BBC RADIO 4
"DOING IT HER WAY"
BBC RADIO 4
"DOING IT HER WAY"
HOST ANN BROWN: Toyah Willcox is an actress and a singer. She’s 26 and she burst upon the pop scene in the late 70’s during the punk era but she’s emerged from that and grown into one of the figureheads of the youth culture.Toyah, there maybe people listening to this program you haven’t actually heard of you. Now- you, when you did come onto the pop scene you created an image for yourself. Perhaps you could remind us of what that image was and perhaps still is?
TOYAH: I think when people saw me, who weren’t usually into pop music, their image of me was this kind of screaming banshee type person with bright orange hair who wore very weird clothes and was very loud and had a screeching voice. I think that’s probably the first image of me which is something that I’ve been trying to steer away from for a very long time.
ANN: But why was the image like that in the first place?
TOYAH: I’ve always been like that, ever since I’ve been about 12 and I was aware that women could change their appearance and had a right within society to change their appearance.
ANN: So you were using your body almost as art were you?
TOYAH: Yes, my body, the way I dress and the way I do my make-up and hair is very truthful to how my mind is. In the beginning, in 1979 I’d walk down the street and get laughed at and I used think “God, these people are laughing at me” and I want to hit them! (laughs) And then I suddenly realised I’m making them laugh, they’re probably going to back to their friends and saying “guess what I’ve just seen?! I’ve seen this sort of animal with bright red hair.”
ANN: Yes, but you say looking good and making people laugh … was your appearance a sort of statement of how you felt about your youth?
TOYAH: At the time I was very immature, I was 15 when I started dying my hair, which is over ten years ago and it was rebellious statement.
ANN: I wonder if you maybe had a chip on your shoulder from a very early age?
TOYAH: Oh, an enormous ship on my shoulder!
ANN: Because you weren’t very well were you? When you were …
TOYAH: Well, the chip on my shoulder was because I wasn’t as bright as would’ve liked to have been, I wasn’t as social as I would’ve liked to have been, I was always alone, I didn’t have many friends.
ANN: Was that because - hang on, let’s just be explicit about this … because you had one leg longer than other, you had a bone deficiency and you were in hospital?
TOYAH: Yeah, I wasn’t aware of that until boys come along … was I totally aware of the physical defect. I spent every six months - I had to go to hospital till I was 11, to really go through these really dated experiments of … I had to be sort watched walking up and down, I would be measured and I would be put in contraptions and I found it all very macabre. And very meat market.
And I was in wards with mentally handicapped kids which was very frightening because I didn’t feel I was like that and to be quite honest and it sounds very cruel now, I didn’t like the kids. I had no affection to these mentally handicapped kids- at the time. In a way I started to hate them and resent them because I was being made to be with them.
But at that age, I was about 2 till I was about 11 I just hated everything around me because I was made to through all this. And I had a series of operations that didn’t work. And I since found out I should’ve not had.
ANN: But when you adopted the punk movement, as I imagine rather than it adopting you, was that a sort of an expression of all that hatred and resentment?
TOYAH: Probably deep down inside there was this remembrance of hatred of school and hatred of childhood altogether. That probably had something to do with the person I was. But when I went into the punk movement I wanted rebel against everything. I wanted to be loud and wanted attention.
And I wanted people to love but at the same time when I opened my mouth hateful things came out. I was just a mixed-up person. But the real thing I’ve always wanted was attention. And I can never deny that. And I’ve always wanted a form of love which is an adulation where people look at you with awe in their face but they don’t touch you. I’ve never wanted contact in any way.
ANN: This seems to be something that comes through even publicity that you’ve got this dichotomy that there’s sensual sexy, basic Toyah on stage but there’s a sort of little Miss Prim aside who says to men and perhaps women as well “don’t touch me, I don’t want to know.” I find that strange.
TOYAH: The prim side is that I really disagree with promiscuity. I think if you marry someone you stay married to them. I disbelieve that men have to go wayward and get mistresses and everything. I think if I was with a man and he said he needed a mistress because he needed freedom and everything … I’d poke him in the eye! I’d tell him bog off!
