Often imitated but never bettered, Mari Wilson's beehive ranks among the most iconic hairstyles of the eighties. In the decade that taste forgot, only Annie Lennox's flame-haired crop and Boy George's androgyne dreadlocks commanded more column inches.
Mari burst onto our teatime TV screens in 1982 like a bolt from the blue. Not because of her camp-as-Chrimbo backing band The Wilsations (though 'Hank', 'Curt' and 'Wilbur' weren't exactly an eyesore) - no, it was that foot-high beehive teamed with floor-length lame on 'Top of The Pops that made the 27-year old an instant star. And it didn't hurt that her song 'Just What I Always Wanted' was an irresistible slice of retro-pop that wouldn't have seemed out of place on the Sweet Charity soundtrack.
"People just weren't dressing up then!" Mari remembers when I chat to her in a Clerkenwell studio. "It was just after punk, and it was really unusual that I was dressed to the nines with a 12-piece band. And then afterwards of course there were The Eurythmics and ABC - bands that were all about dressing up."
And while Mari never had the shock-value of Pete Burns or Adam Ant, she was no stranger to controversy, with the Daily Mail (quelle surprise!) cattily remarking "Mari is dogged by the fact that her hairstyle has always been bigger than her recording successes.' Ouch. But for better or worse, everyone was talking about her.
And then, after a Smash Hits cover and string of Top 40 hits, she did the unthinkable. "In 1985, I walked away from my record contract. And it's usually them dropping the artists! But I was really unhappy, and I wouldn't make the high-energy Hazell Dean records that they wanted.'
Now at the age of 57, Mari's plunging her energies into two wildly different projects: a witty dance single 'O.I.C.' with London producer BoiSounds, and a stripped down covers record to be released in early 2012. She now lives in Crouch End, London with her 14-year old daughter, and, free from the manipulation of record company bigwigs, she's able to pick and choose her projects. And although her hair-hopping up-do has been replaced with a sleek bob, she'll always be Queen Of The Beehive. Just don't try to get between her and her Bristows.
So how much hairspray did you used to get though?
We ordered it in crates! We used this brand called Bristows, and it stunk! To begin with I did it myself, and then when I got more well-known my hairdresser Peter started to travel with me everywhere. The bigger I got, the bigger the beehive got - just like Amy Winehouse's! When we went to tour America, they tried to stop us taking our crate on the plane, and I said "[gasps] we have to, we have to!" They let us in the end!
Did you wear a hair piece?
No, it was all my own hair, all of it. Peter used to put heated rollers in, spraying as he wrapped the hair around them. And then the rollers would come out, and it would backcomb it all until I looked like Eraserhead! And then he would sculpt it. It was amazing, really. In fact, I met Joanna Lumley a couple of years ago….
Well she did Patsy in Ab Fab, who had an incredible beehive as well.
Exactly! Someone introduced us, and she said 'Mari Wilson? I bow at your feet! You're the one with the real beehive - how could mine compare?' [laughs]
Have you ever had drag queens doing you?
Oh yeah! And I've had male fans in the eighties that would come to the gigs in beehives, dressed up as me!
And how did they look?
Not great, to be honest! But I'm quite happy for people to send me up.
Well, that's something I've always liked about you. I was watching the video for 'Just What I Always Wanted' earlier, and there's a bit on Brighton pier where a boy looks at the candyfloss, then the beehive, and he's like 'huh?'
Oh yes! [laughs] I quite like camping it up and having a laugh.
And what about your new record? Why did you want to do an album of covers?
Well, for the past few years I've been gigging with just two musicians - I call it Mari Wilson's Threesome! And it's a very torchey kind of performance, and totally different from my last album 'Emotional Glamour', which was very sixties and very produced. So I thought it was about time I recorded these songs. And although they're covers, every song is completely different from the original.
You slow it down?
Yes. I've done 'They Don't Know' by Kirsty MacColl, and 'Don't Get Me Wong' by The Pretenders - which has such beautiful lyrics. When you slow it down, you can really hear the poetry. And I've covered a song by a new artist that I love called Caitlin Rose.
Oh, wasn't she discovered on Youtube?
I didn't know that! But isn't everyone these days? I think that record companies are very much involved with making it look like that.
There's always been myth-making around artists though.
Oh yeah, and that's part of the fun! I remember in 1982, my manager Tot Taylor called up the Evening Standard and told them that David Bowie had been spotted in HMV buying a Mari Wilson record - and they printed it! And why not? I quite like the whole fantasy thing, that's exciting for me. I don't mind all that.
An edit of this interview originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of Beige