How the Daily Express discovered Twiggy

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                                     MEET THE WAIF: Twiggy with Justin de Villeneuve

Doing some research on the Swinging Sixties for a magazine this week, I came across yet another wonderful tale of the Express in its Fleet Street heyday. The story of how the paper under its Editor Derek Marks and his Fashion Editor Deirdre McSharry launched the girl who became the Face of the 60s — Twiggy. Many of you know bits of the story but for those who might not, I thought I would record it for our much-loved Daily Drone. 

I found many contradictory versions including conflicting statements and claims from people who were involved and so I trawled through my pop/Sixties biographies and published interviews of the time to get a clearer picture. If anyone can add to this, or correct this version please do. I also record it because I have a particular fondness for Twiggy who was born and grew up a couple of streets from me in London. She became the skinny and rich one, I became the tubby one. And of course, I have a fondness for the Express as we knew it.

IN JANUARY 1966, a waif-like 16-year-old named Lesley Hornby from Neasden, North London, walked into the London Editorial of the Daily Express for a picture shoot and a whole new world opened up for her and fashion houses across the globe. By the end of the following year she was to be the richest woman in England — official. And by the end of the decade a Sixties icon.

While still at grammar school but working part-time on Saturdays as a shampoo girl for two pounds ten shillings a week in a London hairdressing salon, Lesley, who dreamed of being a model, met and fell for rakish man-about-town Nigel Davies. The former boxer and bodyguard who had been associated with the Krays now worked part-time as a hairdresser for Vidal Sassoon and had a clothes and antiques stall in the Chelsea flea-market. He was 10 years older. 


At first he nicknamed her Stick, because of her long, skinny legs. Then Twigs because of her habit of painting false eyelashes on her face under her bottom eyelids. She did this to copy the face of her much-loved rag doll at home. 

At the time, the girl whose favourite meal was pickled baked beans, was 5ft 6in tall, weighed just six stone and had a 31AA-22-32 figure. 

Swinging London was in full pelt, Merseybeat and The Beatles were sweeping the globe; England was gearing up for the World Cup and the Daily Express was selling four million copies a day. Those were the days my friends. And even at this time our old friend Richard Compton-Miller was a leading society writer.

Nigel wanted to be a big part of this new dawn. But his name didn’t go with his portrayal of himself as a flamboyant hairdresser and entrepreneur, so he adopted the name Justin de Villeneuve, after a French town, and decided to go into the fashion design business with his new girlfriend who had been taught to sew by her mother Nellie and made trendy clothes for herself and her friends in the kitchen of her home. 

But the era of the super model was just taking off with beauties such as Jean ‘The Shrimp’ Shrimpton and Pattie Boyd. Curvaceous and upper class, they were becoming as big and rich as the pop and film stars who dated them. Justin’s willowy, stick-thin girlfriend with straggly, long blonde hair and a swan-like neck was totally different, so different that he thought she had something else to offer — a new look for the  ‘girls in the high street’ who still wore Beehives; Flipped Bobs and Hippie styles; combs; slides and headscarves. So he became her manager with the blessing of her father and began to market her, sending pictures to magazines. 

At this point in the Twiggy story versions differ and are even disputed by some of the main players involved at the time, including de Villeneuve who was later to have an acrimonious split from Twiggy. But after listening to taped interviews and trawling other sources this is what I believe happened.


The Australian magazine Woman’s Mirror in London agreed to see her but when she arrived with Justin, the fashion department weren’t convinced that she had model looks. And they weren’t sure of her cockney London accent either (although she was born North of the Thames and wasn’t really a cockney at all). Her figure, they said, wasn’t full enough. But they loved her face — especially her eyes. 

The Editor got involved and on hearing that Justin was friendly with top hair stylist Leonard Lewis, pictured left, of Leonard’s of Mayfair they decided to send her along to his expensive salon to have a new hairstyle with the possibility of a 12-month contract for headshots. 

