Mysterious Girl: Toyah talks to Northern Soul
“There is a mindset when it comes to competitive combat and I think I might have that.”
Toyah Willcox will always be associated with early 80s pop, punk and new romanticism – and that’s no bad thing. With her flaming sunset hair, rebellious lyrics and tribal synths, she is unforgettable. But what isn’t always remembered is that this versatile all-rounder has acted opposite greats like Sir Laurence Olivier and Katharine Hepburn, worked for directors like George Cukor and Derek Jarman, and had success in children’s TV as Barmy Aunt Boomerang and as a narrator of Teletubbies.
Nevertheless, the call of the 80s is hard to resist and so, next Spring, Toyah will join Paul Young, Martika and China Crisis for the 80s Invasion tour. It’s a tempting proposition. But I wonder if Toyah’s boundless energy is still in good supply.
“That enthusiasm is just a natural part of who I am,” she says. “I don’t believe in working on anything half-heartedly. If people are good enough to work with you, you have to give them 150 per cent in return. You can’t become an actress and have limitations or boundaries, that just feels contradictory to me. Diversity is a very rewarding thing because you see different aspects of human life and come into contact with things that you would never have otherwise discovered. As a writer, that’s vital for me because we all tend to live in a bit of a bubble. With Teletubbies I was doing a favour for a friend who never thought it would ever see the light of day. Of course she couldn’t have been more wrong as it became one of the BBC‘s most successful programmes.”
Musically, the legacy of the 80s is as popular as ever. Toyah’s biggest hits, including It’s a Mystery, Thunder in the Mountains and I Want To Be Free, charted in 1981 but she has continued to write, record and perform ever since. Does she still enjoy singing those songs 35 years on or is there a part of her that wants audiences to focus on newer material?
“What makes the 80s Invasion tour such fun and a completely different experience for me is that there’s four acts involved who all enjoy performing. I do four shows a week throughout the year and normally I’m on stage alone but this time there’s other artists doing their own hits and we all bring something to the table. It’s like a dinner party, each person contributes one of the courses but we all enjoy the whole meal. I don’t see the point of updating my hits because people want to hear them the way they remember them, but it’s not like singing something on repeat play. Each show is different because every audience gives us their own unique energy so the crowd in Manchester will be radically different to the audiences in Rhyl. It’s going to be very loud and have that whole scope of what 80s music was with keyboards, lead guitars and tribal drums. Performing is such an integral part of what I do and I never get bored of it.”
BBC4‘s popular Top Of The Pops re-runs have reached 1981/82 and recently featured Toyah on a number of occasions, alongside contemporaries like Duran Duran, Kim Wilde and Spandau Ballet. Was it fun to tune in and look back?
“I don’t feel I look back because it’s all still very much part of my life,” she says. “I haven’t had time to watch the repeats but people have been writing to me about them. I’m absolutely over the moon that it’s still being aired because that programme was so powerful. Top Of The Pops created all the artists of the day and there’s nothing like it around now that brings in every generation of music fan. The charts have become fractured and dedicated to certain age groups but back then TOTP united everyone. The whole family watched together and I’m really pleased people can still see this extraordinary piece of history that brought together very eclectic performers.”
I think it’s fair to say that, in Britain at least, women writing and performing their own music only began to thrive on a wider scale during the 1980s. The pop girls of the 60s never wrote their own songs and in the 70s very few women were successfully writing and producing their own music. The females artists that Toyah recalls growing up come as a surprise.
“I was brought up with musical film so was very much aware of the likes of Barbra Streisand and Julie Andrews. Then, it was women in bands like Sonja Kristina in Curved Air and Cass Elliot from The Mamas & the Papas. But I didn’t really discover rock and roll until Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water album followed by Marc Bolan and T. Rex, then Bowie.
“Lynsey de Paul was a really good writer but I didn’t become one because women had written before me, I did it because I had something to say, felt unique and wanted to explore that. I never felt any different to the boys around me and I didn’t want someone else being my voice. I still write today and it’s a learning curve that lasts the whole of your life.
“I’m still trying to hone and control my writing. Whenever I have a deadline my house is never cleaner so I’m continually battling my own demons when it comes to creativity. I also study music theory, keyboards, guitar and literature. I believe education goes on and on so when I get any downtime I’m always taking a lesson in something.”
As a young actress, Toyah (and, if you’re wondering, that is her real name) worked with some of the giants of the acting world. As previously mentioned, early in her career she appeared on TV with Sir Laurence Olivier in The Ebony Tower and on film with Katharine Hepburn in The Corn Is Green. There were also roles in movies such as Derek Jarman’s The Tempest and Franc Roddam’s Quadrophenia. So, years later, what is Toyah’s perspective on all this?
“I didn’t process it the way I would now,” she admits. “I appreciate it all the more in retrospect than I probably did at the time. Back then I just thought I was the bee’s knees, that I could match these people and that I deserved what was happening to me. That’s very much the nature of youth. I am so grateful that I’ve worked with a generation of actors that have made the industry what it is today. They’re not around anymore and they worked so hard while contracted to the film studios. With that system they had no choice in what they did yet they still managed to evolve and develop the industry so it became a freer art movement.”
The entertainment world is obssessed with youth and appearance. Unlike many performers, Toyah has been refreshingly open in the past about having cosmetic surgery. In 2004 she published a book about having a face-lift. Does she wish that more public figures were honest about having nips and tucks?
“I think people are becoming more honest about it now. Robbie Williams recently admitted to having some stuff done and this makes the hysteria around getting cosmetic work done less prevalent. I just think everyone’s doing it and it’s a factor of the industry that will never go away.”
Back in the 80s, Smash Hits magazine brought many pop stars to our attention with a quirky irreverence. So it seems apposite to end the interview with a nod to that publication and to ask Toyah a cerebral question of epic importance: who would win in an arm wrestling competition? Toyah or Kim Wilde?
“Ha! I’m going to say me because Kim is very feminine whereas I’m quite butch and competitive so I think I’d win. I also think I’m the type of person who would enter an arm wrestling competition and Kim isn’t. There is a mindset when it comes to competitive combat and I think I might have that. Her gardening is superb though.”
The 80s Invasion Tour 2017 featuring Paul Young, Toyah, Martika and China Crisis starts on March 2, 2017 at Rhyl Pavilion, culminating on March 19, 2017 at Liverpool Philharmonic. For more information, click here.
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Thought for the Day: ”Keep your face always toward the sunshine – and the shadows will fall behind you.” – Walt Whitman