Say the word strong woman – or even a professional wrestler – and the vision that will inevitably pop into the minds of many would be akin to Matilda’s Miss Trunchball.
Huge, imposing, threatening and not at all feminine.
The last thing you might expect is a 5-7 woman who might pass for a British Marilyn Monroe.
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But it was reality for London’s most glamorous strong woman, Joan Rhodes.
The story of Joan Rhodes is at once tragic, haunting and triumphant.
Born in a London work house in 1921, her parents managed to leave the work house and rent a small house in south London when she was very young.
But at the age of three, with three siblings ranging in age from four to six weeks, Joan’s mother and father left them in 1924.
The young children – including a baby under two months old – could and would have perished, if the neighbors had not noticed their abandonment.
The children were separated and after being briefly sent home from work, the three were instead sent to live with various family members across the country.
The council sent Joan to live with her aunt Lily, who would call the girl “ugly” and “tall,” insults which Joan said stuck with her for the rest of her life.
Lily, who ran a pub, treated young Joan Rhodes so horribly that when she was just 14, she fled, sleeping between hostels and street corners around Soho.
Yet it was at her aunt’s job as a pub owner that Joan first learned of her limitless superhuman strength.
One of her chores growing up was moving barrels of beer, and the young teenager could easily move an entire barrel on her own, even though they averaged eight stones.
She was also, at that age, becoming a real beauty.
Contemporaries describe her as having beautiful blonde hair, long legs and a waist of 22 inches.
She quickly became a popular street artist.
Harnessing her natural strength, Joan stunned 1930s London with her ability to bend steel bars, tear entire phone books into quarters, and rearrange 6-inch nails into whole new shapes.
His talents quickly conquered a national, then international audience.
By the time she could lift a grown man in each hand, she was booked for television and film appearances on both sides of the Atlantic, and was on her way to becoming a celebrity in her own right.
And Joan has been recognized beyond her weightlifting abilities.
She was a model for famous artists Lucien Freud and Henry Moore, and befriended Hollywood actress Marlene Dietrich and British spirit Quentin Crisp, both of whom remained faithful friends until their deaths. .
“If you had sent a screenplay from Joan’s life to a film studio,” said contemporary BBC reporter Triona Holden, “it would quickly be fired on you for being too weird.”
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Joan spent the 1950s and 1960s touring the United States and Europe, and 1958 saw the then-27-year-old perform at the Royal Household Social Club Yule Ball in Windsor Castle, outside the Queen, The Duke of Edinburgh and the Queen Mother.
The Queen, it was reported, asked Joan if bending iron bars hurt her hands and expressed concern about the strength needed to be able to do such a thing.
Other Joan Rhodes fans included King Farouk of Egypt, who sent her flowers every night in Rome, and Elvis Presley himself, who asked to meet Joan while she was performing in Paris.
Later in her career, she appeared in several films, including The Pink Panther Strikes Again in 1976 and The Elephant Man in 1980.
Towards the end of her life she moved to North London and ran a small cafe in Crouch End which was popular with local students.
She died on May 30, 2010, at the age of 89.
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