“Mighty Mannequins, Batman!”

Joan Rhodes had a difficult start in life but that didn’t stop her making a name for herself in the circus

Joan Rhodes found here

Billed as “The Mighty Mannequin”, 5ft 7in tall, gorgeous and spectacularly costumed, she was known as “The Strong Lady of Variety”. During her 15-minute act she would 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 stage with her to have a tug of war. The men always lost.

baby elephant found here

She was born Joan 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.

image found here

Lying about her age, she began to develop her considerable powers of physical strength and started performing feats on Tower Hill and Villiers Street, passing a hat among the spectators for her wages. By her late teens she was a familiar figure in the Soho district where she mixed easily with a bohemian set. She began a lifelong friendship with Quentin Crisp, and in later life she was his weekly Scrabble partner.

Quentin Crisp found here

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 odditiesShe got the job and, changing her name, became Joan Rhodes “the Mighty Mannequin”.

Joan Rhodes found here

“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.”

With her personality and looks Rhodes attracted attention wherever she appeared. King Farouk of Egypt sent her tiger lilies every night and asked her if she would like to break one of his beds. Nothing, however, could have been more bizarre than her meeting with James Battersby, the notorious British Fascist and supporter of Hitler. “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.”

King Farouk found here

Asked the secret of her success as a strongwoman she said: “I always made a point of being dainty. It’s like getting into a temper. If you are furious enough, you can tell yourself you will do something and then you can.

After retiring from the circus she still performed verses, one of which pre-dated Jenny Joseph’s poem about being an outrageous old woman: “I shall wear green and gold! When I am old! And paint my nails and colour my hair! And not notice when people stare”.

Published in: on June 11, 2011 at 12:58 am  Comments (36)  
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