EXPIRED: 05/30/10 – Joan Rhodes, 89, was a strong woman. She had to be. She was abandoned by her parents at age 3. Found drinking drainwater to survive, police put her into a London “workhouse” for neglected children. Eventually rescued by her grandparents, she was sent to live in a strict South London convent.
When the nuns kicked Rhodes out for being a troublemaker, an aunt took her in. That relationship was turbulent as well, and after 3 difficult years, Rhodes ran away on her 14th birthday with nothing but her spirit to support her. The year was 1934 and she slept on the streets of London, performing acts of physical strength and passing a hat among the spectators for tips.
She changed her name from her birth name of Joan Taylor to Josie Terena so she couldn’t be found, and by her early 20’s she was regular within London’s bohemian Soho district.
She started to get gigs as a dancer and showgirl but it was a classified ad in 1949 that changed her life. The ad, for England’s famous Pete Collins’ Would You Believe It? show, a production noted for its performing oddities, read “Freaks wanted.”
She got the job and, changing her name once again, became “Joan Rhodes, The Mighty Mannequin.”
Her act included bending iron bars across her knee, in her mouth and around her arm or neck. She ripped telephone directories in half, often two at a time. She figures she ruined over 20,000 phone books in her career.
Rhodes would also arm-wrestle two men at once. She’d even allow each man to use both their arms against her individual ones. She’d follow that by lifting jeeps and small cars and pushing them offstage while men sat in them, and challenge and defeat a team of 4 adult men in a game of tug-of-war. She’d wrap things up by lifting four male audience members at the same time.
It sounds so innocent in today’s world but back then, this was entertainment. And I’d love to see it still.
Rhode’s popularity increased due to her early appearances on television shows in the US and UK, including The Toast Of The Town and The Bob Hope Christmas Show. She also toured with Bob Hope as he entertained the U.S. troops. You can see her perform some stunts in the 1944 film “Fanny by Gaslight” and the 1956 thriller “Johnny You’re Wanted.” After retiring, she still did some movie cameos including “The Pink Panther Strikes Again” and “The Elephant Man.”
Her fanclub, which included lifelong friend Quentin Crisp, fascist James Battersby, Egypt’s King Farouk, and Marlene Dietrich, are all detailed in her autobiography, Coming on Strong, which was published in 2007. In it she details how she once performed a prison and asked the inmates if they were interested in knowing how she bent steel bars. They hooted and hollered. And Rhodes told them that strength comes from spirit.
“If you are furious enough, you can tell yourself you will do something and then you can.”