Toyah Willcox: ‘I’m not domesticated.’ Photograph: Dean Stockings
The singer and actor has had a productive pandemic – and gone viral from her kitchen. She talks about escaping her childhood, sexual harassment and persuading her rock star husband to dress in a tutu
Of all the celebrity offerings that have come out of the pandemic, the gloriously weird videos made by Toyah Willcox and her husband, Robert Fripp, are surely the most compelling. It is possible, within each short clip, to cycle through every feeling from wanting to cover your eyes while being unable to look away, to the dawning realisation you may be watching a profound piece of performance art. Mostly, it is impossible not to laugh. There they are in their cosy Worcestershire kitchen, perhaps with the dishwasher open in the background, with Willcox, accessorised with mouse ears, tap-dancing, bouncing off the Aga. Both dressed in black tutus at the end of their garden, the pair dance across the screen to music from Swan Lake. Fripp lies on the floor of the hallway, while Willcox – dressed in red PVC and devil horns – performs the Kinks’ You Really Got Me on the stairs. It’s joyous.
Willcox has been uploading their Sunday Lockdown Lunch videos since April last year; they also do a weekly agony aunt session, and Willcox does her own Q&A, talking about her life and long career as an actor, pop star and general cultural fixture for the past 40 years. It started, she says, as a way to occupy Fripp, the musician and founder of the prog rock band King Crimson. “Here I am in this house with this 74-year-old husband who I really don’t want to live without,” she says. “He was withdrawing, so I thought: ‘I’m going to teach him to dance.’ And it became a challenge.” They posted a video, and it took off. “It was: ‘Wow, I’ve never experienced the power of that connection.’”
She comes up with it all, giggling to herself late at night in bed. “I do the lighting, the filming, the conceptual side and the persuading Robert to take part,” she says. Getting Fripp – famously self-contained and serious – to dance in tights and a tutu, she says, made him “fucking furious. He felt he was being mocked. But the response was so overwhelmingly positive, and now, six months down the line, he can see that it was quite an important thing to do, in that it became a shared experience with an audience that needed to be reminded of the beauty of human laughter.” Since then, she adds: “I’ve not put him in such desperate situations.”
Instead, it is Willcox who throws herself in, with zero self-consciousness. She will wear an animal-print onesie, or dance around with ribbons, or pretend to be in a dungeon in their cellar, or jump on a trampoline while dressed as a cheerleader (Fripp, usually, is seated, playing guitar and dressed in a suit). One of the funniest, and most popular videos (4.3m views on YouTube), is Willcox performing Metallica’s Enter Sandman on an exercise bike, though it’s fair to say her breasts are the highlight. “We did the exercise bike in a rehearsal, and my top was completely see-through, which was a surprise,” she says. “I have a mentor who’s basically my personal trainer and teaches me guitar, and he was born in 1980, he doesn’t know who the hell I am. I said: ‘Can I get away with this as a 62-year-old?’ And he said: ‘Do it.’ And I trusted that response.” I praise Fripp for admirably maintaining eye contact with Willcox, despite her nipples being dangerously within his line of vision, and she laughs. “Robert loves his wife. And when I do these things …”
This is not showing off for the camera; this is how the couple normally behave, she says. “I’m doing this to him all the time to make him laugh, because he needs to laugh. If people saw what we got up to, they’d wonder if we were nine years old.” She likes to hide in his shower room, for instance. “And he turns the light on and I’m in the corner like a demented child and it just freaks him out. We have had moments where he says: ‘Can this just stop?’”
The past year has been a test for the couple. It has been the longest stretch they have spent together in 35 years of marriage – in normal years, both are touring or working away, and they lived in separate houses until 2001. “We really had to start again, to navigate being together in a confined space, because we have never had that. We had a very romantic relationship where we’ve always met in hotels around the world and this new life was challenging. I now think we love it so much we’re going to have to really start to embrace the outside world again.” Faced with the prospect of spending too long in the kitchen, she taught Fripp to cook. “I knew I was not going to survive if the kitchen became a mainstay of this experience, which is why Robert and I are very 50/50 in what we do, and we even do our own laundry. I’m not domesticated.”
She has also been incredibly busy; Willcox rereleased her first album, Sheep Farming in Barnet, late last year, made a film, made a TV programme about her mother, and wrote and recorded a solo album, which will be released in the spring. “I’ve been phenomenally creative and I’ve been trying to understand why,” she says. “I can only put my finger on the fact that at 62, you know time is finite. And I thought: ‘I cannot let 2020 be a year that destroys my career’, so I’ve just been furiously creative.” She has also written some “little nonsense books, with a bee painted like Robert, that is always questioning who and what he is” and is learning to play the guitar. “There’s definitely that thread pulling me towards … I don’t call it the end, but the end of Toyah. Time is so precious and I think that’s why I’ve become ultra-creative. I remember when Derek Jarman was diagnosed with HIV, he said it focused him so much that he did his greatest artwork in that time. I don’t have anything to face like that, but I learned more from that lesson of Derek’s than from anyone else.”
