Now, I'm a calamity...

After her jungle ordeal in the wilds of Australia for I'm A Celebrity, Toyah Willcox brings her touring production of Calamity Jane to the Wild West End. Interview by Nick Curtis.

Nobody could accuse Toyah Willcox of vanity. We last saw the 4ft 11in actress and former punk singer covered in jungle muck on ITV's I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here! From tonight she'll be dirtying up her face and pulling on cowboy clobber to play the title role in the Wild West musical Calamity Jane at the Shaftesbury Theatre. For the moment, proffering tea and Jaffa Cakes in the living room of her Chiswick pied-a-terre, Willcox has scraped her face clean of make-up, tied her hair in a long blonde plait and looks, well, she looks her age, and all the better for it.

'I'm 45, so if I don't play this part now I'll never play it,' she explains, adding that her portrayal will be nothing like Doris Day's prettified movie version. 'I've always loved that film, but they were constrained by Fifties' attitudes to women. We're looking more closely at the pioneer spirit of the real Calamity Jane, who wore men's clothes and scouted for the army in the Indian wars and probably supported herself through prostitution,' Willcox laughs. 'We won't be referring to that on stage, of course, but I'm slightly embarrassed to be playing her as a virgin at this age.'

She's actually been playing Calamity Jane on tour for the best part of a year ('the equivalent of running a marathon every night'), always hoping to bring the show into the West End. The fact that it's going into the Shaftesbury seems like kismet, since Willcox played there in her punk days 20 years ago. 'The building had been closed for ages,' she smiles. 'The audience were all wearing their coats and you could see their breath steaming in the cold. It was a pretty miserable night.'

Before returning to the Shaftesbury she did have a month off from Calamity Jane to appear in I'm A Celebrity. 'I did that show to up my profile, to prove my mental and physical fitness, and to make money for a small charity I support that was about to fold,' she says bluntly. 'I didn't realise, quite naively, that it was geared towards psychological rather than physical stress. The boredom and hunger were unbelievable and there were times, of course, when people irritated you. But I was determined not to flip or to fight with anyone.' Which is probably why she was voted off. She had no idea how big the show had been over here until she stepped off the plane with John Fashanu at Heathrow and the entire reception hall started applauding.

It may seem weird, after all that jungle humiliation, that Willcox claims that 'dignity is all-important' to her, but she means it. She hasn't dusted off her old punk anthems in front of an audience for 10 years and, even though a minor label expresses interest in signing her on the strength of a recent EP, Velvet Lined Shell, she considers music a part of her youth. 'There's something gross about a middle-aged woman pretending to be what she's not,' she says. 'I very badly wanted to sing when I was younger, but I can do more at this age as an actress and a writer than as a singer.'

The youngest of three children, Willcox decided she wanted to act at the age of seven. It was an odd choice. She was hampered by a childhood bone deficiency, dyslexia and a lisp, and the fact that she looked, in her words, 'unusual' with her diminutive stature and her dyed hair. Her father, the wealthy owner of a Birmingham joinery business and her Spanish mother, a former dancer who picked her daughter's unusual name out of a book, were not keen. This led to legendary adoloscent rows and stories of Willcox running off to hang out with Hells' Angels and study Satanism at the age of 14. Still, she won a place at drama school, and at the age of 18 had a stint at the National Theatre and a role in Derek Jarman's punk film Jubilee under her belt. She's rarely stopped working since.

Despite tales of youthful strops and a Bacardi-and-pills period in her Punk days, Willcox says she's always been rather straight and square. 'I am driven, and work has always been the most important thing to me.' Her press cuttings reveal a long list of things she's given up, from cigarettes to booze (well, almost), to wheat, dairy products and meat (well, almost). When not performing she exercises for two hours a day, and prides herself on still being able to perform aerobics - the legacy of her role as wrestler Trafford Tanzi. What drives her? 'Terror of failure,' she almost shouts. 'I failed at school and I failed at drama school, I didn't have any idea of stage technique until about 10 years ago. It was only my unusualness that got me work.'

Her home life, if not exactly conventional, is settled. Even on tour, she was never promiscuous ('in the Eighties, no one was'), and after a couple of sizeable relationships she married musician Robert Fripp in 1986. They chose not to have children and live affectionately independent lives. 'It's a very romantic existence because we have very little to do with domesticity,' she says. 'We're rarely at home and tend to meet up abroad, so it always feels like a holiday. We see each other out of choice, rather than duty.' Home, when they're there, is on a secluded stretch of land outside Birmingham, which includes a cottage conected to the main house by a river, where her parents now live. 'It's really nice,' she says. 'We're a family again and I love that. When I was in the jungle, my dad would sail up to our house and watch me all day on ITV2.'

Metrolife/London Evening Standard
13th June 2003
Thanks to John Shepherd