Punk Shock

Through the 1980's TOYAH WILLCOX reigned supreme as the high priestess of punk. But then a trusted business partner conned her out of her fortune - prompting a long battle to regain her millions.

For her appearances in her recent 1980s revival tour, Toyah Willcox threw on a little number that consisted of a copper breast-plate, the tiniest of skirts and suede boots, which reached to the top of her legs. The finishing touch was a thong as: 'my bottom is my best feature'. From one whose hair once offered more colour options than a paint chart, and whose appeal was 'probably because I was thought of as a dominatrix', this might have seemed to be her last-ditch attempt to shock. Toyah, though, insists that her intent was satirical. 'I wanted to be a parody of myself. I went on stage and told the audience, "Tomorrow you can tell everyone that you looked up the skirt of a 43-year-old Toyah." I was known to everyone on the tour as Granny Kylie.'

Toyah is now starring in a major new production of Calamity Jane which tours the country until April and may then transfer to the West End. Despite her lisp and her dyslexia, Toyah, now 44, is also a TV presenter and a veteran of voice-overs. Recently, clambering out of her fetishistic stage gear for a sleeky-groomed style, Toyah appeared on the daytime property game show, Under Offer, in which she demonstrated remarkable acuity in guessing the value of houses shown, sometimes down to the last pound.

The skills she showed in Under Offer were honed through property investment, which she once said would make her so rich that she would be able to slow down by 2003. Yet she seems to be accelerating her work rate, and is in no mood to give up either the day or night job - 'I can make between two and 20 TV shows a week,' she boasts.

Hers is the voice at the beginning of the Teletubbies that announces: 'Over the hills and far away. Teletubbies come out to play.' She will be doing the voice-over for the next project by the show's creator, Anne Wood. For now, she is slotting in other work around Calamity Jane. This work ethic springs mainly from two financial crises that have afflicted her life. The first happened when she was a child. Her father, Beric, used to have a thriving joinery business. The family - Toyah is the youngest of three children - lived in Birmingham and once ran to a silver Rolls Royce, a yacht and private education. Then, suddenly, the business collapsed.

'I was in my teens and I saw my parents struggle. They gave up everything to keep me in school. I remember food being more plentiful at the beginning of the week than at the end.' Nevertheless, there was no local authority subsidy for Toyah when, at 18, she began training as an actress in Birmingham. 'I was the only one on my course without a grant and now I am the only one still in the business.'

By the time she was 26, she was an actress, having already appeared in the cult film Quadrophenia and opposite Sir Laurence Olivier on television, and a singer, happy to live up to her reputation as the high priestess of punk. She had also banked her first million. So when, in the early 1990s, Toyah discovered that she had been swindled out of almost every penny she had, it hit her hard.

A business associate had conned her out of a fortune, including the revenue from eight top 450 singles, 14 albums and leading roles in dozens of plays, films and TV dramas. 'I was wiped out. All I had left was my car and the money to pay my VAT bill. I could have fought it, but the person who took my money went bankrupt so I decided to start again.

'The swindle was done with so much ease and my name was discredited in the process. I was not a spendthrift. I drove a little Peugeot and ate homemade sandwiches. I kept saying, "I'm not squandering my money. Where's the Ferrari?" The person who was conning me told me I was mad. At least, in the end, I was able to warn my husband so the same thing did not happen to him.'

Since 1986, Toyah has been married to Robert Fripp, the innovative musician and founder of King Crimson, but she didn't ask him to help her out. The pair have always kept their finances seperate. 'To avoid being made bankrupt I sold the only property I then owned to pay off my creditors,' Toyah says.

Not wanting to move to the U.S., where Robert was based, Toyah was forced to move in with friends in London. DJ Tommy Vance and his wife took her in. 'I'll be forever grateful for their generosity. They never made me feel bad about it. I was a very good house guest, though. I just went there to sleep and worked 20-hour days. Within a year, I was back on my feet.

'I didn't tell my parents what had happened because they were, by then, elderly and struggling. The only relative I confided in was my sister, Nicola - she knew how desperate I was.'

The experience taught her a hard lesson. 'No one has access to my money now, and I put away 70 percent of everything I earn. I don't want ot have another financial crises, ever,'

Her manager persuaded Toyah to take up television presenting and she has carved out a niche as an authority on subjects ranging from feminist philosophy, art, health and nutrition to Britain's network of canals. To further her career, Toyah is even planning to have a facelift this year. She expects to spend about £10,000 on the operation. 'I want to continue to work in TV,' she explains. 'I spoke to a casting director who said everyone's having it done.'

She has already discovered the joys of Botox. She had her first injection of the muscle-freezing toxin last April. 'I had it on my cheekbones and I also had treatment to regenerate the collagen under my eyes. None of my girlfriends were ageing and wouldn't explain why not. When I told them I'd had Botox, they confessed that they'd had it done. I said, "You cows! You could have told me that years ago!" Robert says he can't see any change. I suppose it shows that he accepts me for what I am.'

As her fight back to solvency demonstrates, Toyah is still the gritty, feisty character who survived numerous operations on the crooked spine and short left leg with which she was born and then broke into the male-dominated world of punk music. Her mother, Barbara, fought in vain to bring out her daughter's soft side. 'She was determined that I would be ladylike, go to ballet classes and live up to the feminine ideals of the day. But I didn't want to go to tea parties and I used to dismember my dolls.'

