"I Have Enjoyed Not Being Bound To One Medium"

Her career spans thirty years of music, theatre, film and TV and she shows no sign of slowing down. The irrepressible Toyah Willcox comes to Birmingham's Alexandra Theatre in November as the Devil Queen in the hit show, Vampires Rock

As an Eighties icon, she was up there with the best of them. She blasted onto the pop scene in a blaze of neon hair, outrageous fashion and powerhouse energy. The punk princess from Birmingham, who came in with a bang and made you sit up and listen with hits like It’s a Mystery, sung with her trademark lisp.

And, while Madonna may hold the reputation for being the mistress of reinvention, Toyah Willcox must surely rank as one of the most successful multi-media artists.

A glance back over her 31 years in the business shows just how effectively the recording star, who enjoyed superstar success on the pop scene as a song writer and performer, simultaneously managed to carve out highly successful and prolific theatre, film and TV careers with a longevity that is extraordinary.

Her range has been epic, seamlessly moving from rock and pop albums to films such as the groundbreaking Quadrophenia and theatre work including the Taming of the Shrew, Emile Zola’s Therese Racquin, the award-winning comedy Three Men and a Horse, and the lead role in the major national touring production of Calamity Jane, which was nominated for an Evening Standard Award for Best Musical.

As she explains, having parallel careers has been her aim from the very start.

“I always wanted to sing and act, but I never wanted to combine the two at the same time. That was quite unusual a few years ago, as people had to focus on one thing. As I grew older, the bindings loosened, the Svengalis and managers let go, and I found that incredibly liberating. I have enjoyed life ever since, not being bound and gagged to one medium.

“Thirty years ago there was a snobbery that kept people away from doing that. Now major A-listers are doing TV series and soaps - perceptions are changing.”

Toyah has continued to push the envelope artistically ever since. This autumn, she is playing to full houses with a UK tour of the hit theatre production Vampires Rock, which has been compared to The Rocky Horror Show of the Eighties. Set in the future, it’s a rock-comedy bloodfest of vampires, fantastic sets, costumes, dance and pyrotechnics, set to a sound track that includes some of the most iconic rock hits from the likes of Meatloaf, Bon Jovi, Alice Cooper, The Rolling Stones and Queen. Toyah stars, opposite Steve Steinman, as the Devil Queen and spends a good deal of the show wearing skin-tight rubber costumes, thigh-high boots and skyscraper heels. The production comes to the Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham on November 6.

“It is wonderful. A great fun show which has a massive cult following,” says Toyah. "I did it last year and it has been upgraded and changed a bit since then. It’s just perfect for this time of year when the nights are drawing in.”

As well as Vampires, with her trademark unstinting energy she is also juggling a stream of other projects. Her group, The Humans, has just released a digital single, a remake of These Boots are made for Walkin, and an album, We are The Humans, and then there is her film, Three to Tango, which has recently been having its press showings. She describes it as being very much aimed at a Sex and The City market, and low budget British but with a big budget feel. “It’s about three women who are celebrating their fiftieth birthdays. They meet up and decide to help each other make their dreams come true to become successful career women. It is very motivational about single women in their fifties,” she explains. Toyah plays one of the three leads, along with leading female actresses from Canada and South Africa. Christmas will see her in panto in Sheffield, and then in February she starts a UK tour before heading off to America to record a second album.

Originally from Birmingham, and now living in Worcester, Toyah says she has a special affinity to the second city. “I feel very connected to Birmingham. My dad passed away recently. He did a lot of the joinery work in the arts centre of Cannon Hill Park and also many major buildings in the city and those memories mean more to me than ever before. I love Birmingham.”

Her acting career started in Birmingham, when she attended the Old Rep drama school in the 1970s; it’s a place she remembers fondly. “It is a magnificent theatre with so much atmosphere. I loved being there. For a long time I had a fantasy of buying it and turning it into a commercial theatre, but it was not financially possible,” she says.

Her acting career has since included diverse roles ranging from appearing alongside greats such as Katharine Hepburn in the film The Corn is Green, and Sir Lawrence Olivier and Great Saachi in Granada TV’s film version of The Ebony Tower to appearing in the seminal punk film Quadrophenia.

Her pop career was at its zenith in the Eighties, with highlights of the decade including a platinum album, Anthem, and chart successes It’s A Mystery and I want to be Free. Christmas 1981 culminated in a Christmas Eve concert from the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, screened live as The Old Grey Whistle Test Christmas Special, and in 1982 she won Best Female Singer in the (then) Rock and Pop Awards (now The Brits). Over the next two decades, she continued to record, release albums and tour the world, while keeping up a phenomenal schedule of TV and theatre work.

Her theatre work has included leading roles such as Miranda in Derek Jarman’s version of The Tempest, which won her a nomination as Best Newcomer at the Evening Standard Awards, and on TV she has done everything from The Good Sex Guide Late to Songs of Praise, dramas, documentaries, and even voicing the intro to Teletubbies.

In all, she has had 13 top forty singles, has recorded twenty albums, appeared in over forty stage plays, written two books, made ten feature films and presented hundreds of television programmes. She was the subject of a This is Your Life programme with Michael Aspel in 1996 and was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Central England in recognition of her distinguished achievements in performing arts, media and broadcasting in 2001.

“I am grateful for the Eighties,” she says. “I believe in living in the present and building the future, but I totally realize the Eighties have made my life possible. And the decade has a new respect now. All we musicians played to huge audiences then, and we still get huge audiences now. I am very grateful for that.

“I opened the Rewind Festival – a celebration of Eighties’ music – in August to thirty thousand people. To set that in context, when Oasis broke up, they played to thirty thousand.”

In the past she has displayed an openness about herself that many women would consider brave; sharing details of her body and health, including writing about her facelift and even diarising her pioneering ‘bum lift’ in the media. Avant garde, from the very start of her career, Toyah has never balked at standing out from the crowd or from being experimental in her work. One of her early singles, Be Proud, Be Loud, Be Heard reflects that attitude.

“I have always fought to make myself heard,” she says. “But Be Proud, Be Loud, Be Heard was not only about me and the fact that I had a voice; it was embraced by the gay community. I believe punk helped make gay culture accepted as it is today. And now I say it because I believe everyone should have a voice."

Despite her heavy work schedule, Toyah does manage to get a little time to herself occasionally, and it’s invariably spent on the computer: “Every spare minute I am surfing the Net. I do a lot of research, for example medical development on arthritis and osteoporosis because of my age. I am the archetypal silver surfer!"

Keeping fit and healthy is also important to her, she says. “You invest in your future by eating well when you are young, and I have always invested in my health through good diet. For energy, the worst thing you can do is overeat, so I always keep my calories about the same. I do not drink or smoke, I do not do any weight-bearing exercise, being over fifty, but I do do Pilates.”

Boundless energy notwithstanding, she does foresee a time when she will have to pull on the reins. But she has a back-up plan. “I will have to slow down eventually – my voice will not be good. But I think I will still be writing – I write all the while – horror is my favourite.”

Midlands Magazine
October 2009