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Twiggy: Valerie Grove recalls writing the Neasden icon’s autobiography in 1975

Blog | By Valerie Grove | May 08, 2024

It’s almost 50 years since I became Twiggy’s first ghostwriter. Of course it was Justin who brokered the deal.

Justin de Villeneuve (né Nigel John Davies from Edmonton) was no longer her Svengali/boyfriend, but he was still running ‘Twiggy Enterprises’.

Her autobiography would be a slim volume, we joked. All royalties would go to Twiggy Enterprises (sadly for me, as the book, Twiggy by Twiggy, 1975, did rather well).

She was three years younger than me and three stone lighter. We knew the same London suburbs, we’d bought the same black, lace-trimmed frock at Biba in 1964 (for £3), when I was doing A-levels and she was at the Fender Club in Harrow in her Mod gear: Hush Puppies, white lipstick, kohl-rimmed eyes.

One day, Justin took her to Leonard of Mayfair to have her hair cut into that gamine blonde cap. The Daily Express photograph was captioned ‘This is the face of 1966’: an instant icon in an icon-mad decade.

When we met in 1974, Twigs was about to play Cinderella at the Palladium that Christmas, singing her heart out in a small, true voice. And she had a new boyfriend. She’d ditched unfaithful Justin for a hulking American B-movie actor 20 years her senior, Michael Witney, her leading man in a forgotten film from 1971 called W. When I arrived at their gloomy mansion flat in Cornwall Gardens, Witney was usually still in bed.

She told some funny stories, quite artlessly. She’d once been seated at dinner near Princess Margaret, who had asked who she was.

Twiggy: ‘My real name’s Lesley Hornby but most people call me Twiggy.’

HRH: ‘How unfortunate!’

On American TV, Woody Allen asked the teenager, ‘Who’s your favourite philosopher?’ She replied, ‘What’s a philosopher?’ and he was the discomfited one.

And when her mother in Neasden, surrounded by reporters, was asked, ‘Has

What a Dame! In The Boy Friend (1971)

your daughter’s success changed your social life, Mrs Hornby?’ she replied, ‘Well, I’ve joined the Conservative Party!’

Twigs had total recall about everything she’d worn, and an infallible instinct for upcoming trends, like catsuits, which she made herself.

Justin fleshed out the racontage. He’d been a likeable Jack-the-lad sort of villain when he spied the waif-like Twiggy and her huge blue eyes. When she was catapulted into the headlines by photographer Barry Lategan and fashion editor Deirdre McSharry, Davies re- invented himself as Justin de Villeneuve, Svengali to her Trilby, guarding her from paparazzi who called him ‘that creep’.

Soho was Justin’s manor, Flash Harry his style. Son of a bricklayer, he’d been a bouncer at a Wardour Street clip joint, ‘Tiger Davies’ the fairground boxer, and ‘Mr Christian’ the shampoo boy at Vidal Sassoon. He’d dealt in bogus wine labels, blue movies, market-stall antiques. He kept quiet about being already married.

The couple were boracic (lint: skint) and at the start had to borrow their bus fares, but Justin had the rabbit (and pork: talk). He knew that if he said Twiggy earned a grand an hour, people would pay that. Ford gave her a Mustang, years before she could drive.

New York and Hollywood went wild to welcome them. When they flew back from Japan in 1967, Justin’s old barrow-

boy friend Teddy the Monk hefted £100,000 through Heathrow in a suitcase. Which kept Justin in multiple Porsches and Tommy Nutter suits – he got his taste for posh stuff when evacuated to J B Priestley’s house during the war – and the pedigree dogs he never managed to housetrain.

Wherever the couple went, stars flocked to meet them – Tony Curtis, Tommy Steele, Lauren Bacall, Sonny and Cher. In Jamaica in 1970, Noël Coward told Twigs she’d be marvellous in his early plays. He said she should definitely do The Boy Friend film with Ken Russell. Which Twiggy did in 1971. She danced her socks off, won two Golden Globes, went to Hollywood for the premiere and met her hero Fred Astaire.

The last words in our book were:

‘I’m 26 now. That means I’ve had a decade of being Twiggy. They’ve been ten amazing years. I don’t think I could ever have envisaged any of it happening. What people never understand is that I come from a sane, ordinary background and I’m sane and ordinary – and lucky.’

So ended Chapter One of her life. In 1977, she did marry Michael Witney, father of her daughter, Carly. But Witney turned out to be an unreformable alcoholic, who died in 1983, aged 52, of a heart attack in McDonald’s.

Almost 50 years on, Twigs is lovable Dame Twiggy. For three generations, Twiggy has been a household nickname.

In 1988, she married her good man, the actor Leigh Lawson, ex-husband of Hayley Mills. Ben Elton has now written up her early life in a new musical. Twiggy turns 74 as the show opens. Justin is 84 – and I’m agog to know who will play him. Twiggy told her second ghostwriter, in 1997, that he was just ‘the lad who got lucky for a time’. Which is true.

On the other hand, without Nigel Davies, her early life story could have been Cinderella without the Prince.