If you know Willcox only from her TV presenting in the 90s or the reality shows she has popped up in over the past two decades, you are glossing over her incredible career. Her first film was Jarman’s 1978 punk classic Jubilee, and she worked with the director again in The Tempest; she was also in Quadrophenia. Her first stage work was at the National Theatre. She was marketed as a punk pop star in the 80s, though this ended up turning her pretty much into “a parody of myself”, as she once put it, and she remained underrated, despite albums such as the highly experimental Prostitute.
She once said she refused to be “a rock’n’roll wife”. What did that mean? “Robert would never ever let me live off him or his reputation. He just wouldn’t. We have separate bank accounts. He was so guarded when I first met him and I think why he liked me so much is I was fiercely independent and passionate about my work – he saw someone that wouldn’t cling. I knew I’d never have children, and Robert and I didn’t want family. I have been very passionate about remaining an artist.”
As a child, growing up in Birmingham, Willcox was “a show-off. I realised I could entertain people, and it made people like me. I was probably seven when I realised it was the only thing I could do, in that I would not be able to suffer this life unless I was a performer.” Her early years were defined by medical problems – she had been born with a twisted spine and developmental problems with her feet and hip sockets, requiring surgery and physiotherapy. There were other crises – she was bullied at school for her disabilities and her lisp; her father, a factory owner, went bankrupt; and her relationship with her mother was difficult.
“My mother was very complex. She never told the truth of her history to us.” Willcox recently made a TV show about this, so won’t go into detail, but says she found out that “my mother experienced something in her life which meant she never experienced happiness again. None of us understood why she was the way she was. It shattered me, because my mother went through something where she needed love, support and therapy. And she got a daughter like me.” By which she means wilful and nonconformist and with a body that disappointed her mother, who had been a professional dancer. “She was always kind of covering me up, and always wanted me altered in some way. I was never right.”
Willcox was an “obedient child” in this claustrophobic house until she was about 12. Then, she says: “I completely rebelled, ran away from home, I started making my own clothes, I became a hair model where my hair was dyed at the age of 14, and I was touring in hair shows. I just broke every rule.”
In 1982, at the height of her fame, she won an award for best female singer, and phoned her mother from the ceremony. “Her reaction was: ‘Don’t boast about it – it won’t happen again.’” Her mother lived near Willcox and Fripp near the end of her life and they managed to build a relationship. She has tears in her eyes when she talks about it. “We had two rather fabulous years with her; I still fought with her, but she became the woman that she could have been. She destroyed her life, because she could not talk about one event that happened to her when she was 16.”
But it didn’t destroy Willcox’s life. Even talking over Zoom, I can almost feel her bristling energy, and she seems fearless and deliberately, relentlessly happy. “I am deliberately, relentlessly happy because my mother deliberately, relentlessly tried to stop me being happy,” she says, smiling. “So for me, it’s actually passive-aggression. I am a very positive person and I only like to deal with positivity, but sometimes, it’s passive-aggressive.”
What was it like to become so famous so quickly? “It was fabulous!” she shouts. “It was everything I ever wanted. I had five utterly magical years where I felt the universe was placing everything in my hand.” She had been spotted on the streets of Birmingham by a casting director, who put her in a TV play; from that, she was cast in Tales from the Vienna Woods at the National Theatre. “And at the National I found musicians I could work with,” says Willcox. “People were absolutely gorgeous to me. Ian Charleson [the stage actor] took me to meet Derek Jarman, and I ended up in Jubilee. Everything fell into place. Looking back, I must have been so obnoxiously self-centred, but people saw me as some new generational spark, and doors opened for me.” She makes it sound so passive, but this underplays her own determination and charisma.
It must have been tough to be a young woman in the music industry in the early 80s. “I was terribly naive,” she says. “I was being called to record meetings in people’s flats and I realised, if you’re called to a meeting at 8pm, you ain’t there because you’re an artist. I realised that this was sex for jobs – and no.” It was more explicit in the film business, she says. She went for an audition with Russ Meyer, the director of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, for “one of his big booby films”, at a flat in Chelsea. “He said: ‘Can I see your breasts?’ and I went: ‘No.’ He said: ‘Well, you won’t be in this film.’ I said: ‘That’s fine’, even though Jubilee had nudity and the National Theatre had nudity. I just didn’t like the attitude.” It helped her survive, she thinks, that she was quite androgynous. “I think my boyishness protected me.”
Would she have been seen as more of an artist, and less of a novelty act, if she had been a man? (I think so.) “I think partly it’s gender,” she says. “I think the sexual appeal of someone is huge. It really helps to have a sexual awareness and I fought that.” Willcox zigzagged from music to theatre to film and pitched up presenting TV programmes such as Songs of Praise and Watchdog, then appeared in reality shows such as I’m a Celebrity. In recent years, she has endlessly toured. What more does she want to achieve? “Everything,” she shouts. “I’m a megalomaniac!” She is preparing a Jimi Hendrix song for this weekend’s video. I dread to think what she has got planned for her husband in the weeks ahead, but he will play guitar, smile at her indulgently, and Willcox will continue to look as if she is having the time of her life.
An expanded edition of Toyah’s album The Blue Meaning, released on 28 May, can be ordered from cherryred.co/toyah from 6 February. A new album, Posh Pop, will be released in July. Toyah & Robert’s Sunday Lunch videos are published at 12pm each Sunday on YouTube.