I think that’s weakness. To me people who jump into bed for one night stands are very weak and insecure people. As soon as I came to London and started seeing these people – they’d jump into bed, they’d take drugs … I’d think “my God - you’re trash!” Because they can’t say no. To me part of strength of character is saying no.
ANN: But isn’t there temptation or wasn’t there temptation when you first came to London - to do it? To see what it was like?
TOYAH: No, I’ve never been into men like that (laughs). I love men, I adore them but I don’t want to sleep with every man I meet. I’m one of these pains in the backside that I used to fall so madly in love with someone and not be able to tell them and things like that. And I’ve only had really two serious boyfriends in my life.
And very happy with them. I’m very happy with them, I don’t want any other boyfriend and I don’t need a lover. I just think when you meet someone and I meet a lot of people that I grow very affectionate towards and I love them very dearly and I could have an affair with them…but what’s the point? It won’t grow, nothing will come of it, we’ll probably hate each other for it. And it’s far better to say no because it makes the bond of friendship far stronger.
ANN: But how do you equate what you’re saying with the image that you’re portraying to other youngsters?
TOYAH: Well, in a way through things like this when radio people, TV people interview you, I feel it’s my duty almost to say these things …
ANN: (annoyed) Oh c’mon!
TOYAH: No it is, because the images are loud and because there is a sexuality in what I do it doesn’t mean that behind the scenes I’m a rampant nymphomaniac.
ANN: But have you any right then to be as rampant on stage is what I’m saying because not all the youngsters have your sense or had your chance to look at the outside?
TOYAH: What I don’t want youngsters to think is because I’m any different to them. When I come off stage at night I have problems, I have a boyfriend that I argue with, I have housework to do and I don’t want kids to think that there is this glittery side of life that they can’t be a part of because it doesn’t exist. We all have problems, we all have to face those problems, we all have to tackle things that we don’t want to have to tackle.
ANN: Do you actually feel like a leader of your generation? Do you feel the responsibility?
TOYAH: No, because I’m not trapped in any generation, I don’t feel that there’s any such thing as youth anymore. I feel you’re as good as you give throughout the whole of your life. And I don’t want there to be a generation gap between anyone I talk to.
ANN: That’s a terrible thing to say though -
ANN: - that there’s no youth anymore.
TOYAH: No, because we’re permanently young as long we allow ourselves to be young. I’m not going to let my head grow old because I want to learn and I want to be with people of all ages.
ANN: But you’ve changed: the aggressive teenager had become very conservative, very establishment -
TOYAH: I’m aggressive to what I believe in, I’m aggressive to people who are aggressive towards me, I believe very much eye for an eye. A lot of my attitudes are conservative towards other people’s emotions. They’re very conservative so I will not mess about with people’s emotions the way I did when I was younger.
I ruined my mother’s life, I ruined my teacher’s life, I just don’t want to be like that anymore but at the same time because of what I’ve been through I can convey some form of information to people younger than me.
ANN: I wonder though, Toyah, if there are still gaps, because you live in a very cocooned world, you know you don’t sort of go out at 9 in the morning and come back at 5 and you don’t have worry about where the next two bob is coming from-
ANN: You don’t have go and buy your groceries and all that, it’s all done for you. Are there not bits of your youth that you’re missing out on - both the mundane and also the social side?
TOYAH: No. When I first moved to London it’s the typical rags to riches story. I was a very violent person and I used to fight all the time. If I had problem I’d hit somebody, which is now something I feel quite guilty about. The amount of people I thumped just because they were in my way.
But when I was first moved to London, anyway, I was living in a bedsit, very poor, I actually remember eating a bowl of brussels sprouts. I went into a greengrocers and I had no money on me and I filled my pockets with brussel sprouts and I took them home, boiled them up and ate them and that was my meal for a week.
And on the other days I’d have Mars Bars. If I was really lucky the man in the chip shop below would give me piece of cod at the end of the nights sales. So I have been poor. I’ve been sexually harassed because of the area I lived in, which has made me a little too aggressive towards men sometimes.
