Toyah Willcox: I Remember

Sean Egan 19 August 2021

Toyah Willcox is an English musician, actress and TV presenter. From fronting a band to releasing solo music, there is little that she hasn't done across a four-decade career

My childhood was definitely privileged. We had hot water, heating, food, we had our own home, and I went to a private school.

Having a limp, dyslexia and a lisp. I wasn't even aware of it. I was having a perfectly happy childhood until people pointed out that I had a physical difference to everyone else in the room. Then, when I was sitting my 11-plus people realised that I was not on the same page as everyone else because of dyslexia. Alan Sugar, Richard Bransonyou could name a thousand people who have exactly the same experience as me and we're doing perfectly well. I have such a wonderful life. I have overcome so much.

I wouldn't say that that specifically made me tougher. What made me tougher was being the only woman in the music industry. My way of learning, my way of working, means that I have to just be a little bit ahead of everyone else. And I think any woman in acting or music would say, "I feel the same too." You never arrive.

Toyah Willcox in the 1980s
Toyah Willcox on the cover of her album Anthem, 1981

The name becoming famous. Everywhere I've had success, from Australia to Africa right through to LA, there are now Toyahs. You kind of permeate the culture. The Toyah [Battersby] character in Coronation Street was a really lovely character and they had my blessing for that.

The Battersbys being laughable "chavs". I don't judge people like that. No matter what money they have in the bank, people just crave individuality and for some people it's through names. These were good, honourable, salt-of-the-earth people.

"I found myself at the age of eighteen as the youngest member of the National Theatre"

I was driven to be an actress. That's what I felt I was supposed to be doing. The way an artist picks up a paintbrush and feels at home, I wanted to act and sing. Both, I was very, very passionate about.

The moment I left home, I became the Toyah who I felt I should be. I had such a closeted education that was exclusively female that when I went out into the world, I didn't know the things I needed to know. I was never taught how to get an electricity account, or phone account or how to buy a train ticket. I found myself at the age of eighteen as the youngest member of the National Theatre. I remember [actors] Brenda Blethyn, Kate Nelligan, Warren Clarke all helping me find my feet in London. And when I found myself with other artists, who were very free thinking, very bohemian, very forward thinking, I found myself being an observer.

Toyah in 1979

Being talked down from a bridge by a policeman suspecting a suicide bid. I'm often contacted by people who are so low they don't know what to do. I can talk them back. I totally realise as a 63-year-old woman that time is a gift and even when events are challenging, they are a gift to help us see the opportunity that they're presenting. I have no need to look back to that girl on the bridge because I have forty years of experience.

Parallel success as an actor and singer. I got spotted on the streets of Birmingham because I had dyed hairI was a hair modeland there was two directors called the Bicat brothers who were looking for an exceptional young girl for a half-hour play on BBC Two called Glitter.

There was a very clear division between actors who did voiceovers, actors who did TV and actors who did stage. The actors that did stage were considered royalty. I just couldn't see the sense of that. I did voiceovers, I did TV, I did absolutely everything. And I had a band as well.

" I got spotted on the streets of Birmingham because I had dyed hair"

The acting just happened to take off before my band. I formed the band immediately I moved to London because the National Theatre is one of those creative hubs where you can just find anyone you need for a creative project.

Successively obtaining parts in film Quadrophenia and TV series Quatermass and being signed to a record label. It's what I expected. I really believe in myself and back then I believed in myself even more. Now, I think that's unrealistic. I had an extraordinary run of luck but I deserved itthat was my attitude.

1980 album The Blue Meaning. There was a revolution at the time with synthesisers and people were experimenting with sound. Blue Meaning doesn't stand out as punk or Birmingham rock – I'm a Birmingham girl – because we were genuinely fighting for something unique.

Many critics have picked up on this was the embryonic beginnings of the Gothic movement. It's not been available for forty years. People can get hold of it again. This has been a driving force for me: to get this music back where it deserves to be in the historical place it belongs within music. There's no resting on laurels till I've done that.

Being an unusually flamboyant pop star. My really big commercial hits started about March 1981 and it was so evident that I was like no other artist who'd been before. I was completely attached to imagery. This wasn't linked with fashion. The hair and images that we created at that time could not be copied at home.

We had to use specialist hairsprays that set everything solid, the makeup wasn't available on the high street, so what I was creating was unique. Also, it was slightly third gender in that I wasn't a glamour model, I wasn't exposing my body. It was otherworldly. Women just weren't behaving like that at that time.

Marrying Robert Fripp of King Crimson. When we first met, our careers were culturally very wide apart. He's the creator of prog rock and I was a kind of new wave pop-rock artist. I would be photographed, he would walk away from the photographer.

We were just complete opposites. Apparently, when he met me three years earlier, he said to his friends, "I think I've met my wife." We didn't do the vows of ownership. We had those taken out. I never, ever had any urge to have children.

"The only connection I can feel between me now and the girl that did Blue Meaning is respect and admiration. It's like looking on a daughter"

The most extraordinary thing about lockdown for us, it's the longest we've ever had together uninterrupted. We've absolutely loved being together. We've become incredibly creative. We've created a worldwide audience through Toyah TV.

Recording new album Posh Pop while simultaneously overseeing Blue Meaning re-release. My lockdown was exceptional in that I made the album. I made and directed ten videos in lockdown. It was very expensive. We had nurses come to the house to test us. The person on Blue Meaning was still having to learn a lot about the world, was thrown into this chaotic world of success.

It was an extraordinary time. I look on myself with complete admiration for the strength I had at that time. [On] Posh Pop, I'm a completely different human being. I have the wisdom of 40 years of writing, acting, creative experience. I'm much, much more grounded. The only connection I can feel between me now and the girl that did Blue Meaning is respect and admiration. It's like looking on a daughter.

The Blue Meaning Expanded Deluxe Edition is out now through Cherry Red Records.

Posh Pop is released in July through Demon Music.

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