Leonard was big time, with clients such as Jackie Kennedy, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Reggie Kray and Audrey Hepburn. So Lesley took the day off school and went along with Justin. It was a good session and Leonard was impressed with her face. “Her hair was long, untidy and ratty when Justin brought her in,” Leonard recalled. “We had a long discussion on what to do with her.”


At the time Leonard was looking for someone to model an idea he had for a new boyish cut. While she was in the chair for the Mirror Magazine, he rang his friend, celebrity photographer Barry Lategan, pictured right, and asked him: “Would you have a look at this girl for me Barry, I think she would make a wonderful model for the new cropped-hair style that I’m developing.”

A few hours later Lesley and Justin were on a bus to Lategan’s studio in Baker Street. When they arrived he recalled: “I was enchanted with her from the moment I saw her. She walked around my studio staring at everything. She truly had a different look and an amazing, big laugh. She brought the idea of teenage-hood into my life for the first time; she was a non-ruling-class girl who knew how to handle herself with professional elegance and dignity. 

“But she was biting her nails and suddenly Justin said: ‘Don’t do that Twigs!’ I asked him why he called her that and he said it was his nickname for her legs and the long eyelashes she painted on her face. It was his brother’s nickname for her too. I told him that it would be a good name for a model.”

Lategan liked what he saw. He rang Leonard back and arranged a photo shoot for when the new look was finished. The next morning flushed with hope but not much money Justin took Twigs along to Mod fashion icon Mary Quant and splashed out on a new wardrobe for the big day. When it came Twigs found herself in Leonard’s chair for seven hours as he and his team cut her long blonde hair and coloured it brown, then re-cut and re-coloured. Finally Leonard was satisfied with her boyish look. He said: “She got a bit tearful at one stage seeing all her long blonde hair cut off but soon began to realise she was looking good.”

Justin said later: “When he’d finished, everyone in this big Mayfair salon looked at her and went quiet. That’s when I knew we were onto something.”

Twigs and Justin then got a bus back to Lategan’s studio where Leonard met them later. 

Twiggy said later: “My family didn’t really read newspapers and I didn’t know much about them. But I knew the Daily Express was big in the world — and it was a broadsheet then. They were excited when I told them.”

Lategan said: “I looked through my camera and this face looked back at me. I turned to Leonard who had just arrived and said 'wow'. It was the effect of her looking back at me. I couldn’t find the adjective to describe it. I think it was the eyes, they were big and wide and she had such presence. She was gawky but she had a sort of elegance. Some people cower in front of the camera, but she became who she was. I kept the camera at her eye level.

“Then I said to Justin, what shall we call her and he said Twiggy of course.”

Next day when Leonard saw the black and white images back at the salon he was hooked and hung them in his reception area. Meanwhile Lategan began to send them to the media. But Leonard had another idea. He took a taxi to see his old friend and client Express Fashion Editor Deirdre McSharry in the Black Lubyanka. He knew her influence was huge in the fashion world and took the new pictures of Twiggy with her Bambi eyes along.


Here the story varies again over what happened next. Some say that Deirdre, pictured right, went to Leonard to have her hair styled and she saw the pictures of Twiggy in reception. But Deirdre, who is now in her mid-80s and lives in Bath, said in an interview in The Oldie last year:

“I remember it so well. I’d had a dreadful photo shoot with an appallingly difficult model. I came back to the office in Fleet Street and my hairdresser friend Leonard arrived to see me. I told the front hall to send him up. He showed me pictures of a new hairstyle he had created — and the model had such a sweet little face. Beautiful. I thought to myself, we need sweet faces in this cruel world. And that was Twiggy.”

Leonard gave Deirdre Lategan’s telephone number and she fixed a meeting with Justin and his star-to-be the next day. Once again Justin and Twiggy, who took the day off school travelled by bus, this time to Fleet Street. Twiggy said later: “My family didn’t really read newspapers and I didn’t know much about them. But I knew the Daily Express was big in the world — and it was a broadsheet then. They were excited when I told them.”