Then I lost my home because I hit the landlord, I knocked him down a set of stairs because he came into the bathroom when a friend of mine was having a bath. So I grabbed him and I sort of had skinhead haircut and I was very masculine, I was never a lesbian or anything but I used to be butch and I had a physical punch-up with him and I lost my home.
So I was very poor and went to a landlord of a warehouse, I said “look I’ve got no money but I’ll clean this warehouse up and I’ll turn it into something that will earn you rent.” And the landlord did that and I turned this warehouse (Toyah in her "famous coffin bed at "Mayhem" (the warehouse), below) into a kind of arts community in Battersea and as soon it started making money I lost the warehouse. But I was on the brink of just not knowing what to do ...
ANN: How did you then get started in your career and stay on top?
TOYAH: Because I was so aggressive, ... er, but again I was aggressive in the wrong way - I frightened people.
ANN: You weren’t very nice were you?
TOYAH: I wasn’t a nice person at all and luckily something came along called the hit single and I was saved. I signed with a record company who wanted a punk band and I did have a band at the time who weren’t punk, we were jazz. But because my image was so aggressive we got away as being punk.
And in a way I exploited the punk scene, I had nothing to do with it, I didn’t spit and gob on people, I didn’t take drugs, I did drink. I drunk like a fish, I did fight and I did swear. I never had any real laws at that time and I never stuck to anyone else’s laws so why should I stick to the laws of punk? I just exploited it because it was there and helped me.
ANN: Tell me about the drink. Are you an alcoholic?
TOYAH: God NO! (laughs) Not at all. I don’t touch the drink now.
ANN: Yeah, but that doesn’t mean you’re not an alcoholic … did you stop because you are an alcoholic or because you realised it was bad for you?
TOYAH: I stopped because I realised it was giving me the mental freedom to get into fights. When I drank I thought that nothing was ever wrong. It wasn’t as if I was spending money on drink because drink’s just so available, wherever you go there’s drink.
It was boredom. I’d drink through boredom. I’d get home at the end of the days work I’d just be so bored I’d start drinking to go to sleep. I’d drink to try and wind down. I was never an alcoholic because I just don’t miss drink. But I had some enormous capacities for drink.
ANN: Again, this is something you see … you’re compulsive yet when you move from one compulsion to an another but what about the youngsters of your generation who are suffering from alcohol, suffering from drugs and who can’t give up things as easily as you? What are pressures on youngsters these days to drink, to take drugs?
TOYAH: I’m not sure what the exact pressures are on youngsters, the only way I can relate to that is my own experience because things were there and they were legal, I could do it. I’m not saying make alcohol illegal, all I try to say is that there are other things more interesting to do. And having gone to brink of being pickled for weeks on end and not being pickled, the feeling of not being pickled is so much higher than when you are drunk. Really my drinking started also when I had to go in public a lot.
I don’t like being with lots of lots of people around me, buzzing and talking and pulling you and wanting parts of me all the time. That does me in a bit and used to have to drink to go out. That was when the vicious circle hit, I had to drink to go to occasions.
Then I had to keep drinking to stay smiling. And that’s when I realised I had to stop drinking because it was hiding behind a barrier, it was hiding behind screen. The only way I can face problems now is being straight and using by what nature gave me to use which is perfectly good body that can handle anything.
ANN: You’re very self centered.
TOYAH: What’s self centered mean?
ANN: Just talking to you: you’re constantly analysing yourself, you’re thinking about things which I’m not saying is a bad thing but you’ve inward focus.
TOYAH: I’m trying to find things, I’m trying to find a level to work at that I perform properly and remain happy at. Because within my work, one week of working a lot and then the next week you’ve got nothing to do, so you’re up and down like a yo-yo all the time. So I’m trying to find a balance in the middle where I can keep working whatever happens around me and it is very self centered. You’ve got to be very self centered because there’s not very many there to help you when you go wrong.
Because I feel from my experiences everything that has gone wrong around me has been mostly my own fault. I try to be disciplined, I had no discipline at school so I’m trying to make up for it now. And it isn’t very painful to keep disciplined, really.
