Out Of The Shadows

Mike Davies talks to Toyah Willcox

It's 10 years to the month since Kings Heath born singer Toyah broke into the singles charts with It's A Mystery. Her flamboyant, brash personality and vivid sense of image firmly establishing her as a pop phenomenon. And to her satisfaction she was also able to develop her talent as an actress, the career she'd originally embarked on after leaving school in 1976. 

A stunning role in Derek Jarman's interpretation of The Tempest and the leading role in the West End production of Trafford Tanzi, confirmed her dramatic abilities. But as the years passed and fashions changed, Toyah began to recede from the headlines.

Although albums continued to fare reasonably well, hit single success was no longer guaranteed and acting work became less frequent, less newsworthy. But Toyah has not, like many of her generation, slipped silently away. Instead she has consolidated and matured her talents, learned from her experiences, reassessed her ambitions and re-emerged as determined, as strong and with as much to say worth hearing as ever.

We've met to discuss her new album, Ophelia's Shadow. But seated in the Rep Cafe Bar, talk inevitably turns first to acting. It was here, after all, that her stage career arose phoenix-like with a spirited performance in A Midsummer Night's Dream. 

"That was the first step up a very long ladder for me," she reflects. "In the past year I've found I want to do more stagework than anything. I have enough offers to work in the theatre every day for the next six years, although obviously you need to find projects that attract you and avoid typecasting. But it hasn't been easy. People's perception of me is always a problem because of the hit singles days. You need to persuade them that you've moved on. I had to prove to directors how committed I am to my work."

It was Robin Midgeley, (the Dream's director and also director of the Cambridge Theatre Co with whom Toyah toured in Taming of the Shrew) who broke the barrier. Then last year she worked with Pip Broughton in Nottingham in Therese Racquin, a play about adultery with heavy on stage sex scenes and very demanding acting. It was, she says, the best stuff she'd ever done and certainly opened the doors.

But, as well as having the abilities, Toyah says she also learned that it's who you know and the quality of the relationships you have that count.

"That's not the casting couch syndrome, it's about proving your commitment and the quality of your relationships in working with people. It was something I had to learn. That you have to leave your ego at the back door and become part of a team, which is just the opposite to how you work with music. I had to readapt. 

"Everyone's image of me is that I'm very rich, very arrogant and very lazy. There are so many brilliant actors in this country desperate for work that directors can afford to be choosey. You have to prove So I phoned people up and went to meet them face to face. That won me a lot of work."

But if acting is a passion, it's only half the story. The other is her music. More sophisticated these days but as potent a voice as ever. And like acting, it's also a vital part of understanding herself and her inner turmoil.

"It's soul baring, the most expressive part of my work. It has to be personal. In the past my music and I were just a product. It was all about accountants. I began to feel I wasn't developing as a singer or a writer, and certainly not as a person. I became a fashion victim. I had to get back to being responsible for my own actions. People were putting out product under my name and I was taking the criticism for it. I felt I could no longer live with that. I had to give something that was more a part of me and then, if it was criticised, I could handle it because I knew I'd given of my best. Whether it sold or not, it was my true voice."

The first most striking evidence of this new self-determination was the Prostitute album. A potent exploration of the roles women play, most often imposed on them by men or by their perceptions of what men expect. It was a cry for women to be themselves, to discover their feminine (as opposed to feminist) principle. And for Toyah it was a response to the rage she felt at being musically prostituted.

"I can't say how angry and adulterated I felt at the time. Everyone's expectations were that I had to be marketable, a sex-object making easy going music. But all the time all I felt was rage. I didn't want to be part of that system. I didn't want to starve myself for six months to make a video when I'm naturally a podgy person. I felt insulted. I have always felt that if the quality of work is good then people will be attracted to it.

"I'm very happy with Prostitute and Ophelia's Shadow because they aren't brash statements from an egotistical child demanding attention. That was what I felt my career had come to eight years ago. I got very lost. The hits took me over and ego got in the way. Looking back at myself I was a bitch. The biggest thing I had to learn to deal with was jealousy and resentment because that makes you cruel. I had to learn to admire other people without feeling belittled or threatened." 

Prostitute was a challenging, stimulating album, yet for many men it's very title was incredibly alienating. People walked out of sales meeting, refusing to deal with the word. It was a lesson that taught Toyah that women have to face such male aggression without giving up on their beliefs. 

"Woman are realising that they have to motivate their own future. I was never taught to be self-motivating. I always relied on others for ideas, or to take the initiative. Part of my journey has been to become independent in those areas. My record company treats me with brutal honesty and I have to learn to deal with that. Women have to learn to take humiliation in areas they don't understand and not react aggressively to it. That way you don't get degraded."

Ophelia's Shadow expands the themes of Prostitute, exploring not so much roles but identity and the fact that however much one may search for it, it remains illusive, transient. What matters, says Toyah, is that you are true to yourself at the time.

"I donít want any of this Western idea of lying about your age (she's 32) and having to pretend to be young and vibrant. I want to be my age. I want the right to that progression. I think you should be seen for what you are, what you do and how. Age should be respected but irrelevant.

"I don't think I'll ever be an utterly serious artist. I'll always have a girlish flamboyance, I'll always have a sense of mischief. It's in my character and I hope it's always there. But that doesn't mean I'm immature. Maturity seems to be a dirty word. I want to be accepted for what I am. Which is why I have arguments about publicity photos. I don't look like I used to so I don't photograph in the same way. There are lines there, there's a slightly sagging in the neck. But my record company says they won't use those photos. But that's how I look and I don't want to pretend otherwise."

One senses that in both acting and music, Toyah is seeking to discover a deeper understanding of herself and her relationship to the world she lives in. Where then does ambition lie?

"To be honest I'm not sure I know where to go. That path isn't yet laid and I'll make it as I go along, feeling with my hands. I just need to make myself available and trust my instincts. The biggest thing at present is my self-education. Time and tastes change and you have to change with them in order to inform your opinions. I feel more rooted and more determined now than ever. My ambition is furious, but not for its own sake. Fame was fun but it was also very demoralising. I could never allow it to happen again. Creatively I'm like a woman who has to have a child. I've got to find what I'm trying to say or it'll eat me up."

Birmingham Post, 1991
Thanks to Mike Davies, who interviewed Toyah, for providing this