She’s gone from punk icon to property and stock market tycoon, and now she’s hitting Northern Ireland in her vampire musical. Here, Toyah Willcox tells Audrey Watson the secret to her success.

Life certainly begins at 50 for former punk princess Toyah Willcox. A bundle of energy, the singer and actress is having the time of her life starring in hit musical Vampires Rock, which comes to the Waterfront Hall in Belfast this Friday.

Now a multi-millionaire thanks to shrewd (and safe) property and stock market investments, the Birmingham-born performer who enjoyed 13 Top 40 singles and a No 1 album in her 1980s heyday is actually a Belfast regular.

“I've been to Belfast many, many times,” she reveals. “My first visit was to the King's Hall in 1981 and I've been back often over the years to perform in plays at the Grand Opera House.

“As I was only ever there for short intense bursts of time, I didn't see any of the problems. Most of my day was spent rehearsing or performing so I rarely left the city, but I do remember going to the Bushmills Distillery a few years ago, though I don't drink so I didn't sample the whiskey.”

There's no doubt Toyah looks fantastic for her age and she happily admits to having a little “help” with her appearance. In fact, in 2005, she wrote a book (Diary of a Facelift) about her experience.

However, she denies it was a cruel comment by BBC bad boy Jonathan Ross that sent her scurrying underneath the surgeon's knife.

After her 2003 appearance on ITV's I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, Ross commented that she looked so awful she shouldn't be allowed to appear on television.

Women everywhere were outraged, but Toyah takes a different attitude.

“What he said wasn't the reason I had my facelift,” she insists. “Surgery goes hand-in-hand with the entertainment industry. Looking good is rightly or wrongly a requirement [for men and women], but I do think people in the public eye should be open about it.

“Everyone, and I mean everyone, in the entertainment business gets something done at some point in their careers. It's just ridiculous when stars deny it and say their youthful appearance is down to good genes.

“Of course, there's a lot you can do to help yourself. I believe in avoiding putting on weight at all costs, especially as you get older. I'm not very tall, so I religiously keep to 1,500 calories every day.”

Does the pressure society puts on women to stay beautiful and never grow old anger her at all?

“No, it's the fact that women put pressure on themselves and each other that angers me,” she replies. “Denying having surgery or anything ‘done' and refusing to reveal your age, creates for others an often unattainable ideal.

“Look perfect at any age if you want to, but don't pretend it's natural.”

Watching her on stage, vamping it up in her role as the Devil Queen, it's hard to believe that as a child Toyah was crippled by horrific physical disabilities.

She was born with a twisted spine, foot problems and no hip sockets and underwent years of surgery and physiotherapy.

She was also dyslexic (virtually unheard of in the Sixties), which by her own admission turned her into an “angry, rebellious” teenager who achieved just one ‘O' Level (music) from posh Edgbaston College.

“No, I didn't have a particularly healthy childhood,” she admits. “It was challenging, but by my teens, physically, I'd pretty much been sorted and I'm 100% fit these days — but I am very careful about posture and weight and the pressure I put on my body.

“It was tough at the time, but I now regard my dyslexia as a gift. Many people who have the condition excel in creative ways because the brain over-compensates in other areas — usually music, art or performing.

“Now that it's becoming more understood, I don't believe it should be seen as a disability.”

Not surprisingly, as a young woman Toyah was attracted to the noisy punk rock scene that developed in the late Seventies and after training as an actress at Birmingham's Old Rep Drama School, she won prominent roles alongside Adam Ant in punk film Jubilee and Phil Daniels in the legendary Quadrophenia.

Around the same time, she formed her own band, Toyah, and chart hits, including It's a Mystery and I Want to Be Free, quickly followed. Her trademark lisp, brightly coloured hair and scary persona secured iconic status and in 1983 she won Best British Female at the British Rock and Pop Awards.

“My generation really needed the punk movement,” she says, looking back. “The 1970s were a very bleak time and this whirlwind of creativity came along and gave everyone an outlet for their frustration.

“I feel incredibly lucky to have been part of the whole scene. I had an incredible time, but I have to admit I'm enjoying this stage of my life much more.”

In 1986, Toyah married King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp and the pair's unconventional relationship has raised a few eyebrows over the years.

They appear to live separate lives — him in America and her in Worcestershire — and according to reports rarely see each other for more than 12 weeks every year.

But despite their strange marriage, Toyah clearly adores her 62-year-old husband and perhaps it's this unorthodox marital set-up that has kept the union solid for more than 20 years.

“We have a great relationship and it works because we allow ourselves our independence,” she says. “I can just go off and do whatever I want, wherever I want without telling him and he can do the same.

“I got married because I had found my soul mate, not because I wanted to be married.

“We have a very interesting life and it's very trusting and exciting and for me, that's what's made it work.”

Toyah insists that not having children (she was sterilised shortly after her marriage because her childhood disabilities left her unable to carry a baby full-term) hasn't bothered the pair and they were never tempted to adopt.

“I've never wanted children myself and neither has Robert. I think I was just born that way. I don't have maternal instincts at all,” she adds.

To describe Toyah Willcox as busy is an understatement. Not only is she starring in Vampires Rock, she is also filming four documentaries for ITV and will soon start work on another series of The Secret Diary of a Call Girl. And last autumn, she released her first studio album in five years — In the Court of the Crimson Queen.

She's also constantly in demand as a theatre actress and TV presenter having fronted hundreds of shows including Holiday, The Good Sex Guide Late and, er, Songs of Praise.

Is religion yet another part of her very unconventional life?

“I'd describe myself as spiritual,” she explains. “I believe in the power of prayer and with prayer we can change things. I don't follow a particular religion.”

It's almost as if, like Benjamin Button, Toyah is leading her life backwards — getting stronger as she gets older and making up for the illness she suffered as a child.

“I perform to more people now than I ever did in the Eighties,” she laughs.

“Society has created this myth that as you get older, you should wind down and go away. If you are focused and are in good health, why should you stop?

“Last year, I walked the Gobi Desert for charity — because I still could — and, of course, I will physically slow down at some point (when my joints tell me to), but that doesn't mean I will give up on experiencing life. I'll just do it in other ways.”

Belfast Telegraph
February 2009