Interview: Woman of substance

John Walsh meets the original waif. Photograph by Dan Burn-Forti This iconic Sixties babe who didn't sleep around or take drugs and lived with her parents until 1968 has mutated into a formidable woman
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
David Bowie called her "Twig the Wonder Kid" and that's how the British folk memory is always going to keep her: six stone of the slenderest bones in the evolution of homo sapiens, barely covered by a light stretch fabric of Neasden-pale freckly skin, topped by a tiny face whose features were disproportionately large. Fashion, which could clothe but not transform her titchy body, went to town on the face: her huge grey-blue eyes were given vast tarantulan eyelashes, false ones above, painted ones below; her sulky mouth was plumped out by white, then strawberry, lipstick; her nondescript hair was parted on the left, swept in a thick curtain across her innocent brow and plastered down as if by the matron of a severe Austrian finishing school. It started as a benign conspiracy between a London hairdresser called Leonard and a South African photographer called Barry Lategan. Leonard cut her hair, Lategan photographed the result, emphasising her Nefertiti neck and sleepily suspicious 15-year-old gaze. Deirdre McSharry of the Daily Express saw her photo in the salon, interviewed her and plastered her across the newspaper's centre spread with the headline: I NAME THIS GIRL THE FACE OF '66.

Twiggy was a one-girl cultural watershed. With her child-woman insouciance and awkward knees, she redefined every notion of beauty, style, Englishness. Unencumbered by breasts or aitches, a pedigree or an agent, she was a tabula rasa on which everyone, from dress designers to feature writers to TV producers, could write their own New Testament.

Going to meet her at her flat near Earl's Court, you don't harbour any illusions that you're about to find an ingenue, a stick or a fashion plate. She gave up modelling for good in 1970, became an actress, a Broadway hoofer, a wife (twice) and mother, an American sitcom queen, a lost Sixties Brit who returned home to decent obscurity in the Nineties. You think: demure, she'll be demure woman living a leftover life, pale and melancholy and still stunned about what happened to her 30-odd years ago.

The door is answered by a small whirlwind in a pale blue cheong-sam with white flowers on it. "`Allo. John? Right. Ooh, THAT's nice." [She likes the little guitar brooch on the velvet jacket I'm wearing in a pathetic I-was-there-too Sixties hommage]. "Djoo wanna go in 'ERE [opens door of gorgeous high-ceilinged room with wooden table and hundreds of books] or in 'ERE [opens door of even larger room with grand piano and nine-foot metal Buddha reclining on mantelpiece] or WOT?". Well, um, either would be... "TEA? COFFEE? You got a TAPE recorder?" Why, I wonder, since we're standing only 18 inches apart, is she shouting at me? Only when the interview begins do you realise that her normal vocal delivery is a parade-ground bellow. She introduces the cats, Titania and Oberon (the latter a gorgeous, fat-haunched, delinquent cat, that claws the upholstery and lies with paws spread out in front of him, as if impersonating a sphinx) and, regarding the tape machine, yells, "You SURE that's going to be able to PICK me UP from there?" Absolutely, I tell her, your voice is... (I was going to say uniquely carrying). "Rather LOUD?" she says. "You don't have to be polite about it. When we were doin' Blithe Spirit at Chichester this year, the director said, when we met, `We'll have to talk about projection, for when you're actually on stage.' Before we'd got near the stage he was saying, `OK, you needn't worry about projection any more'." She goes off into one of several peals of dirty laughter that punctuate her conversation, a barmaidish "Nah-ha-ha-ha-ha", like Sybil Fawlty.

Why had she written her autobiography (Twiggy in Black and White, Simon & Schuster, pounds 16.99, out on Monday) now? "With all the Sixties revival, there were loads of people ringing up and wanting to talk about it. And with Justin [de Villeneuve]'s book out, I thought it was time I put my side of the story. Everybody wants to know about the Sixties, so they should 'ear it from the 'orse's mouth, so to speak. I'm the 'orse, dear. Nah-ha-ha-ha-ha. I wanted to prove that I didn't live just in the Sixties and die at the end. Everyone has a cross to bear, and the Sixties - that's mine."

The book is a lively and thickly textured evocation of the time when the 15-year-old Lesley Hornby rocketed from hairdresser's assistant to international supermodel. The first 100 pages are especially good, with their close notations of family life. Her father was an autodidactic Bolton carpenter, her mother a caterer prone to breakdowns. She was constantly disappearing to mental hospitals for little "rests" spiked with electro- convulsive therapy. Lesley's early interest in clothes was fuelled by shopping trips to the fashion crucible of Harlesden High Street, and the skinny waif of Brondesbury School for Girls effloresced into a Mod, living for Saturday nights at the Kingsbury Ritz or the Starlight Ballroom, Sudbury, where they danced around their handbags and craned to see what super-mod Mick O'Connor was wearing.

There was, I remarked, a coyness in her memoirs about sex.... "I have never, in all my life as a public person, talked in depth about that to anyone," said Twiggy, primly. "When I met the book people, I said, `I hope you're not expecting a kiss 'n' tell, because I'll never do that until I die.' I don't think it's anyone's business except mine." Hadn't she been swept up by a wave of "permissiveness"? "No. I missed out on all that. I was only 16. They were much more innocent times, the early Sixties, whatever 'appened later. I was in Neasden, these were Saturday-night dances, and you had to be home by 10.30. You might get a kiss and a tickle but that was it. I wasn't part of the promiscuous wave. I didn't do anything like that. Apart from Justin."

