first encounter. For some reason there were wheelchairs in the corridors of the National Theatre and I girlfriend and I were speeding around on these wheelchairs racing each other. Then we got bored with going forwards so we decided to go backwards and I went straight into Sir John Gielgudís nuts!

You werenít really likely to get on after that.

Toyah: I just think he was tolerant but so much higher on the hierarchy to me that he didnít really bother with me.

Youíve gone from unhappy child to street-fighting punk to actress to popstar to, umm, religious affairs broadcaster. Thatís a bit of an unusual career path isnít it?

Toyah:But if you read the Bible itís got everything in it. Itís got sex, homosexuality Ė and it has got that and I believe that before the Bible was doctored by the Roman Catholic Church it would have been much more open about homosexual affairs. I think that the Bible has been so doctored over centuries. I think thereís a truth in the story of Christ, a brilliant metaphorical truth that has been covered up. I think itís about equality between men and women and sexual respect and I believe that itís all been bastardised to a certain extent, to make it a political story. Iím a firm believer in the story of Christ before it started to be written down 150 years later. I think thereís a story there that relates to Buddhism, Hinduism and the new form, Christianity. Thatís why I have absolutely no fear whatsoever of being involved in religious programmes. I donít like dogmatism and I donít like literalism and I think that thereís something remarkable there, really remarkable, thatís been lost and if the church would only open up and admit itís been lost, I think it would win people back. 

You describe yourself as a pantheist but youíre clearly involved with the Christian community. Do they accept you?

Toyah: Yes. I am accepted by them but Iím very close to the line. The diehards loathe me. I get more hatemail from doing a religious programme than anything else.

Why do you think that is?

Toyah: Because Iím not a literalist when it comes to the bible. Iím really a Buddhist but if there is such a term, Iím a Buddhist Christian, because I believe Christianity was developed by a very brilliant prophet or Messiah to encompass everything good and right in religious belief. When Jesus was alive there were over 500 sex cults in Israel alone and religion was based on sex and sexual beliefs so he evolved with a great knowledge of sex which is why being chaste has been so heavy in that story. But I think itís metaphorical. I think itís about control and self-control and discipline.

I think because Iím part of a generation whoíve veered away from Christianity and Iím seen as a believer which to a certain extent I am, Iíve just been welcomed into that kind of broadcasting.

Do you give the programmes credibility through your broader view?

Toyah: As far as the Synod is concerned I have ruined the credibility of religious broadcasting. They are dead against me, but viewing figures have proved them wrong and thatís my winning point. Theyíve done surveys on me. People only turn the telly on to watch my pieces apparently.

Why do you think that is?

Toyah: Well, the religious audience is a very small one. Thereís an awful lot of people out there who want a spiritual life. They donít necessarily want a religious life but they do want to find something, that spark in them, that they can have a dialogue with and Iím the same. I think we see each other as equals. The audience turn on to watch me because Iím on the same path as them.

So how did you get into religious broadcasting in the first place?

Toyah: Well I was doing The Sex Guide at the time when I was asked to do a series called All About Eve. It was about how women are represented in religion and how history has covered up the true story of women in the Bible. For instance, in Judaism, Sofia is the all-knowing goddess of wisdom. Sofia created God and man to do her work. Then I went on to do The Good Sex Guide and then Songs of Praise. That is one of the proudest moments of my life that I can go from sex to religion!

Do you have any plans to revive your musical career?

Toyah: Thereís talk of putting the old band together for next year which Iím up for but itís got to be at the right level otherwise thereís no point. Iíve decided that once the Internet has sorted itself out and if it breaks even, Iím happy to write music and release it over the Internet. Iím not interested in profit-making in music any more and Iím not interested in the music industry. I would like to carry on singing but in a way where I donít feel Iím compromising who I am. 

How do you feel now about Itís A Mystery now?

Toyah: I donít worship it and I donít hate it Ė that much. I ridicule it a bit. Itís done me a lot of good and Iím thankful for that but itís history. I would perform it again but itís a period piece.

Was it a deliberate decision to pull out of the commercial side of music?

Toyah: Yes but it was helped by the fact that I went seriously out of fashion. I got fed up with the negativity. I donít like people projecting negatively on me; and the music industry and music journalism always project negatively. I think it destroys the soul. I think thought is very powerful, thought has physical action. I just thought, ďNo, Iím not willing to become a victim or be created into a victim by these people.Ē Thatís why I found it so easy to walk away.

Youíve always been in relationships. Do you regret not doing more of the sex and drugs thing?

Toyah: Iíve done the drugs butÖ I do regret it sexually but Iím so easily hurt, Iím so easily sexually possessed and sex is so sacred to me that I think if I did do it I would have been destroyed by it. So on the one hand I think itís good I didnít go there. Iím just too vulnerable, too sensitive and I fall in love at the drop of a pin.

By Tony Leonard, For Gay.com UK (2000)