Remarkable life of Britain's most glamorous strongwoman

Remarkable life of Britain’s most glamorous strongwoman: How a girl born in a 1920s workhouse who ran away at 14 became an international star performing for the Queen and catching Elvis’s eye

  • Joan Rhodes, who died in 2010, was a strongwoman who found international fame on the variety and vaudeville stages of the Fifties and Sixties
  • Born in a workhouse, she ran away at 14 and honed her craft on the streets
  • She eventually found recognition and performed for the Queen and Prince Philip
  • Her remarkable life story is told in biography An Iron Girl In A Velvet Glove 

Petite, beautiful and spectacularly costumed, Joan Rhodes commanded attention without even lifting a finger. 

But it was when she began performing that audiences couldn’t look away. For glamorous 5ft 7in Joan was also a strongwoman. Indeed, she was one of the biggest variety stars of the 1950s and 1960s. 

Billed as ‘The Mighty Mannequin’, her act was built around her strength. She could bend a steel bar or a 9in nail and lift any one of the men in her audience without so much as chipping her brightly varnished fingernails. 

She was best known for tearing 1,000-page telephone directories in half or even quarters ‘if the applause warranted it’.

Joan’s strongwoman act took her all over the world, including a performance for the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh at Windsor Castle, and she appeared on bills with Bob Hope, Fred Astaire and Marlene Dietrich.

It also won her a strange array of admirers, from Elvis Presley to a fanatical fascist.  

Now her remarkable story is told in An Iron Girl In A Velvet Glove, by friend and biographer Triona Holden, which takes its name from another of Joan’s self-styled titles.

Billed as ‘The Mighty Mannequin’, Joan Rhodes, found international fame as a strongwoman in the Fifties and Sixties. Her life is told in An Iron Girl In A Velvet Glove

Born in April 1921 in a London workhouse, there was nothing in Joan’s early years to suggest she was destined for showbusiness. But she rose to become an international star

As the years went by, she graduated to lifting a man in each arm or challenging punters to match her feats of strength, which they were never able to do. Pictured, in 1955

Born in April 1921 in a London workhouse, there was nothing in Joan’s early years to suggest she was destined for showbusiness. 

Her parents, Winifred Lowe and Thomas Taylor, were only together a few tumultuous years before her mother walked out on her husband and four young children, the youngest of whom was just six weeks old. Overwhelmed at being left to look after their brood, Thomas left soon afterwards. 

‘This supreme act of parental betrayal was to haunt her for the rest of her life,’ writes Holden. ‘She said the anger she felt was what was behind her considerable strength and her later success in life. The science behind this seems sketchy at best, but she firmly believed it to be the case.  

After a stint in a workhouse, the siblings were split up, with Joan and her younger sister ‘Blackie’ taken to their paternal grandparents. 

She was raised there until the age of 11 – including a brief stint in a convent school before she was expelled after pulling off a nun’s veil – before being handed over to an aunt, Lily, who had just lost her own newborn son. 

Lily and her husband Wally Alcock ran a pub, The Red Cow in Smithfield. By this point, Joan’s strength was already being recognised. 

‘One of her chores in the pub was to shift barrels of ale known as firkins, and even then she could lift one by herself, which was quite a feat when you consider a firkin is the equivalent of 86 pints of beer, nearly 8st in weight.’  

One of Joan’s most well known tricks was tearing a phone book apart, as seen here in 1950

On her 14th birthday, after being given an eightpence to go for a swim, she ran away.

‘With pennies in her pocket and a hunger for adventure, Joan headed into the city,’ writes Holden. 

Lying about her age, she ended up sleeping rough and living by her wits. She met ‘Big Jock Allen’, a street-performing strongman, who told her she could collect the money as he performed his act. This was known as ‘bottling’. 

‘Bottling may have been a way into busking, but it was not enough to guarantee a daily slice of bread and margarine, let alone a bed for the night,’ writes Holden. 

‘The crowds were unpredictable; a bit of rain or snowfall and there was little point in setting up a pitch. There was also no way of knowing if Big Jock and the others were going to show up at any particular day or time. 

‘It would have frustrated Joan to find herself once again at the mercy of people and elements beyond her control. Joan realised there was only one way to make this situation sustainable: she had to learn the tricks of the trade.’ 

Joan learned Jock’s act, starting with how to bend a 6in nail. After a while she found out she could break one. Soon she could tear a pack of cards. But cards cost money, which is why Joan turned her efforts to learning how to rip apart a phonebook. 

Joan Rhodes, who went by several stage names, is seen in her heyday lifting weights in training

As the years went by, she graduated to lifting a man in each arm or challenging punters to match her feats of strength, which they were never able to do. Her talents earned her national press coverage and she was booked by casting agents as an extra in films. 

It was in the dilapidated streets of Fifties Soho that she first laid eyes on Quentin Crisp, who cut a striking figure in his Cuban heels, black suit and bright orange hair. Later in life he became famous for his sharp wit and the pair remained friends for decades until his death.

After gaining confidence as a life model, posing for Lucien Freud and Henry Moore, among others, Joan, who went by the stage name Josie Terena had a stint as one of the world famous Windmill Girls, although she never acknowledged this in later life.  

