Her next royal encounter is certainly going to be very different from her first. Back in the Sixties, in her early years as Britain’s first supermodel, the shy teenager from Neasden found herself sitting next to Princess Margaret at a dinner party. Halfway through the evening, the princess asked her: ‘And what’s your name?’
‘My real name is Lesley Hornby but most people call me Twiggy,’ replied the nervous young thing. ‘How unfortunate,’ the princess remarked.
Twiggy will need no introductions when she heads to Buckingham Palace to be invested as Dame Lesley Lawson.
Perhaps the most surprising thing is that, as she approaches her 70th birthday, she has never received any formal recognition until now – except an episode of ITV’s This Is Your Life, at the grand old age of 20.
Twiggy, pictured in October 1967, said it had been ‘purgatory’ keeping it a secret since she was told about it three-and-a-half weeks ago. Right: Twiggy in a 2005 M&S campaign
In the intervening years, she has been a singer, an actress and, latterly, a champion of high street fashions for the Saga generation, as well as a charity campaigner. She also helped put the Mini on the map (both skirt and car).
Yet she has never forgotten her roots. It was telling that her first thoughts on being made a dame were for her parents. ‘My only sadness with this is my mum and dad aren’t here to know,’ she said yesterday.
The youngest of three girls and a bright child, she won a national art competition aged seven and her mother bought her a pink dress from C&A for the awards ceremony. Thus began a lifelong love of fashion. As she entered her teens, no one ever imagined for a moment that this waif-like figure would come to define an era. The boys at her North London state school nicknamed her ‘Oxfam’.
‘The only girls they were interested in were ones with boobs,’ she recalled. When her elder sister Viv found her a Saturday job in a hair salon in Bayswater, 14-year-old Lesley was transfixed by the new wave of fashion boutiques opening up across the capital. Biba, in nearby Kensington, was her favourite.
It was while working in the salon that a young co-worker called Tony Davies gave her a new nickname, ‘Sticks’. Over time, it evolved in to ‘Twigs’. Tony had an elder brother called Nigel, a hairdresser who had reinvented himself as a dandy called Justin de Villeneuve and who took a shine to the unusual girl in the salon. He encouraged her to do some head shots for a West End hair salon where the photographer suggested that ‘Twiggy’ was a better nickname than ‘Twigs’.
Equally pivotal was the chance visit, a few days later, of a Fleet Street fashion editor who was having her hair done. ‘I don’t know that girl,’ she said, pointing at the black and white shot of the gamine creature with the short bob and painted eyebrows. Weeks later, she was splashed across two pages of the Daily Express as ‘The face of ’66’. Twiggy never looked back. It is hard to convey the speed and magnitude of her transformation from suburban schoolgirl to international star. As she has pointed out, until that point, modelling was largely a pleasant pastime for middle-class girls in between leaving school and getting married, not shop girls with a 30-22-32 figure.
But the Sixties was changing the rules. The drab, post-war capital was being rebranded as ‘Swinging London’. ‘For real Sixties cred,’ Twiggy wrote in her memoirs, ‘you had to be born and bred on the wrong side of the tracks in Liverpool or, failing that, on an East End council estate’.
She had grown up in relatively genteel Neasden, where her father’s job as a carpenter at the film studios in nearby Elstree ensured a comfortable childhood. However, Justin – by now boyfriend and self-appointed manager to the new starlet – was quick to push her ‘Cockney’ credentials. ‘Although I was born a good 15 miles away from the sound of Bow Bells,’ Twiggy wrote, ‘I had this terrible voice that, to those who didn’t know any different, sounded pure Stepney.’
Twiggy, pictured left in 1966 and right in 2016, becomes a dame in the Queen’s New Year Honours List for her services to fashion, the arts and charity
Over the next four years, she was on the cover of everything. Success was global. When Twiggy arrived in New York, radio stations carried hourly updates on her whereabouts and she received a ticker-tape parade along Fifth Avenue.
By now, she and Justin were living in edgy Notting Hill, where they became friends with film director Ken Russell. He could see Twiggy had added talents beyond pouting in front of a lens. Russell cast her in the lead role in his new film The Boy Friend. The reviews were good and she came to adore this new, fledgling career. ‘It was like finding a door into a magic garden,’ she wrote. ‘What I did not want to do was to go back into modelling.’
Big Hollywood roles would follow and Justin was finally dumped in favour of US actor Michael Whitney, the leading man in Twiggy’s next film, W. They married in 1977 and had a daughter, Carly.
Whitney’s alcoholism would lead to his early death in 1983, just as Twiggy was reaching new heights as a musical actress on Broadway, where she was nominated for a Tony award. Reflecting on her career yesterday, she cited this as her proudest professional moment. After half a century in the A-list fast stream – with chums like David Bowie and the Beatles – and with umpteen film, stage and music credits to her name, Twiggy certainly has enough stories to fill a bumper edition of This Is Your Life should ITV ever resurrect it.
Her second marriage, to the actor Leigh Lawson, has been ‘everything I ever dreamt of’ and the couple now divide their time between London and a house in Suffolk. It was there, 12 years ago, that she was ‘re-spotted’ when she went in to a Southwold pub after a long walk on a windy day. A visiting Marks and Spencer executive was struck by her ‘everywoman’ qualities and, at the age of 57, she was persuaded to return to the modelling fold for the chain.
‘People talk to me when I’m out on the street,’ she has said. ‘They’re always nice.’
Perhaps it is because she has never lost her girl-next-door appeal – and also because she has never lost sight of her core values. ‘I may owe my success to my ordinary background and the spirit of the time,’ she once wrote, ‘but I owe my survival to my own individual family and the values I learnt through them.’