TOYAH

Talented actress, successful singer, forthright woman all rolled into one. Maggie Monks traces the rise and rise of Toyah Willcox.

Toyah Willcox has done what most of us dream about - and could do if we had the courage. 

She kicked away the traces of a well-off upbringing at a private school and left with only one "O" level - in music. She left her school in the Midlands "by mutual agreement" after failing the other nine "O" levels. 

She had a lisp and a stammer and had special speech therapy lessons to correct them, though the lisp is still faintly audible. She weighed in at around eleven stone, even though she's barely five foot tall. 

Now she runs two successful careers - in acting and singing - and has slimmed down to under eight stone. All that, and she's only twenty three. 

She discovered, after she left school, she suffered from a form of dyslexia, but has now got over that problem and has blossomed into one of the most talked about young actresses on stage, film and TV. 

She lives with her boyfriend in North London. As she has bad eyesight, she is nervous about using public transport - she gets lost because she can't see the tube or bus signs - he drives her around everywhere, and acts as her bodyguard. 

Her hair has been many colours, but she seems to favour an eye-catching flame and orange mix, set off by the flamboyant clothes which she spends a fortune on. She buys some of them from Swanky Modes and others are designed by a friend. 

It's not hard to imagine why she draws stares from passers by, and it was in just that way she got her first break. A BBC producer saw her in the street and asked her if she could act. 

At first she thought he was spinning her a line, but he convinced her he really was a TV producer - and she ended up in a play which led to more parts. 

It was just what she wanted. She'd been studying drama in Birmingham, financing herself by working in a theatre and in clubs at night. 

She hit the punk scene when she appeared in the film Jubilee - and the headlines when it was discovered that she kept a coffin in her previous Southampton home, which was an old warehouse. The papers said she slept in it, but it wasn't really true. 

She was to regret all that publicity, because her home was broken into several times afterwards and many of her personal possessions were stolen. 

Although she's small, Toyah's a fighter. And her careers - both of them - are all important to her. 

"I've always believed women are superior," she says. "I've never felt it necessary to prove it." 

Her stage act with the band has been described as outrageous, but Toyah feels it's the men who stand at the front of the stage that look silly. In the music business many people have put down her singing, but Toyah shrugs that off. She's not the type to get trapped into anything she doesn't want to do. During a production at the National Theatre, she was practically the only actress who didn't have to take her clothes off. 

"I hate showing my body," she said. Now she's finding people are only too happy to see her face in a production. 

Having the courage to ask for what she wanted has been Toyah's hallmark - viz her part of Monkey in Quadrophenia

She was already well known in the London punk/rock circuit when she and her band appeared in the BBC TV's Shoestring, but after that her music really took off with her album Toyah Toyah Toyah and her singles. 

Now she fits her life around her two main commitments, touring with her band for one half of the year and acting during the other. 

Her performance in The Tempest received critical acclaim from all sides. She played Miranda, which she got through Derek Jarman, the man who made Jubilee

"I had read The Tempest once and it was the only Shakespeare play I could read," Toyah says. "Shakespeare doesn't half gabble on sometimes." 

But her success in films and on stage doesn't mean we'll lose Toyah to America. She has no desire to go there. 

"I would only go to America for a good reason," she says. "People are just there because they can lead a life of luxury and I don't want that. I like being on the move." 

Veteran film actress Katherine Hepburn got on famously with Toyah when they played together in the TV production The Corn Is Green

It's been parts like those that helped her avoid being cast as a punk. 

"I've moved on from all that," she said. "I suppose I just believe in being an individualist." 

She is certainly that - there aren't many people who enjoy working so hard they don't believe in having holidays. 

"I go insane when I'm not working. I like to be everywhere at once, in the right place at the right time. I don't enjoy socialising very much and feel lost at parties." Running one career can be difficult enough, but Toyah's boundless energy copes with both - though she does find the music side harder. 

"You never know what's going to happen next, it's totally unpredictable. So more mental and physical energy has to go into it." 

Like the time she tripped onstage and hurt her ankle. She carried on with the show but the ankle was later found to be fractured. Doctors told her she'd have to rest up for a couple of weeks - not Toyah. 

She tried sitting on a stool for a couple of concerts, but it wasn't long before the stool was abandoned and she was bouncing around again. 

It's hardly the kind of lifestyle a woman with a family could pursue, but then Toyah doesn't see herself as the traditional type of woman atall. 

"I'm part of the future," she claims. "A modern woman who doesn't think like a woman. I'm a female chauvinist pig because you have to be tough to survive." 

She might not be like the usual type of woman in some ways, but she does have some things in common with girls in the street - like make-up and clothes. 

"It takes me between half an hour to an hour to put my make-up on." she says. "But I always know what I'm going to wear. I work it out the night before." 

And she has been known to go on spending binges, sometimes paying as much as 500 a month on clothes - and she takes hours over her hair. 

"I used to have long hair but it all fell out because it was bleached so often." Now her hairdresser only lets her have it bleached once a month. 

It's taken a special kind of determination to get this far. For Toyah to transform herself from an awkward chubby child, who didn't do well at school, into a successful actress and singer couldn't be achieved without courage and a single-minded ambition to do well. 

Now Toyah would like to do something for other young people. She wants to buy an old disused cinema and turn it into a kind of recreation centre where people could go to meet each other and watch films, and do whatever they like to do. 

So far she hasn't had much luck. But knowing Toyah, it won't be long before she gets her scheme off the ground. 

Rock Times Magazine, 1981