In 1948, at the age of 26, Joan spent six months touring Spain as part of a dance troupe. This marked her transition from street performer to fully fledged artiste. 

On her return, she answered an advertisement in The Stage, which read: ‘Freaks wanted for a new show – would you believe it?’ The 12-month production was put together by theatre impresario Peter Collins. 

Joan landed the job and branded herself ‘the Mighty Mannequin’. Other acts included Elroy the Armless Wonder, ‘The Battle of the Giants’ and ‘a very sad lion’ named Mushie.

Joan, dubbed the ‘Mighty Mannequin’, carries reporter Arthur Treffeisen after stepping from a Pan American World Airways Clipper on arrival from London in March 1955

On her return, she began her fruitful, decade-long partnership with respected theatre agent and ‘fairy godfather’ Solly Black, who took Joan under his wing and helped build her career – and keep her finances in order. 

She convinced him to work with her in a meeting at a Soho billiards club. He was interested in representing her, but only if she revealed the ‘trick’ in her act’, she explained. 

‘”A slip of a girl like you – you’re hardly half my size,”‘ she would later recall him saying. ‘”How can you lift giants and tear phone books and stuff like that? If it’s a conjuring trick, it’s a very clever one, but you can’t expect us to book an act without explaining how it’s done”. 

‘I said: “You think it’s a fake?” He laughed. “Come on, we know it’s a fake”. So I lifted him up into the air and carried him round the billiards tables with my arms stretched over my head. 

‘It was a very dignified club and for a moment there was a shocked silence. Then everybody started roaring with laughter and I knew I had won.’

With Solly by her side, Joan landed gigs at nearly every variety theatre in Britain in the Fifties and Sixties. 

Joan, pictured aged 26, captivated audiences around the world with her demonstrations 

‘To give an idea of how busy she was, her 1955 diary was filled to the brim with lengthy engagements abroad: she worked in Brussels, Cannes, Copenhagen and Reykjavik, as well as doing shorter cabaret appearances in Paris and Lisbon and continuing to perform in the British theatres and clubs were she had already been performing over the years.’ 

The spotlight brought with it considerable attention – both wanted and unwanted. 

Among her most odorous fans was fascist James Larratt Battersby, who described himself as ‘Hilter’s missionary’ and believed the Fuhrer was ‘the new Christ’. 

He watched Joan in a show in 1953 in Stockport, Greater Manchester, and became fixated on the idea that they were meant to have a child who would be the ‘strongest person on earth’.

A highlight of her career came in December 1958, when she was invited to perform at the Royal Household Social Club’s Grand Christmas Ball at Windsor Castle, in front of the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, and the Queen Mother. 

‘Joan’s act was well received,’ writes Holden. ‘It was reported that the queen had spoken to Joan and expressed her concern about the strength needed to bend bars and nails. The queen asked her if it hurt her hands.’ 

Strongwoman Joan bends an iron bar ‘with ease’ in this photoshoot in London in March 1958

On stage, when invited up as a guest, Prince Philip was reportedly heard to say it was ‘tough going’, while the Queen Mother applauded her ‘gracefulness’.

Other famous fans included King Farouk of Egypt, who sent her flowers every night in Rome, the boxer Freddie Mills and Elvis Presley, who asked to meet Joan while she was performing in Paris. 

When interest in variety began to wane, she turned to cabaret and toured the world, appearing on bills alongside Bob Hope and Marlene Dietrich, who became a dear friend until her death in 1992. 

A lifelong fan of cinema, Joan dreamed of Hollywood success that never materialised, although she appeared in several films. In what would have been one of the biggest moments in her career, Joan was cast as Jill Masterson in Goldfinger, but was forced to pull out because she was already booked for a gig in Portugal. 

Joan, pictured painting at her home in Hampstead, north London, at the height of her fame

Roles in 1976’s The Pink Panther Strikes Again and 1980’s The Elephant Man followed.  

She had more success on television, where she appeared in everything from period dramas and comedies to game shows over a number of decades. 

Along with her two lovers, Bert and Ulrico (Joan was also married briefly during the Second World War), one of the most important people in her life was Crisp. 

‘I didn’t know if he was a man or a woman,’ she recalled of their first meeting. ‘He went into a coffee shop and was surrounded by students. After they’d left he said, “Could I buy you a pale grey coffee?” and I said, “No, a strong cup of tea.”’ It was the start of a friendship that endured for half a century. 

 Crisp, the actor, raconteur and self-styled ‘stately homo of England’ who was so memorably portrayed by John Hurt in the 1975 TV play The Naked Civil Servant, remained in touch with Joan until his death. 

Few people were allowed to meet the real Crisp, born plain Dennis Pratt, but Joan was an exception, and when he left for America in the late Seventies, they kept in touch.  

Sadly, Joan’s attempts to establish herself as a ‘mature’ screen star fizzled out.

She died of breast cancer on May 30, 2010, aged 90.

An Iron Girl in a Velvet Glove : The Life of Joan Rhodes by Triona Holden is published by The History Press, £16.99 

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