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Twiggy’s family secrets

Iconic British beauty Twiggy goes in search of some buried history.
Iconic British beauty Twiggy goes in search of some buried history.

She found worldwide fame thanks to the fashion industry, becoming one of the best-known models on the planet. So Twiggy thinks it is ironic that when TV show Who Do You Think You Are? delved into her family history, they found one of her relatives met an untimely end thanks, in a way, to the fashion industry.

“I probably shouldn’t go into lots of detail because we want people to watch the show and see what happens, don’t we?” says Twiggy (65), who does reveal that her great-great-grandmother died in an incident at a clothing store sale. “But let’s just say I found it fascinating that her death made headlines, and was connected to fashion!”

Twiggy (65), on the phone from her home in London, admits she was very excited when she got a phone call from the programme makers asking if she would take part.

“I get asked to do lots of TV shows and I turn most of them down,” she says. “I always wanted to do Who Do You Think You Are? but I never thought they would ask me. I’d tried in the past to do my family tree online but I just came to dead ends. The problem was, I didn’t know anything about my family beyond my grandparents.”

Twiggy’s mother Nellie “suffered from her nerves” – today she’d probably be diagnosed as bipolar, says her daughter – and nobody wanted to upset her by asking about the family history.

“I didn’t even know my mum’s mum’s name,” says Twiggy, who was born Lesley Hornby. “But the good thing is that the TV show goes off and does all the research for you. If there is no story, they don’t go ahead with making the programme, so I was thrilled when they came back and said to me, ‘There is a story on your mum’s side.’ They were very secretive about things. I really didn’t know anything until we sat down to film it and I was told what people had uncovered. I knew I was never going to inherit a stately home, but I didn’t quite expect what I was told.”

Without giving too much away, Twiggy’s family were very poor, and fell upon hard times. Her great-grandfather abandoned his wife and children – many of whom ended up in Victorian workhouses – and several family members ran foul of the law. It was learning the history of her great-great-grandmother, Grace Gillies, that particularly touched Twiggy. “She had a really tough life, poor woman, and she was a bit naughty, but she came right in the end.”

As a teenager, slender Twiggy was a swinging ’60s fashion legend and one of the world’s first supermodels.

You can’t help wondering what Grace, who appeared to have a keen interest in clothes, would think if she’d known that her great-great-granddaughter would end up becoming one of the world’s first supermodels.

“I suppose she’d have been surprised, but then all my family were surprised,” says Twiggy, who was just 16 when she shot to fame in 1966 after a journalist spotted a photograph of her on the wall of a hairdresser’s. “Mind you, nobody was as shocked about what happened to me as I was. I was just this skinny girl with big eyes.”

Within months of starting her modelling career, Twiggy, who came to epitomise the swinging ‘60s, had been named Face of the Year and British Woman of the Year. A year later, she had been in Vogue 13 times and inspired a collection of merchandise, from Twiggy false eyelashes to Twiggy lunch boxes. But after just four years, she retired from modelling and instead concentrated on a career as an actress and singer. She went on to win two Golden Globes for her role in the film The Boy Friend, released several albums and later hosted her own TV show.

She returned to modelling in 2005 to promote British department store Marks & Spencer, and now has her own range of clothes sold exclusively by the store. “I’m hands-on, I don’t just lend my name to the collection,” she says. “Funnily enough, I always wanted to be a clothes designer, and I was planning on going to art school when the modelling took off.”

Next year is the 50th anniversary of the start of her career, and there are lots of events planned to commemorate it, says Twiggy. “Oh my God, I just can’t believe it was 50 years ago. I certainly don’t feel any older, although I do feel a lot wiser.”

Married to actor Leigh Lawson for 27 years, Twiggy recently became a grandmother – her only child, daughter Carly, had a daughter Joni earlier this year. Her stepson Jason and his wife also had a son, Solomon, this year.

“Our grandkids are like buses,” she laughs. “We waited ages for them and then two came along at once.”

She says she keeps busy and works hard at what she does, but she doesn’t face the “daily grind” many people do.

“I feel so lucky, especially when I look at what Grace and a lot of other people in my family went through. I’ve been really blessed.”

WATCH: Twiggy dancing to Twist and Shout

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