Once a consumer of junk food, who began drinking alcohol at nine, she is now teetotal and a vegetarian whose diet is geared towards preparing herself for the menopause. 'Everyone in my school (an independent Church of England school in Edgbaston) was drinking and sniffing glue by the age of nine,' she claims.

In 1983, while Toyah was filming an adaptation of John Fowles'  Ebony Tower for television, the writer John Mortimer interviewed her in the Chelsea boardroom of her record company. He asked how she put up with the aggression of her world. Toyah politely replied that it was all play acting and that once she wore a loo chain around her neck, but it didn't mean she was a toilet.

The same determined and well-mannered Toyah is on display today. She answers questions patiently with only a trace of her lisp. In many ways, though, she has recreated herself. Her interests include gardening and visiting buildings of architectural merit with Robert, but alongside these sedate pleasures she is revelling in a new-found femininity and sexuality.

'I'm good friends with Penny Smith (the GMTV presenter)- she is my role model. I've never walked into a room feeling sexy or confident. But Penny is dead sexy so I watch what she does. Now I've learned to talk to a man as if I'm going for his crotch, not his jugular.

'My husband makes me feel sexually attractive but when he goes away, the shutters come down and I go into work mode.'

The couple have settled into a comfortable routine in which during the week, Toyah lives alone in a flat in Chiswick, west London, with a 'magical' garden where she grows figs, grapes and apricots. Robert visits rarely. At weekends, she retires to her house in Worcestershire where Robert joins her, if he is in the country. The home, just downstream of a house she bought for her parents (her father pilots a river cruiser along the Avon between the two properties) opens onto their high street. 'I was horrified when my neighbours said they were thinking of putting a hairdressing salon next door because the customers would have been able to look out and see us romping in the nude in our garden. We're so old and unfit that I wouldn't wish anyone to see us.

'I was sexually naive when I married Robert (now 56) and he was very experienced. I was the first person with whom he'd had an exclusive relationship and I had pretty high expectations. You're never more vulnerable than when you're committed to someone totally. People used to remind me of his past and I had no past to throw back at him. I didn't lose my virginity until I was 20, and that had to be arranged by my girlfriends.

'At first it was hard to be apart from Robert and the trust between us was paper thin. But we went on a journey of discovery and tolerance, settled down and the bond between us has grown.

'It's not a typical relationship,' she says with some understatement. 'We're still courting each other really, and when he is back I follow him around the house talking and talking so we can catch up.

'I've never worried about taking my clothes off in front of him. I have one leg shorter than the other, and wear lifts in my shoes, but Robert loves my wonky leg, because it reminds him of his father who had polio. I love the fact that he's older than me because I can be immature. I steal all the stamps from his desk, which really irritates him. We wrestle, too, though he's learned to fight dirty. If I bite, he'll bite back. It's childish, with fingers digging in armpits.'

They met in 1985 at a charity function. Two years later, Robert asked Toyah to work on an album with him. 'Before we'd even begun work, he'd told people he would marry me.' At the time, Toyah was grieving over the break up of a five year relationship and felt she was in danger of  'becoming a rock 'n' roll recluse'. Robert arranged for her to work with him at his music school in Washington and they became close. 'I was heading for a nervous breakdown,' Toyah admits. 'Robert unravelled the knot in my brain without making me feel dependant on him.'

Robert insisted that their wedding be kept a secret. 'I wore a disgusting pink Little Bo-Peep ballgown because it was the only thing I could buy that didn't look like a wedding dress. Unfortunately, a journalist spotted police guards outside the church. When we came out, the photographers were waiting for us. Robert ran away and left me standing there alone. I posed for photographs happily. I understood that it was all part of the fame package.'

Neither of them wanted to have children and Toyah made the decision some years ago to be sterlised, which she has never regretted. Despite having been married for 17 years, the couple still don't know the details of each other's wealth or properties. 'We both made wills recently so that our families would know what we had. When we go out to dinner, we slip two credit cards across the table. I don't like showing off my wealth.'

Toyah dismisses the storm that surrounded her appearance at last year's demonstration at Throckmorton, a village near her country home, to protest against plans to build an asylum-seeker's centre there. 'My arguments were ecological. There are not enough facilities to cater for large numbers of people. We must create spaces where we can survive independent of food imports.'

This serious-sounding Toyah seems light years away from the Toyah of the 1980s who, when appearing in Tales From The Vienna Woods at the National Theatre, was reprimanded over her behaviour by Sir John Gielgud. 'I was like an appalling, hyperactive child. I raced trolleys through the corridors. Sir John referred to me as an animal. "We're not in a zoo, Miss Willcox," he said.'

Unsurprisingly, there is not much of Doris Day in Toyah's rendition of Calamity Jane. 'I walk on, not like a famous person, but like the urban legend that Jane was,' she says. Toyah and Jane may have more in common than a facility with a gun and a whip, which the former practised for months. ('That will increase my repertoire of attacks on Robert,' she says with a sinister chuckle). The ballroom scene, for which Jane sheds her masculine clothes and reveals herself as a beautifully-dressed woman, shadows, to some extent, Toyah's new-found femininity.

'I didn't have time for girlfriends when I was younger but now I've discovered the joys of girl power. I didn't ever imagine,' she says with a smile, 'that I'd actually enjoy talking about pedicures.'

By Moira Petty.

Daily Mail 'Weekend' Magazine
4th January 2003