I'm very aware of what my body needs - Toyah Willcox, actor, singer and presenter. 

From Princess of Punk to a 21st century Calamity Jane, Toyah Willcox has enjoyed continued success as both an actress and singer, but it has not been without a real understanding of her own physical abilities ...  

For Disability View readers of a certain age, she will be forever remembered as the brightly coloured punk figure on Top of the Pops who claimed “It’s a Mystery”. However, in a career that now stretches back over 25 years, Toyah Willcox has amassed a formidable body of work in theatre, film and television; she’s worked with directors including Derek Jarman and Stephen Poliakoff and actors of the stature of Lawrence Olivier and Katherine Hepburn - while still continuing to write, release and perform new music. For the last year, Toyah has starred in a new, large-scale production of Calamity Jane, successfully touring 18 cities around the UK before settling in London’s West End. 

Her early life, however, gave no immediate indication of such a career choice. “I was born with a twisted spine and I have pelvic dyslepsia, which means my sockets haven’t developed. When I go on stage, I strap my knees; no one touches or rotates any part of my legs, I am in complete control of all rotation of my limbs, and I wear special shoes that take a lot of the shock away.” 

Did she therefore learn to deal with her condition from an early age? “Because my muscles support the joints, my physio was developed around this. I had physio for the first twelve years of my life - every day - and the idea was that I learnt to straighten my own back and support my own joints. As a result, I’m very muscular.” 

Because only her feet were “quite unusual”, Toyah never felt different when she was young, and would not consider that her condition affected her day-to-day life. “When you’re born with a disability, you’re whole life is adjusted to it. I wouldn’t run a marathon and I wouldn’t carry heavy weights; that doesn’t affect my day-to-day living as I’ve never done anything like that.” In retrospect, though, she admits her medical treatment was by no means ideal. “I was told very little when I was young; in fact, the information I was given was quite sensationalist. They just said that when I was older they could take my foot off, remove my toes, or shorten my right leg so that it was the same length as my left. Everything I was told I think was quite medieval and barbaric. If anything, it just made me feel incredibly unfeminine. 

”When I hit puberty, I remember saying to my mum that I didn’t want to go to hospital any more. I found it demoralising - I didn’t know why at the time, I just knew that every time I went there I felt wretched.”  

This was by no means an easy decision for someone from “the kind of background where the doctor’s word was paramount”, but basically from the age of twelve or thirteen, Toyah admits she simply ignored the condition; indeed, when she started out on her music and acting careers she felt her condition: ”made no difference at all. In my twenties, I was quite robust.”  

A number of websites listing “Famous Disabled People” have suggested Toyah has arthritis, but she denies this: “I thought, in my twenties, that I was developing arthritis, but I managed to knock it out through diet. I could never understand why on certain days I was finding it hard to move - it turned out it was because my greengrocer got mangos in on a Tuesday, and I was eating mangos. You can eat certain things that form crystals in the joints, so I just don’t eat any of that now. I have a very specialised diet; there’s no wheat, no dairy, very little starch, and I stick to that religiously. I’ve actually taught myself through diet and specific exercise to keep myself incredibly fit. I’m very aware of what my body needs.” 

She was 29 when growing pains made her take her health even more seriously. “I tried to find my original orthopedic surgeon, who operated on my toes when I was eleven, but couldn’t find him. I went to Bart’s (Bartholomew’s in London) where there’s a very good child orthopedic surgeon. He was absolutely gob-smacked that I hadn’t had major surgery; so much so, he called all his students in to look at me. He had me parade up and down in my underwear - not knowing that I was well-known, while the students did - and he just said: ‘Look at this woman, look how her brain has altered her body so she can cope.’ It was very, very funny! At the very end, he asked if I would consider leaving Bart’s my skeleton; it was hysterical, one of the funniest moments in my life!”  

Considering that she was recently on stage for about 90% of Calamity Jane, Toyah is pleased that - at the age of 45 - she can still be involved in the kind of fast and physical theatre that she loves. "I went on stage and I completely abandoned my body to the trust I had in the rest of the company. I was jumping off stage-coaches, diving off bars; it was about freedom and freedom of movement. If people came to the show hoping to see an interpretation of a Doris Day musical, I’m sure they would have been a bit shocked. What we were doing was very rowdy, but having said that, it’s a really exciting piece of theatre and I think we brought the play and the perception of the play into the new millennium.

Disability View
December 2003