Ah, Justin, whose name recurs like the cackle of a pantomime villain in the three-act drama of her life. Justin de Villeneuve, ne Nigel Davis, was 25 when he met the 15-year-old Twiggy. His brother Tony worked in the Mr Vincent salon where she washed hair and swept the floor for pounds 2.10/- a week. Justin ran a stall in Chelsea Antiques Market and displayed an instinct for publicity as shrewd as Andrew Loog Oldham's with the Rolling Stones. He became Twiggy's friend and first lover, her manager, protector, impresario and sidekick, and steered his etiolated charge through a rolling publicity roadshow in 1966, that made her famous throughout America and Japan. In the book, Twiggy portrays him as a wide-boy supreme, a thunder- stealer and all-round pain in the neck. "Justin was nice to me and protected me and I do thank him for that," she says now. "But all my life the papers have called him my `Svengali' - that word - when it wasn't true. When you meet me, you may think the idea of someone telling me what to do is hysterical. [She's dead right.] Justin certainly didn't make my career. He was just as shocked as I was at what happened to me." Had they ever been in love? "He proposed two or three times, but I didn't wanna marry him. I knew I wasn't in love with him".

Instead she married Michael Whitney, an American actor, by whom she had a daughter, Carly, and with whom she had a ghastly time. Whitney was an alcoholic, a late-night-argumentative boor who died of a heart attack at 52, while treating Carly to a McDonald's in New York on her fifth birthday. At the very moment that Twiggy was telling me the awfulness of living with an alcoholic, her present husband walked in. Leigh Lawson, the actor, is dark and wolfishly handsome and clearly the love of the Twiglet's life. He has just been packing his son off to university, the family car crammed with student impedimenta. As they discuss whether using his given name (Jason) might be better or worse for the kid than his nickname (Ace), both parents project like mad, their voices rising on a crescendo of billing and cooing. Both agree that "Twiggy Lawson" (as she styles herself) is a pretty ordinary name compared to some. "It's better than Whoopi. Or Sting," says Twiggy. "Or that actress in America called Swoozie Kurtz..."

She glows in Lawson's company. Her face, which can at times look hard and sulky and aloof (it's that upper lip, I think) softens into a dazed, angelic trance. Her hand strays towards him as though magnetised. As she shifts in her chair, the blue cheong-sam strains becomingly against her thigh and bosom, and it strikes you how very womanly she looks, for the first time, at 48. Her vital statistics, at the height of her fame, were 32-22-32. And now? "Lots of people ask me, but I don't tell 'em. There was far too much of that in the past. But I am much curvier than I used to be".

When describing her four-and-a-half years as the world's most famous model, the word Twiggy uses most often is "the madness". What was the worst moment? "When I nearly got squashed to death outside the department store in New York." It was a surreal episode. The photographer Melvin Sokolsky had set up a shot outside B Altman's on Fifth Avenue. Sokolsky had made Twiggy masks for the rubbernecking public to wear in the shoot, and, as she reports it, the effect was "like tribal war drums". The crowd outside the store, instead of parting to let her through, closed in. God knows what might have happened, had not a burly minder called Harold tucked her under his arm like a prize pig and thrown her through the window of the limousine, inside which she cowered on the floor, as the mob jumped on the roof.

"The photos," says Twiggy, dryly, "won all the prizes that year, for Women's Wear Daily". She's still got video footage from those days. "I was so young. I look about 12. I look so young and green. Looking back at it now, I think, how did I cope with it? It's amazing I didn't go stark raving mad..." We are not a million miles from the late Princess of Wales and her homicidally excitable fans and photographers. "I did taste a little of what she went through, that feeling that there's no way out. It didn't last very long, I'm glad to say..."

How did she feel when she met young supermodels today? "I've known Kate Moss since she first appeared on the scene and there were all the references to `the Nineties Twiggy'. I think she's absolutely gorgeous and I can see the comparison. We're the same height. She's got personality, she's quite funny, she's got the south-London accent. She's just as thin as I used to be. And every time I read about `the anorexic look', I think, Poor girl. Kate was moaning about it once, and I said, `Take your name out and substitute mine and it's exactly the same articles from the Sixties.'" She reached down to scratch a bony ankle (she has tiny feet, size 4). "I actually think we're the innocents, the models, because we're employed by an organisation that wants you to be thin. The editors of the fashion magazines have a huge responsibility - and not only in the fashion world. These teenage magazines - have you seen them? Carly came home with one when she was 15, and we were absolutely ap-palled". Why? "They're just so sexually open. I think they're immoral."

She has mutated into a rather bossy and formidable woman, this iconic Sixties babe who didn't sleep around or take drugs, who lived with her parents until 1968 and enjoyed jigsaws and Monopoly. Newly restored to the stage, to singing (an album of classic Coward songs is out next spring) and even to modelling since the photographer Steven Meisel rang her a couple of years ago, Twiggy is firing on several cylinders at once, projecting her many slender talents right to the back of the hall. How did she face the business of getting older? "I can't do anything about it, so worrying about it's stupid. I think I look pretty good for 48. And I wouldn't want to be 21 again." A look of genuine pain crossed her face at the prospect. Then she brightened. "I wouldn't mind bein' 35 again..." Thirty-five, eh? The onset of wisdom, the start of middle-age, the comforts of philosophy... But that's not what she meant. "That's how old I was when I met Leigh," she says, and the 100-decibel waif, the matured Wonder Kid, goes off into another trance of marital devotion