In the heyday of the British variety stage few speciality acts were more glamorous and unusual than Joan Rhodes (April 13, 1920 - May 30, 2010).
Billed as “The Mighty Mannequin”, 5ft. 7in. tall, gorgeous and spectacularly costumed, she was known as “the Strong Lady of Variety”. Her 15-minute act was built entirely around her strength — she could bend steel bars, break 6in nails and, most famously, rip copies of the 1,000-page London telephone directory in half and sometimes quarters. At the age of 15 she could lift a baby elephant, and the highlight of her act was getting a crowd of men up on to stage with her to have a tug of war. The men always lost.
It was an extraordinary act which brought Rhodes worldwide fame. An intelligent, well-read woman, she travelled on her own throughout Europe, the Far East and North America for more than three decades.
Fiercely independant, she shunned the showbusiness trappings of success, avoiding parties and small talk, preferring the company of close friends who included Lucien Freud, Quentin Crisp and Dame Laura Knight.
She was born Joan Louis Ada Taylor in London in 1920. She was abandoned by her parents when she was 3 and put into a workhouse after the police were called to find the neglected children — she had two sisters and a brother — drinking drainwater. Rescued by her grandparents, she was eventually sent to board at a convent in South London but was expelled for pulling off a nun’s veil.
She was then taken in by an aunt. “She hated me from the moment she saw me,” said Joan. After three difficult years, she ran away on her 14th birthday, with eightpence in her pocket.
Lying about her age, she ended up sleeping rough and living by her wits.She began to develop her considerable powers of physical strength and started performing feats on Tower Hill and Villiers Street and passing a hat among the spectators for her wages.
She changed her name to Josie Terena, and by her her late teens she was a familiar figure in Soho district where she mixed easily with the bohemian set. She began a lifelong friendship with Crisp, before he became famous, and in later life she was his weekly Scrabble partner. (“He would ring and say, ‘A game of Scrabble — and perhaps a meal?’ I couldn’t say no”).
Eventually she was offered a job as a dancer touring in Spain but in 1949 she answered an advertisment in The Stage which read “Freaks wanted”. The advertisment was for the famous Pete Collins’ Would You Believe It? show, a production noted for its performing oddities.
She got the job and, changing her name once again, became Joan Rhodes “the Mighty Mannequin”.
“One of the dates we played was the Hackney Empire,” she later recalled, “On the bill with me was Elroy the Armless Wonder, Mushie the Lion (who ate steak off a lady’s chest) and Johnny Vree, whose idea of fun was throwing a golliwog around on stage.”
Rhodes’s feats of strength were a hit with the audience, and she was quickly snapped up by the powerful Moss Empires circuit. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s she played nearly every variety theatre in Britain and worked with many of the showbiz greats.
When variety was in decline she turned to international cabaret and toured the world, working on bills with Bob Hope, and, on many occasions, with Marlene Dietrich with whom she became great friends. In later years she confessed to being taken aback at Dietrich’s initial interest in her — the diva showered her with flowers and presents — but the two enjoyed a close correspondence that lasted until Dietrich’s death in 1992.
With her personality and looks Rhodes attracted attention wherever she appeared. In Rome King Farouk of Egypt sent her tiger lilies every night and asked her if she would like to break one of his beds.
She posed with the boxer Freddie Mills, and in 1958 played Maidstone prison and, when bending a steel bar, asked the audience if they would like to know how it was done. She had the inmates’ undivided attention until she told them it was done by “sheer strength”.
Nothing, however, could have been more bizarre than her meeting with James Battersby, the notorious British Fascist and supporter of Hitler known for his anti-Semitic publications. “He was a fan of mine,” she said, “and one day he invited me to tea after a matinée at Stockport. I had no idea of his views, and he suddenly blurted out, ‘You will marry me and be the mother of the strongest Aryan child in the world.’ I dropped my teacup and fled.”
She never married but had two long relationships with men — one a merchant seaman and the other an artist — which lasted 14 and 16 years respectively.
“I never wanted children and I never wanted to get married, probably because of my own childhood,” she said. “Marriage is about having children and keeping them, and I don’t think I could have been responsible for a child. Having been in a workhouse and been deserted was not a good start in life.”
An accident forced Rhodes to retire from the stage in the late 1970s although she did appear in small acting roles in several films including The Elephant Man. She entertained her friends regularly at her charming garden flat in North London, the walls of which were lined with books. She took up painting, writing poetry (“Rhodes Odes”) and became a regular columnist in The Oldie magazine. In 2006 she wrote an acclaimed autobiography, Coming On Strong.
Asked the secret of her success as a strongwoman she said: “I always made a point of being dainty. I used to go to a weightlifting club when I was 16 and I could deadlift a hell of a lot but I was careful not to build up muscle. A lot of my strength came from spirit. It’s like getting into a temper. If you are furious enough, you can tell yourself you will do something and then you can.” *