MY OLD SCHOOL FRIEND: TOYAH

'She was a real rebel..and very frightening'

What are the big stars really like? There is no better way to find out than to ask those who knew them before they became famous. In this occasional series, Mirror writers take a revealing look at well known people's early years, as seen through the eyes of their former school friends. Today: Toyah Willcox, the tiny terror with a giant temper.

Punk actress Toyah Willcox was never much good when it came to taking exams. But she did make her mark at school - on both the pupils and the furniture.

She had an easy answer to arguments. She simply settled them with her fists. Once she kicked in a classroom door and another time she smashed a chair.

No wonder even some teachers at the all-girl Church of England College in Edgbaston, Birmingham were scared of tiny Toyah, the 4ft 11in terror no one could stop.

She has never been to sort of girl you could ignore, even in the school group photograph taken with her classmates in 1972 when she was only 14.

That's Toyah, right i nthe middle, with her pert, almost angelic, face shrouded by a dramatic mane of jet black hair, shortly to become a psychedelic mixture of tomato red, emerald green and sunshine yellow.

Even on that chilly autumn afternoon, rebel Toyah stood out. She alone was tough enough to brave the cold without a sweater.

Yet she had a sweet side, too. She always stuck up for her friends when they were in trouble. So when classmates teased Indian girl Bina Jairaj, Toyah was in there fighting for her.

"She always took on anyone who was a bully," says Bina, who is now a London secretary for a design packaging company.

"Normally she was fairly quiet, but when she lost her temper she was vicious.

"She never paid attention in class. She mucked about instead, pretending to pick her nose, or doing impersonations of Frank Spencer."

Bina, 26, came to England with her parents when she was five and was one of Toyah's closest friends. When the budding actress ran away from home for two weeks, it was Bina's family who took her in.

Bina says: "She was always a real rebel. In the last term of school she had a triangle of hair on the nape of her neck dyed red. None of the teachers dared say anything to her."

The school was fee-paying and the pupils came from some of the wealthiest families in the Birningham area. Toyah, who has an older brother and sister, was the daughter of a prosperous businessman.

Rosemary Frame (now Swainson) was in the same form as Toyah from the age of four until they both left the school at 16. She often spent holidays and weekends with the Willcox family.

"Even at home Toyah was very naughty and was always getting into trouble with her parents," says Rosemary, who is married and an advertising sales executive for a newspaper in Redditch.

"She used to sit in lessons drawing weird pictures.

"If girls didn't do something she wanted, then she would threaten them or beat them up with her fists. She was very frightening.

"She kicked a door down once to get at me, threatening to beat me up, too, even though I was supposed to be her friend.

"She used to wear lots of black eye make-up. No one else could have got away with that. She always said she was going to be famous. We used to laugh at her. But she really believed it. And now she's done it."

Alyson Allen, another of Toyah's close friends who now runs her own design studio in Leicester, remembers: "She was a real tearaway.

"One morning she came into class in a flaming mood. She began venting her anger on the classroom door, shouting really obscene language, and kicking at it until there was a great hole in the bottom.

"She really loved the attention she got when she was rude to a teacher and all the other girls laughed."

Vicky Richardson, now married with an eight month old daughter, left school to train as a nurse.

"Toyah loved outrageous fashions," she says. "All she ever wanted to do was get into drama."

On Saturday mornings Toyah took the only lessons she liked - at the Birmingham Old Rep acting school, which she attended full time when she was 16.

Teacher Shirley Williams, one of the few members of staff who got on with their extraordinary pupil, says: "I taught her English, or tried to. She was a very odd sort of girl, quite intelligent, but not switched on to school work.

"I remember once she hid an alarm clock under the school stage which she set to go off during morning prayers.

"She had a very bad and nasty temper. A lot of the children were quite afraid of her.

"People who are gifted in some way are often like this at school, and her success doesn't really surprise me.

"We are hoping she will come back, and she has said she will, to help with a fund-raising project we are planning."

Daily Mirror, 1982