Deirdre took the couple for tea and biscuits and was impressed with the willowy waif from Neasden, her wide eyes, lower eyelashes and boyish haircut. She was certainly different. They agreed a fee for a photo shoot back over the road in the Express and an hour later Twiggy was in front of the camera again, this time wearing her own clothes ... a pair of bell bottom jeans and a skimpy polo neck sweater. Then the couple went home to Neasden by bus and told her family. Next day she went to school. Deirdre later said of her: “She had genuine charm, extraordinary application and was an iron butterfly, coolly eyeing everything, never missing an opportunity to shine. I loved her Bambi eyes.”

The following morning Twiggy’s dad, master carpenter Norman, bought the Express, but nothing had appeared. The next day, he scoured the paper again, and the next. Nearly three weeks passed, and the family was giving up. Twiggy was obviously too skinny to be a model as she had been told before. But the truth was the news agenda was heavy and the space Deidre wanted for her protégé wasn’t available. Marks and his Fashion Editor agreed not to throw the opportunity away.

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Three weeks later Twiggy’s dad decided to give it one last try and went out again. An hour later he burst into his daughter’s bedroom with an open Daily Express shouting with joy and proudly displaying the spread: Twiggy – The Face Of ’66. With a sub deck: The Cockney Kid with the face to launch a thousand shapes. And she’s only 16. 

The copy read: "That invincible smile, the rock-hard confidence, despite her 5ft 3in* frame, in a shrunken sweater ...

“This is the name – Twiggy. (Yes really), because she is branch slim, bends to every shape in fashion and has her hair cut  like a cap made of leaves. THIS IS THE LOOK that from this moment will launch thousands of clothes, a craze for freckles, dozens of hairpieces and will cause a sell-out in eye pencils.”

She was pictured in her jeans and skimpy sweater and Lategan’s salon photo was also used. The news was out and for Twiggy the phone didn’t stop ringing. She did shoots for Honey, Petticoat, Brides, Look and Fabulous. She told the Express: “It was like being in love. In front of the camera I seem to get an extra burst of energy, like the feel of the sun on your face in the Spring.”

The following month, the waif from Neasden did her first shoot for Vogue. By the time she flew to America and was mobbed at the airport a year later, she had appeared in 13 separate fashion shoots in international Vogue editions. Every door in London and New York was open to her and she partied with the stars. The New Yorker, Life and Newsweek reported on the Twiggy “phenomenon” with the New Yorker devoting nearly 100 pages to the subject. By 1970, she had been photographed by Richard Avedon, Cecil Beaton, Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin and Norman Parkinson. Such was the power of the Express then.


Deirdre left the Express shortly after her discovery and went to The Sun. Later she became the revered Editor of Cosmopolitan.

In 1986 Leonard collapsed in a Park Lane hotel and had successful surgery for a brain tumour. After that he suffered from alcoholism, bulimia and epilepsy. He went bankrupt and survived on income support in the home of his older sister, until some old colleagues, former trainees, and clients set up a trust to fund his nursing-home care. He kept his scissors, and a few friends, including Jack Nicholson, who visited for a trim. Others never bothered. He died in 2016 aged 78.

The Express got Twiggy’s height wrong in the spread that launched her career. She was 5ft 6in. Not 5ft 3in. Don’t always believe what you read in newspapers.

Last known reports of Barry Lategan were that he had ‘evolving’ dementia. (Ev. Standard). 

Justin and Twiggy parted in 1973 and their relationship became acrimonious with her disagreeing with his role in her success. He married and currently lives in Chelsea.

To say thank you to Deirdre and the Express, Twiggy modelled a dress designed around the paper’s headlines.

None of the stories anyone told is exactly compatible in the exact chain of events.

More pics from RON MORGANS

© 2005-2022 Alastair McIntyre