And it’s like Buddhists, you find this happy medium that you can step out of every now and then, but it keeps you on a wave length and it keeps you in contact with people. And I found that through being self disciplined I actually communicate better with other people whereas before I was so paranoid all the time. I didn’t understand what people were saying, I felt everyone was picking on me.
ANN: Tell me this, when you’re performing, when you’re in front of an audience, what does it do to you, because when the red light comes on, when the cameras turn on, the audience is there, there is an adrenaline thing which can become a drug of it’s own -
TOYAH: Yes, I mean as soon as you’re in front of an audience and my audience aren’t a very quiet audience, you’ve got a few thousand kids, some are crying … it’s - for me, I get very nervous before going on, about 6 o’clock in the evening is when my panic button sort of starts flashing. Er, I get very nervous and very very un-confident before I go on.
As soon as I go on it goes. The only thing I can say is I feel like I can hold the world on my shoulders. But it’s not a totally selfish high, it’s a high that you have to tune in to what the audience is thinking. And what you don’t see from the audience is that they’re entering the auditorium and they’re buzzing coz they’re waiting to see something.
Whereas you’re usually backstage bored stiff waiting to go on. So you have to get in tune with the audience and I let them know I’m on their side. I hate seeing performers who’ve built a wall between them and the audience.
ANN: I can understand that entirely when you’re performing in a rock concert. How do you get your high when you’re acting?
TOYAH: It’s totally different -
ANN: Is it seeking perfection?
TOYAH: No, to me acting is like sitting down and writing an essay. It’s searching. Because when you’re acting on stage each night I never believe you reach a peak in a performance. Each performance has got to go somewhere new that you’ve never been before. But I must say doing films for me is far more relaxed because you far more alone, if you go wrong you can do it again, you’re not doing it night after night after night so you’re searching for a different peak.
As time develops I’ve got over- believe it or not- I’m not as selfish as I used to be (laughs). I got over this kind of rock star syndrome where you kiss your own feet and you kiss the mirror and stuff which is a terribly dangerous thing to get like.
ANN: Must be difficult not to though when you’re surrounded by people saying you’re the greatest.
TOYAH: It is. It leads you astray and then as soon as you have a sleight failing they all disappear. To me now I’d like to do something that is critically good, as far the critics are concerned.
ANN: What was Laurence Olivier (below with Toyah) like to work with, because you made “The Ebony Tower” with him and you talk about something that is critically good and that surely must be getting that way? If not … your ultimate -
TOYAH: Well, it’s a terribly prestigious thing for me to do, I mean to have worked with a man as wonderful as that.
ANN: You’ve always been very deferential about it, I mean there’s lots of publicity about “The Ebony Tower” and about calling him Sir Laurence and this … this amazing nude scene that got more publicity than -
TOYAH: I know! (laughs) The overrated scene -
ANN: “Toyah doesn’t want to take her clothes off, Toyah doesn’t like her body”, all this. I mean if you just kept quiet about it nobody would’ve noticed it!
TOYAH: It wasn’t a question about keeping quiet about it, someone listened into a conversation in France and sold it to the Daily Express and it exploded. And the headline in the Daily Express “Toyah a has a ménage à trois with Sir Laurence” and I never saw the back of it.
It went on and on and on. I ended defending myself to protect my family, to protect my boyfriend, I felt I had to do it even to protect the fans because I had a lot of fans saying “oh why have you done this, this is disgraceful, its despicable -“
ANNE: Why did you do it?
TOYAH: I did it because I wanted the exposure -
ANN: Literally, the exposure!
TOYAH: Yeah, I wanted to work with Sir Laurence, I think it was a really tremendously prestigious thing to do.
ANN: What did you get out of working with Laurence Olivier? What will you remember?
TOYAH: The bloody nude scene! (laughs)
ANN: What is it about women and their bodies, I mean -
TOYAH: Because they’re wonderful -
ANN: Because of all the people-
TOYAH: That’s what it is.
ANN: But why is it that, talk about women, women today - (Toyah tries to say something) - hang on- and women being their own people and equality and all that and yet someone who’s in the forefront of the youth movement and is as independent as any other woman of her age if not more so than most, can be quoted in the paper saying I don’t like my body -
TOYAH: I don’t! I’d be Bo Derek any day.
ANN: But it shouldn’t matter, should it? What you look like? If we’re really carrying on this liberation thing through, why does it still matter?
TOYAH: Oh, but I still have a right to say OK, I’m not a 100% happy with it. I still treat it like gold, you know, I pamper myself and all that and I have to make do with what I’ve got. But I feel I have a right to say to people, what I wanted say to people was “Look! I’m not God’s gift, I don’t think I am so just forget the nude scene and watch the film -“
ANN: But should you have to apologise for it- why do girls go on getting anorexia? Why are we so worried about what we eat and what we look like? I kind of think that we have to come to terms-
TOYAH: I tell you why … I came close to anorexia in my teens. Coz after you’ve gone three days without food you feel wonderful. Which is a terribly frightening trap to get into. You reach a kind of mental high, and I don’t know what it is but I got very close to it when I was very young.
And it started with pressure: boys weren’t looking at me, my father was getting up my nose, he couldn’t handle my puberty and I stopped eating. And I felt wonderful! And clothes sort of hung on me and they flowed in the wind and it’s a stupid romantic thing.
ANN: Is it a sexual thing basically? Are we really trying to attract the male?
TOYAH: For me it’s a sexual thing, yes. But of course I want to look attractive, I don’t want spots or I don’t want bulges, I’ve got this amazing ego, simple as that really. I think a lot of women have ego problems but I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I think it’s only bad when you destroy yourself when you’re worried.
ANN: Obviously the female body is sexual, it’s our way of attracting the male. But it’s part of this thing we call femininity. But it’s only part of femininity. I mean what to you is the rest of femininity?
TOYAH: To me femininity is a woman that stands very tall even when she’s short, is a woman that can smile when she knows she wants grit her teeth, almost slightly subservient but you can see in the eyes she’s the master.
ANN: The master of who or of what?
TOYAH: A master of herself and of people around her, who’s in control. To me I’m very pleased to be born in these times where women are becoming business women … I think that’s fabulous.
ANN: But isn’t there a danger that business women are loosing their femininity? Or identity?
TOYAH: I just feel that women have this kind of magical power and they’ve always had it and they should exploit it and they can have men at their feet whenever they want to. But they do have to kind of look good for it.
But I think that’s a very little sacrifice to pay. You know to dress up nicely and to smile at someone is a very small sacrifice. But I think they’re … to me femininity is this wonderful mystery, I like mystique and enigma.
ANN: Can a feminine woman be aggressive?
TOYAH: I think so, definitely! It takes all sorts to attract all sorts. Some men like their women silent, some men like aggressive women but I have found within this career men are quite perversed towards women. It’s no so much chauvinism, it’s a perversity towards women. And I feel that perversity … behind is always a frightened man.
ANN: But where are you going? And does a home and family fit into that?
TOYAH: I’m terrible. I don’t want a family. I don’t want commitments. It’s not that I want to sit and wonder at myself all day long … I like my work so much that in this moment in time I don’t loose it and I don’t want to steer away from it.
So again I’m having to push away and push away to be something that I’m aiming for. I’m not sure it is but at the moment I probably cocoon myself from family life, from wanting a baby, from wanting marriage. I don’t want to end up tied to a house.
ANN: And when you get to 40 and you look back -
TOYAH: Oh when I get to 40 I’m going to be wicked!
ANN: Do you ever worry about it?
TOYAH: No, I’m going to be wicked! Life starts at forty! I really believe that now. I mean there’s been a series of women that prove life starts at forty. These wonderful business women who, because of the experience they’ve had up until they’re 40, are such rich personalities and so strong and so independent, I want to one of those.
ANN: You reckon the future for women is bright?
TOYAH: I think it’s incredibly bright. But again it’s the same for men and women, it’s a bank account. Your life is bank account and you’ve got to stock it up and earn the interest.
You can also listen to the interview HERE